Why personal development advice doesn’t work (and what to do instead)

Photo by Le Minh Phuong on Unsplash

We humans love personal development advice. We love articles that tell us how to be happy, books that teach us how to be successful, commencement speeches that preach risk-taking. There are 4 tips to clear our mind, 5 ways to find love, 7 keys to losing weight.

Being a voracious consumer of personal development advice myself, I one day realised that good advice doesn’t mean anything if we can’t apply it to our lives.

If reading was all there is to it, wouldn’t we just need one book that tells us everything we need to know? Then we can instantly become euphoric, successful, rich beyond our wildest dreams.

Instead, we hop from book to book, site to site, TED talk to TED talk, searching for that elusive key to love, happiness, paradise on Earth.

Why we are suckers for advice

1. Sense of security

As human beings, we are fundamentally insecure about ourselves. So we look to somebody else for security. We follow those who can give us assurance that we’re on the right path. In a sense, we are afraid to rely on ourselves and want someone to tell us what to do so we can feel safe.

2. Desire to fix ourselves

We feel like there is something wrong with us. Some of us project this wrongness out into the world, and we try to fix the world. Some of us project this wrongness inwards, and we try to fix ourselves. We chase the ideal body, money, power, position, prestige, happiness, purpose – our perfect self-image. We feel that being ourselves is not enough.

3. Entertainment

If nothing else, reading lots of articles online is a form of entertainment. We relish the fantasy but take no concrete action. It serves as a distraction to stave off feelings of emptiness that arise if we are left to our own devices for too long.

But the advice never really works

We hope advice can give us some relief from our nagging dissatisfaction with life. We hope that we can beat ourselves into shape, that we can change. How many of us seek to improve because we reject ourselves?

There is an everlasting struggle to be something other than what one is. – Jiddu Krishnamurti

But trying to apply someone else’s advice never really works, at least not in the long term. Whenever we bully ourselves into becoming someone we’re not, we are destroying ourselves.

We’re always rejecting ourselves in favour of our ideas of how we should be. We compare ourselves to superstars, celebrities, entrepreneurs. There is an inner conflict, a constant fight, between who we and who we should be.

All forcing energies must breed an opposing current. Research by Cornell University showed that people who exercised tended to eat more after exercise, feeling that they had to reward themselves after their workout.

If we beat ourselves into achieving, the stress and suppressed emotions are still expressed somehow. Perhaps they show themselves in our bodies, through diseases or chronic conditions like eczema, heart disease, and cancer. Perhaps we numb ourselves through alcohol or caffeine.

Cultivating awareness

Instead of constantly castigating and whipping ourselves, why don’t we cultivate awareness instead? Awareness is not about comparing or judging or measuring up to an ideal. It is simply observing, accepting, and understanding what is.

To understand yourself is the beginning of wisdom. – Jiddu Krishnamurti

Awareness provides the gateway to understanding who we truly are. Through allowing ourselves to be who we are, we stop the futile fight against ourselves, and allow ourselves to simply be. When we can allow, accept, and appreciate what is, we can change from the inside out. There is real inner transformation, not just outer change.

By cultivating awareness, we eventually gain self-understanding.

Benefits of awareness and self-understanding

Inner peace: The less we know about ourselves, the more easily triggered we are. The more reactive we are to external situations, the more turbulent our inner landscape becomes. We are always anxious or stressed. Understanding ourselves and accepting ourselves for who we are removes the inner conflict between what is and what should be. That gives us a sense of inner peace.

Inner strength: Knowing who we are, we have an awareness of our values and what we stand for. We know what is important to us. Thus we exhibit strength in living lives consistent with our inner most values. We know when to say yes and when to say no, and are not easily swayed by others opinions’ nor instant gratifications.

Self-confidence: We lack confidence when we’re trying to gain something from another person. When people don’t react as we want them to, we get into a kind of panic, as though we have temporarily lost our footing. When we accept all of ourselves, we don’t mind how people respond to us, and that leads to self-confidence.

Creativity: Creativity¬†happens when self-judgment stops and self-acceptance reigns. When we learn to stop berating ourselves and trying to be ‘right’ all the time, we can explore what it means to express ourselves. We can allow ourselves the permission to have a voice, and to allow ourselves to exist through our creations.

Observing your own behaviour

We don’t see the world as it is, we see the world we are. – Anais Nin

The world is a mirror, reflecting back to us our beliefs and attitudes towards life. A kind person sees kindness in the world. An evil person sees evil in the world.

But we are seldom conscious of how we see the world. Our deep-seated beliefs reside in our unconscious, and are not easily accessible to us. However, here are frameworks we can use to better understand how we see the world:

  • What we give is what we want to receive

Maybe you’ve heard of the five love languages. We each have different ways of giving and receiving. Most of the time we do not give people what they want to receive, we give them what we think they want to receive. And how do we guess what they want to receive? We ask ourselves what we want to receive. How do you like to give to others? This is very likely what you want most for yourself.

  • What we seek from others, we lack in ourselves

We seek what we don’t have. Whenever we’re around people, we want something from them. Maybe for them to compliment us, maybe for them to notice us, maybe for them to obey us. For example, we may seek a sense of safety in others, because we don’t feel safe in ourselves. When we discover what is lacking within us, we’ve also discovered a potential area of growth.

  • What we dislike in others, we reject in ourselves

Carl Jung said that we each have a shadow, an unconscious aspect of the personality which the conscious ego does not identify with. In other words, this is a repressed or rejected part of ourselves. However, as a defense mechanism, we project this rejected part of ourselves onto others. For example, if we are selfish but we have been taught to be good and kind all our lives, we think of other people as being selfish when they do not yield to our demands. The qualities in others we dislike is a clue to something that is repressed within us.

  • What we envy in others, we deny in ourselves

We see good things happening to people and we get envious. We believe that good things could never happen to us. That’s because we deny the good that lies within us. Beauty, joy, inspiration, hope, strength, courage, and love are available to us, if only we let go of the stories we tell ourselves about how we’re not worthy or deserving. The success that we so badly want is available to us, if only dare to let it in.


To begin looking into ourselves requires courage. We must have the courage to come face to face with who we are on the inside, warts and all. Maybe we’re vengeful, selfish, judgmental, mean, petty, and lazy. Maybe we’re also good, beautiful, kind, compassionate, and forgiving.

It’s been a life of trying to be someone else and resisting who we are. Maybe now is the time to own ourselves, all of ourselves, and to stop rejecting or disavowing parts of us.

The only question is – are you willing to take the first step?

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