April 28, 2016

The Top 10 Self-Improvement Teachings that Hold People Back.

Flickr/Commodore Gandalf Cunningham

I have been a student and teacher of self-improvement for more than 30 years and in that time I have tried almost every book, audio course, and seminar that is available.

During this journey, I have met many very wonderful and interesting people. Time after time, I was disheartened, however, to learn that many of these fellow sojourners were attending their seventh or eighth seminar with a given teacher but had yet to make any substantial progress in their goals.

My exposure to a multitude of self-development teachers had already made apparent the similarities they all shared within their instruction and messaging, and I was left with three major questions that I was driven to find answers for.

The first question was: Why do so many people achieve little, no, or sporadic results?

The second was: If people are not achieving results then why do they keep returning to the same teachers and instruction?

The third question was: Is there a system that works effectively and consistently?

Years of trial, error, and research have revealed some startling answers. There are many popular self-help teachings that—on the surface—seem to make sense and be helpful, but are actually disempowering. These teachings lead people to inaction, keep them dependent on their teachers, and prevent them from creating the life they desire.

Below are the Top 10 such popular teachings, and how they actually disempower people.

1. The Universe is Conspiring to Your Own Good

This teaching had its birth in the emergence of Positive Thinking. It resonates with many people because there is truth to the fact that a positive attitude will always lead to better results than a negative attitude will, and we should keep our hearts and minds focused on our goals despite the obstacles we will inevitably encounter.

This core teaching, unfortunately, has morphed into something that on the surface resonates with the teachings of positive thinking, but, upon closer examination, is actually disempowering.

Many readers will not like this, but it has to be said: The universe is not conspiring for your own good. The universe is not conspiring towards anything. It does not judge. It is impartial. It acts according to specific laws and principles. The planets follow their orbits and gravity acts on everyone without prejudice or favoritism.

If you doubt this fact then take a small glimpse around your world. Too many people die poor, lonely, angry, sad and frustrated for this teaching to be true. Where was their greatest good? When was the universe planning on providing it for them?

The universe simply enables you to bring whatever you choose into your world. You are empowered to create the life you choose. The universe does not judge if the life you choose to create is good for you or bad for you. It does not consider if you are deemed worthy or unworthy. It simply provides you the ability to create your own life—be it happy or sad, good, or bad.

Many people are led to believe that the universe is going to make all of the selections, decisions and choices for them and bring them a life that is designed to make them happy. These people are under the misguided belief that the universe will someday deliver that which they need even if they themselves are not taking control of their lives and taking effective actions to create the life they desire.

There are, unfortunately, many incomplete and ineffective teachings out there. Because these teachings are incomplete they are either ineffective or have sporadic results. The default excuse for this seems to be that the universe is conspiring for your greatest good. If you just wait, and wait, then all good things will happen for you, even if the instructions you are applying are having little to no effect on your life.

If you want consistent and predictable results then you need to put your efforts into those activities that produce results for you. You should take deliberate control of your life, and not wait indefinitely for some outer power to decide what will be good for you, and when and if you can have it.

You can have, be, and do anything and everything that you want to. Waiting for the universe to provide it to you someday all on its own is not the way to accomplish this though.

The universe is not conspiring for your own good. It will bring you pain just as easily as it will bring you pleasure. When you take accountability for your world—the good, the bad, and the ugly—then you are taking the first major step in creating the life you want.

2. You Just Have to Feel Good

Like all of the other teachings in this article “just feeling good” is, in general, a good practice. Feeling good will always lead to a better life than feeling negative will. However, it is often used by the self-help industry to induce complacency and inaction. There are currently millions of people who have adopted this teaching as it is popularly taught. Previously many of these people were not where they wanted to be in their lives, and now the only thing that has changed in their lives is that they are feeling good about it.

The main problem with the popular teachings of “feeling good” is that they do not go into nearly enough instructional detail. Telling someone to feel good in order to get what they want in life is comparable to telling someone to swing a club to improve their golf game. It sounds great, but it’s not overly helpful. People go around feeling good, but don’t really make any substantial improvements in their lives.

Far too many people are taught that all they need to do is feel good and then everything they want will come into their lives. Although it is true that you do need to feel good in order to have, be, and do what you want, simply feeling good will not deliver these things to you.

In their efforts to feel good most people merely push down negative thoughts and feelings and wrap them up in a thin veil of good feelings. This leads to frustration, anger, and a host of other negative emotions down the road. There is a vast difference between actually feeling joyous and pretending to feel good. To be blunt—a pile of dung in fancy wrapping is still a pile of dung, just as pretending you are feeling good when you actually feel bad is still feeling bad.

Feeling good is not a technique or methodology onto itself, and it is far from an overarching system of personal achievement. Feeling good is merely a compass. It tells you if what you are doing is on target or not. When you are doing what you need to do in order to move towards goals that inspire you then positive emotions will naturally well up inside of you. This indicates that you are focusing your efforts on the right tasks, and in the right direction.

3. If You’re Not Getting Results then Wait

This teaching takes many forms, but the underlying message is always the same. When instructors fail to produce results then people are told that they just need to keep applying the techniques and wait for results to come.

Well, we all know Einstein’s quote about insanity:

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

And virtually all self-help teachers will use this quote to try to get you to change what you are doing and improve your lives. Yet when it comes to applying their theories and systems people will be told many of the following:

Keep applying the techniques—it takes time to change.

This works, but you have to overcome your inner blocks first.

There are outer forces or powers at work (which are usually said to be “working towards your benefit”), so wait for them.

You will get things at some perfect and unknown time—so keep going.

Just focus on being happy.

You’ll get what some outer power knows is good for you when it thinks it’s good for you.

Just keep trying.

Everything will work out in the end.

What all of these statements really mean is wait. They really mean keep doing the same things over and over again and expect different results.

If you have been applying self-development teachings for any length of time, and you are getting minimal or sporadic results then perhaps what you have been taught isn’t effective. The fault is not with you. The fault is most likely with the teachings you are applying.

If you have been doing the same thing over and over again but want different results then it may be time to try something new.

4. Just Focus on Doing More

This teaching was extremely prevalent in the 80s and 90s. Business was booming and people were striving to be as productive as possible. It is logical that the person who produces more will gain more rewards, however this teaching on its own will more often than not lead to an unbalanced and unfulfilling life. It has led many people to a life of frustration and feelings of inadequacy.

People who rigorously apply this teaching focus on maximizing their productivity, and this is usually limited to one or two areas of their life. It is true that you can focus heavily, and become very productive. It is also true that you will usually gain greater rewards than someone who is less productive than you are. Some of the many problems with these teachings however are the following:

Narrow Focus

Maximizing productivity, by its very nature, requires extreme focus. You must focus all of your efforts on the task at hand and jam as many activities into your day as possible. Any focus on other endeavors will distract from your results, so you must focus everything you can on your primary objective.

This limited range of focus leads most people to an unbalanced life and although they are extremely successful in one area of their lives, they usually become unhappy, unhealthy and unfulfilled.

The media is full of stories of people who excelled in one area of their lives yet destroyed themselves in other parts of their lives because they were still unfulfilled.

I believe that true success is a happy, healthy, abundant, and balanced life.

Reliance on physical input

By nature, the amount of effort you can put into any endeavor is limited. Even if you are leveraging the efforts of other people, you will still be constrained by time, knowledge and your area of physical effect.

Since the physical effort you are able to put into any endeavor is limited, your results will also be limited. This leads many people to a life of frustration and stagnation. They feel that they are limited by a glass ceiling or that they lack the capacity or ability to achieve more. There is, literally, only so much you can do in one day.

Unfortunately, people will put tremendous pressure on themselves, their families and their lives because they feel driven to produce as much as possible in one area of their life. What is worse is that many of these people will feel they are letting other people down if they do not succeed and this causes them to focus more and more exclusively on their work.

Limited Sphere of Influence

The world is a very complex place. There are countless events, and causations that affect the outcome of any endeavor. A person can plan and execute as effectively as they want to, but they will only be operating within their sphere of physical effect—that is what they can possible know and influence within their world.

Only 10 to 20 percent of the events and causations that influence the outcome of a given endeavor are within your sphere of physical effect. The other 80 to 90 percent of these influencing factors are beyond you knowing, influence, and control. When you only rely on your physical input then you are limiting your results.

You can plan, predict, and work as efficiently as is possible, but things will rarely go according to plan. This will, once again, lead many of the people who try to do as much as possible to greater frustration, and a drive to do even more in an effort to gain control of things they cannot possible predict or control.

5. Things Will Happen at the Ideal Time

Many people do not realize how disempowering this teaching is. It implies that things are out of your control. It states that there is some power outside yourself that may allow you to have things when that outside power deems it to be the right time. It implies that you are powerless to alter the timeline of things in your life and that you are at the mercy of something else.

It is amazing how many teachings will tell you that you can be, do, and have everything that you want, but only when some other power says you can have it. These are two very contradictory teachings. Either you are powerful and in control of your own life, or you’re not.

This teaching is used as a panacea for teachings that are not effective. People will be told that the techniques and principles that they are taught work, so keep applying them, just don’t expect any results. This is ludicrous.

This teaching leads to helplessness and inaction. People will continue doing the same thing over and over again and expect different results. Either a teaching works or it doesn’t. If you have been applying a teaching for a long time and you do not have substantial changes in your life then you should probably try something else—something that works.

6. Things are Meant to Be

There are not many statements that are more disempowering than this.

We see it again and again in popular media. It is crippling. It hands people’s power of choice over to something outside of themselves and resigns them to a fate that they feel is predetermined.

You are powerful! There is nothing in your life that is predetermined. Everything is up to you. You can be, do and have everything and anything that you want. Your hand is on the rudder. The only question is: Will you steer your ship or just let it drift upon the waves?

Although a few rare people who are convinced they have a glorious predetermined destiny will be motivated by the phrase “things are meant to be,” the majority of the population is condemned to inaction by this statement. It is completely disempowering. There are two sides to this coin—two perspectives from which this cursed statement breeds inaction.

The first perspective is that of a group of people who are forever drifting along without steering their boat. They are waiting for the breeze and the current to bring them safely to some unknown but wonderful destination. All they need do is float along, and they are assured, and reassured, that something else will take care of everything. There is no need for them to act, or steer the ship. All they have to do is wait with a smile on their face. These are the optimists that are under the fatalistic spell of “things are meant to be.

The second group of people who are suppressed by this phrase are the pessimists who are also under its guidance. These people see the fatalistic nature of the statement to be, well, fatal. They surrender to the fact that misery and lack are their lot in life. Their misery is predetermined and meant to be. There is nothing that they can do about their situation, so it is therefore useless for them to try changing anything.

Nothing is meant to be. There is no power outside yourself that has already determined what your future will be. There is no power ensuring that everything will turn out alright for you and there is no power restricting what you can achieve—except for you!

The next time someone tells you that things are meant to be wait to watch them cross the road—I bet they look both ways before they step off the curb! Well, why look? If they were supposed to be hit by a car then there’s nothing they could do anyway…right?

7. Something has a Plan For You

This teaching is quite similar to #6, although it has the additional variable of free-will on top. It implies that your fate and future are in the control of an outer power and it usually has a subtext that you can influence this outer power by either adhering to its rules or disobeying them.

People who adhere to this teaching are led to believe that an outer power has a wonderful plan for them and their lives. However, more often than not, this outer power has the ability to either grant you or deny you this wonderful life. Appeasing this power by acting in accordance with its rules will grant you favor. Acting against the rules, however, will put you in discord with this power, and you will not get the life that was meant for you.

This teaching, once again, both disempowers you by denying your ability to create your own life and can lead to a life of dependency on teachers. Since these outer powers do not communicate directly with you, you are either left to divine signs of its pleasure or displeasure with your actions all on your own or rely on someone else to interpret these signs for you and tell you what it is this outer power wants from you.

8. Your Subconscious is Blocking You

People are often taught that the things they are being taught and trying to apply are effective, but their subconscious is preventing them from working properly. This teaching leads to a lot of dependency on the teacher. The practice of unblocking your subconscious is an endless road leading to a bottomless pit, and it puts all of the blame for any lack of results on the student.

The subconscious, by definition, cannot be consciously known. You can’t therefore be exploring it and unblocking it forever. Just as a magician can appear to continuously produce objects out of thin air, another subconscious block can always be made to seem to appear to replace the one you just removed. A person can spend their entire life removing these supposed blocks if they are under the guidance of a crafty teacher, and never get any results.

The entire time that the student is working on this they will be told that the techniques and philosophies they have been taught to improve their world are accurate and effective, but the reason they are not getting results is their fault, not the fault of the teachings. I firmly believe that if something is not working then it is not the fault of the pupil. The teacher and teachings are always to blame. It is a teacher’s role to convey understanding to the student. If this is not done properly then it is not the fault of the pupil.

The truth is that the universe is a very mechanical place. You are already an expert creator or your world, and your mechanisms for doing so are working with extreme precision. You merely need to learn how to focus them and control them. Your subconscious can no more prevent these mechanisms from working than it can prevent you from being affected by gravity, or getting wet when you are out in the rain. You already have everything you need in order to improve your life. Most people just won’t tell you that.

9. You Just Need to Be Fixed

The greatest trick in the self-help world is that it is often implied, if not outright stated, that if the teachings do not work for you, then you need to be fixed.

This is false. You do not need to be fixed. You are a dynamic creative force. You have created your life up to this point, and you will continue to do so. Your ability to create is perfect. It is flawless. It is natural. You are doing it right now without even giving it any conscious thought. People merely need to learn to take conscious and deliberate control of it.

If a teaching is not working for you then there is not something wrong with you, there is something wrong with the teaching. If something is a cosmic, or universal law, then it should work for everyone—all the time.

Gravity does not have different effects on different people. Neither do the laws of lift, acceleration, or thermodynamics. If you are practicing a teaching that works for some people and not others, then the teaching is either wrong or incomplete.

The majority of popular self-development teachings makes sense. They work for some people under some circumstances, but they don’t work for everyone under every circumstance.


It is because the teachings, although well intentioned, are incomplete. Most people apply the teachings as they are commonly described and fail. A few people apply the teachings and accidentally apply them differently and get results.

It is like an untrained pool player or golfer. Most of their shots may be bad, but occasionally, by accident, they will shoot a terrific shot. They will not know what makes one shot bad, or what makes the other good. They will not understand the real reason why the perfect shot was executed so well. They will try to repeat the great shot, but lacking the true understanding behind why it worked, they will not be able to.

Some of these people may make up reasons why the perfect shot went so well, but applying these theories will not give them any consistency. Many of these people will even hold their great shots out as examples and then teach others their incorrect theories of why those shots were so good.

Other people will apply these teachings and will for the most part not improve their games at all. Given a large enough number of students however, some of them will eventually have accidental good shots too.

If someone is not aware if what they are doing is right or wrong, or why it is right or wrong, then they are unable to correct what they are doing in order to get better results. They are left to flail at their proverbial golf ball and wonder why some shots are better than others.

Here are a few truths we should know:

You are not broken. You do not need fixed!

You are unique!

You are more powerful than you realize!

You always have been, are currently, and always will determine what’s in your life!

You have a role and a purpose in the universe!

You don’t attract. You choose…and it is time to choose your life!

10. Just Appreciate what You Have

Appreciation is a very powerful thing. Appreciating what you have is vital in order for you to move forward and attain what you want to in your life. The way that appreciation is normally taught to people is good, but it will hold you back from attaining your full potential.

When we are normally taught appreciation, we are taught to appreciate what we have and what people do. We are taught that we should always look to the positive side of situations and feel good about what we do have instead of feeling bad about what we don’t have.

This teaching, as stated, is very beneficial for a person who is grateful for what they have and appreciates having it will usually have vastly more than the person who is resentful for what they do not have and focuses on what they lack. The person who focuses properly on what they have will be focused on having more of the same in their life. Alternatively, the person who focuses on their lack of things will generally create more lack in their lives. The standard teaching of appreciation, therefore, is a very good base for people to start from. Being grateful for what you have and appreciating it will serve you well. It is limited however.

By appreciating what you have you will be constantly focused on having it in your life. You will not move backward. However, it will also not bring you forward to any great degree. This is how many people attain a certain level of success and then plateau. They stagnate and do not grow or evolve any further. They continually appreciate it and enjoy it as it is. This continual appreciation of that state in their lives will lead them to reinforce having that state within their world.

To put it another way—appreciating a penny will bring you a penny.

So how does one continue to evolve and move forward?

In order to evolve and grow, a person must continually expand their desires and fulfill them. Please don’t take this as being limited to merely the accumulation of physical objects in our lives. It is equally applicable to the pursuit of altruistic goals. Humans are not designed to be satisfied. We are happiest when we are growing and having an ever-increasing positive impact on our world.

When we appreciate things in our lives it is important to appreciate them not only as they are, but also as they can become. Appreciate their potential. Appreciate the best that is within them and that they can be. This will keep us moving towards the fulfillment of both our full potential, and the potential of the world around us. It will lead to a much happier and more fulfilling life.

I would like to conclude with the answer I have found to my question: Is there a system for achievement that works consistently?

The answer is yes.

It turns out that we truly are in control of our lives. We can be, do, and have what we want. There is nothing limiting us but ourselves. Shaking ourselves from the limiting beliefs of the preceding teachings is a first good step in reclaiming our power to create our lives as we see fit. By doing so, we claim accountability for our lives. Once we stop blaming outside forces for the limitations we are facing, we are taking a bold step forwards towards what we want.



Relephant Read:

Dangers of the Self Help Industry: How Labeling can Destroy us.



Author: Tom Reilly

Apprentice Editor: Lois Person/Editor: Travis May

Image: Flickr/Commodore Gandalf Cunningham

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