This spring, in my When Food is Your Mother class, one of the questions that’s been arising for the group is about healing: Is it possible to be addicted to self help?
We’re a highly conscientious group, and many of us are eager seekers. So we’re wondering – what’s the difference between a desire to grow – and a desire to support and nurture that growth – and being addicted to self improvement and personal growth?
It’s a great question, something worthy of pondering, wrestling, and contemplation.
In my own life, I’ve done both. I’ve been compulsively striving – consumed by, obsessed with, and addicted to self help. And I’ve also had different experiences with personal growth – where I felt moved to grow, led to grow by the still, small voice within. This kind of growth has a different flavor to it – it’s a following of a spark of intuition, desire, and internal guidance – rather than a drivenness to work on the self.
I wrote about my experiences with self help addiction a few years ago. I ended up taking this post off my blog, because it felt very personal, and I had some mixed feelings about being so open.
This morning, I reread that old blog post, dusted it off, and decided to republish it for you here. I think this is an especially pertinent topic today – one that elders including Parker Palmer, Robert Bly, Francis Weller, Dr. Gordon Neufeld, and Stephen Jenkinson are speaking to. So perhaps it is time to revisit these ideas, to reflect upon them, and to better understand what drives a constant, chronic striving and working on the self.
The link between ruptured connection and self help addiction
It helps to put this drive into context. Western culture is addicted to the idea of “onward and upward,” what Stephen Jenkinson calls ‘competence addiction.’ And our striving is intimately connected to relationship, to human connectedness – for our sense of self and our feelings of worthiness, value, esteem and love are born out of relationship, and rise in relationship.
When this understanding and connection is lost, havoc ensues. In the beautiful book A General Theory of Love, the authors write about how Western culture is “achievement, not attachment oriented.” This focus on individual achievement (instead of relationship and connection) is part of what drives our self help culture.
I’d say our striving, self help culture is the natural, painful consequence of this loss of our village of attachment, and our subsequent orientation towards achievement.
In his book The Wild Edge of Sorrow, Francis Weller puts it this way: when our ‘primary satisfactions’ are unmet (our need for relationship, connection, belonging, and meaning), we seek out ‘secondary satisfactions:’ we pursue status, money/wealth, beauty, esteem, approval, and more.
In my own life, my compulsive pursuit of spiritual and personal growth was my secondary satisfaction – and it was fed by the hunger, the unmet need, and the lack of satiation from relationship rupture. It was driven by much fear and alarm, as well as a frantic pursuit: a chaotic, driven need to mold myself into something more palatable, good, and whole so I could hold love close.
These drives – as well as its utter insatiability (do we ever reach a place of rest, of enough, when we’re consumed on fixing the self?) – are what characterize an addiction to self help.
Drivenness vs. unfolding
Attachment, connection and relationship serve a purpose: they are the ‘womb of growth.’ Their fruit is individuation: an unfolding of our true self, and a sharing of this self with the world. The energy behind this unfolding is not the frantic drivenness of pursuit, but just that: an unfolding. It doesn’t mean that this unfolding will be free from wrestling, or even conflict.
But its core energy is not arising from a sense of deficiency, but from a desire to be, and become – to share the gifts that we are, and to develop those gifts to share in our world around us.
It’s a subtle difference.
Ultimately, I think the answer to the question – “Am I addicted to self help?” – lies within each human heart. For only the heart can know and understand our motivation and feel these different drives.
This is my story of facing my self help addiction and relentless striving to fix myself. (To read someone else’s exploration of these ideas, see Tad Hargrave’s post on ‘the poverty of believing in yourself.’) I look forward to hearing yours.
My frantic pursuit of wholeness
I developed my first, full blown eating disorder when I was in high school. As an even younger child – 7, 10, 3 – I already sensed the well of anxiety and unease I felt about myself. As a consequence, I’ve been working on myself for 30 to 40 years, depending on how you do the math.
I’m earnest, conscientious, a seeker. I’ve done so much inner work; so many workshops and personal development seminars and weekends and programs. I’ve sought after wholeness and healing with the same ferocity that I sought after food and sugar and a perfect body.
What drove this quest was a dream. I had a dream of wholeness. I had a dream that I could be free of my addictions and compulsions. I had a dream that I could recover, not from my addictions, but recover and unearth my core self, my essence. I had a dream that I could be.
This dream – my dream of healing – was the cry of my soul, and its essence is pure and true.
I get emails and questions from men and women who also harbor dreams for wholeness. Their dreams are from their soul, and are pure and true and precious. And like me, they’ve often spent years, decades, lifetimes working on themselves in pursuit of this dream.
This post is about why I stopped the pursuit.
The dream behind the seeking
This winter I read an essay by Jeanne Safer in Psychology Today about her journey through cancer. In facing a life threatening illness and in losing so much of what she thought of as herself, it was important that she claim some essential part of her that would remained unchanged. She recounted the Biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the angel – “I will not let go until you bless me.”
Through my struggle with myself – with my eating disorders, anxiety, depression, and addictions – I, too, held fast to this dream: “I will not let go until you bless me.”
It was this dream – of being, of claiming my space, of blessing – that drove my seeking, all these years. It is this dream that probably drives yours. Some part of your soul recognizes that the surface struggle is not the sum of who you are; it longs to be free. And so you hold onto this dream and do everything in your power to bring it to fruition.
The human journey
A few years ago, I decided to dive deeply into human development and began an intensive journey with my mentor, Dr. Gordon Neufeld. Ironically, this study of the human journey sent me into a spiritual crisis, for it challenged everything I thought I understood or knew about healing, growth and transformation.
Studying Dr. Neufeld’s theory was like having someone lay your life out flat and gently uncover all the places where you’d gotten stuck – a brilliant and beautiful and heartbreaking understanding of your life. I gained a mind boggling clarity about my struggles with addiction and depression: I really, really got that I couldn’t have prevented my eating disorders if I’d tried.
With this understanding, my heart was pierced open. For I realized that my urgent, intense, and dedicated pursuit of wholeness had an error at its center: I had assumed that I was in charge of my growth and healing – that it was my job to fix myself. Even if I said, wrote or taught otherwise, in my heart, I didn’t trust the possibility of this healing: I thought it was something that I had to will, coerce, demand, push, strive for and make happen.
The overresponsibility of self helping
I thought that if I wasn’t gobbling up spirituality (not dissimilar to my gobbling up of food), that if I wasn’t striving after and working really, really hard on my personal development that it wouldn’t happen. So my growth always had a frantic note to it – it was filled with tension, a demand for it to happen quickly; a drive to make it happen at all.
I had taken on all the responsibility – both for my wounding and for its healing. My compulsion to heal myself was just that: a compulsion. It was a defense, a way I had hardened my heart against the inevitable pain and loss of life. It was how I defended myself against needing or depending on anything or anyone – including love.
It was how I protected the tender kernel of my heart.
There is a cost to everything. What was lost in my drive to heal was my caring. I had become an object, separate from my own heart, and separate from the web of life. In my drive to heal myself, I’d forgotten: Tread carefully. There’s a tender human being here.
In his poem, Fruit Gathering, poet Rabindranath Tagore says it like this:
No: It is not yours to open buds into blossoms.
Shake the bud, strike it; it is beyond your power to make it blossom.
Your touch soils it, you tear its petals to pieces and strew them in the dust.
But no colors appear, and no perfume.
The weariness of continual self improvement
The demand for growth is a violence to our own souls, and to our humanity. Who am I to say when my defenses should soften? To open buds to blossoms? To say when my reality should change?
Who am I to say when my loved ones’ defenses should soften, when their reality should change? For my striving for growth was not only a weapon I yielded against my own heart, it was also one I yielded against my loved ones.
After decades of spiritual and psychological growth, I was so, so weary. I hear this same weariness in my beloved students. They, too, have been working on themselves for decades. They often take one of my classes while taking 1, 2 or 3 others – not unlike how I read three books on growth and healing at the same time.
I was exhausted – weary of the demand and pressure I put upon myself to grow. I was weary of the shame and guilt and anxiety when my growth didn’t manifest in the way I thought it should. I was weary of my striving and I longed for rest.
Handing over the reins of healing
What studying with my mentory made very clear to me is the same truth that many other sages have offered throughout time: it is love that opens our eyes, that releases pain, that offers understanding, that sparks the flash of insight, that sheds light; that illuminates; that transforms.
Is is love that heals and that determines how this healing unfolds. It is love that is the container, the womb, the catalyst of growth.
We can support our transformation. We can midwife it. We can apply ourselves to practices that support our unfolding. We can open ourselves to this growth, and to yearn after it.
We offer our willingness, and our sincerity.
But how and when and where this growth unfolds is not in our hands. It is a power above and beyond our control. Thank goodness!
Opening the heart to growth
When we believe that we need to be in charge, that we need to manufacture our growth, what we’ve forgotten – what we’ve lost – is this connection to the ground of our being. We’re believing that we’re alone and separate and that growth is somehow separate from us. We believe that we have to force our growth because we’ve forgotten that we belong; that our hearts are furrowed into the soil of life.
When my cat is hungry, she meows at me. She rubs against my legs and wails and tugs my heart with her cries until I feed her. When we’re hurting, we too, can cry out. We can call on love, and call on healing, and open the door for love to enter.
This is our role: to soften our defenses, to ask, to yearn, to voice our hunger, to call out for help.
This is not insignificant. For it, first and foremost, means conceding control. It means surrendering, opening the heart to be grown, to be transformed, to be healed, to be breathed: “Breathe new life in me.”
It means surrendering and trusting that something, someone, some presence will be there to hold us and to offer care and to nurture our unfolding.
And it means voicing our hunger and longings.
Resting in the process of growth
Last week I wrote about why self help does not exist – about the dignity of depending and of allowing yourself to be cared for. Likewise, there is dignity in depending on Love itself, of receiving healing and growth rather than directing its flow. There is dignity in crying out in hunger, and trusting that your hunger will be filled.
Dependence – in the truest meaning of the word – means to depend on something greater than yourself. It is to claim your interdependence and your belonging in the web of life. It is not disorder. It is not dysfunction. It is a place of profound rest. I would argue that it is home.
Giving up the demand for growth is an act of incredible surrender – trusting that something greater than our own ego – something wiser – is in charge – and trusting that this presence is grounded in love, wants what is best for us and knows how to bind our wounds and lead us home.
And it is also an act of faith, an act of trust, and an act of radical hope: I’m still here. And I will not let go until you bless me.
This is profound Karly, to me personally and i’m sure to so very many more. Thank you for your honesty! 🙂
I’m glad this resonated with you, and that it helps you make sense of your own experiences with personal growth. Thank you for writing and sharing!
Yes, Karly. Thank you so much for writing and sharing this. It touched me deeply.
Thank you for writing – so glad this touched and resonated with you!
Thank you Karly for this heartful piece , I so resonate with being driven to grow/ heal – to somehow be better / feel ok and definitely echo the yearning to rest into my self , to have deep compassion for my suffering , all the striving and effort.
I have felt that the word “surrender” has been what I come back to again and again through my journey in parenting and I wish to bring that into my relationship with myself and my own heart. The Tagore poem is a beautiful resource.
Thank you for writing – I’m glad this spoke to you and moved you, and spoke to your yearnings for rest, compassion, and surrender. Those are beautiful yearnings!
I also find the Tagore poem to be a thing of beauty and wisdom, and love sharing it with others.
Still, after all this time, you manage to speak into words the feelings I have. “This is our role: to soften our defenses, to ask, to yearn, to voice our hunger, to call out for help.” I have spent the last 2 years learning this exact lesson – when I let others in and let them help me, helping myself becomes so much easier and feels so much kinder.
Much love to you, Karly.
How nice to hear from you! I’m glad this spoke to your experience, and journey. And what a beautiful testimony to your courage, and heart – “I have spent the last 2 years learning this exact lesson – when I let others in and let them help me, helping myself becomes so much easier and feels so much kinder.” So beautiful, Jill – thank you for writing and letting us share this with you.
Thanks for opening up Karly. I’m there right now. Caught in the endless cycle of fixing. Exhausted. Much has improved but there are many aches that still remain. Your message clarifies for me that I need to give it up to God. Trust that He will come through. And in a way He has through your lovely post. You are such a blessing to the world. I’m so grateful I found you. Thank you for sharing your heart and your wisdom. You helped me more in a two month course than I ever got in 5 years of psychotherapy
I’m so glad that the course has been so helpful to you – what a powerful testimony to the teachings, and to my mentors, who passed them on to me! I’m glad this post speaks to your heart and brings a sense of surrender, and ease, and hope.
Wow Karly, this post comes exactly at a time when I’m fed up with working so hard and pushing myself to feel better, heal faster and grow the way I expect it to happen. The only thing is, I don’t know how to surrender. My pain and depressions are so great, it is only natural and human that I frantically look for a solution.
I don’t feel the trust that some higher source will hold me when I need it. I don’t feel love piercing my heart. After years of therapy I still only feel contempt or (at best) indifference towards my inner child. I don’t feel willingness, I feel stubbornness to remain as miserable as I am. I don’t feel sincerety, I feel I’m only pretending wanting to heal so that I can prove to the world that I failed at it.
Thanks Karly, for all your amazing writing.
I feel so inspired when things show up at just the right time, and in just the right place – and it sounds like that was true for you. I’m glad that this post resonated with you – and I want to normalize your experience. Being in a place of not knowing how to surrender, or contempt, or stuckness, and wanting to seek for a solution make a lot of sense! I’ve been there, too, and they are natural responses to pain that has felt too much to bear.
Sometimes the softening first comes ‘one step removed,’ in witnessing it in others, or in a movie, or in a friend. Then, the softening begins to unfold for ourselves. I find that helpful when I’m really stuck. And to have compassion for being stuck, for there are good reasons – our human vulnerability – why we do so.
I trust the healing and softening process, and that these things can shift for you. For now, I hope you feel held in being right where you’re at, in this place.
Thank you for your comment Karly. It is good to hear what you’re saying about how I feel.