As the year unfolds, we are flooded with information, workshops, webinars of personal development, ‘new year, new me’ stuff and with resolution setting. That’s all good and I think doing a periodical review of your year is a great tool for self improvement. Learning, improving and living better have been some of the landmark of our species and it’s what led us to go from the agricultural era to the space ship era in just 200 years.
As with so many things in life (especially the good ones), more of something good can actually become too much and destructive instead of leading you to a better life. I believe that personal development falls in that category. ‘What?!’ You might think. ‘But it’s good to strive to be better, isn’t it?’ Well, if you just raised an eyebrow at that, you are not alone.
Let me do some disclosure: for years I have read a bunch of relevant books on personal development and ‘how-to’ materials, apart from therapy books & workshops. It helped me develop some explanations and exercises for my workshops, and it also helped me gain some insights and practice some tools by myself. And I gained a lot from that, changed behaviours, changed mindset. But the more I read, the more I felt that I had to read. To apply. To not fall short. To not make mistakes. To always behave the way the tools have taught me.
And the more I did that, something strange happened: I felt that I was falling short. The more frustration, the more anxiety, the more pressure. So, over the past 2 years I read 0 books on personal development.
Last year, a client said to me: “You are not allowed to behave badly or to raise your children badly with all the info that is out there right now.” As good as that might sound, it is actually a direct recipe for anxiety and depression and so, oh so much pressure.
There are currently over 700 million results for personal development books on Google. The market for personal development is somewhere at about 10 bil $. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with that – it shows the interest that people have in the past years about becoming better individuals, in all areas of their lives.
But there is a dark side to that: it seems that the more you read about personal development, the more you have to do, the more models there are our there and the more you need to work to keep your self “personally developed”. And that starts to lead to pressure, anxiety, depression and frustration.
What’s the problem with so much info on personal development?
Happiness is not the goal
The first one is that the message sent out by all the info is that your goal is to become happy and balanced. To find that fulfilment in your life that will last and cover all areas. Of course, this all sounds pretty good, but it’s not realistic. ‘Happy’ is an emotion and emotions have this characteristic that they usually don’t last. Just think about any emotion that you had in your life, be it a positive or a negative one. Did it last? How long? Did you experience just one emotion during that time? If you are like most people, probably not.
Let me give you an example: you get a new car and you feel all this joy and satisfaction. Maybe even happiness. And I bet that along with that, you also feel a bit of worry or fear that you might scratch it. Or you won’t let your beginner friend drive it so that they don’t damage it. Sounds familiar? If yes, then you are a human being!
This rush to find fullfilment can be so frustrating because our minds evolved to create negative emotions in order to help us react to negative and challenging situations. It is not realistic (nor helpful) to feel good all the time and you shouldn’t look for that.
Feeling detached is unhelpful
The second problem is that the idea proposed by all these info is that if you live by the recommendations, you will become somehow calmer, more relaxed and untouched by negative conflicts and all that. Obviously this is not realistic. We care about stuff and that is what enables us to make relations, to strive for better performance, to have arguments. And that also leads to some degree of conflict and negative emotions that help you make sense and manage the contexts.
Becoming calm and detached is not something that we can healthily achieve, unless you cut out the part that cares from your mind.
Too many cooks cannot make a good soup
Third (and fourth) is that there are a neverending number of solutions for everything and some of them are in complete contrast. If some years ago, information on emotional health was quite scarce and you had to look for it, now it’s everywhere. Everything is either trauma or grief. No, wait. Everything is relational – you need to heal your relations. No, wait, it’s all about your inner child.
ll the information is all right when put into context and worked at within a framework with a specialist, such as therapy. But picking and choosing and starting to look for trauma, grief and inner child in all aspects of your life will only lead to biased conclusions, more conflict and sometimes frustration on all sides.
It’s great that we have so much info. It is also confusing as you will find much contradictory information as research evolves and experts start becoming more visible. Apart from trends (which are important, but they should mostly rely on evidence-based research), what should you choose?
So what’s to be done about this?
Ok, so there’s a problem with too much personal development information. It leads to frustration, anxiety and loss of hope that you will ever be as good as the gurus of the beautifully crafted therapeutic cards that keep popping up on every site.
So do you just give it up? No. Definitely no. There is so much value in the fact that we became so much more self aware and orientated towards improvement. Just don’t over do it.
Here’s what I suggest:
Firstly, create scarcity. It’s confusing to follow all the specialists. Search for one that you trust, who works within an evidence based framework and who shows flexibility. Not everything is black and white. Most areas in your life are grey and that’s good because is creates a dynamic that is realistic and constructive. If you are open to therapy, go for it. A good therapist wil do some much more about your personal development than all the disparate information out there. Yes, you can see a therapist just for personal development 🙂.
Secondly, be humble about all this. We are not meant to be perfect and striving for that misses the point. We are imperfect human beings, who sometimes err on some sides and other times we get better. One of the best ways in which to approach your personal development is by setting valued directions in your life. What kind of person do you want to be? What kind of relations do you want to have? What are the actions and behaviours that get you there. And it’s ok if you don’t get there in straight line.
Think of it as getting North. You cannot touch North, and you can take multiple roads towards North. You can set milestones for going North and you can choose your transportation there. It’s the same with directions in life. Maybe you want to become a better parent. What are the actions that will take you there? How do you want to treat yourself in the process?
Lastly, look for education on emotional health as opposed to mastery and fulfilment. We are all works in progress and thankfully we will see change in our lives. Just do it without the ‘musts & shoulds’.
I hope that this year you will continue to go towards what matters to you. And that you will take all this info on personal development with a grain of salt. We all know that putting pressure on ourselves usually leads to negative outcomes, and the same is true in personal development. Change is a process, not an event.
So be kind!