When you’re in the personal or business development industry, people start looking up to you as a guru. With time, some people start believing that you have all the solutions to life’s challenges. As you get better at helping people solve their stuff, you get followers. And then the followers become a faithful tribe.

Having been in this industry since 2006, first as a consumer then as a consumer and practitioner, I’ve seen my share of all these instances. I’ve also been a follower and member of more than one tribe, sometimes with blind devotion.

Today let me share an insider view of the personal development industry.

A moment of truth

I remember how hard it hit me when I learnt that one of my top spiritual gurus had gotten divorced. His wife left him and soon married someone else. They had 7 children together and were definitely not a young or middle-aged couple.

When I read this information, I found myself wondering how much of this guy’s work I could trust if he couldn’t keep his marriage alive.

I love the way he handled the issue. He put it clearly that you cannot control someone you’re in a relationship with. If it reaches a point where your partner feels like they want to leave, and you have both tried to work it out without success, then that person’s decision is more important than the image the world has of you.

His openness is probably the only reason why I’m still part of his tribe. It also taught me the importance of being authentic with the people who trust and look up to you.

Challenges are a constant in life

I too have had many challenges in my life, some of them real doozies. Some challenges were so big that there were times I would ask God, “Kwani you haven’t had enough?”

Very few people know that I had challenges. Even fewer know the exact magnitude of some of the challenges. There have been fights with family and friends, separation from my husband, and having to start my life over as a single mum…in my 40s.

I put a lot of energy into some areas of my business without positive results. I also made wrong personal and business decisions. I’ve shed a lot of tears and had inner pain and physical losses. It’s been a load of stinky stuff that if it was aired on reality TV, would make me a millionaire!

It wasn’t until I accepted the fact that challenges are a constant in life that I stopped feeling like giving up. That was when I started pushing myself to take the next step forward and create better results in my life and business.

A peep behind the scenes

One of the biggest lies of the personal development industry is that the people in the industry have all the answers and their lives are all rosy once they overcome their major challenges.

Now this is a very dangerous belief for you to have if you’re on the outside, looking for help from someone who’s on the inside.

Some of us in here have gotten very good at masking our pain and issues. We have moments of weakness and we do cry, but in private. We lose our tempers and say or do things that we later regret. We fight with our loved ones and sometimes we’re the ones in the wrong.

We have major blind spots in our lives and character too. We’re just as flawed as the rest of humanity. However, a lot of us have worked so hard on our inner strength that it kicks in when we need it. For some experts, this is almost automatic. Most of all, we know when to seek help and how to get it.

That is all behind the scenes work that rarely comes out – except in small snippets – after someone has acquired a following. You then get to hear things like, “I had a lot of challenges when starting my business. I lost money, my wife left me, creditors came and took my house and I had to move to a slum for 3 months.”

When you read that statement it doesn’t tell you about the years of struggle this person went through. Neither does it give you the nitty-gritty and tell you exactly how bad things were. It doesn’t tell you how frustrating and painful things got until maybe this person thought of ending it all. It doesn’t tell you about the challenges this person is going through now.

Such a statement is just a nice and well-packaged way of keeping the ‘stuff’ tidy. And (sad to say), it’s a very effective marketing gimmick that makes you emotional and gets you removing your wallet and buying something from the expert RIGHT NOW!

You are the expert of your life

Personal development is a billion dollar industry and it’s one of the fastest growing industries in the world today. It has good, bad and ugly sides, just like other industries. However, people rarely talk about the bad and ugly sides or about those in the industry who are driven by money.

Unfortunately, because this is a non-regulated industry, there is no one to police and enforce professional ethics in a way that makes people comply. And so we end up having a lot of hype and good sales copy that leads you into buying regurgitated material.

This sales copy tells you that you’re not good enough or points out all the flaws in your life. You feel very bad as you read the copy and end up making a purchase that promises you instant relief or solutions.

Everyone I know who’s into personal development has gone down this path. Many have numerous books and resources that haven’t helped them much but have helped the authors become richer. And yet, we put these experts on a pedestal and keep buying more from them.

Here’s my advice for today: Don’t idolize the experts you work with or whose work you trust. Your experts could be in books, audio, videos, newsletters, blog articles like this one, or in person.

When working with an expert, remember that the expert is human and is going through the same human experience like everyone else.

If at any time you feel that your relationship with this expert is not working, then you should quit or stop using their material. This is your life and you shouldn’t spend time (and money) on things that don’t feel right.

Always keep in mind that the expert is just doing their job. Period. They’re paid to help you sort out your drama and they are good at helping you. Even when this person has declared their work their purpose…this is work that they’re paid to do. The more they invest in getting great results for their clients, the higher the fees they get to command.

It’s the same system as when you’re working with any specialist, someone who has invested their time, money, energy and experience into being the best at what they do.

Coaches, personal development trainers (and authors), motivational speakers, energy workers, spiritual leaders, etc are simply experts or specialists, just as you are an expert in your life and career.

Personal development redefined

Personal development is not about fixing you because you’re broken. You don’t need fixing. You’re OK and complete just as you are. It’s also not about what you haven’t achieved or about making you feel bad because you’ve not followed the expected path.

Personal development is about celebrating what you have achieved. It’s about accepting and appreciating yourself just as you are while striving to amplify your strengths. Real personal development involves overcoming obstacles that you encounter as you work on your goals and dreams.

Peter Shallard, a business psychology expert, notes that “It’s far better to build personal development on a foundation of self-love than self-loathing.”

He further cautions that personal development should come in waves. And so you should not have more than 4-5 breakthroughs in a year. This is because you need time to stop, implement and enjoy the breakthroughs you’ve had.

I love having my clients take a break from coaching after 6 months of work so that they can spread their wings. We prepare for this from the start of their program. However, almost all my clients try to extend their program because they’re scared of being alone.

Interestingly, when they start working on their own, they struggle a bit and then they soar. Most of the successes my clients have had come after they complete their coaching. I’ve never had someone come back to me with the same issue again. I also follow-up with former clients and have found them soaring years after we’ve worked together.

That to me is what personal development is about: gaining new skills so that you improve and make your life better permanently.

All you may need from someone else (the expert) is for them to teach you how to navigate life in an easier way. Maybe you need to:

  • amplify what you already know.
  • learn a new skill.
  • acquire some new strategies or life skills.
  • find out how to overcome self-limiting beliefs, attitudes and behaviours.
  • get a short cut from someone who’s ahead of you – a mentor.
  • have someone walk along a personal, business, or professional journey with you – a teacher, trainer, coach.

It’s always about taking some knowledge, skill or experience the other person has and applying it in your own life. It should never be about the other person having control over you and/or your life.

So when you meet anyone who tells you that they have all the solutions to life’s problems, run away.


In the opposite direction!

That’s my take on personal development. I hope it helps you make wiser decisions the next time you’re purchasing a book, attending a seminar, or hiring someone.

And now that I’ve spilled some secrets from this industry, I’d love to get your opinion:

  • What has been your experience with personal development?
  • What has worked or not worked for you?

Let’s discuss in the Comments below…

(Image credit: Unsplash)

    12 replies to "When Personal Development Becomes Toxic"

    • Susan Catherine Keter

      I have read this article with a lot of interest, coz I have been on a similar road with you. Once upon a time, I used to thing that people we consider as role models and mentors should have perfect lives. My own journey has taught me the realities of life. I am one individual. I cannot own my spouse, my kids, siblings, parents, etc. Yes, I can be a role model and mentor to many and still have challenges in my personal life. I can still have conflict with people in my life coz at the end of the day, relationships are not about one person. Relationships can fail. Do I lose faith in a guru coz his/her marriage falls apart? No. Marriage is about two people not one, and they can be incompatible. One person can invest in personal growth and development while the other stagnates, leading to drifting apart. Can a business guru make bad business decision? Absolutely! I am more level headed than I used to be when I was not much experienced in life. At the end of the day, everyone is still human whether a guru or not. No one is perfect, all knowing.

      • Caroline Gikonyo

        So true Susan. I used to be very critical of gurus, but life has taught me to be tolerant and give all people space to be human as you say. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

    • Ronni

      I loooove this post! Thanks for the naked brutal truths. I especially like the part that I’m ok as I am and I don’t need fixing. So powerful!

      • Caroline Gikonyo

        That was a major realization for me too…having spent most of my adult life trying to fix myself. Thanks for stopping by Ronni and I love the candid posts on your blog!

    • Olive

      Wow am just asking myself” when will i ever take this journey ” when will i ever create time for this journey ”
      Am at a crossroad which actually has two sigh posts saying” one way”
      I need to do this,i need this in 2019
      We have had this conversation then i just dont take the step of starting

      • Caroline Gikonyo

        I smiled when I read this Olive because I know where you’re coming from… I don’t have the answers as I said in the article, but I can share a system I use when I’m stuck between two choices. First, I give myself a deadline for making a decision. I then share the deadline with someone who will hold me accountable. When the deadline comes, either I have more clarity (because my mind has been working on the decision subconsciously), or I just make a choice and move on. And if I try to wiggle out of making a decision, there’s my accountability partner to remind me of my promise. Thanks for your comment and all the best with decision-making.

        • Susan Catherine Keter

          I absolutely love this! Having someone to hold one accountable works wonders!

          • Caroline Gikonyo

            I can attest to that Susan. My best form of accountability is in a mastermind. It’s worked so well for me this year when I stepped into a space that felt scary and huge. My mastermind didn’t allow me to play small or keep shifting goalposts…and I’m now seeing positive results!

    • Susan Catherine Keter

      I don’t know why I have found myself back to reading this article. I remember someone who reached out to me with some personal struggles some years ago and he emphasized that he could never seek marital therapy from a therapist whose marriage failed, that a divorced therapist was a big NO for him.

      I asked him some questions in order to help him get clarity but he just could not see it. “Is the therapist’s spouse his/her client since therapy is a professional that uses proven theories and tools? Would you seek treatment from a doctor whose spouse died of disease?”

      Personal growth and development is a journey an individual takes. It involves so much; looking inwards to identify the root cause of limiting beliefs such as programming done by others especially parents during the formative years, deep rooted emotional wounds, hurtful memories, etc.

      One has to put in the work to process these issues and heal and being married to a guru does not automatically make one pay the price of change. Those are two distinct human beings and each is responsible for his or her own transformation.

      • Caroline Gikonyo

        I guess some people expect therapists to be above challenges and forget that they too are human. Thanks for sharing this experience Susan.

        • Susan Catherine Keter

          Sometimes people respond to issues based on their own pain or unhealed issues. A therapist is an individual and the spouse is a distinct individual.

          Investing in personal growth and development is a journey that one takes as an individual, including gurus. The spouses of gurus would have to make the decision to take that journey. That doesn’t happen simply because one is married to a guru. Growth comes at a price and not everyone can pay that price.

          Thanks Caroline for the extraordinary work you do. You are a blessing to many.

          • Caroline Gikonyo

            “Growth comes at a price and not everyone can pay that price.”
            I like the way you’ve stated it Susan. The price is too high for some people (or not worth it).

            Thanks for your comment and for the feedback. I love what I do and it’s great knowing that I’m making a difference.

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