Other Self Help Philosophies

    It is important to be aware that the book Dianetics by El Ron Hubbard is the self help book of Scientology.  The book The Courage To Heal is a book that has been blamed for encouraging belief in recovered memories of abuse.  These memories can be false and very destructive.  Ofra Bikel's film Divided Memories is an excellent documentary about recovered memories. I have included a friend's personal experience with recovered memories on this web site. 

   Some self help books promote healing with imagery and convince people they have supernatural powers to control events by imagining them.   An example of this is cancer patients being told that by imagining antibodies attacking their cancer cells they can bring a cure upon themselves.  The danger of promoting healing with one's imagination is that a patient who believes he can cure himself in that way may forgo unpleasant therapies that could really cure him, such as chemotherapy and radiation.  Tony Robbins, one of the most successful self help authors bases his approach partly on imagery.

  Tony Robbins also bases his approach partly on neurolinguistic programming.    There are plenty of problems with neurolinguistic programming.  An excellent critique of neurolinguistic programming appears on the Skeptic's Dictionary Web site.  That doesn't mean all of Tony Robbins self help methods are are not helpful but it does mean there are problems with his self help approach. 

    Margaret Singer, a clinical psychologist and her coauthor Janji Lalich wrote a book called Crazy Therapies that discusses many harmful therapies.

   Annie Murphy Paul wrote an article called Self-Help Shattering the Myths for the March/April 2001 Issue of Psychology Today in which she points out some popular self help distortions.  I summarize them below. 

Distortion 1: Vent your anger, and it'll go away.  This is suggested by a book called Facing the Fire: Expressing Anger Appropriately.  Brad Bushman, a psychologist at Iowa State University tested this theory by deliberately inducing anger in a group of college students by marking nasty comments on essays they had written.  Those who slammed a punching bag afterward were more, not less, aggressive to people they subsequently encountered.

Distortion 2: When you're down in the dumps, think yourself happy by focussing on the positive.  Psychology Today tells about an experiment of Daniel Wegner of the University of Virginia who told subjects to put themselves in a good mood.  He told some of them to keep a nine digit number in mind while they did it.  Those who did actually felt worse.  From this experiment he concluded that focussing on the positive will interfere with putting oneself in a good mood since it distracts a person the same way the 9 digit number did.  I think that conclusion is flawed.   Thinking positive thoughts and thinking about a 9 digit number are two different things.  Just because one doesn't help doesn't mean the other won't.  An obvious experiment would have been to tell half the group to focus on positive thoughts in order to improve their mood.  Why didn't he do that one?   Also he appears to have overlooked the question of how people did put themselves in a good mood.  There may have been very valuable information there.  Maybe they thought positive thoughts in order to do it.  Maybe the 9 digit number made it harder to think the positive thoughts.  Another possibility is that they just tried to be happy without using any special technique and were happy as a result.  This would support my arguments in my Happiness Muscle Page.   Whatever they did Dr. Wegner missed an opportunity to learn something valuable that was right in front of him.

Distortion 3: Visualize your goal, and you'll help make it come true.   Shelley Taylor, Ph.D. a psychologist at UCLA did an experiment to test this approach.  She asked some students preparing for an exam to imagine their happiness at having an received an "A" on the test, and others to picture themselves sitting in the library, studying their textbooks and going over lecture notes.  Those in the second group performed better on the test, and experienced less stress and worry.

Distortion 4: Self affirmations will help you raise low self esteem.   The book Life 101: Everything We Wish We Had Learned About Life In School But Didn't says "Write affirmations on paper and put them in places you will see them--on the bathroom mirror, next to your bed, on the car dashboard".  Preliminary research by Robert Joseph's at the University of Texas that those with poor self esteem don't believe the statements.  The article says that the only way to change your self esteem is to change feedback from other people and suggests just being around people who think well of oneself.  I disagree with the first statement.  I believe that we can change our beliefs, in fact that is the fundamental assumption behind cognitive therapy, rational emotive therapy and many other therapies.  Although I agree that if someone is very belittling we should avoid them, I don't think we should avoid people who give us constructive criticism even if it is painful to our self esteem.  Heather Graham is an actress who took sexually explicit movie roles that her parents did not approve of.   According to an article in USA Weekend, (8/8/1999) Heather stopped communicating with them around the time she began shooting Boogie Nights.  The part of Rollergirl called for a waiflike, often topless innocent who finds a surrogate family among the misfits of the porn world.    "We wish her the absolute best," her father says now, adding that he and his wife have seen all of their daughter's movies. "She does a great job. Our hearts and arms are open to her." Articles in magazines don't tell the whole story but they certainly give me the impression that Heather has given up a loving family and hurt them because she was unwilling to tolerate a critical point of view.  Sometimes it is better to keep around people who are critical of oneself, who knows, their criticism may be justified and perhaps one should even listen to them. 

 images/heather.jpg (14247 bytes)
Heather Graham

Distortion 5: Active Listening can help you communicate with your partner.  Active listening  involves paraphrasing your partner's words, then repeating in your own words what you believe your partner is trying to communicate to you.   Researchers say that there's only one problem with active listening: hardly anyone does it (including the long-lasting lovey-dovey ones).  One of Sybil Carrere's suggestions (Sybil is a psychologist at the University of Washington) is that couples focus on complaining in a calm way.  I agree with Sybil on that one.  In fact that's something I have to work on.

   The errors in the conclusions of the  researchers discussed above shows how we need to keep our critical thinking caps on even when getting information from professional psychologists.  Not everything they advise is supported by research.  In addition there is a lot of difference of opinion among professional psychologists.  The Rational Emotive Therapists and the Cognitive Therapists reject psychoanalytic theory which historically was the pervasive theory underlying psychiatry.   There is a split among psychologists who believe in Recovered Memory Therapy such as Dr. Judith Herman and those who don't such as Dr. Elizabeth Loftus.  Who is right?  

   Some of the psychologists who tested popular self help beliefs seemed to start out with an agenda to disprove them rather than an agenda to objectively evaluate them.  I think psychologists should see popular self help notions as a learning opportunity for them.  There may be pearls hidden among the chaff especially among the stories of people who have overcome mental illness.  For a long time popular wisdom advocated chicken soup for curing colds.  Then scientists found helpful ingredients in chicken soup.  If scientists can find ingredients in chicken soup that are good for colds than maybe psychologists can find insight in the popular wisdom about happiness.  I agree that there is a lot of nonsense in popular self help notions as well.  In fact the purpose of this page is to expose some of the nonsense including nonsense espoused by professional psychologists.

    One of the fundamental problems of most self help approaches is they promote the power of positive thinking instead of the power of realistic thinking.   For example, a popular conception put forth by self help writers is that if you believe you can do something you can do it.  From my own personal experience I know that isn't true.  I started out as an experimental chemist.  I was incompetent in laboratory work but competent at theoretical work.   I had a lot of difficulty concentrating on boring laboratory work and as a result my mind would wander and I would make mistakes.  I also had other mental weaknesses that also contributed to poor laboratory work.  Some laboratory experiments last for months and one small mistake can ruin them and I almost always made that mistake.  I was determined to overcome my weaknesses and become successful in a lab but I never became competitive with other experimental scientists.  In the end I had to switch to another field.  If I had recognized that I was not going to be competitive no matter how hard I tried I would have left the field a lot earlier which would have been good for me and for everyone else who were affected by my mistakes.

    It is true that if you believe you can't do something, you are unlikely to achieve it because you are unlikely to try and achieve it.  That doesn't mean that if you believe you can do it you will be able to do it. 

    One of the problems with many self help philosophies is that they promise that if you take steps A B and C you will get D or achieve E.  These promises are often from people who are trying to promote their self help philosophies and who are trying to motivate others to follow them.  Unfortunately often these promises of success are unrealistic.  Often people try steps A B and C and don't get D or achieve E.  At that point people may abandon the self help methods altogether. 

    Many self help philosophies commit the sin of overgeneralization.  For example the self help philosophy of the Landmark Forum generalizes that everything bad that happens to a person is their fault.  While it's good to encourage people to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions clearly there are times when events are beyond our control.

    Many self help methods are a combination of wisdom and nonsense.   If an author writes "Think about your goals and you will achieve them" (one self help author actually wrote that) that is nonsense because just thinking about your goals is not going to make them happen.  On the other hand if you identify your goals  that will help you achieve them.  So there is wisdom buried in the nonsense.  The above statement also illustrates my point about the temptation self help authors yield to in making unrealistic promises. 

     Many self help philosophies make exaggerated claims about how their techniques will bring happiness and love into your life.  Such therapies can gain a cult like following.  These groups have perfected manipulation techniques for recruiting members, for keeping them as members and for getting them to recruit others. 

c o p y r i g h t   ( c )   1 9 9 9 - 2004 Karl Ericson Enterprises.  All rights reserved

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