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Some people will try to beat you over the head with their life experience. As if “what they’ve been through” somehow makes them an expert on what you need, want, or deserve.

What someone has been through qualifies them to speak about THEIR experience. Their experience may have clarified for them what THEY need. Their experience may have helped them understand what motivates THEM. They may have learned lessons for THEIR journey.

Make no mistake, it’s certainly possible to learn lessons from other peoples’ journeys. The question is not whether other peoples’ experiences have relevance to our own. Insofar as we are all human beings who are faced, broadly, with similar challenges in the course of our journeys, it’d be silly to disregard the lessons other peoples’ lives, triumphs, and tragedies may have to teach us.

That said: you are still the expert on you.

Because someone has “life experience” does not suddenly make them more of an expert on you than you.

It’s kind of amazing to watch how marketing, especially in the field of personal growth and self-help, seems to hinge upon undermining your confidence that you know what you need. In a field bursting with people who have various levels of credentials, insight, and experience, a common practice seems to be to construct a pedestal from which the “expert” can look down upon the “novice” and impart some sort of esoteric wisdom. It’s kind of an extension of the old-fashioned, one up/one down power dynamic that some forms of traditional psychotherapy enshrine.

It seems to me that there are two ways, generally, to approach the task of empowering people.

One way is to assume that the “learner” lacks something, is somehow incomplete, and that the “teacher” (therapist, coach, guru, guide, sponsor, mentor) is there to provide them with that missing piece. This approach implies that without the wisdom and insight of the teacher, the learner will wander aimlessly, lost without their missing puzzle piece.

It’s kind of a “top down” model of moving people from where they are.

The other approach is to assume that the learner or student already has the keys to their own empowerment within them— that they are not incomplete or defective. That maybe, because of life experiences, traumas, lack of support, or some other intrusive variable along the way, they’ve been cut off from the resources that already exist within them.

This “bottom up” approach implies it is the task of the mentor or guide to reconnect the seeker with the wisdom and healing capacity already lying dormant within them.

You only need to know a little bit about me or my writing to guess which approach I take.

Personal growth isn’t the same as learning a specific skill. With many types of skill building, there are objective levels of expertise, and the more skilled can help along the less skilled. A skill building approach is very helpful when you’re learning how to play a sport, learning how to use a piece of equipment, learning how to use language, learning how to play an instrument.

However, personal growth is different from straightforward skill building because everybody is different. No two people have the same set of needs. No two people have the same internal resources, strengths, and weaknesses. No two people have the same history, or are presented with the same challenges. Literally everybody’s journey to personal growth— what psychologists call “self actualization”— is quite the same.

It is the height of arrogance to suggest that because someone has mastered a particular challenge in their lives, they know what you need to tackle the challenges in yours.

It is the height of arrogance to suggest that because someone has overcome obstacles in their lives, that you should be able to conquer yours in exactly the same way.

Human beings do not roll off an assembly line, with uniform specifications and an instruction booklet for what to do when they break. Figuring out to do when a human life isn’t working well is a highly individualized task— because each human being is an individual, with dignity, worth, and their own unique circuitry that “experience” may or may not have taught anyone else how to rewire.

It’s tempting to buy into the claims of some people that they know, based on their life experiences, what you need. It kind of absolves us of this scary, in some ways overwhelming, responsibility to figure out what it is we need, and places that onus somewhere other than on our shoulders.

Some people have this fantasy of surrendering to government; some people fantasize about surrendering to an ideology; some people have the fantasy of surrendering to another human being.

But that impulse, to let someone else take the wheel, is ultimately counterproductive— because, again, you are the expert on you.

We can’t fix this broken life without the input, and active participation, of the expert.

What’s more: you are up to this task of fixing this broken life.

You may have forgotten or lost touch with the part of you that knows how to do it, but believe me, that part exists within you.

It’s waiting for you to find it again.

 

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