Self-Help vs. Personal Development

A week or so ago, Fey turned to me and asked what I considered a strange question. “Are you reading a self-help book?”

My instinctive response was, of course, I haven’t read self-help in an ice age. Of course, I gobble up “personal development” books with startling frequency. The difference is between self-help and personal development is subtle but important.

Self-help books, as a rule, tend to offer a step-by-step plans for improving a specific area of your life. Quit Smoking in Three Weeks, Lose 5 Pounds Without Dieting, Ten-Day Power Boost for Your Career – that sort of thing. Personal development books, from what I can tell, are a little more indepth. These books, which can range from philosophy to psychology to spirituality to social networking, nudge the reader out of the cookie-cutter solution mentality towards a more self-directed path.

My actual answer was, “No, I’m not reading anything at the moment.”

To which my insightful wife just nodded and said, “Yeah, I can tell.”

The moral of this little anecdote is this: When Debbie doesn’t work actively on her self-development, she tends to fall into a negative funk that is clear to those who love and know her.

The Process of Personal Development

The urge to self-examine is very strong in most people. We love quizzes, from Cosmo quizzes to personality profiles, we can’t get enough of them. But personal development goes far beyond “Which Harry Potter Character Will You Marry?” Personal development requires that you take a deep look at yourself, both good and bad, discover your truth, and then find a way to live that truth in a positive and productive way.

For years, I read pretty much anything I could get my hands on in hopes that I would stumble on to the key to happiness. I was looking for a silver bullet, that tested and true ten-point plan that would make me Rich, Beautiful, and Famous (as well as Stoopid Happy and Worshipped as a Benevolent Goddess).

Poor authors! Who on Earth can fill that order?

Eventually though, I gave up looking for quick fixes and just started reading about personality and life and living. Not because I thought it would help, but because I found it fascinating. And over the years, I’ve come up with quite a list of recommendations.

Right now, I’m reading Debbie Ford’s The Dark Side of the Light Chasers: Reclaiming Your Power, Brilliance, Creativity and Dreams. To be honest, I’ve been avoiding this book for years. Not that I thought it was bad, but because I knew that I couldn’t just read the book. I would have to do the exercises, and I was never ready to face my shadow side. I don’t know if I’m able to do so yet, but I’m going to give it a go.

It took a lot to get me here. Like so many people, I don’t want to have a dark side. I don’t want to have needs and issues and bad habits and petty moments. But something Ford said in an early chapter really resonated with me: you have to find the gift in the shadow. If you’re a bitch, find the gift in being a bitch. (A bitch will stand up for herself when someone tries to take advantage. A bitch will not let herself get pushed to the side and ignored when she deserves to be heard.) If you’re judgmental, find the gift in being judgmental. (For example, a judgmental person knows what matters to them and is not afraid to insist on it. A judgmental person will spot a line of bullshit long before a non-judgmental person might.)

So, I’m going there. I am not sure what I’m going to find when I pull up the curtains and look in the shadows of my psyche. But I’m going there.

A Wealth of Opportunity

I mentioned a little earlier that I had some recommendations for great personal development writers. Before I close, I’m going to share with you some writers whose books have really changed my perspectives on life.

* Jean Shinoda-Bolen: When I first read Goddesses in Everywoman back in the 1990s, it was completely new to me. Shinoda-Bolen, a wise crone of the personal development movement, used the Hellenic goddesses as templates for Jungian personality interpretation. Through the eyes of Hera, Athena, Aphrodite, Demeter, Hestia, and Persephone, I found a new understanding of myself and other women. It still holds up as a break-through work and I recommend it to anyone who is interested.

* Clarissa Pinkola-Estes: It took me a couple of times to get through Pinkola-Estes’ ground-breaking book Women Who Run with the Wolves. Not because the book was uninteresting or irrelevant. The exact opposite – the book is so rich and dense with meaning that my poor Gemini brain could not go too far without needing a digestion break, preferably in the shallows. Her storytelling is exquisite, her insights are remarkable. Read it slowly, wrapped in a blanket on a cold night. It will change you.

* Brenda Ueland: Many, many years ago I read Ueland’s book If You Want to Write, and it humbled me. Back then, the thought of writing non-fiction, personal non-fiction, was so far beyond me that her book actually frightened me. But as a treatise on the hows and whys of a full life, even if you are’t a writer, Ueland’s work is unsurpassed. Her wisdom and spirit are inspiring to anyone wanting to live a purposeful and creative life. (Now, I look back and thank the goddess that Ueland penned this masterpiece before her death. It is even more relevant now than ever.)

*Anne Lamott: My dear friend Monique sent me a used copy of Bird by Bird a year or so ago as a surprise. I was unfamiliar with Lamott’s work, but trusted Monique not to steer me wrong. Bird by Bird is the kind of book that promotes living authentically and passionately. Her prose is eloquent, her stories insightful, and her advise golden. Definitely read this book if you get a chance.

*Michael Neill: Michael Neill is a practitioner of NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming), a form of therapy that emphasizes the connection between thoughts and the quality of life. His books are funny, smart, and contain many practical tools you can use to decrease stress and give yourself the courage to follow your dreams. He’s a little more self-helpy than the other authors, but he’s just so darned good at what he does, ya gotta love him.

*Steve Pavlina: Another estrogen-challenged member of my rec list, Pavlina is a self-made personal development guru. His website is enormous–the guy is hugely prolific and has a great deal of free content on a variety of subjects from raising consciousness to becoming your own boss. He can be a bit abrasive, especially if you are of the religious ilk, but the value far exceeds the annoyance you might feel at some of his more provocative posts.

* Abraham-Hicks: Esther Hicks, an impish woman originally from Tennessee, channels a group-being identified as “Abraham.” While their message is pretty tight (and Abraham/Esther is meticulously on-message, regardless of what questions are thrown her way), it’s a good primer for anyone wanting to learn more about the Law of Attraction. What their writings lack in diversity (yeah, Abraham, I know. Connect with Source energy–tune in, tap in and turn on or whatever), they more than make up for in charm and engagement. It’s hard not to like Abraham/Esther, and the message is positive. I know that Fey and I got a lot of benefit from their teachings, even if we are not 100% on board the Abraham-Hicks bandwagon.

* Thomas Moore: No, I’m not talking about the historical Thomas Moore. I’m talking about the modern-day author, psychologist, musician, blogger, spiritual seeker. His books on the soul and soulfulness are poetic and profound, bringing a lyrical quality to an often cut-and-dry field. His works are a must-read for anyone wanting to merge spirituality and soul into their daily lives.

So, these are a few of the authors I’d recommend. There are many more, of course, and I may blog on this subject again. I’d like to ask my readers for their recommendations, as I am always interested in expanding my knowledge. Who are you reading? Where do you turn for wisdom and advise? I look forward to hearing from you.

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2 responses

  1. I’ve probably mentioned it before, but I will again. I got a lot out of “Feel the Fear . . . and Do It Anyway” by Susan Jeffers. Helped me get unstuck in many ways.

  2. It’s on my list. Right now, I’m reading Debbie Ford’s The Dark Side of the Light Chasers. It’s pretty intense.

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