What is Personal Growth, Really? Part 2
How are you and I going to deal with this issue of personal growth? In Part 1 of “What is Personal Growth” we explored appropriate and inappropriate uses of that term.
In this post, we’ll go after the question, “How, practically, can I find personal growth?”
The Invitation to Personal Growth
Where does the invitation to personal growth appear in our lives?
Contrary to what we expect in our culture it doesn’t usually stem from heroic efforts of the will.
In fact, it seems most often to come from encounters with those aspects of our lives that we’d rather not be dealing with.
For instance, in my own case, I know that the experience of dealing with the deafness of my son was life-changing. I realize many people have dealt with much harder things, but this was extremely hard for me. Often, I didn’t know how to cope. Those experiences brought personal growth into my life, and continue to do so today.
These experiences changed me, not because I set out on a ego project of “self improvement”, but because I had to come to terms with what life brought, and unexpected aspects of myself.
In the Deepest Personal Growth, the Ego is Not Really Running the Show
In Western culture, we have learned to see the ego as absolutely predominant. We tend to highly exalt its power, and those activities which exalt the power of the ego over virtually everything else.
Consider, for instance, Iron Man Marathons. They’re a remarkable acheivement, no doubt, but we tend to celebrate them as a triumph of ego or will over the body.
In our culture, we tend to exalt the ability of the ego to get whatever it wants. Our cultural heros are very often the people who get what they want no matter what. Consider television like”the Apprentice” with the all-conquering Donald Trump. More recently, we have the character of Frank Underwood on the wildly successful House of Cards.
These collective heroes are often suffused with a “narcissistic” self-obsession, referring to the mythical young man who fell in love with his own image reflected in a pool..
Contrary to what we often think, narcissism is not based in an excess of self-love, but, rather, its opposite. As the prominent Jungian psychiatrist Edward Edinger reminds us,
Narcissisus represents the alienated ego that cannot love… because it is not yet related to itself. To fall in love with the reflected image of oneself can only mean that one does not yet possess oneself…. Narcissism in its original mythological implications is not a needless excess of self-love but rather just the opposite, a frustrated state of yearning for a self-possession that does not yet exist….
In the case of Narcissus, fulfillment of self-love, or union with the image in its depths, requires a descent into the unconscious…
Response to the Deep Self
For Edinger, the important stage of personal growth that concerns love for, and compassion for the self requires an in-depth encounter with the unconscious aspects of the personality. This means an encounter with the self, and a compassionate love for the self — especially for those aspects of the self that do not fit the projects, goals and tastes of the ego, including its tendency to demand excessively idealized and perfectionist standards of achievement, and conduct. This is what we commonly call the shadow.
Personal Growth, Self Acceptance — and Acceptance of the Self
This encounter with and acceptance of the Self is the heart of what we call personal growth. As Jung tells us, such experience of the Self is often more of a defeat for the ego, than a fulfillment of its ideals of personal triumph. Yet it’s what we need to begin to live in life, health and a growing sense of peace with who we fundamentally are.
Depth case studies is fundamentally about the encounter with the depths of the person. It’s about the move to loving and accepting our complete “unedited” personhood. This means not only our egos, but the fullness of the strengths, weaknesses and the new territory of the undiscovered self.
Brian Collinson, Psychotherapist and Jungian Analyst