The sphere of personal development is full of ideas floating around and being adopted by different people.
Some ideas are more popular than others, and gaining popularity with time.
But their popularity isn’t an indication of how true and useful they are to their advocates.
Before I encourage an angry mob to gather at my doorstep, I have to make one thing clear: I don’t fully disagree with the ideas I’m about to criticize.
Each and every idea on the list below has a benefit to offer. However, from what I see, all these ideas are either taken to extremes or aren’t understood correctly by some of the people trying to live by them.
So, consider this list a warning signal for those who have yet to dive into the deep end of these ideas and a life vest for those already drowning there.
1- Follow Your Heart
An alternative way of saying this is: Follow your gut. But judging by what comes out of your gut, it should be clear that this isn’t sensible advice.
To show you what’s wrong with this idea, let’s set the stage for when such advice is usually given: You are torn between two options. One has the full support of your mind and the other is what your heart leans towards. You feel you must follow the first option, but you really want to go with the second.
What do you do? What do you do?
Let’s add more detail to the story: Suppose you’re trying to lead a healthier lifestyle, but you’re really craving a donut. Should you go with your urges, or look for a healthy alternative?
The example above offers a crucial lesson when trying to live according to such ideas as “follow your heart”: In what context is it the right thing to do?
When you lack information about a set of options, the most sensible thing to do might be to acquire more information rather than go with what feels right to you at the time. If you’re pressed for time, then going by gut feelings can be a reasonable approach to breaking out of a dilemma.
But we can’t assume that anything our hearts tell us to do is right for us, especially if we haven’t taken the time or effort to condition our feelings to truly express what’s good for us. In other words, feelings can be powerful indicators of what our true needs are, which our conscious thoughts might be ignoring. They can also offer expression to the wisdom of our subconscious, which tends to pick up on and processes facts that our conscious mind is too dumb or distracted to notice.
“Follow your heart” is not an absolute principle to be adhered to at all times and in all circumstances. Your mind is usually a better indicator of what path you should pursue, even if that doesn’t sound too fluffy and romantic.
2- We’re Human Beings, Not Human Doings
The idea that you should appreciate the stillness of your existence, without the need to do anything to be happy is contrary to human nature. While you may find happiness by appreciating what you currently have and who you currently are, I would bet that that’s not a healthy form of happiness.
So there’s healthy and unhealthy happiness, now?
Happiness is an emotional state you experience, but you can experience it for different reasons. Not all reasons to be happy are life-affirming (i.e. good for you). Evading responsibility and limiting consciousness can very well result in a sense of happiness. You basically choose to look away from your problems and imagine scenes and events that incite the feeling of happiness. That’s not a responsible way to live and certainly won’t lead to long-term, healthy happiness.
Trying to be happy while ignoring the need for action – and acknowledging its role in our happiness – is unnatural and unhealthy. Human beings need to do. That’s why we have limbs to do stuff. Our bodies weren’t designed for meditative postures (though they can benefit from them).
A huge chunk of our happiness comes from interacting with reality and feeling a sense of competence that we can set our minds to something and achieve it. We can get the results we want by taking the right actions. If we don’t get the results we want, we can adjust our actions and readjust until we discover the right ways of interacting with reality and discovering the needed skills for success. When babies learn to crawl they learn how it should be done, as well as develop the skill to do it. That results in a sense of accomplishment and healthy happiness.
“Doing” is a natural extension of “Being”. If you are a kind person, then you will behave in ways that express your kindness. Without doing, you aren’t being. Without showing compassion, you aren’t being compassionate.
Therefore, rather than pit “Being” and “Doing” against each other, we should learn to embrace both dimensions of what makes us human, and strive to better them both.
3- It’s Wrong To Be Selfish
This idea is usually expressed in the following way: “You’re being selfish! That’s sick! You’re putting your interests before mine! I hate you!”
I’ll be blunt: Selflessness is hypocrisy, but with good PR.
Anyone who condemns you for being selfish is usually disappointed for not having their own selfish wants satisfied through your selfless sacrifices. Do you smell the foul stench of hypocrisy?
OK, let’s be clear about one thing: Expecting others to make sacrifices for you is a bad thing. Having people pursue their own interests at your expense – with total disregard for your well-being – is a terrible thing. Thinking that making other people happy will somehow compromise your own happiness is a crime against humanity. If that’s what selfishness is, then it’s wrong.
But pursuing your own well-being isn’t wrong. It’s the only way for human beings to act responsibly. Your well-being is YOUR responsibility and no one else’s. Expecting others to put your well-being before their own is not only irresponsible but a crime against human nature and all that is good in the world. But that’s what selflessness demands: putting other people’s interests before your own. Looking at it from the opposite end: Demanding that other people put YOUR interests before their own!
Selflessness does not involve mutual gain. There’s always a winner and a loser.
But there is healthy selfishness, where you pursue your own well-being and seek to contribute to other people’s well-being (since that sets a standard for others to follow). You are never expected to make sacrifices. Only contributions. For mutual benefit. Where everyone is happy, and there’s no demand for sacrificial offerings.
4- Negative Emotions Are Bad
The whole idea that you have to be happy and positive all the time is contrary to human nature.
You have the capacity to experience negative emotions for a reason. That’s because negative emotions can be good for you. They make you aware of a problem area in your life that needs your attention. Trying to ignore your negative emotions, or condemning yourself for experiencing them isn’t the way to go. Addressing the problem that triggered your negative emotions is what you should be focusing on. Negative emotions are the symptoms of a problem, and can motivate you to address that problem. But trying to rid yourself of the emotions themselves will only bring temporary relief, and in an unhealthy way.
Of course, having a disposition towards negative emotions isn’t a good thing. Negative emotions are only healthy to the right degree and for the right reasons. Going into depression for a year because somebody didn’t like a painting you made might not be the right approach to take.
You want to embrace the fact that you can experience negative emotions, and make the most out of them to move your life forward. You’ll be going in the wrong direction if you simply try to run away from them.
5- Live In The Moment
One of the greatest ideas I have come to embrace recently is to live in the moment. It’s such a simple, yet powerful idea.
We’re often caught up in our thinking, and worrying about future events that we rob ourselves of the joy we can experience now. Living in the moment is about connecting with your current context and circumstances, and truly appreciating what they have to offer. When you’re reading a book, you’re reading a book. You’re not thinking about the report you have to write or the emails you have to send or the phone calls you have to make. You’re reading now, so enjoy the experience and the moment.
Thinking about past or future events will only create frustration and anxiety, as you struggle to control events beyond your control. But by focusing on the present, on the situation you are facing in the moment, you can direct your energies on the matters you do have control over and the circumstances you can alter. That’s when you can live your life to the fullest.
So why is this such a bad idea?
Well, if you completely ignore your past, or fail to plan for the future, then you’ll likely face a heap of problems that can very well ruin your life. The issues you’re struggling with now may stem from a past incident you need to acknowledge first, before you can move beyond it. Trying to focus on the present while ignoring your past is only an evasion that will come back to haunt you.
In addition, your present actions need to take you in the direction you would like to head in. Big projects can’t be completed in one day, let alone a single sitting. You have to plan them out over a stretch of time. If you refuse to think ahead because that’s not how you roll, then the idea of living in the moment won’t serve you in the ways you expect it to.
It’s crucial that we embrace the idea of living in the moment with the right frame of mind, without dismissing our past and our future, and the attention they deserve.
6- Be Yourself
Before you strive to be yourself, ask yourself this simple question: Who are you?
OK, I admit. The answer isn’t so simple. Neither is the question. Which goes to show, neither is the idea.
What do you you identify yourself with? Are you the clothes you wear? The ideas you hold? The people you hang around with? The interests you have?
If any of these things changed, would you be a different person and, therefore, going against the idea of “being yourself”?
The danger that comes with trying to “be yourself” is identifying with traits that are often damaging to your well-being. You may have heard people say: “You have to accept me for who I am.” But does this mean that they can’t change, or overcome their weaknesses? If somebody you know is consistently rude and abusive to you, do you have to accept them and encourage them to be themselves?
The point isn’t to identify with your current traits. Personal growth is about growing beyond your weaknesses and towards your strengths.
But “being yourself” is extremely important in life, as long as we understand it in a way consistent with our well-being.
We can never live according to the convictions of others, or in pursuit of their ambitions. We need to think for ourselves and lead our own lives. We can never imitate the behaviors of others, if these behaviors don’t stem from the personal values we hold and are an expression of the person we would like to be.
We don’t have to live to the expectations and standards people have of us, if we don’t wish to live to these expectations or want to conform to these standards. We have to exercise our ability to choose the values we want to live by, rather than mimic the lives of others.
You are not the shadow of somebody else, so don’t live like one.
7- You Create Your Own Reality
Probably the most damaging idea to ever disgrace personal growth literature, and to cripple the efforts of so many people, without them realizing.
You don’t create reality, you interact with it. You don’t create gravity, you become aware of it.
We use our senses to gain raw data about the world in which we live, use our minds to make sense of the data and use our bodies to respond to the data.
“Create your own reality” follows a very different process than the “interact with reality” model.
When you want to create your own reality, you assume that you already know all that there is to know about the world you wish to create and that the creative process is simply your will: you will things to be, and they become! When you fail to get the results you want, you force yourself to strengthen your will and purify your intentions. After all, your reality is a creation of your mind.
If you want success, then you have to consciously create it. Not pursue it. That’s so objective and boring. You’re a god. You create. You will things into existence. You don’t stoop to the level of learning and doing. That’s for the silly unenlightened folk, who have toil and work to achieve their success.
But the “interact with reality” model, on the other hand, isn’t as creative. It tells you that the world is governed by natural laws, which your will is unable to bend, no matter how hard you try. It even complicates the process of creation. It says that you must first understand how the world operates, and then use your understanding to create. But that involves effort, and is slightly demeaning. Plus, what happens if your understanding isn’t accurate, according to the world you live in? You would have to let go of false ideas about the world, and be willing to learn and embrace a new understanding, based on your interaction with reality.
As dull as the “interact with reality” model may sound, it’s the one that works. The Wright Brothers didn’t invent the airplane by sitting down and consciously creating their invention with the power of their thoughts. They had to build a model. Test it out. See it fail. Determine the cause of failure. Build a new model based on their observations. Test it out. See it fail, and continue to witness failure after failure before they developed the right understanding of how airplanes are supposed to operate, given the laws of nature they have to deal with.
Those who promote the idea that you create your own reality and that there’s no such thing as objective reality often speak about the “laws of the universe” or the “law of attraction”, which applies to everybody, regardless of the type of reality they wish to create. In other words, the laws they set about creating your reality is objective. The content you create within that reality is subjective. But even then, they still rely heavily on an objective reality model. Steve Pavlina didn’t simply create his online success by subjectively creating his reality, even if that’s the explanation he offers on his blog. He had to understand what makes a blog successful, and use that understanding to his advantage. He constantly mentions the need to have a more accurate model of the world.
If you’re creating your own reality, what’s the benchmark for accuracy?
Each one of us sees the world through his or her own perspective, which is conditioned by one’s beliefs, experiences, reasoning and feelings. But that does not negate the fact that we live in an objective reality, and must strive to develop a more accurate understanding of how the world operates, in order to take the most effective actions possible by us.
There are a few more ideas I can think of that have the power to ruin people’s lives, but will leave them for another post. Feel free to share your own thoughts on the subject, and offer your own contribution to the list.
If you happen to disagree with what I’ve said, then I’d love to hear from you!
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