The Shadow Side of Self-Improvement

Happiness. Freedom. Self-expression. Approval. Validation. Self-esteem and self-worth. Fitting in. Standing out. Fulfilling our potential. Following our Dreams. Being the best we can be. Loving ourselves. Being vulnerable. Being enough. Finding our purpose. Manifesting our desires. Getting rich. Finding our soul mate. Being a better leader. And so on.

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These are some of the things we hear as themes over and over again in the barrage of self-improvement books, speeches, and workshops that have flooded the market. The self-improvement industry rakes in over $10 billion a year as we look for the next “secret” or “5 steps” to our personal fulfillment and self-actualization.

As someone who has been intensively studying and learning about human development, both academically and experientially for over 25 years, I have some observations about the industry I now find myself operating in. As I attend conferences and motivational events, I can’t help but observe the darker side of this money-making machine.

For starters, many self-improvement themes capitalize and bank on a compelling personal story that includes one or all of the following narratives: the overcoming of adversity, rags to riches, or finding the answers or “secret” to success. The book or speech outlines the story and then gives the five tips, steps, or formulas that if followed, can help you do the same. The advice runs pretty much the same, with the tailoring and uniqueness coming from the personal journey and story. Expertise and credentials come from the school of life and from what one has learned from the story they have experienced. The goal is to inspire you to follow their example and apply the lessons and advice they have garnered.

What is paradoxical is the “self-focus” that all of this perpetuates, by what is modeled by the self-improvement gurus themselves. I watch backstage as these same people telling the self-improvement stories walk around with their publicist and assistant, smiling and taping facebook live footage of themselves. The “self” focus is paramount — and the message is one of them in the center — or to translate, “all about me.” It is like the Kardashian selfie culture disguised as designed to help you improve and become a better person.

Someone said to me recently that we as a culture don’t want depth. We want surface answers. And that things need to be “dumbed down” for people to even read them. I choose to believe that we are all smarter than that.

Here’s what I know for sure. Our personal development and self-improvement is a life-long journey. It doesn’t happen in five steps and there is no one “secret”. It is personal and messy and human. It is unique to us and it is in many ways eerily the same. But it is definitely not all about us.

Part of the learning is to rediscover that deep place inside of us that is free of our culture, norms, assumptions, and beliefs.

It is to learn that in our uniqueness also lies our sameness.

That we are different but also the same.

It is to learn to embrace that confusing paradox and to also realize that we really don’t have the answers.

It is an expanding of our human consciousness to a place where “me” becomes “we”, and that doesn’t take away from “me”.

And it is to discover that it really isn’t about “me” at all.

When we come from a place of “me” at the center, it is hard to be of service.

So while others can learn from our stories and be inspired by them, we must ask ourselves if we are truly coming from a place of service as we offer them.

Perhaps it is time for a collective soul search for those of us in the self-improvement and development industry.

Who are we really serving?


Originally published at www.janetioli.com on May 13, 2017.