NOTE: for the purpose of this article I use the terms personal growth, personal development, self-improvement and inner work synonymously, as referring to a broad concept of turning yourself into a better person. (according to your own definition of “better”)
Along with the omnipresent praise of personal growth, there is not enough being said about the traps and threats it creates. About the dark places it may lead to. About the challenging feelings it can trigger — without showing any practical way of dealing with them.
There is hardly any mention of the harm personal growth may cause, alongside the potential benefits.
That’s why I keep going back to the best of the few articles I found on the topic. It’s a piece Niklas Göke wrote over a year ago, called Self-Improvement Has Made Me Worse. In his article, Niklas points to the possible consequences of becoming the best: feelings of loneliness, isolation and judgment towards others:
“The frustration from the loneliness of our path makes us bitter, impatient, and angry. So we abandon our true mission, one comparison at a time, until we can retreat only into our lonely cave of judgment. Not despite, but because we come out on top.
You may feel you’re ready to pay the toll of self-improvement, but you still might not like who you turn into. We think we’re improving ourselves, when actually, we’re becoming the villain of our own story.
If you run away from mediocrity, but right into malice, what good does it do?”
I am not sure if I would use the word “malice” myself — but I can certainly see the risk of misguided efforts and taking wrong turns on the path of self-improvement.
I have been “growing” myself for three full years now. Three years of trying to become more aware every day. Three years of meditating day in and day out. Three years of feeding myself self-improvement content, experimenting with healthy habits and routines, reading how-to tutorials, and even writing some of them myself.
I have progressed in many areas of my life, sure. But I also believed some lies on the way. I took as mine certain underlying assumptions that the personal growth movement seems to be promoting in between the lines of self-help articles.
I don’t think these lies were inserted there intentionally by the authors of those articles. Yet, they somehow continue to be passed around the community of people who strive to grow themselves.
I guess we often pass them on non-verbally, unconsciously. We weave them into the tone we use to speak within the self-improvement community.
This doesn’t change the fact that they are lies. And so, they have the power to hurt us — unless we recognise them for what they are.
Personal Growth Is Not Linear.
Right here, right now, I am not necessarily feeling happier about my life than I did three years ago. This doesn’t mean that personal growth is useless in improving the quality of life. But it points me to the observation that inner work is not a linear process.
It is not the kind of work where you start at zero and progress by, say, 10 points every month. On the contrary, personal growth is a process where you can suddenly find yourself seemingly dropping by 100 points below the starting point.
I have experienced this numerous times over the course of the past three years. I am experiencing it today, writing this article. The progress on the path of personal growth cannot be evaluated by simply comparing how we are doing in the present with some arbitrary moment from the past.
Personal growth isn’t linear like learning to drive a car or becoming a better skier (although these disciplines are probably not entirely linear either — but still much more so than personal growth). Self-improvement contains moments of regress, when you have to repeatedly find ways to reinvent your experiences and learn how to turn them to your advantage.
It is not something you can plan like week’s work or steer like a vehicle on the road. There is no road where you are going. That’s because no-one has ever been in your skin, to build this road before you. It is just your life and your unique experience.
You are the one building the road.
Personal growth is therefore not something you can have control over. It is not a one-size-fits-all recipe for how to get from A to B which you simply read and follow the steps. Contrarily to the impression we might get when we look online, there is no ready-made tutorial on how to get enlightened in any circumstances.
We are looking at a natural, organic process — rather than an ego-devised plan. And this implies that
Personal Growth Is Not Up To You.
Or at least — not entirely.
In the mainstream narrative of self-improvement, we learn to accept the notion that our experience is our responsibility. In other words: you create your own reality.
This is only a part of the truth — i.e. the ugliest type of lie that exists. What we often neglect to take into consideration are the cards we were dealt to play in this world.
Our family background. Our ascribed social and financial status. The neighbourhood where we grew up. The schooling we had access to. The cultural commandments imprinted into our operating system.
No matter how smart we may become at playing the game of life, the set of cards we begin with is going to condition the outcome.
To paint a vivid picture to illustrate this, let’s imagine two very different people going to their first life coaching session ever.
The first one, Kate, is a graduate student and a single child of two loving parents. She lives in England. Currently in her last year of university, she is finishing a course on digital marketing. While beginning to think about her professional career, Kate is in no rush to start making lots of money. Her family is wealthy and happy to support her for as long as necessary, so she can choose a life path that suits her best.
The second character, Anna, is a single mom of two disabled children. She lives in Poland. Her only source of income is modest social support from the government, as she dedicates all her time to taking care of her kids and cannot, therefore, go to work. Their house is in the remote countryside with no shops, medical centre or library. Public transportation is scarce and Anna cannot afford a car.
Now, imagine both Kate and Anna going to meet a personal development coach and hearing the same piece of “advice”:
You create your own reality. You can achieve anything, provided that you want it badly enough. Sky is the limit.
Can you see how different the message will sound to each of them? Even assuming that Anna would find the time and energy during her day to pursue self-improvement goals (which, in my opinion, is unlikely) — her progress in those goals will obviously be limited by her life circumstances. Her limit is much nearer than the sky.
It is important for both Anna and Kate to recognise that the limits exist — and that they are very different for each one of them. Without this basic realisation, these girls might start to compare their personal development progress with each other.
And, as you already realised, this kind of comparison would be nothing short of ridiculous.
Personal Growth Is Not Subject To Comparison.
Of course, the above-described personas don’t need to be so exaggeratingly different. Comparing ourselves to others on the playground of personal growth is useless in any situation.
And more often than not — it is also harmful. Niklas Göke speaks about this as well, in a very open and personal manner:
“It all happens slowly, of course. One day you opt out of binge drinking, the next you tell your friends to get their shit together and two years later, you run your own dev shop while they extended yet another semester.
You notice, you compare and through the years, you silently collect millions of judgements until you conclude you’re alone. You might succeed in self-improvement, but fail in being human.
This is the dangerous path many of us are on. I know I am. I must find a way to turn off my comparison machine, because it’s been running too long already.”
The “comparison machine” Niklas talks about is a mechanism ingrained very deeply in our minds. In fact, the inclination to compare ourselves with others evolved as a psychological advantage for survival. From the evolutionary point of view, “[the impulse to compare is] a key element of the brain’s social-cognition network that can be traced to the evolutionary need to protect oneself and assess threats.”
But when it comes to personal growth pursued in a world where physical survival is granted for most of us, the tendency to compare causes us more harm than benefit.
First of all, the comparison doesn’t inform us about our progress on the spectrum of self-improvement. As we already established, each person giving in to growing themselves starts with their own “set of cards” that inevitably influences the outcomes.
If we continue to compare ourselves to others nevertheless, there are only two possible results. We either recognise ourselves as inferior or superior. Both are equally unproductive; but it is feeling superior to others — or more evolved than them — that can get you into real trouble.
Feeling inferior merely puts you at a higher risk of depression.
When you begin to see yourself as more evolved than the people around, you slowly but steadily reduce your opportunities of connecting with others. You won’t talk to old friends about your problems — because they won’t understand. You won’t socialize at a party — because it harms you to surround yourself with low-vibrating, drunk people. You won’t engage in meaningless small talk, because you only want to talk about deep, meaningful issues of existence.
This starts with noble and understandable attempts to make your life fuller, more purposeful and intentional. These are, of course, great motivations. But there is a real possibility that pursuing them with your “comparison machine” switched on will get you to a place of isolation and loneliness.
Quoting Niklas (one last time!):
“The higher you climb on the mountain, the thinner the air gets. More success, fewer fellow climbers, until you’re left with only one truth: You’re the best, but you’re alone.”
Personal Growth Is Not A Means To Be Happy.
Finally, we arrive at the point common to all humans. Something so simple, so trivial, that it often goes unnoticed in the discourse around personal growth.
But at the same time, it is the most relevant point of all.
We all pursue self-improvement hoping that it will make us happier.
We don’t improve our habits just for the sake of the habits. We don’t meditate purely to discover the true nature of things (or at least, not many of us do). When we try to improve our relationships, self-confidence, or diet — these things are obviously not the end goal.
The end goal is our own happiness. This is quite obvious.
And here is the paradox of personal growth, self-improvement, spiritual development — or however you want to call it. Because on one hand, engaging in some sort of inner work is the only authentic way to make yourself happier.
You are actively changing yourself as a means to change your life. That’s smart. Any change has to come from within — or else, it will most likely perish.
But at the same time — dedicating yourself to genuine personal growth comes with all kinds of difficulties.
Challenging emotions. Speaking out your truth within unsupportive environments. Suffering through all kinds of compromises — or suffering because of the newly discovered need to be adamant and true to yourself.
These are inevitable consequences of walking the path of personal growth. The path that must, at some point, lead through dark places. These are the places that make you feel the opposite of happy.
But if you are able to get through those dark places — and you are — you can trust to reach destinations inaccessible otherwise. These are the lands that don’t exist inside imagination — but can only be accessed through direct experience.
If visiting these lands is what you are after, then personal growth is what you will do. Regardless of the difficulties, the comparisons, and the lies.