DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth

24Jun/10Off

Personal Growth’s “Victim Culture,” Part 2: Support Groups and Selfishness

In this series, I've been responding to the common criticism that personal development encourages people to see themselves as victims, and discourages them from taking responsibility for their problems.

Recovery groups -- for example, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) -- are a frequent target of anti-personal growth authors.  The critics have many concerns about these groups, as we'll see, but a common complaint is that, by encouraging members to share about their personal suffering, they trivialize the suffering of genuinely needy people.

The "Trivialization" Argument

The argument goes like this:  recovery groups tend to serve as a forum for people to talk about challenges they're facing, or their past hurts.  Giving people a place to talk about their emotional issues implies that those issues are really important -- that the suffering these people are enduring is significant.  If I'm part of a support group, for instance, and the group gives me time to "check in" about marital troubles I'm having, that necessarily implies that my marital issues are important enough to merit the group's attention.

However, even if I'm having conflicts with my wife, there are clearly people in the world who are suffering worse than me -- people with terminal illnesses, living in war-torn countries, and so on.  By treating my suffering as if it deeply matters, my group may encourage me to see these people's suffering and mine as equivalent.  And if I start to see the world that way, I may become less interested in helping genuinely unfortunate individuals.

Wendy Kaminer, in I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, seems very concerned about this possibility:  "Recovery gives people permission always to put themselves first, partly because it doesn't give them a sense of perspective on their complaints," she writes.  "The failure to acknowledge that there are hierarchies of human suffering is what makes recovery and other personal development fashions 'selfist' and narcissistic."

What About The Facts?

Like many arguments against personal growth, this argument is usually presented as if it were common sense.  Kaminer, for example, doesn't offer evidence that people in recovery groups, on average, give less to charity, express less concern for people in third-world countries, or do anything else suggesting a "selfist" mentality -- except to say that, in her own visits to recovery groups, she didn't hear a member remark that another person's suffering was worse than their own.

What's more, there's psychological evidence suggesting that people who join support groups actually tend to become more generous as a result.  For instance, a New Zealand study of a support group for chronic pain sufferers found that participants in the group became more inclined to help others.  Similarly, a study in Communication Quarterly reported that people in an HIV/AIDS support group "experience[d] increased self-esteem associated with helping others."

Granted, no two support groups are the same, so this research doesn't prove that the recovery movement in general creates more compassionate people.  It does, however, cast doubt on Kaminer's claim that support groups foster selfishness in their members.  What's more, these studies make intuitive sense -- oriented as they are toward mutual support and caregiving, it seems natural that recovery groups would help members come to understand the joys of serving others.

How About The Philosophical Navel-Gazing?

On a philosophical level, we can begin to see the oddness of Kaminer's argument if we look at the following example.

Suppose you and I were close friends, and I griped to you about marital conflicts I was having.  I don't think you'd somehow conclude, with righteous indignation, that I must be equating my relationship troubles with the plight of, say, paraplegics.  Nor would an outside observer conclude that, because you allowed me to vent about my problems, you must be encouraging me to see my marriage and things like paraplegia as morally equivalent, and thereby turning me into a self-centered person.

In other words, no one would morally condemn the kind of conversation Kaminer is complaining about if it took place outside a support group.  There's no reason to make it wrong simply because it occurs in an AA meeting or a similar context.

But at a deeper level, do we really need to believe in what Kaminer calls a "hierarchy of human suffering" to be interested in helping others?  We'll explore that question in my next post.

19May/10Off

Thoughts On “Thinking For Yourself”

Critics of personal development often assert that, rather than reading self-help books, we should "think for ourselves."  In fact, many critics even fear that personal growth products are actually stripping people of their ability to think independently.

"The self-help tradition has always been covertly authoritarian and conformist," writes Wendy Kaminer in I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional.  "Merely buying a self-help book is an act of dependence."  Similarly, literary critic Stewart Justman writes in Fool's Paradise: The Unreal World of Pop Psychology that the self-help "genre seems inherently authoritarian, implying as it does that we live and act according to sets of instructions."

These criticisms certainly make personal development sound unnervingly Orwellian.   But do they make sense?

Is Advice Anti-Thinking?

It's true that many self-help books offer us advice on how to live our lives -- how to find inner peace, parent our children, and so on.  But this alone can't be enough to strip us of intellectual independence.  After all, books on origami, changing tires, investing in bonds, and so on also offer advice, but no one seems to be concerned that these books are "brainwashing" anyone.

Kaminer seems to recognize that the mere fact that self-help books give advice doesn't make them "totalitarian."  Thus, she says she's not interested in critiquing "practical (how to do your own taxes) books."  Instead, she is aiming at books with "a strong emphasis on individual, personal, or spiritual development."  In other words, it's only people who give advice on personal or spiritual development who threaten the cognitive freedom of their listeners -- not those who tell you how to fix your car.

I think the trouble with this distinction is that it neglects the vast amount of advice on personal and spiritual development that writers outside the self-help genre offer.  Philosophers, at least since ancient Greece and probably before, have wrestled with the question of how one ought to live.  The world's religions also have pretty clear ideas about how we should develop spiritually.  But I suspect Kaminer wouldn't claim that we shouldn't read books on philosophy or religion because they might control our minds.

Is Simplicity Sinister?

On some level, I think Kaminer is aware of this objection, and thus she tries to distinguish personal growth from philosophy and religion on the ground that self-help teachers' advice is overly simplistic.  Personal growth books, she writes, encourage an intellectual "passivity and search for simple absolutes."

I actually agree that much personal growth advice is simplistic.  I think the personal development blogosphere, for example, could stand to churn out fewer "50 Quick Happiness Tips"-style posts, and dive deeper into what really creates motivation and suffering in human beings.

However, the fact that some self-help advice may be simplistic doesn't necessarily render it sinister and manipulative, as Kaminer seems to believe.  In other words, another person's mere act of offering you simple advice doesn't turn you into a mindless zombie under their command.

Suppose, for instance, you come to me with all kinds of concerns about your relationship, and I tell you that you should leave your partner.  My recommendation in this example is certainly simple, and perhaps simplistic, because it doesn't address the underlying feelings and behaviors creating your relationship issues.

However, it would be absurd to claim that, merely by offering you simple advice, I've put you at risk of becoming my brainwashed slave -- just as it would be silly to argue that a book called "5 Simple Steps To Doing Your Taxes" threatens its readers' mental autonomy.  You're free to accept or reject my advice -- or, at the very least, my advice won't make you any less free to do so than your current cognitive capacities allow.  :)

Sometimes Simple Is Superior

What's more, in some cases, simplicity is a virtue.  The most complicated advice or viewpoint is not always the most helpful one.  I think there are great social advantages, for example, in simple moral rules like "rape is wrong" that leave no room for exceptions.  A society where people accept such a rule, I think you'd agree, is better off than one where the morality of raping someone depends on a nuanced cost-benefit analysis.

In other words, I think it's entirely possible to both "think for yourself" and read a book, or listen to someone, offering simple advice -- even if it's of the self-help stripe.  What's more, the simplicity of a message alone doesn't rob it of merit.

6Mar/10Off

The Responsibility Ethic, Part 4: Responsibility And Compassion

compassion

We're talking once again about what I call the "responsibility ethic" that's common in personal development -- the idea that it's best to see ourselves as responsible for our life circumstances, as opposed to seeing our situation as the product of chance or forces beyond our control.

Today, I'll look at another argument personal growth critics often make against the responsibility ethic.  The argument goes like this:  if I am responsible for my lot in life, it follows that other people are responsible for theirs.  For instance, if I assume my own actions created my financial situation, logically I must also assume other people's actions created theirs, and thus I must accept that poor people's own actions created their poverty.

What's more, if I believe poor people are responsible for their situation, there's no reason for me to help them.  After all, because their choices and actions created their situation, it's "their own fault."  Thus, if we accept the responsibility ethic, we must jettison any semblance of compassion for others.  Wendy Kaminer, for instance, decries the "antisocial strain of the positive thinking/mind-cure tradition," which holds that "compassion is a waste of psychic energy."

The Psychology Of Generosity

As in my last post, I think it's useful to begin this discussion with a reality check.  Again, the critics are speaking hypothetically.  No one, to my knowledge, has any evidence that people involved in personal growth actually give less to charity, or do anything else that might suggest they lack compassion for the less fortunate.  What the critics say is that, if people took the responsibility ethic to its logical extent, they would stop being generous to others.

Admittedly, I don't have conclusive evidence that personal growth books or seminars make people more generous either.  However, there is evidence suggesting that people who see themselves as responsible for their circumstances -- in other words, people who accept the responsibility ethic -- are actually more inclined to help others, not less.

You may recall that, in the first post in this series, I described a concept in psychology called "locus of control."  As the psychologists have it, people with a more internal locus of control believe they have the power to determine their destiny, while people who tend toward an external locus believe their destinies are largely shaped by outside forces.

As it turns out, there has been much psychological research finding that people who tend toward an internal locus of control are actually more concerned for others' welfare.  One study of children, for instance, found that children with a more internal locus of control were more likely to help another child struggling with an academic problem.  Another study found that people who tended toward an internal locus of control were more likely to act in an environmentally responsible way.

Intuitively, this makes sense.  If I believe I have control over events in the world, I'll be more inclined to think I can make a difference in someone's life.  So, if I help another person study for a test, they'll probably do better.  But if I don't see myself as capable of affecting events, why would I bother helping another student?  If nothing I do seems to change anything, why should I expect them to benefit?

It stands to reason that, if self-development ideas are causing people to see themselves as responsible for their circumstances, those ideas may actually be promoting generosity and compassion, not stifling them.

And Now, Back To Philosophy Land

We've seen that, even if we assume that the responsibility ethic, taken to its logical extent, would cause people to lose compassion for others, it's not at all clear that people who believe they're responsible for their circumstances are -- in practice -- less generous.  Now, let's turn back to the original, abstract question:  if I see myself as creating my circumstances in life, does it follow that others' circumstances are "their own fault," and I shouldn't help them?

I think the answer is plainly no, for several reasons.  To keep this post to a readable length, my discussion of each will be brief, and I may not approach them from every possible angle.  I'll happily hash them out with you further in the comments.

1.  I'm Responsible, You're Responsible? If I believe I'm responsible for my life situation, it doesn't follow that I must believe others are responsible for theirs.  I may see myself as someone with the health, resources, social network, and so on that I need to have control over my reality.  However, I might see others who lack the same advantages as helpless, or as less capable of influencing their situation than me.

Personally, this way of thinking strikes me as irritatingly paternalistic, but the point is that, at least, it's not illogical to think this way.

2.  Responsibility Vs. Blame Redux. As we saw earlier, it's possible to see yourself as responsible for an event in your life without blaming yourself or beating yourself up over it.  By the same token, I think, it's possible to see someone else as responsible for their situation without judging them as "at fault" and unworthy of help.

As I said to Evan in an earlier exchange, suppose you have a friend who has a decent job and is capable of supporting himself.  However, he becomes addicted to drugs, and because of his addiction he falls into poverty.  Would you lack compassion for him because he chose (at least, initially) to take drugs?  I doubt you would.  In other words, although your friend is responsible for his situation, that doesn't mean you'll automatically lose any desire to help him.

3.  Unconscious Beliefs. We'll delve deeper into the concept of unconscious thoughts and beliefs later on.  For now, I'll note that, according to many personal growth teachers, our situation in life often results from thinking that occurs outside our awareness.

In one sense, we're "responsible" for these beliefs, because we're the only ones who can become aware of and change them.  No one else can do that for us.  However, it would be hard to argue that we're "to blame" for our unconscious thinking, as it's often the product of our childhood conditioning, and letting go of those harmful ways of thinking can take a lot of time and energy.

For instance, suppose I harbor the unconscious belief that I'm unlovable, and thus I have trouble forming relationships.  I'm "responsible" for this belief, in the sense that no one else can change it for me.  However, I don't think anyone would claim in this example that the difficulties I'm having are "my own damn fault" and I'm unworthy of compassion.

Next time:  Is the responsibility ethic anti-political?

Other Posts In This Series:

  • The Responsibility Ethic, Part 1: Self-Blame
  • The Responsibility Ethic, Part 2: Responsibility Vs. Blame
  • The Responsibility Ethic, Part 3: Guilt And Morality
  • The Responsibility Ethic, Part 5: The Politics of Responsibility
  • 1Mar/10Off

    The Responsibility Ethic, Part 3: Guilt And Morality

    guilt

    This post continues my discussion of what I've called the "responsibility ethic" in personal development -- the idea that it's best to see ourselves as responsible for our circumstances in life, as opposed to seeing our situation as the product of chance or forces beyond our control.

    In my last post, I noted that many personal growth teachers who advocate the responsibility ethic draw a distinction between taking responsibility for our life situation and blaming ourselves for it.  Taking responsibility is healthy, they say, but "beating yourself up" is not.

    I also observed that critics of personal growth often object to this distinction, arguing that our tendency to "beat ourselves up" is actually what keeps us behaving morally.  In other words, it's not enough just to know what's right and wrong.  You won't act morally unless you fear that, if you don't, you'll be wracked with guilt.  Thus, if human beings lost their capacity for self-blame, society would descend into violent anarchy.

    A Brief Reality Check

    First off, I think it's important to keep in mind that this argument is purely theoretical.  I don't know of any critic who has presented solid evidence that personal growth teachings are actually turning people into violent psychopaths.  Nobody has shown that, say, serial killers are statistically more likely to have read I'm OK, You're OK than the average person.  What the critics claim is that if, hypothetically, people took the "responsibility vs. blame" distinction to its logical extent, people would stop behaving morally and we'd all be in trouble.

    Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that the critics are right -- that if people fully accepted the idea that we shouldn't punish ourselves for the past, and they fully understood the logical implications of that idea, they'd start murdering and stealing with wild abandon.  Even if this is true, that doesn't necessarily mean the responsibility vs. blame distinction is a menace to society.  That would only be true if we had reason to believe that people, in practice, are taking, or will take, that distinction to its logical extent.

    Is there reason to believe this?  Like I said, there's no conclusive evidence one way or the other, but I think a few observations are worth making.

    First, consider the audience. Admittedly, given the vastness of the personal growth field, it would be difficult to come up with a profile of the "average personal development consumer."  But we do know that the majority of self-help book sales are made to women.  I hope it isn't unforgivably sexist of me to point this out, but men commit most recorded violent crimes (and, in fact, most crimes of any stripe).  Notably, in the U.S. in 2008, men committed 90% of murders where the killer's gender was known.

    If personal growth teachings really do turn people into miscreants, shouldn't we expect to see more criminality among women, who are self-help books' biggest consumers?  Or, to put the point differently, perhaps we can all rest easier knowing that women, who appear to have a lower propensity for violence, are largely the ones buying these books.  But if there's ever an upsurge in male self-help book consumption, I guess, we'd all better stock up on ammo and canned goods and hunker down for the apocalypse.

    Second, consider the teachings. As we saw, the critics' argument is that, if people took the responsibility vs. blame distinction to its logical extent, they would behave destructively.  If this is so, personal growth teachers certainly aren't encouraging their audiences to make that logical leap.  You know the typical goals of personal development:  to help you make money, have fulfilling relationships, develop inner peace, and so on.  We don't often see books, CDs or seminars about "Guilt-Free Murder," "Self-Esteem For Child Abusers," or "Loving Your Inner Car Thief."

    I don't know for a fact, but I'll make the educated guess that consumers of self-development products and services, by and large, aren't even thinking about the abstract philosophical implications of the ideas they're learning.  They have specific, practical objectives, and they're interested in personal growth only insofar as its perspectives and techniques help them get where they want to go.

    Is Self-Blame Needed For Morality?

    We've seen that, even if we assume in the abstract that letting go of self-blame means eliminating morality, it doesn't follow that personal growth teachers who talk about releasing guilt are, here in the real world, promoting immoral behavior.  Now, let's return to the original question:  if we lost our tendency to "beat ourselves up" over the past, would we lose any incentive to act morally?  Would the proverbial dogs and cats start living together?

    To some, it's obvious:  a person who doesn't feel guilt (which, I think, is another term for self-blame) is, in psychological terms, a psychopath, and therefore a danger to society.  As we saw earlier, Wendy Kaminer argues as much in I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, writing that "there's a name for people who lack guilt and shame:  sociopaths."  However, as philosopher Gilbert Harman points out, that's not what psychologists actually think.  Psychologists see the lack of guilt feelings as only one of several defining characteristics of psychopaths -- the others include antisocial behaviors like killing or stealing, a lack of empathy, and so on.

    In other words, the fact that someone is guilt-free doesn't necessarily make them a psychopath, just as the fact that my car has an engine doesn't necessarily make it a Lamborghini.  For all the psychologists know, there may be many people out there who don't suffer over the past and nonetheless behave morally.

    What's more, clearly the threat of self-punishment isn't the only reason people refrain from antisocial behavior.  Many of us, I suspect, don't even form the desire to harm others in the first place.  I don't know about you, but as I go through my day, I don't usually find myself thinking "you know, it'd be great fun to kill that person, but I'd just feel so guilty if I did."  I also suspect that many of us abstain from hurting others because we care about them, and want to see them stay well.  And, at the very least, surely the fear of getting caught and punished by others -- which is distinct from the fear of self-punishment -- deters some people from criminal activity.

    My point is that I think there's reason to question the notion that, if people let go of their tendency to self-blame, widespread chaos would ensue.  Hopefully, this will give some solace to people locked in a painful cycle of self-flagellation.

    Next up:  Is the responsibility ethic anti-compassion?

    Other Posts In This Series:

    25Feb/10Off

    The Responsibility Ethic, Part 2: Responsibility Vs. Blame

    responsibility-poster1

    This post continues my discussion of what I've called the "responsibility ethic" in personal development -- the idea that it's best for us to see ourselves as responsible for our situation in life.  I've been looking at the common argument that buying into the responsibility ethic causes people to beat themselves up over the setbacks they face.  You can read the last post in this series here.

    2. Responsibility Vs. Blame

    The critics of personal growth aren't the only ones aware of what I'm calling the "self-blame argument."  Many personal development teachers understand it as well.  What they often say is that it's possible to see ourselves as responsible for our circumstances without blaming ourselves for them.  In other words, if we suffer a setback, we can admit how our actions contributed to it without suffering over it.  If I'm in debt, for instance, I can acknowledge what I did to create the debt without calling myself lazy or stupid.

    As we saw earlier, psychological research suggests that people can, and do, make this "responsibility versus blame" distinction.  People who tend toward an external locus of control -- the belief that they lack control over their lot in life -- often punish themselves for the difficult events in their lives, even though they see themselves as helpless.* People who tend toward an internal locus of control, although they see themselves as in control of events, actually do less self-flagellation when they get bad results.

    Some critics acknowledge this distinction but reject it, arguing that it effectively destroys any notion of morality.  For example, in Self-Help Inc., sociologist Micki McGee derides Deepak Chopra's discussion of responsibility in The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, in which Chopra advocates "not blaming anyone or anything for your situation, including yourself."  "This notion of responsibility," writes McGee, "suspends the literal meaning, ensuring that no one is actually accountable for anything," and creating "a mystical world without need of morality or ethics."

    The Philosophy Behind Self-Blame

    Is this true?  Let's take this question to a deeper level.  As I think you'll see, this discussion is a good example of how the debate over personal growth ideas raises some important, and timeworn, philosophical questions.

    What is self-blame?  I'd put it this way:  When we blame ourselves for an event in our lives, we are 1) judging ourselves as worthy of punishment or suffering because it happened, and 2) administering punishment -- by, perhaps, tensing our bodies painfully when we think about the event.  For example, I'll bet you can think of a time when you got really angry at someone, in a way you now see as inappropriate -- and that you cringe (punish yourself) when you remember it.

    When you think about it, the idea that I should suffer because of something I did is based on some interesting metaphysical assumptions.  The idea seems to be that, when I do something wrong (whatever that may mean to me), I basically knock the universe out of balance.  I can only restore the cosmic equilibrium by experiencing suffering proportional to the suffering of my victim.  The fancy philosophical term for this idea is "retributive justice."

    We see this mindset in how people tend to talk about the criminal justice system.  For instance, people often say of a criminal that he must "pay for his crime."  This means that the criminal has drawn on a sort of "cosmic bank account" by creating suffering for another person, and he must repay the "debt" through his own suffering -- most likely, by going to prison for some number of years.

    Justice Without Retribution

    In essence, many personal growth teachers, while asking us to take responsibility for our situation, also invite us to let go of the philosophy of retributive justice.  I can acknowledge my role in creating my circumstances, they say, without punishing myself if those circumstances aren't up to my standards.  What's more, when I stop wasting time and energy punishing myself for the past, I become able to look to the future and take constructive action -- make a plan to reduce my debt, perhaps, or look for a new relationship.

    If we do what these teachers suggest and let go of the retributive justice idea, do we also eliminate morality?  I think not.  It's certainly possible to believe in moral rules -- that is, rules of right and wrong conduct -- without accepting the concept of retributive justice.

    I could believe, for instance, that stealing is wrong, without also believing in retribution against people who steal.  Instead, I might believe that people who steal should be required to pay their victims the money they stole, or the value of the property they took, to put the victim in the position he was in before the theft.  In other words, I may accept what's called compensatory justice, but not retributive justice.

    What's more, I would be far from the first to take this stance -- many philosophers have argued against the concept of retributive justice, and the notion that people should suffer for their misdeeds to restore some abstract cosmic balance.  The idea of dispensing with retribution against ourselves and others is not some kooky New Age innovation.

    But Isn't Guilt Good For Society?

    Now, I think some personal growth critics would acknowledge that we can retain some notion of right and wrong, even if we stop blaming or punishing ourselves when our results are less than perfect.  But that, the critics might argue, is not the real issue -- the point is that, if we don't blame ourselves when we act wrongly, morality loses any practical significance.

    The very reason we act morally, they say, is because we're afraid that, if we don't, we'll beat ourselves up over it.  If people lost the capacity to self-blame, society would descend into violent anarchy. "There's a name for people who lack guilt and shame:  sociopaths," writes Wendy Kaminer in I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional.  "We ought to be grateful if guilt makes things like murder and moral corruption 'harder.'"

    What will I say about this?  It's a nail-biting cliffhanger!  Stay tuned, dear readers, for Part 3 of The Responsibility Ethic.

    As psychologist Helen Block Lewis puts it in The Many Faces of Shame, "behavior theorists have described a cognitive paradox in depression: If depressed people are as helpless as they feel, logic dictates that they should not also feel self-reproaches (guilt) for what they are unable to do." And yet, oddly enough, they do feel guilt.

    Other Posts In This Series: