The Tyranny of Personal Growth

The Opposite of Growth

According to Dictionary.com, the opposite of growth is: “decay, stagnation, decrease, decline, lessening, worsening, failure.”

Right in the definition, formed from our cultural lingo: the opposite of growth is death.

What else could it be, right? To stop growing must mean death.

Not only do we think this is true for individuals, but we believe it is true for the collective. An economy that isn’t growing? Dying. A country that isn’t growing? Dying. GDP that isn’t growing? Dying.

But you know what grows and grows and grows until it dies and takes everything else with it? Cancer.

The Cancer in the Personal Growth World

We have a cancer in the personal growth and wellness movements. It’s the belief that the only direction we should be headed is upward and forward. The belief in this constant forward, linear movement is so natural and interwoven in our culture that you’ve likely never questioned it.

Boosting, increasing, expanding, improving, striving — these are the friends of the growth world.

Falling, decreasing, slowing, shrinking, resting, withdrawing — these are the enemies of the growth world.

Here you are, desperate seeker, your steps and guidelines on how to get a better job with higher pay to afford a nicer house in a better place with better neighbors who are also on the improvement merry-go-round so that everyone can keep finding the dopamine hits and upgrade to stainless-steel self-confidence and granite self-esteem.

Photo by Jack B on Unsplash

Are we exhausted yet? What is it we fear so much about standing still? Or (gasp) going inward and backward?

Here’s the question: If self-improvement programs and models truly brought people to their best selves and then set them free, wouldn’t we have a society of fulfilled, content, self-worthy individuals? Millions upon millions of people spend millions of dollars to improve and grow, you’d think mental health issues would be declining, not increasing. If these programs and messages fulfilled their promises through their “tips and tricks” and “hacks” and “shortcuts”, wouldn’t we see the fruit of that somewhere in our world?

A Brief Imaginary Debate

I already know how a debate with a personal growth advocate about the pros and cons of the industry of growth and self-improvement might go:

Me: I could suggest that the self-improvement world has conditioned us to seek out dopamine hits and quick fixes rather than taking deep dives into who we are.

Them: They would tell me that they don’t know where they’d be in their life without this or that self-improvement book or that coach.

Me: I would ask, what does better mean, anyway?

Them: They would protest, suggesting that the teachers, leaders, coaches, and influencers in this group have nothing but good intentions.

Me: And I would remind them that everyone can be corruptible when gaining even a little bit of power over others. I might add some of my thoughts about how capitalism and patriarchy have hijacked what might have initially been a more pure movement.

Them: They would raise a finger and tell me that goddammit everyone deserves to make a living.

Me: I could suggest that perhaps the self-improvement industry has hit its pinnacle and is now simply a recycling game of who can finagle their post to the top of a Google search.

Them: They would point out that it’s better to have even a recycled post on “Five Ways to Find More ___” or “10 Tips to Improve Your _____” than a fresh but hard-to-read article about how things are falling apart in our society — from our institutions to our norms to our trust in authority figures to our trust in each other.

Round and round we could go, arguing about the merits and failures of the self-improvement and wellness industry. But many of us, including ourselves, go well out of our way to be apologists for a self-help movement that will not and cannot push us to go deeply and radically into the kind of transformation we need.

Like James Hollis says in his book, Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life:

“…what self-help book or well-intentioned friend recommends facing darkness, rather than offering ways to flee it?”

We’re conditioned from childhood to seek comfort and solace. The wellness industry will sell us that. We’ve been told that it’s possible to have it all. The wellness industry will back that up. We’ve been told that happiness is the goal, and so the wellness industry gives us—wait, sells us—fake compassion and rituals for forgiveness so that we don’t have to face our work.

I’m not buying what they’re selling. I’m not looking to inflate myself anymore; I want to know who I really am, beneath the boosting and enhancing and artificial mindsets.

Endless growth keeps us perpetually occupied, forever distracted. It keeps us navel-gazing. It also keeps us perpetually unsatisfied.

Meanwhile, we’re missing the more profound and game-changing questions:

Is self-improvement really what life is about?
Is it possible that falling apart, not self-improvement, is the best-kept secret to living a life of presence and truth?
Is the self-improvement industry really improving us, or just teaching us how to be better at the cover-up?

And my favorite:

What if the opposite of growth is not death, but depth?

Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi on Unsplash

Conclusion

What if the opposite of growth is not death? What if it’s depth? What is its renewal? What if it’s embodiment? What if it’s truth?

The personal growth world pushes us to become more. What happens if we become less? What if we become nothing? What if we liposuction the growth right out of us until we return to our usual size?

Letting go, breaking down, melting down, surrendering — these are necessary stages in the human lifecycle. In these vast, unknown, dark spaces, we get to ask ourselves questions about how we really tick, what beliefs support our actions, and where our triggers are. As Stephen Jenkinson says in his book, Come of Age: The Case for Elderhood in a Time of Trouble.

“Falling is the teacher. Failure is the tutor. It doesn’t make things better; it makes them so.”

When you give up your search for more, when you stop trying to build and improve and enhance, you can sit, unequivocally, in the center of who you are. From your center, the world reveals its truer self. Now, you can live in your authentic self with an untainted view of the world.

Isn’t that so much better than living with an artificially inflated sense of self?

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