The Disappointment of Personal Development
The Disappointment of Personal Development
I’m sitting here on a deadline. I have to produce something today to share with you that’s worth my time writing and your time reading. What’s it going to be?
I’m going to go with the disappointment that personal development has been for me and see where that takes me. I’m guessing that you’re here reading this because you’re looking for more or less of something. More happiness, confidence, or success perhaps.
Or less anxiety, sadness or guilt. A wise woman told me recently that we’re either hanging onto something, or letting go of something, and I felt prompted to write that now, but I don’t know why yet. If it’s still in this article, the point must emerge later, so stick with me.
Where was I? Right. Disappointment. When I first entered the personal development (PD) arena, I was stuck. My relationships kept going wrong, I was in an unfulfilling career and I had impostor syndrome. I always felt I escaped just before the truth of my fraud was discovered, and any success either meant it was easy, or I’d tricked people into seeing more than was there. As I write this now I find myself smiling, because the last twenty years has been the complete opposite and I can barely remember being the man who had that experience. So why am I disappointed?
And end to struggle
When I first engaged with Personal Development companies it was pre-internet, and their brochures arrived promising miracles and an end to struggle. I could have everything I wanted, the universe would provide, and there would be no more pain or unhappiness. Life would become a journey over calm seas with a steady wind and endless sunshine, and with no effort required. I continue to see that kind of over-promising in the endless stream of content that shows up in my social media feed. And my conclusion after all this time is…it’s bullshit.
Don’t get me wrong, so are most of the problems that hound us. Pretty much anything that begins in your head that’s making you unhappy is bullshit, and so is the notion that you can entirely free yourself of it. What you can do is care less about it, not treat it seriously, and focus on the thoughts you enjoy, not the thoughts you don’t. You see, we feed what we focus on, so the more airtime we give our critical thoughts, the stronger they become. The good news is, the same is true of our positive thoughts.
I just watched an experiment conducted by IKEA. They placed identical plants in the same location, and in glass cases. One was subjected to critical, bullying dialogue, while the other was given positive, supportive statements. You might think it amazing that they found the negative one wilted, while the positive one thrived. I’d love to talk more about the interconnectedness of life that I think drives this, but that’s not why you think you’re here, so I’ll say instead that we humans are unique in that we don’t need the world to provide a stream of negative suggestions about our worth, our looks, our lovability or our choices – we give them to ourselves. No wonder we wilt. How simple this experiment shows us it could be to thrive. We’re either our best friend or our worst enemy, and we get to choose.
Happiness is simple. Kind of.
In that sense, the PD people are right – being happy is a simple thing. If we just have good thoughts and don’t pay attention to the negatives of our internal and external world, then happiness will be our reward, despite our circumstances. People have known this for millennia. I’m a great fan and follower of the stoic mindset. It suggests that maintaining an internal locus of control, where we stay in control of our choices, take responsibility for the outcome of anything that matters to us, look for the opportunity contained in any challenge and let go of anything beyond our ability to influence, will free us. What they don’t promise is that as a result, life will become easy. It will always remain hard. Let’s face it, Buddha had it all going on, and he said the same thing – the first of his noble truths is that all life is suffering. But that’s okay.
No it isn’t! I hear you say. If it is what’s the point of therapy and Personal Development?
I have two words for you: Attachment and Surrender.
Buddha points out that it’s our attachment to things we desire that causes our misery. And he’s right. Not just to our desire for that new car or latest iPhone, but attachment to what we feel about ourselves – which is actually what fuels our desire for that car or gadget. You see, our unconscious makes mistakes, especially when we’re young. We come pre-loaded with software that, from the get-go, begins to sort our experiences based on one criteria: “will this hurt me, or help me grow?” Is that two criteria? Whatever. That hurt comes in two flavours – the sabre-toothed-tiger-this-is- actually-going-to-kill-me kind of hurt, and the ‘people-don’t-love-me/find-me-acceptable/good-enough’ kind of hurt. Both are critical to our survival, the first for obvious reasons, the second because we’re social creatures who banded together to better survive.
Exclusion by our tribe is a death sentence, so a good proportion of our brain is dedicated to measuring how we’re doing in the eyes of other people, what behaviours make them like us more, and who we need to be to be acceptable. The problem of being a human in our culture is two-fold. One, our young brains make mistakes of calculation and create all kinds of conditions and rules we have to follow in order to feel worthy of acceptance by others. Two, our culture sucks. It takes the doubt about our own worthiness in the eyes of others (which seems a universal product of our childhood in this culture) and tries to sell us the magic solutions that will render us worthy.
If only we get the right grades, find the right job, wear the right clothes, drive the right car, live in the right postcode, live the right life (that everyone else aspires too), then we’ll find that elusive self-love we long for.
Every client I have ever seen was living their version of ‘that’s the way life is’ and were coming to me dissatisfied with what it had brought them. Or, they staggered in burdened by the problems that had arisen as a result of the learnings their mind had taken in order to protect them from being deemed unworthy by others. I think all true therapy is ultimately about our relationship to ourselves and, unfortunately, we use the outside world as a way of measuring how good we deserve that relationship to be. Which is crazy, and bullshit.
Why you’re reading this
The reason why it’s worth going to see a Cognitive Hypnotherapist is because they will help you untangle the knot of thoughts and feelings that have bound you in this trap our culture sets, and help you rewrite the story of yourself – giving you control over who you choose to be as the main character in it. Life will still throw hard things at you. Challenges will appear. But, free of the bullshit, you’ll find you don’t need smooth seas to sail well, you just need the skills to steer where you wish to go. It may be hard at times, but it will remain feeling possible to you.
So, we don’t promise you therapy that’s an easy ride, just that the juice will be worth the squeeze.
I could write a lot about surrender, and will another day. Let me just tease you with this. When you surrender to your need to let go of attachment. When you surrender to what you begin to hear calling you when the wail of the bullshit diminishes, not only will you welcome the challenges it will inevitably face you with, but you’ll find joy within the struggle. Because it will be yours, not the struggle you’ve been sold your entire life.
So, a wise woman told me that we’re either holding on, or letting go of things. What are you holding onto that doesn’t serve you? What are you letting go of that you should be treasuring?
We could help you answer those questions.