What is Personal Growth, Really? #1
A lot of /a-midlife-transitions are fairly wary of the term “personal growth”; is there any legitimate way to use that term?
One of the most prominent of /a-midlife-transitions to object to the notion of “personal growth” was the late archetypal psychologist James Hillman, Hillman frequently took the idea to task, especially as embodied in overly optimistic forms, such as the Human Potential Movement.
Here is the kind of thing Hillman would say about personal growth:
Why Many Depth Psychotherapists Have Trouble with the Idea of “Personal Growth”
So, for Hillman, and many who share his outlook, “personal growth”, at least as embodied by people like the Human Potential Movement, is naive and Pollyanna. It doesn’t take account of realities like aging, illness and physical and mental decline, nor of the ways we are constrained by our environment or genetics, nor by just how plain difficult it is to live everyday life.
These critics have a point. Certainly, it would be incredibly naive to think that we can just go from strength to strength in life. The realities to which Hillman and others refer do have a powerful and profoundly limiting impact on our human existence.
If the term “personal growth” amounts to what is embodied in the mantra that “Every day / And in every way / I’m getting better and better”, then it’s truly a hollow idea. We are not moving towards some ideal state of human perfectibility, where we are always happier, more content, less judgmental, less defended or completely freed from the impact of a dysfunctional family. If there is a journey of personal growth for us to undertake, it must mean something other than that.
Why “Personal Growth” is Still a Useful Term
Yet, human beings can still grow in wisdom, and in acceptance of self and life. We will never be all-wise, but surely it’s an increase in wisdom to stop flogging ourselves for not matching an idealized image of perfection that we carry inside, that’s completely at odds with our true nature. In this sense, it can be most genuine growth to stop trying to be who we’re “supposed” to be, and, instead, to just let ourselves be who we really are.
Also, in a related way, it is genuine growth to be able to simply see ourselves as we really are. We may never be able to see absolutely everything about ourselves in the depths of the unconscious. Yet, each new hard-won piece of awareness brings us to some greater measure of understanding, self-acceptance and compassion for our own struggling and wounded selves. Without this kind of growth, our capacity for real acceptance and compassion for anyone else is likely to be extremely stunted.
Giving up these idealized images and genuinely seeing ourselves as we are increases our overall capacity to accept life itself for what it truly is. To accept life as it is, rather than trying to blindly and compulsively make it into something it is not — surely this is a very important kind of wisdom, and personal growth.
Will we ever succeed in doing these things perfectly and completely? —No. Does that negate the value of obtaining as much of this type of wisdom as we can? –Most certainly not.
The Invitation to Personal Growth
The continual striving to enter into this kind of wisdom, this kind of self-knowledge, and this kind of growth is at the very heart of /a-midlife-transition .
In Part 2 of “What is Personal Growth, Really?” , we’ll look at personal growth and how it relates to our ego and our overall psychological wholeness, the Self.
Brian Collinson, Psychotherapist and Jungian Analyst