Is self-development always a good thing?
Recently I was having a conversation with a friend of mine who is an aspiring documentary filmmaker. He told me he is preparing a new documentary where the main question posed is, ‘why bother with self-development?’ His goal is to find out why people who are ‘into’ self-development do what they do, and what puts people off from giving self-development a try.
This question really got me thinking. As someone who has been actively trying to develop myself for years now, the thought of not bothering with personal growth seems ludicrous, crazy even. Why would you not want to develop yourself and be the best person you can be? And yet we seem to live in a paradoxical world – many people are interested in personal growth and development, such that an entire industry has grown up around this new need. Yet there are just as many, if not more, people who seem fundamentally opposed to the idea.
The very idea of self-development can be offputting to some people. It may occur as weird, cultish, or simply a lot of work. The idea of looking deeply inwards can seem scary for some people, who would prefer to just carry on with their lives rather than face the potential upheavals that self-enquiry can bring. Yet, for me at least, none of these are good reasons not to engage in self-development.
Personally, I think self-development is inherently linked with self-awareness and a willingness to learn and grow, and this is why for me it’s so important. In order to be the best we can be, we have to be aware of who we are – what serves us and what doesn’t, in terms of our thoughts, words and actions. If we aren’t aware we can’t grow, we can’t change (and if we do, it will likely be blind change) and are more likely to simply live life on autopilot. For me at least, a life lived blindly on autopilot isn’t really a life.
This self-awareness, this enquiry into how we think and behave, requires a certain amount of courage and tenacity, and this for me is why a lot of people are put off by the idea of self-development. It’s easier to simply say ‘I’m fine,’ or ‘my life is already good’ when in fact this isn’t the case, than it is to do the work required to grow and develop as a person. Self-awareness forces us to examine our thoughts, actions and behaviours, our whole lives even, to ascertain what is good for us and what isn’t. To really grow as a person means consistently bringing in new ways of being and acting that are more aligned with who we truly want to be, and this can be difficult at times. It forces us to step outside of our comfort zones and possibly make some uncomfortable decisions; what job we do, or who we choose to spend our time with, for example.
There is also a bit of a social stigma around self-development in certain cases – many people associate it with happy-clappy hippies or spiritual ideas that are not physically tangible and therefore difficult to relate to. For many, the very idea of self-development feels like a threat to their identity. ‘What will my friends and family think of me if I do this?’ and ‘Will I look weird?’ might be questions that come into someone’s head around anything self-development related.
We live in a society where there are very clear, socially accepted standards of what constitutes a ‘successful’ person – a well-paid job, a nice house, a family. Very few people would be likely to question you if you told them that you wanted any of these things. Tell someone you want to develop yourself, get in touch with your spirituality, or become a life coach, for example, and you may well be met with some raised eyebrows, even if it is becoming trendy to say such things on social media.
This isn’t to say that self-development is always a good thing. If we do choose to develop and expand our awareness of ourselves in order to grow, we have to make sure that we are doing it for healthy, positive reasons. For example, many times in the past I have done a course or bought a self-help book thinking it would ‘fix’ a certain problem I had, or even ‘fix’ my whole life. As mentioned in a previous post, I went to university mainly because I thought it would fix my social anxiety and get me lots of friends, not to develop academically and grow as a person. Whenever we do something to try to ‘fix’ ourselves or an aspect of our personality, we are enforcing the idea that there is something inherently wrong with us. This kind of desire to improve our lives comes from a place of perfectionism, not from self-compassion or curiosity about ourselves. There is such a thing as a self-help junkie or a course junkie, and we have to be equally wary not to fall into the trap of constant self-development due to low self-esteem. Not only is this inauthentic (it comes from the ego) but it will only lead us down a road with no apparent end.
So, with compassion for ourselves, why should we engage in self-development? First of all, as I mentioned earlier, it grants us a new level of awareness and self-knowledge. This awareness not only helps us to grow out of unhelpful habits and character traits, but also helps us to better understand others and why they may behave the way they do. Understanding ourselves and our own humanity provides us with a new access to understanding and having compassion for others.
Secondly, also as I mentioned earlier, engaging in self-enquiry can help us to more clearly define what our goals are in life and what we really want to be going for. If we don’t ask ourselves pertinent, thought-provoking questions such as ‘what is my purpose here in life?’ or ‘what do I really want?’ we run the risk of ending up living a life that doesn’t truly fulfil us or make us happy. We can end up living life on autopilot rather than being the captain of our own ship, sailing into a sunrise of our own choosing.
Again, if we do choose to begin the journey of self-development, we must make sure we are doing it for the right reasons. Self-growth isn’t meant to fix you or somehow make you ‘better,’ and neither is it meant to be used as something to make yourself look good on social media (ironically, self-development seems to look better online than it does in real-life conversations.) This is a choice to be made by you, for you, for your own enrichment and deeper experience of yourself, life and others. Self-development is healing, it’s growth, it’s being who you really are.
If you’re interested in self-development and would like some great books to read, you can check out our recommended reading page, and please remember to subscribe to get some great midweek content!