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Why personal development will make you miserable

I’ve spent my adult life doing personal development. Hobbies have come and gone but that one thing never changed. I’ve relentlessly worked on my self via books, seminars, the internet and the rest.

So far so good. Personal development has changed my life for the better, but what if I’m one of the lucky ones?

There’s a dark side to personal development. It ruins the lives of those who encounter it.  I fought it. Today is the day to expose it. 

Every personal development system begins with an opportunity to self diagnose.

Do you feel like you don’t trust yourself?

How else is that showing up for you? 

Do you want to know the things you don’t know about yourself?

Most personal development is built on a foundation of inadequacy. It’s the job of the book, workshop or guru to have you look critically into the mirror.

Why? Because until there is something wrong with you, there isn’t anything to be fixed. This is a problem. In personal development, happy and satisfied customers are bad for sales.

The reason personal development works, is that so many of us really do have things to improve. We need to work on ourselves. We have capability gaps worth closing.

You enter the dark side when you forget to push pause on the ceaseless diagnosing. You enter the dark side when you forget to be discriminating – allowing any and every expert to hold up the mirror of inadequacy.

You feed the demons of personal development when existing aptitude and gratitude is forgotten and “room for improvement” is all you see. 

In the early days of my career, I started noticing self help junkies at the workshops and trainings I was attending. These people invested years and untold thousands attending seminar after seminar, always hoping the next one would finally complete them.

Of course, each workshop just offered yet another lens to look through. A new microscope for studying the brokenness of one’s psyche.

This kind of personal development promises a better future, tapping into one of our most powerful psychological tendencies: Optimism bias.

It allows you to believe that, with the help of some new fangled technique, you can identify all the ways you’re screwed up now… so that the future will be exponentially better.

This belief in a brighter future (we’re all just temporarily inconvenienced millionaires right?) gives us permission to accept the present as being, well, totally shit.

Even worse, it opens the door to believing you are totally shit.

But it’s okay, right? Because you’re figuring out why even as we speak and it’ll get better soon! Just as soon as you completely implement these new learnings, right? Right?!

Wrong.

Distrust any system or guru that offers nothing but a reflection of your vast inadequacies in the present, dangling a brighter enlightened future in front of you.  

True personal growth is about making today better, so that you’re already more powerful when tomorrow comes.

36 Comments

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  1. Finding this to be true. I haphazardly fell into the personal development community and have never been so dissatisfied with myself. That’s kind of ridiculous considering I’m pretty awesome. I’ve traveled the world, run a business, been an well-respected employee at great companies, have a fabulous family and a to-die-for husband. I must have done something right, right? But personal development seminars and the internet community of PD-lovers have made me feel like, “well why are you not volunteering? abroad? and how have you not lost the last 15 pounds? what happened to your relationship with god/Spirit? and why are you still not motivated to work for 8 hours straight per day?” and on and on…

    I realized that personal development shit was making me miserable just the other week. Now, I’m taking back my life and counting my blessings.

    1. Hey Leah,

      Room for improvement is one thing, but you should never stop cherishing the things you already NAILED in life.

      It’s far better to build personal development on a foundation of self love, than self loathing.

  2. I like self-development. I believe we can all be better people and have happier lives. I also believe that what we need to work on (or should work on) is usually specific… not a long-term continual process.

    I look at self-development as personal improvement. “Right. This thing I do here is holding me back in business. Time to get that sorted out.” Kind of like taking 2 weeks worth of antibiotics to cure an infection.

    After that? Good. THAT thing is fixed. And I’m better.

    I don’t immediately jump on the NEXT thing to be fixed. I take time to settle in to the new, improved version and see what else crops up. I don’t go looking for it. I don’t continually monitor myself with some personal radar that never ends. I just pay attention to the roadblocks when they arrive.

    Actually, the thought of thinking something would be wrong with me (as so many others do) is very discouraging! I think everything’s right with me, and that some parts can use a bit of upgrading every now and then.

    Yes?

    1. This is really important and something I didn’t stress in the article enough – this stuff should come in waves. Like, maybe 4-5 major personal breakthroughs a year… juxtaposed with periods for rest, integration and (positive/loving) self observation

  3. This is a really important topic that doesn’t get discussed enough. I too have gotten caught up in personal development whirlpools from time to time, and felt like the breakthrough was just around the corner. It all goes back to being happy with where you are right now, even if it’s not “perfect,” instead of obsessing about all the things you think will bring you happiness or fulfillment in the future.

    Thanks for writing this, Peter.

    1. Right on Beau.

      The truth is that most people who have the money or even just the time to attend a personal development seminar (or pick up a book!) are extraordinarily blessed and probably are in the top 15% of human living conditions on the planet.

      Let’s aim to make things better, for sure, but not forget how great they were when we started.

  4. Great stuff as always Peter. I’ve been sitting on a post like this for a while, glad you wrote it.

    The way I see it, I always ask myself:
    “Which path will lead to the most growth?”

    At the same time though, I am tremendously grateful for my life and totally content with where it’s at and who I am.

    That balance of Growth vs. Contentment is tough for a lot of people. Without the gratitude piece it’s a never ending cycle of wanting to be the best or have the best (like the proverbial 50 year old executive who dates a new 24 year old model every couple of months).

    And yes, we need time to integrate what we’ve been paying thousands of dollars to learn/experience. I admit that I am not the best at that right now.

  5. Great post, Peter! I’ve run into this, too. And it’s a huge, huge problem.

    Another giant problem with personal development is that it trains people to focus primarily on having and getting rid of problems, and lose track of the desirable goals & outcomes they’re working toward. Yes, I can get rid of my interpersonal problems by becoming a hermit… but that does nothing to get me closer to my actual goal, which is having great relationships with awesome people. In fact becoming a hermit to eliminate my problems would prevent me from reaching my actual goal! Also, it would create a bunch of new problems, such as loneliness and isolation, that would be worse than what I have now. Oops.

    Now for the most part, we solve problems using our strengths, not our weaknesses. By focusing on what we want and how to get it, we leverage our strengths and greatly increase our chances of success. Along the way we will find and in some cases solve some problems, or work around them… but we’ll primarily stay focused on what we DO want, and that will help us achieve it.

    Finally, far too much of personal development encourages people to set unrealistic goals and judge themselves according to impossible-to-meet absolute standards, such as having only great relationships, all the time, 24/7 for the rest of their lives. That ain’t gonna happen. However, even someone with terrible relationship skills can set the goal to have better relationships, and do things to achieve that. And celebrate every milestone, achievement, and positive experience along the way. 🙂

    1. Joy! Thanks for this pithy comment. I really appreciate you voicing these thoughts here. 🙂

      The relationship comment is a GREAT example, I wish I had made it! The personal development relationship community is BIG on making people extremely insecure about dysfunction – I actually know couples who are afraid to voice their true feelings to one another in case of creating a “bad fight” and therefor failing in some way.

      Yikes.

  6. Thanks for thought-provoking article, Peter! Great read and right to the point.

    I couldn’t agree more with your take on the “dark side of personal development” when it’s rooted in the would-be-do-gooder’s motivation for profit or some other form of self-interest.

    Funny how the world’s major religions are similarly situated…

    I’m interested in your take on those who point out our flaws and inadequacies of the present–in hopes for a brighter future–who are not self-interested (in that they are not motivated by money or fame)? Or would you argue that, in a way, they are all self-interested?

    Ascetics and eastern “guru” types who renounce worldly pleasures are the first who come to mind…

  7. I’ve come to realize for myself that balance is the key. Too much ambition is unhealthy as is too much contentment. Finding that critical balance is very difficult, but what we should strive for.

    Self improvement is a good thing, even though some approach it as “pushers” to our addiction. That’s on them.

    I view personal development as Sir Edmund Hillary describes it…
    “It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” Conquer is such an appropriate word. Not defeat, but conquer. We know what to do. We know what we want. We know what’s right and wrong. The difficult part is conquering the “bad wolf” in order that the “good wolf” may thrive.

  8. Thanks for this Peter, I’ve just started waking up to the nightmare of never feeling good enough despite 20 odd years of personal development programs, courses, workshops, CD’s, DVD’s, books and PDFs.

    I simply couldn’t understand why personal development just left me feeling more inadequate. Now I know and another piece of the puzzle that is me has been put into place.

    The idea of taking time during the year to stop filling the gaps and appreciate who I am and what I’ve done well and continue to do well is welcome advice.

    Thanks again Peter.

    Kindest regards

    Marcus

  9. While I agree (and love) the content of your post, I just wonder if you wouldn’t be better served to specify that you have an issue with PD workshops/seminars.

    I think here, the idea of personal development and that of inadequacy are two totally separate things.

    I find personal development critical for my physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. However, I do not in any way feel “inadequate”. I simply see myself as an imperfect being, just like everyone as, and strive to be as good in whatever field I am examining as possible.

    While I never read any material specifically devoted to personal development per say, I did follow several areas that had that as a major component.

    Personally, if anyone begins a seminar teaching people how screwed up they are, they should be tarred and feathered.

    Personal development should focus on your STRENGTHS, learning how you developed those, and using processes unique to yourself in order to work on your weaknesses. It should never, EVER, start from a place where it is focused on your weaknesses and inadequacies, but instead point out your abilities and show that you are a person of worth, and deserving of respect and love.

    “Looking critically” to me doesn’t mean focusing on your weak aspects, but both strengths and weaknesses. It is only when you achieve some sort of balance that you can begin to move forward.

    Just my 2 cents.

    1. Hey Daryl,

      I get the feeling we’re perfectly on the same page here – there is definitely material out there that gets it right. You also seem to have a really good grasp on this, with a great attitude. Lots of healthy internal validation.

      Unfortunately, a lot of people aren’t naturally inclined to think about themselves in the same way you and I might… and therein lies the danger. Such people can easily fall prey to the more aggressive self-loathing based PD stuff.

      1. Glad we are on the same page. Also glad that my two degrees (and personal interest) in psychology are making some sort of impression.

        I think, the important thing is, to be able to pick sense from nonsense, and to be able to distinguish good teachers from snake oil salesmen who want to make a quick but. Unfortunately, not everyone has this ability, or has the knowledge to make that distinction, which means that they are continually chasing their tails in an effort to “fix” themselves

        1. Very interesting comment Daryl, as someone who has difficulty picking sense from the nonsense (I have a habit of believing the hype and getting sucked in by good copy) being able to distinguish good teachers from bad would be really valuable.

          How do you make the distinction? Is there a set of criteria that set alarm bells off?

          Something like a list of X things to look out for before parting with your cash or listening to a particular “teacher” – would be a very valuable tool to have.

  10. I recently took stock of all of the things I’m trying to do along personal development and “next new things” lines. When I did that I made an interesting discovery. I already ‘have’ most of everything I’m looking for. Well over 90% of what I need in terms of personal skills and education. Not even formal education. This lead me to realize that some of the angst I have as a naturally melancholy person is actually an advantage for me.

    From this realization came the first leap into making a presentation at my work that got massive positive feedback. Requests for taking on a leadership position; writing the bullet points for my ideas for distribution to the entire organization.

    On the one hand it’s encouraging to get this kind of feedback so quickly. On the other, it looks like a MOUNTAIN of work ahead of me. There isn’t any desire right now for a payoff of any kind. It just feels as though I’ve entered a new world. Amazing.

    I have a sense that if people took an honest assessment (sic?) and compared what it is they’re looking for and the tools they do have, most of the personal development gurus would quickly find themselves wondering where their income vanished to. Not likely to happen, human nature being what it is. But it would be fun to see.

    Cheers.

    1. Congrats on the presentation Christopher!

      I think you have a good point, AND there is also definitely some advantages on learning breakthrough techniques and engaging in “transformational” type activities. Starting with the honest assessment is key though.

  11. What a great piece Peter. There are so many of us walking around feeling inadequate and it is a colossal waste of “this moment”. This was such a refreshing and honest view. Thanks!

  12. Hello everyone

    I must be extremely naive or at the bare minimum ill informed,

    I’ve been on a journey of personal devolvement for the past two years and I can honestly say I have lernt more about myself and the way our brains function then the collective of my previous history.

    Sure it hasent been smooth sailing but that’s what it’s all about.

    I now live by a mission statement, changed my bad habits, have clarity,direction,purpose and inspire others todo so on a daily basis.

    Perhaps it’s not the definition of personal devolepment but our Paradigm in wich we view it that differs,

    You only need aply what’s relevant and resonates with your core beliefs, wouldn’t you agree?

    Then again I have neve been served my inadequatses on a platter,

  13. Hey Peter, I love the title of this post, very true! Personal development wants to make you happy yet it wants you to face your demons and that can easily ending up making you quite miserable…

    I think that authors and bloggers can deal with this to some extent by framing things positively instead of negatively and putting self-acceptance firmly at the core of any path towards change. A good example of that approach might be http://www.howtoforgivepeople.com/how-to-accept-myself

    What I’m taking from this is that – whether you’re writing about personal development or just working on yourself – it pays to focus more on the “dos” than the “don’ts” and on where you’re going rather than where you are. Hopefully, that way things don’t need to get too miserable 🙂

  14. I read carefully your comment about self development books or philosophy, yes you are right in 1 thing is that there is dark side but, as in everything in the universe there is negative and positive, up and down, right and left. and your success and happiness depend on witch side you take and witch direction you look.
    me too the last 6 years I spend a lot of time to read books seminars and video of self improvement, I was broken emotionally, financially and, physically.
    in this 6 years there was up and down, up when I look at the right direction the positive and down when I look to the wrong direction the negative.
    ” You Become what you Thing about”
    if you thing that just reading books and listening to seminars will change your life you are totally wrong.
    the direction you look at and the way you thing is the key to success and happiness.
    I build new web site for self development to help others to get from they are to where they want to be,to achieve there dreams.
    www,hannouf-academy.com.
    any comments or suggestion please welcome.
    Best Regards.
    Marc.

  15. I do not agree with this article at all. Self-Development did and is changing my life. We need eolution in our lives. We need to imporve our craft constantly, or else we will be ‘out-dated’ and disposed of.Sure, most of us might not be satasfied in the end. Sure, we might even feel guilty for not trying harder. We also need purpose in our lives .Self-development is a tool that will help find that purpose. I think your idea of unsatisfaction is very subjective. I always feel happier when I am trying to improve, and that’s a good thing right? Did you stop and think what didn’t work for you might work for others?

  16. Thanks for writing this man, throughout my whole life, I didn’t really have a great social life, and since the last 3 months I realized my life is total shit because of this…
    Im still in this stage, but I hope it gets better in the future…

  17. 1. Where are you in your own journey of personal development?
    2. Thanks for the article.

    I have to a agree. Sometimes I get so confused is overwhelming, there is so much out there you don’t know where to look first. I am just getting started and I have to admit it’s a loud world out there.

  18. I love the article. Helps me understand what I’ve been going through in the last few months and it definitely gave me something to think about!
    We best learn from our experinces.

  19. I love the article. Helps me understand what I’ve been going through in the last few months and it definitely gave me something to think about!
    We best learn from our experiences.

  20. I think if you get out of one cult, you are sucked in to another within months.

    I guess my mistake was trying to substitute my ex-faith for all sorts of personal development strategies.

    Now, im “unfixing” the damage.
    Thank you, the author, I believe this has to be spoken more often.

  21. Hi Peter
    I stumbled across your blog from this page as I was researching writing my own ‘self-development’ book.

    I can see your point in some respects but I have to disagree in others – or am I being defensive? see, all those self-development books have paid off already. 🙂

    I too, buy in to self-development books (books not seminars or programs) because I want to realise my full potential (Maslow refers to it as self-actualisation). I know that I can improve in all areas on a continual basis, not because I feel I am deeply flawed but because I am never the same person every single year.

    For example, I now have 2 kids, a few years ago that wasn’t the case. So my interests now may lie in becoming a more patient, loving mother. A few years from now it’ll be the skills needed to home-educate. Ten years ago it was getting my shit together to actually wake up to the unhappiness in a job that sucked, a relationship that was dysfunctional etc. Ten years from now it’ll be how to grow my business. Do you get what I’m saying? I buy in to different aspects of self-development to support the different areas of my life at particular times.

    Irony of ironies, it’s only through ALLLLL the self-development books I’ve read (and I have read a million) that I don’t feel intrinsically flawed at all. I actually feel I perform way better than my friends who don’t give a shit about what direction they’re going in. 🙂

    I agree that yes, I do buy the next new shiny self-development book that’s getting all the interest in the circles I run in. I consume these books in a day or two because they’re pretty dumbed down for ease of consumption and yes, I agree that there probably people out there getting the wrong idea that they’re broken and need fixed. But honestly, I just haven’t felt that way about it.

    Great points though!

  22. I worked with the number 1 personal development (Guru) in the world for 25 years. During that period, I became an author and speaker. My subject, “The Happiness Formula”, The Ultimate Life Makeover”. Here are the facts about “most personal development seminars”, especially the one I was involved with, they do not teach anything about forgiveness, nothing about honesty and truth, and zero about self worth.
    It is by design to get you addicted to the carrot and the stick, there is always another level, price point, and promise of unrealistic expectation. If you spend $2,000 to get a front row seat at a David Copperfield performance, chances are you spend the whole time trying to figure out the illusions, rather than being entertained. Then you go to a high end personal development seminar, and instead of looking for the obvious illusions, you are focused on the entertainment value, and possible new information designed to get you back for more information, so, the first illusion is creating addiction, next, entrainment and bias, next, not noticing the emperor is naked. Save your hard earned money, instead of managing the effects of your precious life, manage the cause. Oh, and last but not least, why would you trust a self made authority figure? why, because of testimonials, celebrity endorsements, or just looking for a quick fix. The only quick fix is , quick set epoxy.

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