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Why Personal Growth Is Not Selfish

How making others matter starts with ourselves.

Key points

  • Personal growth and development is the most rewarding and valuable way to approach life.
  • The idea of personal growth gets bad press at times because critics think of it as purely selfish.
  • As we grow, we develop our sense of responsibility to others, becoming more giving and considerate.

As readers of my posts will know, I often write about topics to do with personal growth and positive psychology, and my most recent book is about my insights about what leads people to live a good life. I think that prioritizing personal growth and development is the most rewarding and valuable way to approach life, so much more important than spending our time focused only on financial success or other forms of material wealth.

But the idea of personal growth gets bad press at times because critics think of it as a purely selfish.

I can understand that personal growth might sound like a selfish thing to pursue, but paradoxically, what humanistic therapists believe and what the research evidence points toward is that the more developed, emotionally mature and authentic we are as people, the more our gaze turns outwards to others. This is not because we are trying to find ways to use others to further our own ends, but rather that this is what psychologically well-developed and fully functioning people do. They are caring, compassionate, and collectively minded in their views of the world; it is in their nature to be empathic and helpful toward others. And they understand that those who are not like them need empathy and acceptance, not conflict and hostility, if they are, too, to change.

As we mature emotionally and grow as people, we develop our sense of responsibility to others and are more inclined toward more giving and considerate attitudes. By making ourselves matter, we are making others matter.

Making other people matter in our lives is one of the most important things we can do, and I think it is part and parcel of personal growth; it’s what happens when we begin to re-examine our own priorities.

I had a personal revelation about a decade ago when I was taking part in a workshop on personal growth. It ran over several days and involved a small group of participants getting to know each other through sharing life experiences and engaging in challenging conversations. On the final day, the facilitator asked those present to, in turn, say to the person on the right of them what positive qualities they had brought to the sessions. Everyone obliged. When the person on my left turned to me, she told me how much she appreciated my intellect, my curiosity and my love of learning. I was pleased, as you might expect in someone who grew up with a need to do well in school. This was like a gold star for me. But then I heard someone else in the group who I admired being told that they were valued for their warmth, kindness, and compassion. It was in that moment I realised that what I thought I valued in myself was not what I really valued, at least not anymore; what I really valued were these other qualities of warmth, kindness, and compassion. Until that point, I had not realised that this was more important to me and from that moment, I was determined to cultivate these qualities in myself and make these my priority in life.

Let me therefore leave you with this to think about. Imagine someone you respect was to turn to you, right now, and tell you what it is about you that they admire. What do you think they might say? And most importantly, what would you like them to say?

Your answer to that last question could change your life.


This post is adapted from my book Think Like a Therapist: Six Life-Changing Insights for Leading a Good Life.

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