When I scroll through my Facebook feed or when I get involved in any discussion about mental health, I frequently experience other people talking about “personal-growth” or “self-improvement.” There seems to be a deeply ingrained belief in our culture that we need to change, improve, grow, and heal. While some people are focused on earning more money and having fancier things, others are focused on internal change, on being happier, more motivated, or more “present.” Get off social media, meditate more, and spend time in nature, are some of the things we tell ourselves.
Just as the car snob in his BMW might look down his nose at you in your old beater, personal-growth arrogance can show up as a judgement of people who are seen to be less aware. “Looking for a conscious roommate,” I read on a friend’s social media feed, and think of all the people who are not conscious: eyes shut, mouths gaping, slumped over the furniture, barely breathing, and presumably unable to pay their share of the rent. Often these communities of seekers are riddled with spiritual materialism. While deriding those caught-up in the capitalist rat-race, these people seem to subscribe to their own hierarchy of accomplishment signaled by a special set of words and phrases that indicate superiority and status. “I’m further along the path than you,” they want you to know.
As I’ve trod my own journey of recovery from childhood, I’ve come to see this whole process from a very different perspective. What seems to happen through therapy, meditation, and corrective relationships is integration of parts that already existed. There is no gain or loss in this. Parts of the psyche that were present but hidden away are allowed to peek into the light of day whereas other parts that were fixated-upon are allowed to loosen their grip. Relationships between sub-parts are nurtured and allowed to flourish. What seems like more adaptive experience and behavior is the natural consequence of less internal conflict and struggle.
So the terms “personal-growth” and “self-improvement” are very misleading. They represent an automatic and superficial co-opting and recasting of attitudes that we have inherited from previous generations of humans with a focus on growing and improving. While growth and improvement are important for life in general and for our lives specifically, the real, deep work to which we must apply our attention is that which leads to integration. There’s nothing really wrong that needs to be fixed.