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Against the deliberate cultivation of narcissism in personal development

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
18th September 2009


One of the main psychological change technologies found in personal development literature is to affirm and/or visualize precisely what you want, with great emotional force. This key technique can be found again and again in classic texts … When practiced intensely and frequently as recommended, this technique literally becomes “the cultivation of inflation”—the deliberate and intentional practice of self-centeredness!

The above is from a very important thoughtpiece by Duff McDuffee from the Beyond Growth blog. This “is a collaborative blogging project focused on critiquing and expanding the personal development field. Noting a lack of critical discourse in personal development, Duff McDuffee and Eric Schiller founded Beyond Growth in the hopes of using it as a platform to foster growth and responsibility.”

An important step towards the creation of a more positive relationality-centered culture!!

Duff McDuffee:

“This ability to inflate the self to God-sized proportions is a key qualification for any personal development guru, or in fact most of the celebrated figures in our celebrity culture. Many of the key techniques of personal development aim at inflating the self to the size of the universe, the inverse of the traditional religious aims of dissolving the self, seeing that the self is illusory, or engaging in selfless service. Rather than surrendering to a higher power, the aim of most personal development is to become a higher power, perhaps to fill the void that is left in a culture where “God is dead.” The aim developing of massive personal power—despite empty words to the contrary—is clearly about having social and economic power over others, and to be celebrated for one’s narcissism in a vacuous celebrity culture.

The solution is not necessarily to always attempt to make others happy before one’s self, as seems to be recommended in the above video. This can easily become martyrdom, which is just as much an ego-trip as only affirming one’s own goals. But I hope you can agree that there is an enormous difference between affirming “may I be happy and free from suffering” with humility and courage, and affirming “I deserve massive wealth” with puffed-up enthusiasm—even if we can’t always congruently wish for the happiness of all beings.

I am not opposed to an individual practicing the mantra or affirmation “may I be happy” or “may I be free of suffering”—these are very useful tools, and usually recommended as first steps within Buddhist practice for generation of joy and compassion before practicing compassion for others. Nor do I necessarily see any problem with deciding on an outcome or goal and infusing it with some energy, and reminding yourself of the goal at regular intervals. However, every religious tradition involves regularly praying for the well being of others. By contrast, most personal development only recommends praying for one’s individual desires. Meanwhile, the evidence from positive psychology suggests that the main keys to our happiness come from being deeply connected with others, and clearly our excessive self-focus is eroding those very connections more and more.

What happens to a culture and society when we consciously and deliberately invest enormous energy and focus on our selfish aims? Personally, I think we get a lot of our present culture, and the problems within it. We get a culture that is blind to culture, that ceases to ask ethical and social questions, and that reduces political action to consumer choice. We get a culture where a great number of people are unhappy and seeking ways to become happy, and we get solutions that make people more unhappy by encouraging them to be even more self-focused.”

In conclusion:

Personal development can certainly occur without cultivating inflation and narcissism, but doing so looks quite different from our popular images of success and achievement, and utilizes techniques that are more precise and often more focused on others than conventional advice from the narcissistic gurus.

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2 Responses to “Against the deliberate cultivation of narcissism in personal development”

  1. Duff Says:

    Thanks for the link, Michael. I hope others will consider these ideas and find new ways to develop themselves that do not sacrifice connection and community, but strengthen and repair our interconnections.

  2. Michel Bauwens Says:

    Dear Duff, thanks for exploring this territory. I have collated some related material at http://p2pfoundation.net/Category:Relational

    Michel

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