What You’re Not Being Told About Personal Growth

(Part 1 of 2)

By Marc Gilson

(Mildly NSFW language)

“There is only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that’s your own self.”  – Aldous Huxley

Pushing the Button

If you could be a happier, healthier human being just by pushing a button, would you do it? Of course you would. Now what if pushing the button cost you $100? How about $1,000? Would you still push it? What if pushing the button cost $1,000 and took six months before you saw the results? What if there was a 50/50 chance of success?

At this point you may have a few questions of your own, like: Just what kind of changes will I get from pushing that button? Will it impact my job satisfaction? Improve my relationships? Help me break that pesky addiction? Enhance my appearance? Can I get my money back if it doesn’t work? Will it allow me to live longer? Will it help me make more money and if so, how much more money?

Every year, millions of people worldwide push that button, investing time and money in hopes of seeing some sort of improvemen7251426-vue-rapprochee-du-bouton-de-commande-rouget in their lives. Perhaps you’re one of those people, and if so you’re in good company. Or, maybe you’re not one of those people. But if you’ve taken a yoga or martial arts class, attended a success seminar, bought a book on healing trauma, meditated, tried an herbal supplement, visited a hypnotherapist, seen a therapist or life coach, tried aromatherapy, seen an acupuncturist, or watched a TV show featuring a self-help expert or guru, then you’re part of the multi-billion dollar personal growth/self-improvement industry. You’ve already pushed the button.

Like most of us, you want to be happier. You want to be healthier. Maybe you want to be wealthier or live a more peaceful, stress-free life.  And there’s nothing wrong with that…

…except for one thing:

You haven’t been told the whole story.

Hamburgers & Hyperbole

As with most commercial industries, individuals and companies that provide self-improvement programs, tools, services, and treatments depend on effective marketing. They paint vivid and appealing pictures to attract clients and customers. They create serene scenes of peace, harmony, and tranquility. Scenes of bliss and connectedness. Scenes of balance and health. You know what I’m talking about:

  • the lovely woman in her yoga outfit, sitting in full lotus position on top of a grassy hill as the sun rises and forms a glorious halo around her head as she smiles serenely
  • or the infomercial with the man who used to live on soup crackers and ramen noodles but who just made $42,000 last month because he put secret money-making tips to work for him
  • or the lady who finally overcame addiction, healed the abuse she’d suffered as a child, and then found the relationship of her dreams thanks to hypnotherapy and reflexology.

Am I saying these things don’t work? Absolutely not. Many of these things can work wonders when used properly. But the problem is that painting such scenes really only tells half the story. Yes, some self-improvement methods can help you become a happier person. Yes, exercising and watching what you eat will help you be healthier. Yes, yoga, meditation, acupuncture, and life coaching can all improve your life. The pictures painted by those advertisers on behalf of the latest book, seminar, or what-have-you, are not being entirely disingenuous. But neither are they telling you the whole story.

Of course the personal growth industry hasn’t exactly cornered the market when it comes to hyperbole. In our ad-saturated culture, we’re expected to believe that practically anything – a new car, a new bed, a cell phone, an ice-cold beer, or a new hairdo – can lead to genuine happiness. And we’ve all seen the fast food burger commercials on TV that make those greasy things look so tantalizing you can practically feel your arteries clogging just by looking at them.

But did you know that fast food companies employ experts to doctor those burgers, cosmetically altering them to make them look appealing for the camera? They have an array of dyes, sprays, glues, fake steam, and other Market Meadows Stock Shoottricks of the trade to turn a simple hamburger into a work of art.  That’s why when you rush out to order your “Deluxe Belly-Buster Biggie Burger,” it doesn’t look anything like that perfectly-constructed juicy sandwich you saw on TV, with the crisp green lettuce, bright red tomato, and that saliva-inducing drip of yellow mustard on the edge of the patty. Instead, it usually looks like it’s been languishing under a heat lamp for three hours before somebody sat on it and then shoveled it into a bag and handed it to you.

That’s advertising versus reality, folks, and we’re all pretty used to it at this point. Sadly, the modern consumer is quite accustomed to disappointment.

Then again, nobody’s really promising enlightenment when you order a burger. Nobody goes through the drive-thru and says, “Yeah, gimme the Deep Soul Cleansing Value Meal, with an extra large Detox, and a side of cheesy Inner Peace. Oh, and a large cup of diet Compassionate Wisdom, no ice.”

Of course the personal growth industry does share something in common with fast food restaurants: it promises quick, convenient satisfaction. And that’s the problem. Sometimes what gets overlooked in the rush for change and growth are the important things, the things that really make the difference, the things that make pushing that button worthwhile in the first place. And these are the things advertisers usually don’t tell you about.

The personal growth industry makes big promises – and the truth is that sometimes those promises aren’t kept. In the 20 years I’ve been working in this industry I’ve been blessed to watch thousands of lives change for the better. And I confess that I get a big charge out of being a part of that. It’s highly rewarding and it’s what makes me work hard at what I do.

But the fact is that not everyone’s lives do change for the better at the push of a button, or even after several button pushes. Some people just don’t seem to respond to the same sorts of techniques that others do. Sometimes, no matter how hard they try to turn themselves into happier, healthier people, they fail. Is there something wrong with them? Are they just beyond help? Or have they been subtly misled by the spray, dyes, and steam?

For many years I soothed myself with the belief that people who weren’t benefiting from their personal development work, including my own coaching services, were the problem. Their attitude was wrong. Their beliefs were in conflict. They were resistant. Their expectations were too high. They just weren’t ready or willing to change. In life coaching there’s a word for those people: “uncoachable.”

Where some people are concerned, that’s absolutely the case; they truly don’t want to change themselves in any way. So after awhile, they give up. No problem.

But then why do so many others keep trying? Over and over, these “uncoachable” people try to meditate, reduce their stress, improve their health, enhance their relationships, heal old traumas, etc. And yet time and time again, they seem to fall flat on their behinds despite the best efforts of people like me who want to help. If they really aren’t willing to change, why do they spend so much time and money on it? They’re pushing the button, over and over, but to no avail. So why don’t they just give up? What the heck is really going on here?

Maybe, just maybe, it really isn’t their fault. At least not entirely.


For me, the answer to these questions was revealed thanks to a particularly difficult client I had back in 2003. Let’s call him Harold. Saying Harold was a “difficult client” is a little like saying Chef Gordon Ramsay dislikes under-cooked fish or that the Titanic had a little iceberg problem. It’s a gross understatement.

For Harold, “failure” was his life’s theme. Harold had failed marriages, failed businesses, failing health. He freely, almost gleefully, referred to himself as “a colossal failure.” He was, in fact, addicted to failure. After working with Harold for about six months we really hadn’t made any progress at all. He was so constantly negative, angry, and displeased with me and himself and the universe in general that I began to dread my phone sessions with him. At every turn, he would argue with me. I tried every technique I could think of to help him, to encourage him, to bolster him, and prompt him to see the lighter side of life and to muster a little optimism now and then. Nothing worked, and for some reason Harold seemed to revel in that fact. He was a walking storm cloud. It was like dealing with a combination of Eeyore and Oscar the Grouch.

I thought about Harold when I went to sleep at night. I worried about him. And about me too. I just could not seem to get through to him. Eventually, I grew frustrated with him, and with me, and began to question whether I was really as good at my job as I’d believed.

Then one day I noticed that Harold had signed up to come to one of the retreats the company I work for hosts. It would be a week of meditation, spa treatments, seminars, exercises, morning yoga, healthy food, music, and all the things you’d expect from such an event. And as it happened I would be attending this particular retreat too. I’d finally get to meet Harold face to face. Lucky me.

I do a lot of my coaching work by phone. So when I get a chance to meet clients in person it’s usually a wonderful treat. Of course where Harold was concerned it would be a different story. He immediately sought me out on the first day of the retreat. He seemed younger in person and not a bad looking fellow. But he constantly wore a stern expression on his face, appeared uptight and uncomfortable at all times, never smiled, and wouldn’t stop fidgeting with his clothes. As he’d done during our phone sessions, he also managed to include at least one swear word in virtually every sentence.

Upon shaking my hand, the veryGrounds-from-Sole-Stairs-2 first thing he said to me was this: “So this fu*&ing place leaves a lot to be desired, right?” Mind you, we were at a spa in sunny Southern California. Nestled in some lush hills above the desert, the grounds were immaculately kept –  populated with fruit and palm trees, flowers everywhere, the bracing scent of citrus in the air, bubbling fountains, quiet walking paths, and comfortable, quaint cottages for the attendees. This place was Heaven on Earth. Leave it to Harold to find a problem with it.

He went on and on about the insects (mostly some honey bees), the long distance he had to walk to get from his cottage to the dining hall (probably 30 yards), the “annoying” staff (who were already bending over backwards to placate him), and the lack of alcohol (no booze was allowed on retreat grounds). Harold had already spent almost $2,000 on this retreat and was dead set on having one of the worst weeks of his life.

I’d like to tell you that by the end of the retreat Harold was a changed man. Although we all marveled at the changes in ourselves and in the other 60 or so attendees over that wonderful week, and although we got blissed-out by all the meditation, exercise, amazing cuisine, spa treatments, and the break from the demands of our everyday lives, Harold remained resolutely and stubbornly unaffected. He refused to do any of the exercises, often walked out in the middle of meditation sessions, and uttered criticisms of everything and everyone all week long. I tried to ignore him and not let him ruin the whole thing for me.

At the end of the week, as the retreat drew to a close, many of us were feeling a bittersweet mix of emotions. Strangers had become, not just friends, but family. Lives had been positively and permanently altered. People from all ages and walks of life from all over the world had come together and enjoyed a few days of fun, acceptance, and breakthroughs in the trials and tribulations they’d been facing. There was an atmosphere of real openness, peace, and pure joy. Yet soon we’d have to leave all this behind and return to resume our normal lives, hopefully with coyotea little bit of a happy hangover.

We spent our last evening together relaxing, singing silly songs, cracking jokes, hugging, crying a few happy tears, and resisting going to bed. Bidding a final goodnight to the remaining attendees I finally left the common area sometime around 1am and headed back to my room.

Along the path, beautifully lit by tiki torches, I could hear the distant howls of coyotes in the hills, and the stars blazed like fiery diamonds above me. Aside from my reluctance to see the week come to an end, I felt truly stress-free and happy. Then I heard, “Hey, Marc.” Shit. It was Harold.

He was sitting on a bench under a palm tree smoking a cigarette. I immediately tensed up and felt my bliss evaporating in the warm night air. Feeling a little deflated, I dropped my shoulders and joined him on the bench. Any hopes of some last minute salvation for Harold were dashed when he said, “This was a huge waste of time.”

I let out a sigh and tried, like I always did, to think of something encouraging to say, something to turn him around. But then it finally dawned on me. Harold did not need encouragement. In fact, encouragement was the last thing he needed. Harold was toxic, and he liked being toxic. He was a soul in pain by choice. But did he realize it? I decided to level with him. I decided to tell Harold the truth, as I saw it. I’d probably lose a client, but so what?

So I turned to face Harold and told him that nobody, including me, cared what he thought of the retreat, the food, or anything else he’d been complaining about. I told him he stressed me out because of his incessant negativity. I told him that he failed in life because he was addicted to failure and that his misery was more a choice he was making than a forced circumstance. I told him that, “Yeah, life stinks sometimes, for everyone. It can be hard and cruel and unjust, and so welcome to Planet Freaking Earth, Harold.”

Then I told him I was sick of coaching him and that I felt like I’d done my best and that was all I could do. I said, “I feel like a car salesman talking to a guy who hates cars. It’s a waste of my time and yours. I’m not helping you, and you’re certainly not helping me. I’m done trying to help you, Harold. You are,” I said pointedly, “uncoachable.”

Then I wished him luck and walked away. Harold said nothing.

It was hard to say those things to Harold. After all, I was there to support our clients, not verbally knock them in the teeth. But the truth is it also felt good. I’d been honest. Maybe I’d been honest in a reckless way, but at that moment I didn’t care. I needed to say what I said, unedited and right from the heart. I needed to break away from Harold and hope that somehow, someday, he’d find a way to release his addiction to anger and disappointment and find some happiness. I knew I was risking hurting him, and hurting myself too. But in that moment, it didn’t matter as much as telling some painful truths. In some weird way, it was like the breakup of a dysfunctional relationship: painful but ultimately necessary.

I tried not to think about it. I went to bed and left for home early the next morning.

Harold 2.0

Two weeks later I got an email from Harold. I saved that email and I’m pasting a portion of it in here:

“The things you said to me on the last night was probably what I needed to hear. I have a highly-tuned bullshit sensor. I knew you were irritated by me and I knew I pushed your buttons. I’m not stupid, okay? I just needed some honesty and you delivered it. I’ve been to a dozen retreats and they always lie to me. Everybody lies to me. You didn’t do that. You told me the truth. So anyway! I’m glad to finally meet you and I’d like to keep working with you if you’re up to it. I think that retreat really had a positive impact on me.”

A positive impact? In truth, a part of me wondered whether I was being played by Harold. I was, after all, one of the few people in his life who had tolerated him. And I’m fully aware that some clients inadvertently use and abuse the coaching/therapy relationship that way. So I wasn’t about to get myself – or Harold – back into a pattern where he watched me do my little “life coaching song and dance” just so he could sit there with his arms folded, give me the thumbs-down, and complain. Nooooo thank you.

In the months to come, I did continue to work with Harold, but using a new tool I had rarely used before: blatant, bare-knuckled honesty. I’m not saying I coach out of dishonesty. But I’ve been trained to be careful with people’s emotions. A coaching client needs a safe place to be open, vulnerable, and reflective. For a life coach that means exercising a lot of compassion and care, and making it safe for the client to explore themselves with zero judgement or ridicule.

Harold turned out to be a different story. Rather than giving him a safe place, I made him a bed of nails. And he responded. I called him out on his self-sabotage. I questioned his decision-making. I told him on a couple occasions that he was “acting like an idiot.” Granted, this is not textbook life coaching. But it worked for Harold. He slowly began to reinvent himself, and we were finally making progress. Why? Simple: I was speaking his language rather than trying to teach him mine.

And slowly but surely I could begin to see the real problem. I could see why Harold’s attempts at pushing the self-improvement button over and over hadn’t worked. Harold felt he had been lied to by the personal growth industry, and he was absolutely right. He’d been told, “You’re okay, Harold!” (No, he wasn’t). He’d been told, “Anything is possible, Harold!” (No, it isn’t.) And he’d been told, “If you keep pushing that button, something good will happen!” (Not necessarily.)

Although they’re meant to help people like Harold, these are, at best, little white lies personal growth experts too often tell. And Harold, for all his shortcomings, knew a lie when he heard one. Harold was a lot of things, but he wasn’t stupid, and there was no way he was going to buy the lies the personal growth industry had been feeding him, even if it meant holding a firm grip on his own cynicism and misery.

So, as with Harold (and a number of others, in fact), I’ve found that real change doesn’t always come from being supportive, gentle, compassionate, and understanding. Sometimes the proverbial nice cup of chamomile tea and honey isn’t enough. Sometimes a 90-proof neat shot of tough love and a pint of cold, hard honesty is what helps the most.

Since learning this lesson, courtesy of Harold, I’ve adopted what I believe is a much more honest, down-to-earth coaching style. I still believe in compassion and understanding, but not at the cost of cold, hard truths. I’ve learned to respect my clients enough to be honest with them, even if it means risking their comfort – and mine. After all, I want to help people improve themselves. That’s why I get up in the morning.

So in honor of Harold, and my desire to help others help themselves, I thought it was time for me to sit down and distill some of these “cold, hard truths” that I have come to believe are essential if you’re really intent on getting the most out of your personal growth work.

In part two of this article, I’m going to pull back the curtain a little and take a look behind the scenes of the personal growth world. In short, I’m going to level with you about self improvement, why it sometimes doesn’t work like it’s supposed to, and what you can do about that. I’m going to tell you some things that few life coaches, therapists, or self-help teachers are going to tell you. And I’m going to invite you to consider a few things that have helped me, and that- I hope – will help you get the most out of the next personal growth effort you make.

And while it’s honest and true, it ain’t necessarily very pretty. No punches will be pulled. So consider this a little bit of a warning. You may find what I have to say in the next part of this article difficult. You may even disagree with some of it. And if you’d rather avoid all that, then don’t read part two. But if you’re like me, and you genuinely believe that:

  • Your potential is, in large part, unlimited
  • Becoming happier and healthier is not just a hobby, but a way of life
  • Well-managed and well-planned change is worth the time and effort
  • Life is a gift meant to be lived to the fullest

…then join me for Part Two of “What You’re Not Being Told About Personal Growth.”  Remember to Follow this blog, and, as always, thanks for reading!

Part Two is here!


Marc Gilson is a writer, consultant, and life coach living in Lake Oswego, Oregon. For more on his coaching services, visit http://www.lightwavecoaching.com/ or email lightwavecoaching@gmail.com

5 thoughts on “What You’re Not Being Told About Personal Growth

  1. Great read!
    Good Stuff for those of us who are ready to hear some practical, no-nonsense truths. ( And probably even more important for those who aren’t.)
    Well done! Looking forward to Part 2!

  2. This is wonderful, Marc.
    I’m not quite at Harold’s level, but I, too, need a good dose of reality therapy in order to create real change in my life. I may not love it when a therapist or coach asks me pointed questions regarding my motivations or deep-seated assumptions, but it’s usually what I need. There is nothing I admire more than when someone is compassionate enough to tell the whole truth.
    I, too, am looking forward to the next installment.

  3. Pingback: What You’re Not Being Told About Personal Growth | Blue Static

  4. Pingback: What You’re Not Being Told About Personal Growth | Blue Static

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