Essay

The Cultivation of Inflation and The Culture of Narcissism in Personal Development

By Duff McDuffee on September 14th, 2009 1

One of the main psychological change technologies found in personal development literature is to affirm and/or visualize precisely what you want, with great emotional force. This key technique can be found again and again in classic texts like Think and Grow Rich, The Science of Getting Rich, and Psycho-Cybernetics, as well as contemporary books like Awaken the Giant Within (the slumbering giant is “a giant of emotion” when awakened, says Robbins), Maximum Achievement, Secrets of the Millionaire Mind, and numerous books on the “Law of Attraction.” When practiced intensely and frequently as recommended, this technique literally becomes “the cultivation of inflation”—the deliberate and intentional practice of self-centeredness!

What are the consequences of using such a technique on the individual, on culture and society, and on the planet? What are alternative ways to cultivate one’s mind and emotions that lead to beneficial outcomes without the self-centeredness and inflation of such techniques?

Affirming what you want in positive, present tense language, over and over is a foundational technique of personal development found in self-help classics such as Think and Grow Rich, repeated in endless variations in books and blogs. Intensely affirming one’s desired outcomes—often for greed-based goals—amplifies the already self-focused tendency of the mind. Such affirmations end up being a version of the “what about me?” mantra that most of us say all day long already:

This touching music video is from the Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, a Tibetan Lama and lineage holder of Shambhala Buddhism, and son of Chogyam Trungpa. In this poem, he says…

“In fact, it’s embarrassing. I say this mantra all day long.”

Rather than feel embarrassed by our self-centeredness, much of the popular literature of personal development celebrates our “what about me?” mantra, encouraging us to cultivate shameless samadhi in our daily practice of narcissism. Sitting in front of the shrines dedicated to our selves (aka “vision boards”), we worship our own egos by repeating me-mantras and visualizing ourselves as all-powerful deities that create our own universes. We seek immortality not through great works of anonymous service, but by staining the world with our obnoxious, self-centered “personal brands.”

Our self-help gurus are those who successfully repeat this “what about me?” mantra louder, more often, and without any embarrassment whatsoever. In fact, they take pride in their “success” at being so entirely self-focused and achievement-obsessed.

This ability to inflate the self to God-sized proportions is a key qualification for any personal development guru, or in fact most of the celebrated figures in our celebrity culture. Many of the key techniques of personal development aim at inflating the self to the size of the universe, the inverse of the traditional religious aims of dissolving the self, seeing that the self is illusory, or engaging in selfless service. Rather than surrendering to a higher power, the aim of most personal development is to become a higher power, perhaps to fill the void that is left in a culture where “God is dead.” The aim of developing massive personal power—despite empty words to the contrary—is clearly about having social and economic power over others, and to be celebrated for one’s narcissism in a vacuous celebrity culture.

The solution is not necessarily to always attempt to make others happy before one’s self, as seems to be recommended in the above video. This can easily become martyrdom, which is just as much an ego-trip as only affirming one’s own goals. But I hope you can agree that there is an enormous difference between affirming “may I be happy and free from suffering” with humility and courage, and affirming “I deserve massive wealth” with puffed-up enthusiasm—even if we can’t always congruently wish for the happiness of all beings.

I am not opposed to an individual practicing the mantra or affirmation “may I be happy” or “may I be free of suffering”—these are very useful tools, and usually recommended as first steps within Buddhist practice for generation of joy and compassion before practicing compassion for others. Nor do I necessarily see any problem with deciding on an outcome or goal and infusing it with some energy, and reminding yourself of the goal at regular intervals. However, every religious tradition involves regularly praying for the well being of others. By contrast, most personal development only recommends praying for one’s individual desires. Meanwhile, the evidence from positive psychology suggests that the main keys to our happiness come from being deeply connected with others, and clearly our excessive self-focus is eroding those very connections more and more.

What happens to a culture and society when we consciously and deliberately invest enormous energy and focus on our selfish aims? Personally, I think we get a lot of our present culture, and the problems within it. We get a culture that is blind to culture, that ceases to ask ethical and social questions, and that reduces political action to consumer choice. We get a culture where a great number of people are unhappy and seeking ways to become happy, and we get solutions that make people more unhappy by encouraging them to be even more self-focused.

Personal development can certainly occur without cultivating inflation and narcissism, but doing so looks quite different from our popular images of success and achievement, and utilizes techniques that are more precise and often more focused on others than conventional advice from the narcissistic gurus.

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10 responses to “The Cultivation of Inflation and The Culture of Narcissism in Personal Development”

  1. Chris Edgar says:

    Thanks for this Duff. My sense about a lot of personal development material that's focused on acquiring material things, relationships, etc. is that it offers only a temporary distraction from the sense of lack many of us walk around with. Of course, the same could be said about many activities — getting really involved in a political cause will not bring me the peace I'm seeking if I am only doing it to feel like I'm more righteous than others (to fix what I see as my inherent wrongness). Or, if I pray for others' happiness in order to feel less selfish and guilty (again, to fix the hole in my self-worth).

    My sense, which I think you're also expressing here, is that personal development could better serve us by helping us to undo the conditioning that created that feeling of lack, and showing us it's not part of who we are, so that the stuff we get or charitable acts we do are expressions of our preexisting sense of completeness rather than attempts to create it.

    • Excellent points, Chris. You are exactly right–the feeling of lack (i.e. clinging, craving and aversion, existential anxiety, etc.) can just as much drive political involvement, praying for others' happiness, or self-focused goal-seeking.

      And yes, personal development can indeed help us to undo that conditioning. I think your work is helping to do just that.

  2. […] above is from a very important thoughtpiece by Duff McDuffee from the Beyond Growth blog. This “is a collaborative blogging project […]

  3. Excellent post, Duff. I like Chris's comment "…personal development could better serve us by helping us to undo the conditioning that created that feeling of lack, and showing us it's not part of who we are, so that the stuff we get or charitable acts we do are expressions of our preexisting sense of completeness rather than attempts to create it."

    I'm dealing with this issue right now. I recently realized that most of the "charitable" goals I had — goals I was ineffective at implementing — were driven by a sense of inner lack rather than abundance. As I become more whole, I become less certain about what I want, partly because the lack and unfulfilled needs which used to drive me no longer do. Now what do I want? Living in that question is a much more interesting way to live…

  4. my friends and I are still having the exact same argument relating to this topic.

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