What’s the Difference Between Self-Improvement and Self-Development?

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By Joy Reichart, New Ventures West, guest contributor

This article has several questions for reflection in blue italics. In these places, you’re invited to pause, feel into your response, and perhaps explore a bit with some notes or journaling. 

“To be purposeful is not to be goal oriented, but to seek to reconnect to the source of one's life.”

― Michael Meade 

The organic nature of growth

In a recent video, New Ventures West faculty member Adam Klein draws a distinction between self-improvement and self-development. To paraphrase, development is about aligning with the natural process of being alive, and with the longing to express what is coming forward in us. He likens Integral Coaches to gardeners tending to this growth in clients in that we are not forcing or strategizing about their development; rather, we are coming alongside the natural process of unfoldment. 

Notice the organic feeling of this. Growth in this context is not a linear, driven process. It’s not about identifying a goal and heading unstoppably in that direction (which tends to be the spirit of self-improvement). Instead, much like the wildflowers stirring just below the surface of the soil in early spring, people can feel stirred by something that wants to be fully expressed in the world—indeed, something that will be expressed, if we allow it. 

Can you sense a stirring in yourself right now? Feel into the center of you, the pit of your stomach, the place right behind your belly button, your creative seat. Take a few deep breaths, and sense into what is there, what is waiting to be known or expressed. It may not be a clear picture or something you can name. Perhaps it’s simply a sensation, a sound, or a color. Take a moment to jot down whatever you sense.

The stifling nature of fear

Sometimes (OK, often) when I do this exercise, my brain jumps to immediate conclusions: “oh, this must mean I should do X.” Either that or it serves up an excellent list of reasons why whatever it is is insane and impossible. The superego’s voice quickly takes the controls and starts making assertions that have very little to do with that tender, unfolding thing, so that it’s either ripped out of the ground too soon, or snuffed out before it’s had a chance to become anything at all. 

Does this happen to you as well? 

This is actually quite normal. As biological beings, we are bound by homeostasis. If an aspect of our physical being goes out of whack, our system will do its best to bring it back into balance. For example, if our internal temperature deviates a degree or less, we shiver or sweat. Two or three degrees, we’re likely sick. Not much more than that and we’re in danger of dying. According to our most basic nature, change does not correlate to survival. Fundamentally, despite our best intentions, we avoid it.

Similarly, the superego’s job is to ensure spiritual and psychological homeostasis. Considering how most of us in the west were trained and educated, we rely far more on what our minds say than what our bodies know. From there, it’s difficult to be in contact with what is true and emerging in ourselves, for others, or in the world.

Meanwhile, as we well know, change is the only certainty. Life is constantly asking us to expand further outward to meet it in its freshness. 

Consequences in the world

On a global level, this dilemma is what is choking us—and what always has. Oppression, control, abuse, greed, misinformation and more have roots in the collective superego; namely, its attempts to keep us from reaching into the new possibilities offered up to us by Life every day. This is because genuine growth brings with it the unknown, it requires imagination and comfort with ambiguity, and is therefore a threat to homeostasis. Some responses to this threat might sound like - “People can’t just do whatever they want.” “They don’t know what’s good for them.” “There is no precedent for this.” 

Unstoppable “progress” is another symptom of this restrictive fear. Striving, moving forward, “improving” ourselves and our surroundings has us bypass contact with ourselves and any real sense of what is actually needed. In this orientation, life is a tunnel and the only movement is forward or backward. Forward is the only option if we are going to live. Never mind that we’re blind to what is outside the tunnel walls. The only questions available here are ones like, “Where is the profit?” “What is the end game?” 

Can you feel the restriction of this orientation, and how few possibilities it allows for? What does it feel like in your own body?

This is showing up in myriad ways this very week. The Russian invasion of Ukraine. The ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill in Florida. Continued political division.

What other ways can you find that this is playing out right now? 

Tending our own gardens

The world’s deep pain is ages old, impossibly complex, and there are no clear solutions. The rage, despair, and hopelessness we might feel when thinking about this are actually signals that we are indeed in contact with ourselves. This is a necessary aspect of being awake in the world today. In fact, accessing and deepening this contact is one of the most vital things we can do for ourselves and others. Painful, yes, but it’s not all anguish. Keeping the roots of our ever-growing self planted deeply in the soil of self-knowing allows us to sense more widely in all directions, and to feel when it’s time to expand a little further outward into Life. 

The path of self-development that is Integral Coach training involves much that can help us in cultivating this way of being: mindfulness, somatic practices, self-reflection, philosophical and scientific study, a strong community of support, and lots else. In this container, you will discover new ways of being in contact with yourself by exploring how your superego (and other constructs) might be blocking your life’s full expression. And you will learn to skillfully engage in this exploration with others, by meeting them where they are and tending to their emerging garden in ways that will help it thrive. 

There is an adage that if many separate puddles rise high enough they eventually join together to form a lake—something much harder to ignore than a puddle. Similarly, if we cultivate the garden of our own unfoldment and support others in reaching for what is genuinely possible, well … we may reforest the planet, but it may just be that we’re infusing the world with a little more breathable air.

How would you seek to change with a focus on organically growing, rather than forcing self-improvement? Please share in the comments.

Joy Reichart is the Communications Director at New Ventures West in San Francisco. 

Discover proven ways of helping others find their own expression in Foundations of Coaching, New Ventures West’s virtual introductory course, next happening on May 11-13. Take $100 off tuition with the coupon code MINDFULLEADER. 

1 comment


Trust is the word that is coming to mind as I consider this reflection: How would you seek to change with a focus on organically growing, rather than forcing self-improvement?

Trusting our true nature, trusting that creation supports evolution, trusting that we are designed to learn and grow, trusting that our hearts can guide us, trusting that our bodies never lie, trusting -- as Tara Brach says -- our Gold. 

When I am able to rest in that trust, I feel supported in my journey of growth and development. There is a felt sense of being held as I navigate the unknown territory of transformation. There is a patient and deep knowing that there is nowhere to rush to, and that change happens in the now. There is also a feeling of peace, contentment and joy for being where I am in this moment, and for the aliveness that is present. 

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