This article appears in VICE Magazine’s Unthinkable Ideas issue, which explores revolutionary ideas that could alter our world completely.
In 2009, Michelle Leath heard about a book that could teach her how to focus on the life she wanted, and make it become reality—it was called The Secret. She was unhappy in her marriage and bored with her career as a marketing account executive and copywriter. When she got her hands on the book, “It gave me hope for the first time,” she said.
This was Leath’s entry point into the world of personal development, a niche of like-minded people and consumer products dedicated to inner work, psychological and spiritual insight, and self-improvement. A few months after The Secret, she read Truth, Triumph and Transformation by Sandra Anne Taylor, followed by Wayne Dyer’s Your Erroneous Zones. She hired a life coach to figure out how to change her career, got a divorce, and began to recover from her eating disorder.
A talk by Reverend Deborah Johnson at a telesummit “cracked me wide open,” said Leath, who is now 52 and living in Southern California where she works as a food psychology coach. “That was the moment I knew I had to let go of the shame around my eating disorder and use coaching to help other women heal. I signed up for coach training shortly after that.”
After nearly a decade rooted deeply in growth, however, her commitment to personal development had taken on a different meaning. It happened slowly. After her first couple of years of epiphanies and insights, her focus on “bettering” was no longer coming from a desire to live the most fulfilling life possible, she realized, but rather, a more obsessive need to keep “fixing” herself—with no end in sight.
“Before I’ve even finished one personal growth book, I’ve already discovered another aspect of myself potentially in need of healing or fine-tuning and ordered three more books on that topic,” she wrote in a 2017 blog post. “Quite honestly, it’s exhausting.”
“It was coming from the feeling that there was something wrong,” Leath said. The same year she wrote the blog post, she made what in our modern betterment-fixated world could be considered a radical decision: She quit working on herself. “Let myself be where I am at and be okay with that,” she said.
Among those of us privileged enough to spend time on it, dedication to being the best versions of ourselves is now an ingrained part of daily life. From productivity hacking, where optimizing the self brings about limitless creativity or work ethic, to the more spiritual side of personal development, which examines one’s inner world to understand the way we react and feel, the desire to improve has helped to germinate our current pervasive “wellness culture”—the pressure to constantly address our physical health and minds in the name of self-care, and to be able to afford the products and food necessary to do so.
But self improvement, personal development, inner work, spiritual growth—whatever you want to call it—can go from being a toolset reached for in times of need to projects that never end. People can get stuck in the personal development mindset, treating the “self” like a block of marble that you can never stop chiseling away at. Then, ironically, personal development can become a way to avoid difficult feelings, distract from the truth of being an imperfect person, rob the joy from leisure activities that have nothing to do with being “better,” and, ultimately, make us all less community-oriented—since we’re only gazing inward and not out.
If there’s something chronically disrupting your everyday life, you should see a professional. But Seerut Chawla, a psychotherapist based in London, thinks there’s a crucial mental health message that isn’t being broadcasted enough these days: You don’t have to work on yourself forever.
Chawla is an active participant of “therapy instagram,” where mental health professionals with thousands (or millions) of followers go viral for offering concise bullet points on how to learn about your inner child or by describing different attachment styles. From being a part of this community, Chawla has begun to worry about a phenomenon she’s dubbed “psychological orthorexia.”
Orthorexia is an over-fixation on having a healthy lifestyle, usually involving food or exercise. A person with orthorexia might not meet the clinical definition of an eating disorder or over-exercise, but their life is driven solely by the need to be “healthy.” They can’t break their strict food or exercise rules, and despite being generally healthy, ruminate about food and movement for hours a day.
“You are not a project, you are a person. You are allowed to just be. This whole thing is optional, you are under no obligation to make yourself do it.”
Psychological or spiritual orthorexia is this same over-fixation but applied to the emotional life—obsessing over whether you are living as the most self-aware, psychologically enlightened, emotionally aware person you can be.
“Just like an over-fixation on food or exercise isn’t wellness behavior, neither is an over-fixation on your feelings,” Chawla wrote in one of her Instagram post captions. “You are not a project, you are a person. You are allowed to just be. This whole thing is optional, you are under no obligation to make yourself do it.”
“The messaging I think people are getting is that this fixation on the self is some kind of apex enterprise,” Chawla said. “It’s not. The wellness is actually living your life.”
In 2017, Conni Biesalski arrived in Venice Beach, California, from Bali, desperately wanting to relax and have fun. “Too bad that I was scheduled for two personal development workshops,” she said in a video blog on YouTube titled “I had a SPIRITUAL BURNOUT.”
Biesalski went on to explain how she had been on her “inner journey” for years, trying to feel in control of her emotional reactions and examining why she was drawn to certain kinds of relationships. “You get to a point where nothing makes sense anymore and you’re just kind of done,” she said in the video. “Just over it. And you need a break.”
She cancelled the workshop she had signed up for, and instead went out with friends, watched Netflix, surfed, and read fiction. Now 37 and living in Germany, Biesalski said she’s had other experiences with spiritual and personal-development burnout since then. It usually happens in cycles: She focuses intently on inner work, reaches a breaking point when she needs to take a step back, and starts over again.
By June of this year, Biesalski had been on a personal-development roller coaster for about eight years—eight years of therapy, workshops, self-help books, coaching, meditation, and breath work. Then, she went through a bad break up, and everything crashed down around her.
“I felt really let down by all of it,” she said. “Let down by all the promises of personal development, my own healing process, and everything that I’ve done in those eight years since I initiated my inner-work journey. I was like, if none of this is working, what’s left? I can read all the books and do all the therapy and do all the things. And yet, I’m still not getting what I want.”
Biesalski described herself as a naturally curious person. She likes to learn about human emotions, psychology, and why she responds and acts the way she does. At the start of her interest in personal development, Biesalski said she thought, “‘Oh, I can figure my shit out in like two years.’ I called it ‘healing hacking,’ because I was going to do it in an efficient way.” She took on everything: workshops, books, seminars, retreats. After the two years went by, she said she realized she was just jumping from one experience to the next, and it was serving almost more as a distraction from life.
“One way to avoid your feelings is to jump into all your different strategies of how to deal with them and make them go away instead of actually squarely facing them,” Chawla said. It could be creating a lack of tolerance to any distress, and a way to tamper the cruel fact that no matter how self-aware you may be, life can still throw punches.
“If I focus on doing all of these strategies and these steps in this formulaic method someone’s teaching me, maybe I’ll never have to feel a difficult feeling again,” Chawla said. “And maybe, somehow, I’ll transcend my humanness, which is the human condition, which means that sometimes life sucks and pain is an inescapable part of it.”
This has also been called “spiritual bypassing,” a term coined by psychotherapist and author John Welwood. Welwood wrote that spiritual practices could sometimes be used to “sidestep personal, emotional unfinished business,” all in the sake of enlightenment.
“You start to expect that you’re supposed to be some superhuman,” Leath said. “And then we actually reject and cut off those parts of ourselves that are human, that are less desirable than the guru that we think are supposed to be.”
“It’s so hard for us to just be with what is, rather than wanting it to be different and transform it.”
Yet spiritual practices can’t stave off difficult emotions for long. It’s one of the reasons why personal development can frequently be used in excess—it’s an avoidance tactic that can provide only temporary relief.
It can also feed into a perfectionist narrative that there is some Platonic ideal of a fully-realized human being to strive for, that there is a finish line to personal development: a being that has processed all their childhood issues, has their emotional reactions under control, is able to tap into their creativity and productivity whenever they want to.
Biesalski recognizes now that a piece of her attraction to personal development was believing there was a “destination,” some level of insight that she hasn’t gotten to yet. “And that I can’t accept where I am right now,” she said. “It’s so hard for us to just be with what is, rather than wanting it to be different and transform it.”
For a full year, André Spicer, a professor of organizational behavior at the Cass Business School at the City, University of London, dedicated his life to transforming himself—to better understand the appeal of self-improvement and why people can get stuck on the personal development hamster wheel.
Spicer’s first book, The Wellness Syndrome, co-written with Stockholm University assistant professor Carl Cederström, was about the various means people use, often obsessively, to be “well.” When the book came out, Spicer said they were asked if they had tried any of the personal development tactics they critiqued in the book. Recognizing that they hadn’t, Spicer and Cederström then wrote Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement: A Year Inside the Optimization Movement, where they spent 12 months improving themselves, using a variety of approaches focused on productivity, their bodies and brains, relationships, money, enjoyment, and spirituality.
Spicer agreed that dabbling in meditation, productivity hacks, ego work, sound baths, yoga, bullet journaling—doing a little of everything—can be a way to avoid meaningfully engaging in any of them. “It’s a classic example of neurosis,” he said. “Neurosis is all about avoidance behavior. In many ways, it’s kind of providing you with the cultural technologies for being neurotic and not actually dealing with or being able to sit with these emotions and confront them.”
It could also be a way of trying to prove your self-worth through overachieving at personal growth. One of Spicer’s colleagues, Laura Empson, studies people working in high-pressure jobs, like corporate lawyers. She’s found that many of them are “insecure overachievers,” people who have low self-esteem and try to make up for it by doing too much. If insecure overachievers try to reduce their stress and focus less on work, they often redirect that same energy to personal development. Endless work projects are replaced with an abundance of silent retreats and juice cleanses—more over-exertion to try to prove their value.
Spicer said it’s not just an individual’s fault—we live in a culture where the most accepted emotions are positive ones, and the most productive, successful people are lauded. Not only do negative emotions feel bad, they make others uncomfortable—we’re urged to have “positive vibes only.”
“A lot of self-improvement gives you a way of being able to stick with those scripts, like, ‘I’m fine,’ or ‘I’m happy,’ and not confronting more difficult emotions like jealousy or anger,” Spicer said.
Personal development also proffers the seductive idea that we are in control over our lives. “We live in this world where we feel increasingly like we have very little control over almost anything,” Spicer said. “What can we control? We can control our body, our meditation rituals, our day to day habits and practices. It’s no surprise that we’ve become fixated on those things of which we can control rather than all of these things which are completely out of our hands.”
Paradoxically, too much personal development may distract us from tackling larger problems that contribute to our feelings of being out of control. As the global political, social, and environmental climates become more hectic, and injustices and abuses are brought to light in new ways, retreating to focus on the individual may bring about a sense of calm and autonomy—while ignoring the bigger picture.
That’s the opinion of Svend Brinkmann, a professor of psychology at Aalborg University. In our interview, he referenced a 1993 book, We’ve Had 100 Years of Psychotherapy—And the World’s Getting Worse, which argues that we’ve found ourselves in a world with too much self-reflecting, at the cost of community.
“What we need to do is organize and help each other and feel solidarity and improve the world together,” Brinkmann said. “And yet all the sensitive, progressive people who should be doing that are actually sitting in therapy rooms trying to optimize themselves.”
Brinkmann thinks that self-improvement can be another version of barricading yourself in a therapy room. He has nothing against people developing and changing and improving themselves, and he isn’t opposed to psychotherapy either; he works in a psychology department after all. “If you have a problem and you go see a therapist and you feel better, I think great,” he said. “I mean, who can ever have anything against that?”
“Then, we might forget about collective organizing. We might forget about improving our workplaces by restructuring, by better wages, by having a workload that is actually manageable instead of doing mindfulness so you can cope with something that is too hard.”
But he fears it has become an obligation, something that’s required at all times. He’s wary of the trendy application of therapeutic tools for optimization purposes, like mindfulness practices, coaching, sleep therapies. “It’s no longer something you seek out in order to feel better. It’s something that is demanded of you, not because it’s valuable in itself for human beings, but because it will make you more productive,” he said.
In 2017, Brinkmann wrote an anti-self help book, published in English as Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze. It contains seven steps to help you not develop or optimize yourself—a bold choice in a landscape where self-help book sales have nearly doubled in size since 2013.
It can be a message we internalize forever: That life is about becoming a better version of yourself, the “best” version of yourself. And since this is an impossible task, it’s guaranteed to eat up all of our attention.
“Then, we might forget about collective organizing,” Brinkmann said. “We might forget about improving our workplaces by restructuring, by better wages, by having a workload that is actually manageable instead of doing mindfulness so you can cope with something that is too hard. I fear that these techniques are sometimes used to allow you to adapt to circumstances that you really shouldn’t adapt to.”
There’s something to be said for taking care of yourself before you are able to help others, like the analogy of putting on your own oxygen mask on a plane before helping someone fasten their own. But as Brinkmann explained in a GQ interview from 2018, “I would say the problem is nowadays that the plane is coming down, the pressure in the air cabin is falling, and the masks are coming down. People are putting on the masks, helping themselves, and breathing frantically into these masks. Then we call it ‘mindfulness’ or ‘therapy’ or ‘self-help’ or whatever. And no one really gets up from the chair and tries to see what is going on with this aircraft.”
Brinkmann quoted Abraham Maslow, the humanistic psychologist, who in 1966 said, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” Brinkmann added: “We have this one tool now, the self-improvement tool. And so all the problems that you face look like your own personal problems. You hammer on those and forget these might be symptoms of a problematic world that we live in.”
Leath worried about what would happen once she gave up personal development. “Would everything go to hell if I stopped trying to improve myself all the time?”
It didn’t. “It was definitely a relief,” she said. “It was a little uncomfortable, thinking I’m going to read a book that’s like a novel, [and not a self-help book]. But then I remembered who I was, when I just enjoyed entertainment in my free time instead of always working on myself. Eventually, my mind quieted down a little bit in terms of always analyzing everything.”
“This culture of self-improvement tells the individual that no matter how well you do, no matter how much you produce, no matter how well you perform, you’re never good enough.”
She now recognizes that some of the same traits from her eating disorder were present in her relationship with personal development. “I remember having a conversation with my own coach and she said, ‘It's almost like you’re now bingeing on personal growth,’” Leath said. “That desire to fill a void just jumped from an unhealthy habit to what you could argue is a healthier habit. But it was still another expression of a fundamental sense of not being good enough.”
Brinkmann sees parallels of an obsession with personal development with clinical depression, too—because it’s rooted in the belief that you’re never good enough and that it’s of your own negligence of action that you’re not good enough. “This culture of self-improvement tells the individual that no matter how well you do, no matter how much you produce, no matter how well you perform, you’re never good enough because very soon you have to do something more, something else,” he said.
Spicer hasn’t given up completely on the self-improvement practices he was exposed to while writing his book. Some, like mindfulness, are tools that he reaches for in moments of anxiety. But these tools are small parts of his life, he said, used when the need arises, not centerpieces to organize his whole life around.
When it comes to the “self,” Spicer explained that the work is actually in learning that we are “good enough.” It doesn’t mean that who we are is the pinnacle of existence, or that you have to love your flaws. It might mean sitting with and being honest about ourselves, accepting not being the best.
“It’s the idea of being a good enough person, accepting we’re not perfect and we’re not going to be perfect, and in fact being perfect would be rather damaging, not just to ourselves, but also to the people around us,” Spicer said.
In the last few years, Biesalski said she’s tried to embrace fun and play more—activities that don’t have any “purpose” to them. She has even created a list of activities that she loves to do with no ulterior motives, that she can turn to when she’s feeling stuck.
“It’s created a place to breathe more,” she said. But, she admitted that after so much time trying to get better, it was challenging to simply sit with herself. “It is still a little hard, after all these years of continuously working on myself, to completely get out of that headspace.”
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