The Shadow of Self Improvement
Fritz Perls, one of the founders of gestalt psychology once said something like “Those that live their lives totally focussed on the future never catch up with the reality they anticipate”. It has only recently struck me that, when it comes to my own personal development, I have been one of “those.” A seeker.
For many years I have taken my own development seriously, investing lots of time and energy in learning new things or improving on the things I already have some expertise in. Once I’ve learnt something I’m then seeking the next thing that I don’t yet know about. Arguably this is a great attitude. One of a growth mindset. An acceptance that there is always room for improvement. But recently I’ve realised that there is a rather dark shadow side to seeking in this way. I notice that I’m never entirely satisfied with what I learn and am very soon seeking something different or deeper. And, if I’m totally honest, I notice that all this seeking comes from a place of feeling deficient in some way. Seeking so that I feel less of a fraud or an imposter. Continually searching for something other than what I already am which, at a deeper level, is an act of continually telling myself that I am not good enough. So I’ve come to realise that my inner critic lies at the heart of my seeking. A well intentioned desire to grow but from the roots of self doubt.
In Freedom from the known J. Krishnamurti suggests that “The primary cause of disorder in ourselves is…seeking. If I am all the time measuring myself against you, struggling to be like you, then I am denying what I am myself. Therefore I am creating an illusion. When I have understood that, [I realise] comparison in any form leads only to greater illusion and greater misery.”
This all makes sense to me but what’s the alternative? To give up on any personal development? That doesn’t feel right either as, for me at least, life is all about discovery. Many years ago gestalt pioneer Arnie Beisser suggested that we get more change by becoming more deeply aware of who we already are, rather than striving to become something we are not. I find this paradoxical view of human development helpful in making sense of the shadow side of seeking. If I am to let go of seeking something that I am not then the alternative seems to be immersing myself in experiences that allow me to more deeply settle into who I already am. Rather than start from a place of self-deficiency, to start from a place of this is enough. To still read books, hang out with others, go to workshops and retreats but with a very different philosophy. To invest my time and energy in experiences that direct my attention inwards, to what is, rather than outwards to what is not. An allowing and acceptance of my flawed but willing self. To settle, rather than seek.
J Krishnamurti continues “One must become poor inwardly for then there is no seeking, no asking, no desire, no – nothing! It is only this inward poverty that can see the truth of a life in which there is no conflict at all.”
Steve Chapman is a consultant, coach and writer who is interested in spontaneity, creativity and the anaesthetising effect that organisations (and society in general) has on our innate creative self. He is the author of "Can Scorpions Smoke? Creative Adventures in the Corporate World". You can read more about Steve and his work at www.canscorpionssmoke.com