Getting Into General Self-Improvement Usually Won't Heal Your Core Emotional Baggage
Have you ever come across someone like this? Maybe it even describes you:
- They've been into self-help, self-improvement, personal development, or whatever you want to call it, for years.
- They actually apply what they've learned. They're not the kind of self-help junkie who consumes tons of books, podcasts, or workshops, but never acts on any of it.
- They've made some big changes in their life. Maybe they've gotten in shape, started a meditation practice, or changed careers.
- In spite of the growth they've made in some areas, they still have a few glaring unresolved problems. They might struggle with anxiety, depression, or major insecurities. They may have unstable, conflict filled relationships, or self-destructive addictions.
Some people like this are well aware of the disconnect. They unhappily wonder why they still have low self-esteem and date people who are bad for them, even though they've put in all this self-growth work. They may say, "I did everything the self-help books told me too, but I'm still dissatisfied."
Others have a blind spot. They may see and present themselves as enlightened and self-actualized. They might act as if they have it all figured out and give their friends advice on how to get their own acts together. They can bristle at any constructive criticism and reply with something like, "I've been into self-improvement since high school, so don't tell me what I'm doing wrong!" Meanwhile people look at them and think, "It's great that they wake up early every morning and keep a gratitude journal and all, but their life is kind of a mess."
Why can some people be into self-growth for a while, but still have major problems? One reason is they believe, unconsciously or not, that if they make a bunch of general improvements to themselves that will clear up their deeper issues.
It's a fairly common detour to go down. I know it's happened to me. You vaguely know that in some ways you're unhappy, you don't feel good about yourself, and your life isn't where you want it to be. You discover a bunch of general self-help resources, and feel like you've found the answers you need. Look at all these ways to be a less crappy, broken person. You put a bunch of the ideas into practice, and they do benefit you to some degree. It's not until later that you realize your core problems haven't shifted as much as you thought.
The flaw in this approach is that the changes you made weren't specific or targeted enough. It's like if you had a car that ran poorly, and rather than fixing a fundamental problem with the engine you installed new tires, gave it a fresh coat of paint, and so on. People's self-worth and relationship struggles often go back to emotional wounds they received as kids. It could be because their parents were blatantly abusive, but the damage can be more subtle. For example, a child's family met her basic needs, but only showed her love and approval when she got good grades, and she unconsciously learned "I'm not inherently good enough. I only matter when I'm successful." As an adult switching to a healthier diet, getting a flat stomach, and decluttering her house isn't going to touch that. It may even accidentally fuel some of her core insecurities.
The term Spiritual Bypass more or less refers to when someone tries to use spirituality to sidestep working on their emotional scars or trauma. They think if they can become this loving, compassionate, connected-to-the-universe Zen master they won't have to do that difficult work. Spirituality by itself isn't bad, but it can be misapplied. You could call what I'm writing about Self-Improvement Bypass.
Before I go any further, what exactly do I mean by "general self-improvement"? It's not a formal term. Just something I made up for this article. I also know it's fuzzy and imprecise. I'm sure you'll get the gist of what I'm talking about, even if you could quibble over the details. I'm referring to the kinds of broad changes discussed in popular self-help material. Stuff like:
- Getting motivated and inspired
- Discovering your true purpose
- Being more productive
- Becoming healthier - getting in shape, changing what you eat, sleeping well, etc.
- Time management
- Goal setting
- Building a higher-earning or more fulfilling career
- Improving your more surface-level communication skills
- Relaxation techniques, simple meditation
- Minimalism, voluntary simplicity
- Positive thinking
- Taking risks and having new experiences
See what I mean, more or less? Like I wouldn't consider an in-depth book on setting boundaries with your narcissistic parents general self-improvement, but a title called something like Unleash Your Inner Potential probably fits the bill. It's one of those "You know it when you see it" things.
A handful more clarifications
Here are a few more points to make before I continue sharing my thoughts:
- I'm not saying everyone who gets into personal growth has this happen to them. Some people manage to zero in on and start healing their core issue fairly soon. Others don't have hidden baggage, and are happy to work on "general" areas, like goal setting, for their own sake.
- I'm not trying to say all general self-help is unhelpful, a waste of time, or a scam. Yeah, it can be cheesy or fluffy, but it can also be very useful. It usually just won't get at your root problem.
- I'm not saying making a bunch of general changes can't help at all. They might make you feel quite a bit better, and improve your life in a number of ways, but they won't won't fully eliminate your deeper pain.
- I'm not saying every last problem goes back to childhood baggage. Someone might procrastinate on their homework because they just need to learn some simple study skills. But if you've got these big, seemingly unshakable issues they likely do have deeper roots.
- Finally, I'm not saying anyone who makes a lot of general improvements in the hope that it will fix their old emotional wounds is a bad person or a misguided fool who made an obvious mistake. As I'll explain, it's an easy trap to fall into.
Why people can get sidetracked by pursuing general self-growth, and not address their core baggage
We're not always aware of what our core issues are
Obviously sometimes we know what our deeper baggage is. But sometimes it's totally unconscious. At other times we're aware of it on a dry theoretical level, but use defense mechanisms to deny or minimize how much it actually affects us ("Yeah, I know my parents were abusive, but it's not that big a deal. I'm over it."; "Sure, I get into lots of arguments with people, but that's because everyone is out to get me. I'm not doing anything wrong.") It's also possible to have a partial sense of your baggage, but be cut off from other facets of it (e.g., Someone knows being rejected as a kid causes them to feel socially anxious as an adult, but isn't in touch with the anger and passive-aggressiveness it brings up too).
As I said earlier, when you're not fully in tune with your core issues you may just have a vague sense that you're dissatisfied with life, or not good enough, or need to accomplish more. A general self-help book or video may seem like it could help with those diffuse complaints.
General self-growth material is the first thing many people come across
If someone has a hazy notion they're unhappy or broken, they may not know how to start working on it. They may do a search for "Want more out of life", browse a bookstore, or look up the name of that celebrity life coach their friend mentioned a few times. There's a lot of general self-help stuff out there, so it's easy for it to be the first thing they stumble on in a moment of need. If you never learned any different, you can buy into the idea that to feel better you just have to be more disciplined, fit, or inspired.
Of course, the concept of directly addressing your core emotional scars isn't unheard of, but it's a bit more obscure and harder to come across through a casual search. There are Quick Fix-focused aspects of Western culture that can crowd it out.
When people have a core sense that they're flawed and lacking, they often develop a part that wants to compensate for their supposed brokenness. Unconsciously or not, they think, "I'm shameful and pathetic now, but if I become this high achieving, super healthy, impressive, wise guru then I'll be worthy as a human being." General self-improvement, with all its advice on being productive, fit, successful, and empowered plays right into that mentality. It offers dozens of ways someone could potentially enhance themselves.
General self-growth can help somewhat
Again, I don't think middle of the road self-help is all a worthless scam. Whatever someone's deeper problems are, all kinds of personal development work can have an effect on it. A few examples:
- Someone may feel genuinely happier day to day after discovering their true purpose in life
- Their moods become more stable after learning some breathing and meditation techniques
- They truly feel more self-assured and energetic after changing their diet and losing weight
- They implement some self-discipline and productivity tools and become more confident and relaxed at work
- They feel better about themselves, and worry less about their future, after applying some financial advice and earning a higher income
- After putting lots of little tips into practice they develop a deep sense that they're able to master new skills and have an impact on the world
- They fight with their friends a bit less after reading about self-sabotaging thinking, and realizing they sometimes interpret people's neutral behavior as a personal attack
That may make a big difference in how difficult someone's day to day life feels. None of those real changes should be written off as pointless, woo-woo nonsense. At the same time, as much as someone's doing better than before, they could still struggle with distressing emotions, relationship problems, self-destructive habits, and so on. Those problems are coming from deeper wounds that must be tackled directly. A better job or daily nature walk may lower the intensity of their symptoms, or make them a bit easier to cope with, but it's not a complete solution.
On the other hand, if someone's had a mostly good childhood, and only has some minor baggage from their earlier years, making a bunch of general self-help changes may be enough for them to feel and function better. They could technically get to an even better place if they addressed those milder emotional injuries, but that's a "nice to have", not essential.
People can feel reluctant to address their core wounds
It's not always a horrible, arduous process. It can even be rewarding and interesting at times. However, it's not exactly fun or simple to try to heal your deeper emotional wounds.
- You'll have to acknowledge and sit with uncomfortable emotions
- You may have to confront painful, upsetting memories
- You might have to admit your childhood wasn't as great as you thought it was, or that your parents did make some mistakes (even if they weren't total monsters)
- It can take time to slowly peel back the layers of denial and repression and figure out exactly what's going on in your unconscious
- If you're working with a therapist, it can be hard on your budget
It's very understandable that someone may not want to go there. The promise of "You can feel better if you train to run a marathon, start a side business, and take cold showers every morning" seems much more appealing.
Even if they don't think the process will be emotionally taxing, someone might see trying to work on their deepest baggage as meandering, pointless navel gazing. They may believe exploring the past is an outdated practice, and they should focus on improving themselves in the present.
Someone could also see addressing their core baggage as weak. It seems too vulnerable, self-obsessed, or not manly enough. They see getting in shape, learning a new language, and starting a business as a socially acceptable type of self-growth. Doing actual therapeutic emotional healing is too outside their comfort zone.