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Thoughts on the idea of self-development and what it might say about us

This week we’ve been looking for an image to conjure up the idea of brilliant living to use on our book cover.  Easier said than done, as brilliant living means different things to different people.  The same is true of self-development.

To me, self or personal development is about learning and understanding more about ourselves, and using what we discover to develop, challenge, change and appreciate aspects of our lives, and in so doing enable us to get more out of life.

To my mind this sounds an exciting, rewarding pursuit, but then I would say that wouldn’t I, given that you’re reading this on a website about change through personal development.

But I’ve found out recently that not everyone feels the same way and it made me think about why for some people self-development has positive connotation whilst others take a negative view.

In talking to people about our work and our (soon to be launched!) program, we’ve encountered some interesting reactions.  These range from the enthusiastic response of those eager to learn more and try the products for themselves (thank you dear friends), to the slightly suspicious, (have we joined some weird cult because we’re talking about meditation).  Most lie somewhere between, with those who know us taking an interest because they recognise we’re decent, intelligent people with integrity (even though I say so myself!) and let’s face it who doesn’t want to see what other people are getting up to.

However one of the most fascinating reactions I’ve come across hasn’t really been directed at us, but at the whole notion of ‘self’ or ‘personal’ development itself.

This reaction goes something along the lines that ‘self-development’ per se is an intrinsically introspective pursuit, with the accompanying self-reflection and focus on oneself characterised by self-interest, self-absorption, selfishness and therefore an essentially self-indulgent activity.  The sub-text being that it’s an undertaking something akin to navel gazing and we would all be better off getting on with living our lives and doing some real hard work!

Now don’t get me wrong, there weren’t hoards of people declaring me a self-indulgent navel gazer, but I picked up a definite sense of this on a couple of occasions.

Of course I certainly don’t expect everyone to be intrinsically interested in my line of work, after all I don’t really want to know the ins and outs of that root canal my dentist friend is doing at work. (There again I’m not offering my opinion on it either.) But if I’m honest my first reaction was one of slight indignation, or do I mean downright irritation, at the dismissive attitude.  But this wasn’t about lack of interest in my work, or in self-development (hard to understand but fair enough), it was about an actively negative attitude to self-development.  After thinking about this for a minute I realised it wasn’t about me at all but totally about the other person.

Whilst recognising this negative response may be instinctive, it did make me wonder about the type of unacknowledged beliefs, views, attitudes, even fears that might possibly underlie a rejection of the very idea of self-development.   This is what I came up with.

  • Spending time on myself is a waste of time
  • I must be selfish if I think about myself and my needs and desires
  • Other people are more important than me
  • I don’t deserve a better life, I’m not worth it
  • There’s something unseemly about wanting to improve myself
  • I don’t want to understand myself better as I might not like what I see
  • There’s a lot that are worse off than me so I should just get on and make the best of things (the stiff upper lip approach)
  • I don’t want to face up to knowing myself better as I might have to deal with some issues and thoughts about myself that I would rather keep buried
  • If I think about changing things in my life it might make me feel unsatisfied with what I have now
  • I would rather stay as I am than go to the effort of changing anything, at least I can blame other people or circumstances for what I don’t like about my present life
  • I’m scared of what I might uncover or how I might feel
  • I feel uncomfortable facing myself in this way, it’s easier to carry on as I am
  • I might think I want to change things, but if I fail I will feel more disappointed than if I don’t do anything about it

When you see these altogether in a list like this they appear rather melodramatic and are of course unlikely to all apply to one person (at least I hope not for their sake).  But it did make me think that there will be elements here that ring true for every single one of us at some time.

And that on those occasions when we see only the self in selfdevelopment we might do ourselves a favour if we stop and consider for a moment if our self-beliefs are serving us well in this instance.

Self-development is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as ‘the process by which a person’s character or abilities are gradually developed’.

Whilst according to Wikipedia,Personal development includes activities that improve awareness and identity, develop talents and potential, build human capital and facilitate employability, enhance quality of life and contribute to the realization of dreams and aspirations.’

Neither of these definitions seem to me to describe an innately selfish, indulgent or time-wasting activity.

So while I’m all for a bit of self-indulgence (especially afternoon tea), it’s got nothing to do with self-development.