How to tell when personal development is bad for you

4 min read

As the new year starts, we are flooded in our mailboxes, social media feeds, friend talks with information about how to “finally” start your personal development. Webinars, workshops, books and checklists, online cards, courses and newsletters – they are all readily available promising to get you to your best self. 

It’s not just now, all year round we come across the same information and calls to action – you can be a better person. You can be like that person that you admire. You can too find fulfillment, always live by your values and become active and wise. 

And just to say, I think the openness to personal development, therapy and all of the information that is now abundant everywhere has made us a generation more attuned to ourselves and more self-aware.

However, with almost everything good, comes a bad side. And I believe that this applies to personal development as well. Sometimes, too much personal development can be bad for you. 


About me

Let me do some disclosure: for years I have read a bunch of relevant books on personal development and ‘how-to’ materials apart from therapy books & workshops. It helped me develop some explanations and exercises for my workshops, and it also helped me gain some insights and practice some tools myself. And I gained a lot from that, changed behaviors, changed mindset. 

But the more I read, the more I felt that I had to read. To apply. To not fall short. To not make mistakes. To always behave the way the tools have taught me. And the more I did that, something strange happened: I felt that I was falling short. The more frustration, the more anxiety, the more pressure. 

So, over the past 2 years, I read 0 books on personal development. 


About you

If you are into personal development and want to take the road to self-improvement – which I totally support and applaud, I want to also give you some hints of when this might become detrimental instead of helpful.

Hint no 1: When you read an online card on personal dev, you check if you are already doing that. 

This comes mostly because there are very few days in which you don’t come across a thoughtful, insightful card on social media. You don’t even need to be on social media. Your local coffee shop might display some on the mugs. And that is when you start to do mental checklists of what you are already doing and if that quote or call to action is already in your routine. 

This is bad for you because it always gives you the impression that you should be doing more. That this is not enough. And that leads to frustration, sadness and anxiety. And those emotions in turn lead to self-soothing behaviors – usually the ones that you want to change. 


Hint no 2: You feel guilty when you skip some action that you set yourself for.

OK, this is both good and bad, because guilt usually signals that you are doing something that is outside your values. But the bad part is that you are treating yourself with an all-or-nothing mindset. It’s like you don’t give yourself permission to be a person who sometimes does not want to run first thing in the morning and goes for a walk instead. It’s an almost arrogant view of ourselves to think that when we set a goal we will always achieve that goal. We are not perfect human beings, we are fallible, sometimes we err, and sometimes we don’t. And that’s ok. Treating yourself with musts & shoulds is a recipe for anxiety. 


Hint no 3. You believe that happiness/ fulfillment is the goal. 

‘Happy’ is an emotion and emotions have this characteristic that they usually don’t last. Just think about any emotion that you had in your life, be it a positive or a negative one. Did it last? How long? Did you experience just one emotion during that time? If you are like most people, probably not. 

Let me give you an example: you get a new car and you feel all this joy and satisfaction. Maybe even happiness. And I bet that along with that, you also feel a bit of worry or fear that you might scratch it. Or you won’t let your beginner friend drive it so that they don’t damage it. Sounds familiar? If yes, then you are a human being! 

This rush to find fulfillment can be so frustrating because our minds evolved to create negative emotions in order to help us react to negative and challenging situations. It is not realistic (nor helpful) to feel good all the time and you shouldn’t look for that. 


Hint no 4: You strive for emotional control

This one is a particularly tricky one because emotions are not meant to be controlled. Instead, the process you are aiming for is regulating. This means naming, understanding and choosing an action that moves you in your valued direction. Our emotions are there so they can signal important things in our lives. If I feel guilty for yelling at my co-worker for example, (even if he acted like an asshole) then this signals to me that yelling is a behavior that I don’t want to do. That this is not how I want to treat people. Controlling guilt and not feeling it will not help in figuring out what kind o person you want to become. This is true for almost every negative emotion, so it’s worth a look deeper. 


I hope that this year you will continue to go toward what matters to you. And that you will take all this info on personal development with a grain of salt. We all know that putting pressure on ourselves usually leads to negative outcomes, and the same is true in personal development. Change is a process, not an event. 

So be kind!

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