What you will learn from reading Pyschobabble:
– The 23 myths of self help.
– How the self-improvement has set unrealistic expectations and done more harm then good.
– The problems with the self help industry and why simples solutions often don’t work.
Psychobabble Book Summary
Psychobabble is the perfect book for anyone who is deep into the self help genre but feels like something is missing. Self- help with added realism. It’s the perfect antidote to the false expectations set by the self help industry. Be prepared to have the common self-improvement assumptions to be challenged and built upon.
The age of Self-improvement:
We live in the age of self-improvement. As we go about our daily lives we are subjected to a million messages – some subtle, and some less so – intimating that a happier, richer, more successful life is just around the corner.
But is our culture of self-help really helping? Or is it just creating expectations that none of us can live up to? Has the casual psychologising of everyday life enlightened us, or are we just making a rod for own backs?
These are questions we all need to be grappling with. This book is an invitation to pause, take stock, and maybe start weeding out some of the more insidious modern myths that have taken root in our collective psyche.
The problems with self help:
It’s too easy to dismiss the world of self-help as an amusing diversion, a quick read on the plane or a pleasant escapist fantasy of a life reinvented and transformed.
What’s the harm? After all, nobody takes these things that seriously, do they?
But the truth is that secretly many of us do. Increasing numbers of us are turning to the pages of self-help books in search of answers to lives that feel in need of fixing. The phenomenal growth of the self-help sector in the last century is a testament not only to our rising levels of insecurity and self-doubt, but to the stealthy psychologising of our culture as a whole.
Consider, by way of illustration, the popularity of talent shows like The X Factor. The format dictates that every contestant must undergo a journey of personal transformation. Their motivations are accounted for in terms of an emotive back story that usually implies some cod-psychological rationale for their decision to audition while the audience is invited to nod (and vote) approvingly as contestants ‘grow’ as artists and people over the ensuing weeks.
However, all the while the pseudo-psychological lore of such shows whispers in our ear that the true prize on offer is not the record contract but the personal fulfilment awaiting anyone brave enough to try and ‘live their dream’.
You can dismiss this all as good storytelling by the production company but these format points are also an indication of the extent to which popular psychology and popular culture have become intimately fused.
Self development solutions aren’t simple:
Oscar Wilde was right when he wrote: ‘The truth is rarely pure and never simple.’
After all, it is not even as if every human brain is identical or even running the same software. I would furthermore suggest that the chances that any significant aspect of our multifaceted, multidimensional and highly idiosyncratic lives (especially those murky unresolved zones we tend to demarcate as ‘problems’) can ever be covered adequately by a brace of simple rules, five key principles or seven effective habits, are practically next to zero.
Yet this is precisely what the bulk of self-help books offer. Many popular-psychology authors and publishers even exalt in the fact. Take Norman Vincent Peale for example, the father of positive thinking, who berates us for ‘struggling with the complexities and avoiding the simplicities’. This would be all very well if life were simple, but if the maps we are using to guide us aren’t sufficiently detailed to do justice to the terrain we are traversing we shouldn’t be surprised if we go astray.
H. L. Mencken pointed out the dangers inherent in oversimplification when he quipped sarcastically that ‘For every problem there is a solution which is simple, clean and wrong’.
Ironically, of course, the appetite for these absurdly simplified models of our complex lives is greatly enhanced by the fact that modern life is becoming increasingly hard for us to get our heads around. We move constantly between different contexts; in turns we play the roles of parent, partner, colleague, friend, carer, leader, member of the community, to name but a few.
We all need concepts that allow us to carve reality up into manageable chunks and impose a framework of understanding and predictability on our experience, but we need to choose the right ones.
While claiming to educate and enlighten us, Psychobabble continually dumbs us down. Rather than attending to the exceptions and contradictions that might indicate the need to review our assumptions (which is how real science generally proceeds), we satisfy ourselves with a blinkered vision of reality because it feels safer.
What we do know inevitably coincides with the areas of mental activity most accessible to testing and observation: domains like memory, perception, and reasoning. Once we get into the stuff that preoccupies most of us on a daily basis (i.e. how to navigate our relationships, further our careers, manage our moods, raise our kids and so forth) we drift ever further into the woods of speculation. We also need to recognise that many of these key aspects of our lives are socially constructed. They are matters of preference and societal value, simply the way we do things around here rather than anything written into our DNA. When it comes to understanding the human mind, sometimes there are questions to which there are no right and wrong answers.
Quality control in self-help:
The biologist Thomas Huxley once opined gravely that ‘The deepest sin against the human mind is to believe things without evidence.’ If he is right, then the self-help section of your local bookstore is a veritable den of iniquity.
There is precious little quality control in the world of self-help, where conviction is all too often a willing stand-in for reasonable proof.
The danger is that it is consequently very easy for popular-psychology authors to blur the boundaries between opinion, ideology and reputable fact. It is increasingly in vogue for self-help authors to enlist the backing of scientific studies to support their views, but while the results may look like science and sound like science, because popular psychology is effectively ‘science lite’ the quality of the studies cited is seldom evaluated and contradictory evidence rarely considered.
Psychobabble may sound rational enough but often it is the discourse of superstition as much as it is of sense. It creates unrealistic expectations that ultimately lead to disappointment and disillusionment.
Self-help increases self-absorption:
When it boils down to it, most self-help books address fairly rudimentary drives: stop it hurting; give me what I want; make me more powerful. While there is nothing inherently wrong with these instincts, I would politely venture to suggest that they don’t really amount to a manifesto for a grown-up life.
Psychobabble offers us tools to primp and preen our lives, to edit our personal biographies into something more pleasing. It encourages us to become self-absorbed narcissists, perennial teenagers for whom the world barely exists beyond themselves. If, as conventional therapeutic wisdom insists, we have to ‘learn to love ourselves first’, is it any wonder we are not always that aware of anyone else around us?
With our focus fixed eternally on our own personal development, self-enhancement, and the constant upgrading of our own lives, we are condemned to an eternal childhood of self-absorption.
While Psychobabble stokes our society’s overbearing sense of entitlement, it also places us under increasing pressure. It encourages us to reference unrealistic baselines by insisting, for instance, that happiness is the normal state of human existence. Because of this we end up pathologising routine aspects of everyday life.
Setting unrealistic expectations:
Israeli politician Shimon Peres once said something profoundly true: ‘If a problem has no solution, it may not be a problem, but a fact – not to be solved, but to be coped with over time.’ However, popular psychology is having none of that. Instead it feeds off our dissatisfaction with ourselves and our lot.
Let’s not forget, you deserve to be happy, accomplished and beloved – just like everyone else. After all, you’re worth it! With such messages beamed at us every day in subtle and not-so-subtle forms, is it any wonder that people feel angry or ashamed when their lives don’t measure up, or that they can get so preoccupied with trying to get things back on course?
There is no sense that you can relax, that things might actually be good enough as they are, or that even if they aren’t so great right now, this might be something to be tolerated and endured rather than fixed.
This is a lot of pressure for any normal, flawed human being to accommodate. I remember browsing the self-help section of my local bookstore one sunny afternoon and rapidly feeling overwhelmed. There was just so much to do; so many areas of my life apparently in need of urgent attention.
it is only human nature to turn the enticing notion that we could be better into the nagging conviction that we should be better. All these books to which we turn in order to feel good about ourselves can very easily end up making us feel worse.
Self-improvement is a duty. Don’t you dare let me catch you being less than the Best Possible You! No wonder we feel tired. Isn’t it about time we stopped allowing ourselves to be bullied by those who say they are trying to help us?
The Myths of Psychobabble:
Myths of all kinds certainly have their place in our society and I personally believe they are sometimes vehicles for deep truths that cannot be expressed adequately in other forms.
MYTH 1 The root of all your problems is low self-esteem
There is a certain overlooked wisdom in the words of American mystery writer Jane Haddam, who observed sardonically: ‘In my day we didn’t have self-esteem, we had self respect – and no more of it than we had earned.’ Has optimal self-esteem become yet another construct in that free-floating pantheon of psychological ‘rights’ to which we are now automatically entitled, irrespective of our actions and choices?
If you have been significantly abused or belittled in the course of your life, there is a significant risk that you will have drawn mistaken conclusions about yourself from those experiences: ‘People treat me badly and tell me I’m rubbish, so it must be true …’ Under such circumstances, anyone’s self-concept can be seriously damaged and their self-confidence shaken. Children are especially vulnerable to such interpretations, and clinically it’s heartbreaking to discover how difficult it can be to help such individuals appreciate that any ‘badness’ is a property of their abusers rather than themselves.
Yes, there are indeed reasonable correlations between higher self-esteem and academic performance. However, this doesn’t mean that feeling better about yourself necessarily makes you a better student. Perhaps the academic high achievers feel better about themselves simply because they have performed well rather than the other way round?
Contrary to popular belief, research suggests that most bullies are not secretly suffering from poor self-esteem – quite the opposite in fact. In an article entitled Violent Pride, Roy Baumeister reports on experiments demonstrating that it was the most highly egotistical individuals in his sample who responded aggressively when threatened rather than those with low self-regard.
Narccius and the perils of obsessive self love:
While bestselling author Louise Hay assures us that ‘If we really love ourselves, everything in our lives works …’, it is worth pointing out that almost every great religious and moral tradition throughout history has regarded any significant degree of self-love with grave suspicion.
St Augustine of Hippo, for example, takes almost the diametrically opposite position to Hay: ‘Do you desire to construct a vast and lofty fabric? Think first about the foundations of humility. The higher your structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation.’
What passes today as a virtue to be fostered would have been considered a sin or shortcoming to be abjured in ages past.
Being able to accept yourself, warts and all, with some measure of compassion is psychologically healthy, but that’s not where most self-esteem gurus are setting the bar. As inspirational author Alan Cohen insists: ‘Wouldn’t it be powerful if you fell in love with yourself so deeply that you would do just about anything if you knew it would make you happy?’ Powerful perhaps. Desirable? I’m not so sure. It sounds as if this kind of self-love might be capable of justifying some pretty selfish and ruthless behaviour.
A value defended, a job well done, a skill mastered or an obstacle overcome – these we should welcome as legitimate sources of satisfaction and grounds for some measure of personal pride. However, to expect someone to feel good about themselves without having put in the work, in the way Psychobabble’s doctrine of self-esteem promotes, is like awarding someone a medal before they have even run the race. It’s meaningless.
MYTH 2 Let your feelings out!
Prior to the 1960s the infamous British ‘stiff upper lip’ was universally regarded as a virtue, but these days the repression of emotion is seen as the root of a host of psychological and physical problems.
So how have we all been sold this idea that we should be wearing our insides on the outside at all times? Once again the finger points accusingly at Dr Freud, whose hydraulic model of the mind constructed it as a closed system of opposing forces and pressures. In this model, buried emotions caused dangerous build-ups of pressure, producing leaks and ruptures between the different layers of the psyche that manifested themselves on the surface in the form of neurotic symptoms.
Perhaps before jumping on the bandwagon of free expression, we should remind ourselves of an observation made by Charles Darwin back in 1872 that ‘the free expression by outward signs of an emotion intensifies it’. In other words, by allowing what we feel to show through our behaviour we actually make the underlying feeling stronger.
The modern maxim that we must be true to our feelings at all times is based on an assumption that our feelings arise spontaneously within us, and that they are therefore more likely to represent the truth about us and our reactions.
What we forget though, is the extent to which we actively manipulate our own emotional lives and indeed have them manipulated for us by society.
We may therefore select the feelings we experience more than we think. If this is so, then a harmonious and civilised way of life requires us individually and collectively to choose wisely which feelings we encourage.
Our emotions would appear to well up from the most primitive and oldest parts of our brains, but let’s bear in mind that evolution has kindly given us a higher cortex so we don’t have to be at their mercy the whole time. There is a thin line between emotional expressivity and emotional incontinence. Let’s try not to confuse one with the other.
MYTH 3 Emotional intelligence is what really counts
This hasn’t stopped the Psychobabble generation falling more than a little bit in love with emotional intelligence. The theory sits well with its sentimental vision of the heart as ultimately wiser than the head and panders to its egalitarian sentiments.
I am not saying that there aren’t leaders out there whose social skills and emotional acumen haven’t helped them reach the top. However, I have a horrible suspicion that, more often than not, one of the key attributes of many high-achieving leaders is their ability to make the hard decisions and sacrifices that their more empathic, sensitive peers would balk at. They often seem to possess a single-minded focus that allows them to steamroller all opposition to their plans.
Far from being sensitively attuned to all incoming social and interpersonal data coming from the environment, their real skill is sometimes being able to prioritise ruthlessly and screen out such extraneous factors. These men and women can’t afford to get distracted by images of the grieving relatives of the foot soldiers they are about to send to the front.
There have been immense difficulties that psychologists have encountered in trying to agree how to measure people’s EQ, but suffice it to say that when Salovey and Mayer originally coined the term ‘emotional intelligence’ in the 1990s they used it in a very specific and circumspect way. Their ‘ability’ model focused exclusively upon mental processes involved in perceiving and then reasoning with information derived from emotions.
However, these days emotional intelligence has become a nebulous hybrid of abilities, personality traits, values and interpersonal skills. While supporters of EQ will be quick to tell you that traditional IQ accounts at best for only 25 per cent of the variance between successful people and lower achievers, it doesn’t therefore follow that emotional intelligence can automatically claim the remaining 75 per cent (although this is often implied by people who cite this particular statistic).
Psychologist Hans Eysenck who complains that Goleman, ‘exemplifies more clearly than most the fundamental absurdity of the tendency to class almost any type of behaviour as an “intelligence”’.
Professor Eysenck has a point. Just because something works or proves adaptive in a particular environment doesn’t necessarily mean it is the product of intelligent behaviour. When a hedgehog rolls itself into a ball to protect itself from predators, the behaviour achieves a good outcome for the hedgehog, but not because the hedgehog has consciously (or even unconsciously) evaluated the situation and decided that the whole curling-up strategy presents the best chance of survival. The behaviour is adaptive, certainly, but is driven by instinct rather than insight.
The successful outcome creates the illusion or assumption that some kind of intelligent process was involved, because not unreasonably we tend to equate good outcomes with intelligent problem-solving strategies.
In most settings high levels of intelligence often reveal themselves in a capacity to think ‘outside the box’ in ways that generate challenges to social orthodoxy. Great thinkers are often eccentrics.
The cynic in me wonders whether the emotional intelligence movement is actually geared towards cultivating compliant citizens for large corporations? When you unpack Daniel Goleman’s expanded categories you uncover various ‘emotional competencies’ that, to my mind, read like a small ad for employee of the month: ‘Trustworthy, achievement and service-oriented individual seeks kindly industrialist to help him rise through the ranks
The emotional intelligence industry panders to a pleasant fantasy that the nice guys and gals not only can finish first, but are in fact more likely to do so. Hopefully this is sometimes true, but I think a moment’s honest reflection would confirm that it’s hardly the norm.
Even in the fifteenth century Niccolo Machiavelli understood the psychology of power. He wrote: ‘How we live is so different from how we ought to live that he who studies what ought to be done rather than what is done will learn the way to his downfall rather than to his preservation.’
MYTH 4 Let your goals power you towards success!
It is now widely accepted that setting goals is essential if we are to achieve anything in almost any field of activity. Self-help books invariably tell us that our aims have to be specific, and our objectives broken down into a series of manageable and measurable sub-goals.
One of the most overlooked issues: goal setting is only helpful if the goals that we have set ourselves are actually the right ones in the first place.
Underlying most of our goal-setting activities is the natural belief that achieving those goals will in some way make us happier. Regrettably, according to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, we are often very poor at knowing what we want or, to be more precise, predicting accurately the true value of the things we think we want.
If Gilbert’s work tells us we should be careful what we wish for, we also need to make sure our goals are realistic ones. Otherwise the very targets that are supposed to be motivating end up de-motivating us. So many self-help writers and coaches encourage us to ‘reach for the stars’ but this may be bad advice unless we are already on a roll.
In other words, reaching for the stars only makes any kind of sense if the stars lie within your reach already.
There are recent neurological studies that back this up. The brain, it turns out, is quite a conservative and vulnerable organ, primed to resist any activity that requires any radical reformulation of its patterns of activity. Push too far and your higher centres will shut off.
The prescriptive nature of goals can also lull us into a kind of mental laziness, even downright stupidity: the goals provide us with a simplified agenda and one in which we no longer have to look to the way different elements of the task interact.
Perhaps the most toxic thing about our obsession with goal-setting is the implication that we always have to get somewhere else, become more, do more.
By implication, who we are is never quite enough either. And yet all the Positive Psychology research tells us that supposedly high achievers are on the whole no happier with their lives than their lower achieving counterparts. I guess it all comes down to what achievements really count.
The yogi T. K. V. Desikachar says that contentment (‘santosa’) is ‘the accepting of what has happened … what we have and what we’ve been gifted with.’ Goal setting, which ultimately is about wanting more rather than being satisfied with the riches we already have, is the enemy of gratitude.
Goal setting is a statement that you will only be satisfied when you get what you want. Perhaps we need to be thinking more about how we can escape the trap of our own desires in the first place? This is of course the central idea in many Eastern philosophies including Buddhism and Taoism.
‘Happiness in Taoism is the personal liberation from all human desires, through following the Natural force, not doing anything, accepting fate calmly, and facing life with a peaceful mind.
Taoists practice a life style of withdrawal, isolation and quietness. The ultimate goal is to achieve anonymity, vanishing into the Nature, transcending the Nature, and merging with the Nature.’
So, ‘vanishing into the Nature’ is the key, is it? Now there’s an item you won’t be finding on many Westerners’ ‘To Do’ lists. Goal setting has a place in our lives: we all need to get things done and occasionally challenge ourselves. However, we also need to be careful that our goals don’t cause us to lose sight of what really matters to us.
MYTH 5 No one can make you feel anything
The belief that we have total control over our responses to other people and can determine entirely the impact they have on us is surprisingly widespread.
This has surely got to be one of the most ludicrous propositions in the whole of popular psychology. Of course people make us feel things: I challenge you to name one significant emotional peak or trough in your life that does not have something to do with your reactions to a fellow human being.
The entire history of our species is a millennia-spanning testimony to the profound impact we have on one another at all kinds of levels, many of which we have precious little conscious control over. The degree to which we are affected and influenced by other people is actually quite terrifying, but equally disquieting is our collusion with the rather smug fantasy that we are fundamentally untouchable, and that we are capable of orchestrating our own reactions to every encounter.
As thinking creatures we do have some choice about how we frame events, and of course this does influence how we subsequently feel about them.
However, while the techniques of CBT have undeniably helped countless thousands of people, we are usually talking about damage limitation after the event. In the moment, our reactions tend to be instantaneous, unbidden and emotionally charged. It takes time and a great deal of dedicated practice to reprogramme our automatic responses to certain stimuli.
Far from relying upon the dodgy adage that no one can make us feel anything we don’t allow, instead we should recognise just how vulnerable and open we are to the invisible and unconscious influence of those around us. We would be well advised, therefore, to make thoughtful choices about the company we keep or, as the silent movie star Louise Beal astutely put it: ‘Love thy neighbour as yourself, but choose your neighbourhood.’
MYTH 6 Think positive and be a winner!
MYTH 7 We need to talk …
Psychobabble has promoted the general misconception that the majority of tensions experienced in relationships are the result of communication failure. Surely, the argument runs, if couples could only learn to talk to each other properly, without scrapping, and really seek to understand each other’s point of view, the large part of their difficulties would be over? This may be so, and couples counselling is founded on this very maxim, but what if talk isn’t always the best answer?
First we need to make the crucial distinction between ‘talking’ and communicating, which is a much larger concept.
It’s not that most of us are bad at communicating: if anything I would venture to suggest that a lot of difficulties in our relationships occur precisely because of just how well we communicate. It’s what we communicate that tends to create the problems: most of us can convey our hurt, anger, ridicule, and rejection only too well (if you are seeking independent confirmation, just ask your partner …). The trouble is that since these emotions are conveyed primarily through non-verbal channels over which we have limited control, we can continue broadcasting them at full volume at the very moment we are ostensibly ‘talking’ to resolve the issues between us.
If you do go down the talking route, if at all possible, find some re-frame that allows both of you to emerge in a positive light with your dignity intact. If you have to, just agree to differ. Author Alexander Penney reminds us: ‘The ultimate test of a relationship is to disagree but hold hands.’
We could all do worse than heed this very basic truth: the people we find most attractive and the ones we are closest to are those who consistently make us feel good.
As Edna Buchanan put it: ‘True friends are those who really know you but love you anyway.’ Research into friendship conducted by Carolyn Weisz and Lisa F. Wood from the University of Puget Sound, Washington, also disclosed that even more important than intimacy was the ability of best friends to support and validate people’s preferred identities. If these things hadn’t taken place at some stage you would never have ended up with your partner in the first place.
Like it or not, your primary psychological task, for as long as you want to be with the person concerned, is to be the standard-bearer of a positive image of your loved one (even if you do hate their guts right now). Once you achieve this again, being around you will be an enjoyable, affirming experience for your partner, or at least an emotionally safe one, even if you do nothing else. I sincerely believe that only under those circumstances can your relationship move forward.
Rabbi Julius Gordon hit the nail on the head when he wrote: ‘Love is not blind – it sees more, not less. But because it sees more, it is willing to see less.’ It is no coincidence that partners viewed in this way felt grateful, appreciative and pleased with their relationships. It’s a fundamental and universal need to have someone on our side, to keep faith with the best in us, come what may. This is probably one of the highest services that one human being can perform for another.
MYTH 8 Whatever your problem, CBT is the answer
So effective has CBT been at promoting itself that at the practice where I work we regularly get phone calls from clients who specifically request CBT before they have even been assessed or considered other options.
The central premise of CBT, that by changing the way we think we can also change the way we feel, is a powerful one and the techniques of CBT have undoubtedly helped a lot of people dig themselves out of some pretty deep holes. I use CBT in my own clinics. I’ve even written a book about it, so I’d definitely count myself as a believer. However, I am also a believer with reservations.
In any case, the truth of the matter is that the nature of your relationship with your therapist is far more significant in determining how much benefit you will get from treatment than any particular school of therapy they may belong to.
Once again, the same conclusion emerged: the consensus of several thousand studies was that the nature of the therapeutic relationship had just as much impact on whether clients improved (or failed to improve) as any particular treatment method.
One thing that has always slightly irritated me about CBT is its tendency to define any thought that makes us feel uncomfortable as ‘irrational’. This is tantamount to saying that if I don’t like it then it can’t be true. I’m sorry, but sometimes your most paranoid and pessimistic interpretations of the situation are entirely correct. Maybe your friend actually was avoiding you; it really wasn’t that she failed to spot you or was rushing to the bathroom or any of the other supposedly ‘rational’ alternative interpretations you and your therapist come up with.
CBT treats ‘negative beliefs’ as if they exist in discrete bubbles that can be easily detached and held up to the light of reason. But a story is more like a tapestry. Its meaning is encoded within the whole narrative and the relationship between its parts. While you can trace an individual thread, a particular theme or focus in on one area of the picture, you can’t ever really examine any of these in isolation. It’s as if every part of the story simultaneously touches every other part of itself so you can’t pull bits out without unravelling the whole thing.
One of the supposed advantages of CBT is that it allows you to ignore the past and just focus on what happens in the present. However, our personal stories, unlike abstract beliefs, extend through time. While they can be conceived as a whole, they cast shadows upon our past and illuminate a pathway towards a yet untold future.
The only consistency we require from stories is that they ‘feel right’ to us. This may have little to do with whether they make logical sense.
CBT all but ignores a crucial and all-pervasive dimension of consciousness: the fact that in everyday life the stories we weave to make sense of the world invariably carry a moral or ethical charge. Something in the makeup of the human psyche makes it almost impossible for us to experience the world and our lives except in these terms.
Pick up today’s newspaper. The events that have grabbed the headlines are all issues that connect immediately with our moral awareness.
Our brains willingly and instinctively process these facts into moral fables, tales of men and women doing good and bad things. And it’s not just current affairs that we tend to infuse with moral significance: we make these kinds of value judgment the whole time, applying them liberally to almost every area of life that matters to us.
When it tries to address the ethical issues that preoccupy real-life human beings, the conventions of CBT all too readily dislocate meanings from their contexts, often with really unhelpful results.
People often come into therapy not because they are plagued by illogical thoughts but because they instinctively feel that the stories they have sought to live by are unravelling.
Something has happened that threatens to undermine the integrity of their personal narrative, or they suddenly find themselves cast by events into roles they never intended or chose for themselves. For others, the opposite is true. These clients are locked into stories and roles from which they feel powerless to escape. The stories we tell ourselves are powerful organising forces.
Therapy can be about so many things, but at its heart it is often an attempt by two people to forge a new narrative together that both therapist and client can sign up to, hopefully one that reinterprets the past or opens up new possibilities for the future. These stories certainly have to make sense, but the sense that they make is often of a very different order to the ‘sense’ that CBT trades in.
MYTH 9 You can never be too assertive
Assertive behaviour is now the official gold standard of communication. It promises to teach us how to stand up for ourselves and make sure our feelings, needs and rights are acknowledged by others.
The trouble is that the theory and the practice of assertiveness often seem at odds with each other. The ideology of assertiveness stresses the importance of maintaining a respectful attitude towards your conversational partner but, if you look at some of the most commonly practised assertiveness techniques, it is hard to imagine them coming from a very respectful place.
Passive aggression is aggression nonetheless, and that’s exactly what a lot of ‘assertiveness’ amounts to. If you don’t believe me, just see what it feels like to exit a conversation with someone who has been ‘appropriately assertive’ with you. Do you feel empowered or validated? Probably not. But they certainly will.
Assertiveness is a game in which you subtly disenfranchise your opponent by enlisting implicit rules of engagement by which you are both bound. By remaining calm and self-possessed you make their angry overtures appear unwarranted. By stating clearly only your own perspective and desires (‘I feel unhappy when …’, ‘I would like you to …’), you cunningly inoculate yourself against contradiction since the other person knows full well they cannot claim to have better access to your inner world than you do.
Respect requires that you treat the other person at least as an equal, if not a superior. Most books on assertiveness are ultimately manuals on how to gain the upper hand.
Assertiveness in the form with which we are familiar may be warranted on occasion, but let’s not kid ourselves that it’s going to help us win any popularity contests or that when harnessed to advancing our personal agendas (even legitimate ones) our assertive behaviour isn’t going to be interpreted by others as an act of war.
MYTH 10 Men and women live on different planets
Male or female, with the help of these books everyone knows what they are doing (or at least what they are supposed to be doing) and there is a great comfort in this.
Having worked extensively with transgendered and gay clients, take it from me that when people are ambiguous about the script, or fall foul of society’s expectations concerning gender or sexuality, a great deal of anxiety is stirred up – usually not only in them but also in the people around them.
MYTH 11 Your inner child needs a hug
But the reality of children, it seems to me, is often at odds with this comforting notion. Children can be genuinely endearing, and Mother Nature ensures they draw out the protective instincts in most of us, particularly if they happen to be carrying our DNA. However, human youngsters can also be hideously self-centred, tyrannical, ruthless, spiteful, aggressive, manipulative and sometimes just very hard work. They are poorly regulated, impulsive and dependent. We don’t use the adjective ‘immature’ as a criticism of adult behaviour for no reason.
Of course, the main focus of inner-child enthusiasts is on the wounded child rather than the pristine one. The line is that the psychosocial injuries of childhood must be salved in order for you to fulfil your true potential as an adult. It is the neglected, rejected, criticised and ignored child who cries out for your attention and must be re-parented to properly heal your present.
Several critics have pointed out that, seen in this way, the inner child can become the focus of a victim mentality that can be highly unhelpful for the person concerned. One of the salient features of an actual child is that they often lack power to determine what happens to them, so when bad things do happen to them it is very clear that this is someone else’s fault. Encouraging people to see themselves, or even part of themselves, in this light can subtly discourage them from taking responsibility for their own lives, or holding themselves accountable for some of the things that may have gone wrong.
My very favourite response to this particular hazard of inner-child work comes from author, speaker and workshop leader Colin Tipping. Tipping has absolutely no truck with the inner child whom he describes (rather harshly) as ‘the whining little brat that lives in the back room of our mind, that unhappy victim who can always be relied upon to blame everyone else for our unhappiness …’ So strong is Tipping’s antipathy that he proposes a radical intervention: a guided visualisation in which the wounded child is not so much healed as euthanised!
If we become too precious about ourselves we risk becoming self-absorbed and insensitive to the needs of those around us. Pretty soon, most likely, no one will want to know us.
Perhaps that’s the real source of our fascination with our inner child. It’s not just that we want to believe that all aspects of who we are continue to exist and that nothing is ever truly lost. It’s that we all secretly would like to turn the clock back to a time when we had fewer responsibilities and anything still seemed possible.
MYTH 12 You can learn to do anything you want
As one NLP website enthuses: ‘If one human can do something then, potentially, anyone can …’ NLP has been propounding this view for some years now, but while most of us would freely acknowledge that a ‘can do’ attitude is likely to get you further in life than self-defeating passivity, a moment’s reflection may reveal that this cherished tenet of NLP doesn’t really stand up to serious examination. As blogger Diana Hartman points out: ‘If that were true there would be a lot fewer janitors and a lot more astronauts.’
The more expert we become, the more the relevant processes fade from the view of consciousness.
Expertise therefore cannot be taught or even adequately described by anyone, not even the expert themselves. It has to be developed through experience and immersion, and is encoded within the evolving structure and function of our brains.
But, you might object, the high failure rates don’t mean that these drivers couldn’t acquire the relevant skills, merely that they didn’t acquire them. Perhaps they weren’t that keen in the first place? Maybe they got bored or distracted, or needed a change? You could well be right. However, the point is that exactly these kinds of factors also impose real restrictions when it comes to picking up new skills. We now know that learning isn’t just a matter of raw intelligence. It is strongly influenced by factors like attentional resources, motivation levels, memory, mental flexibility, and even personality factors – all of which can vary significantly between individuals and many of which may have strong biological roots.
Physiology alone would stop me from ever running a mile as fast as Usain Bolt, but I suspect I might not even have the will-power to stick to his training regime. The truth is that aspects of my personality and temperament may also present equally significant obstacles to any prospect of my developing his unique skill set.
The human brain is plastic, but not infinitely so. While most of us can have a stab at most things, it is unrealistic to assume we are necessarily going to be able to achieve the same level of performance as someone whose neural wiring reflects their devotion to rehearsing and honing particular talents and habits.
Why can’t we focus instead on being good at the things we are built to be good at, and celebrate the talents and skills of others without feeling the need to grab them for ourselves?
MYTH 13 You’d better get yourself sorted
As loyal citizens of the People’s Republic of Psychobabble, we have been reared to believe that productivity and efficiency are virtues upon which our success and happiness depend.
Picasso insisted that ‘Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.’ Existing structures of thought and perception have to be deliberately dismantled, or even smashed beyond recognition, so that novel possibilities can breathe and new combinations arise from the resultant disarray.
Art Gould, who finally caved in and dedicated a week of his life to getting himself organised. After clearing the backlog of work that had built up while he was sorting things out (!), Art sensed a new problem: ‘My new desk was beginning to take on the characteristics of a shrine. I dared not do anything that might alter the pristine image that had made such a profound impression on me once I had finally cleaned it. My obsession with keeping it immaculate soon became an additional task added to my already long list of tasks.’
As Art shows us, once we dedicate ourselves to the cause of Order, it has the potential to enslave us, turning us into obsessive neat freaks.
however hard we try and indulge our fantasies of control, there are forces out there in the world that are all too able to rip those illusions away.
This may give us important clues as to why organisation appeals so much to a certain type of person. When confronted with an efficient, well-run life it can be hard to work out what’s really going on. For some people, especially those with an inbuilt instinct for it, maintaining order is simply a pragmatic issue: it keeps stress levels down by helping them keep life on track and juggle demands on their time with some semblance of composure. For others, one suspects, a preoccupation with neatness and order may be a defence against more deeply-seated anxieties about death, decay and impotence.
As the sociologist Max Weber warned us, in a world where the principles of instrumental rationality prevail, life is soon reduced to an endless cascade of means and ends. Calculation and efficiency prevail as our most cherished virtues, and even time itself, becomes a commodity to be apportioned out according to the law of maximum returns.
By constantly dangling in front of us the prospect of a life that runs with the articulated, jewelled precision of a Swiss watch, the productivity gurus really aren’t helping, quite apart from setting standards to which few mere mortals can realistically aspire.
MYTH 14 You are stronger than you know
The idea that we all have limitless, untapped resources within us is one of popular psychology’s most enduring leitmotifs. Anthony Robbins, for example, urges us to Awaken the Giant Within and to unleash our Unlimited Power. He assures us that: ‘Most people have no idea of the giant capacity we can immediately command when we focus all of our resources on mastering a single area of our lives.’
We are naturally flattered by this idea. It feels comforting to think that we are all sitting on this great wellspring of human potential, and that beneath our faded street clothes there is a Superman or Superwoman poised to soar into the stratosphere. Unfortunately, accident and emergency departments the world over already have to deal with a steady stream of injured children in capes who also managed to convince themselves of powers they didn’t actually possess.
‘Most of us are weaker than we could possibly imagine.’ How many of us have told our children that they can accomplish anything they set their minds to? Is that how it’s panned out for us? Maybe it has. Or, do we find ourselves somewhat less successful, less fulfilled, and less accomplished than this brazen piece of wishful thinking encouraged us to believe?
Rather unfairly, it is often at those very moments when we are trying our hardest to resist temptation that the cognitive processes involved in doing so leave us most vulnerable to relapse. Something in us snaps, or we find ourselves being ‘pinged back’ in the opposite direction.
We lose sight of the option of calling a halt to something simply because we no longer want to continue doing it.
Our belief in our invincibility has encouraged the modern world to develop a perverse relationship with pain. You will undoubtedly have seen T-shirts and towels emblazoned with the legend from the Second World War propaganda poster, ‘Keep calm and carry on’. The first part sounds like generally good advice to me, but I have serious reservations about the ‘carrying on’ bit. If a situation is that anxiety-provoking or painful, then sometimes the best thing to do is not to carry on, precisely because those feelings may be Nature’s way of telling you to reconsider and do something else.
The pain barrier isn’t always there just to be crashed through. Like all barriers its message to us is, ‘Stop! Don’t go any further’ or, at the very least, ‘Proceed with caution’.
No one wants the stigma of being branded a ‘quitter’ or a ‘loser’ but the constant pressure to fulfil this immeasurable potential of ours can prove extremely costly for us. As the phrase implies, people who pursue any objective with ‘single-minded’ determination inevitably risk becoming rather one-dimensional creatures.
I suspect there may even be a more sinister legacy of this belief that we are always capable of more. There is a real possibility that we sometimes keep going when things get tough not because we are still determined to succeed, but because unconsciously we need to keep punishing ourselves for failing.
So if our will-power is more dilute than we were led to believe, and if the reality is that we are not ‘powerful beyond measure’ as Williamson and others have promised, where does this leave us?
Well, first we need to recognise that we might be wise to conserve our scant resources. This means not overextending ourselves. If we cannot content ourselves with realistic people-sized goals, then at least increase the odds by not trying to excel in more than one or two areas.
Secondly, we should probably reconcile ourselves to our human frailty rather than denying it or (even worse) berating ourselves for it all the time. While it is perfectly healthy to aspire to greatness and goodness, we need to accept that our collective mental and moral frailty means we will inevitably and frequently fall short.
Finally, we need to get our heads round the fact that if we are doing the right thing it just shouldn’t feel that hard or difficult. Of course there is effort involved in achieving anything worthwhile and there are storms that absolutely should be weathered. However, life shouldn’t feel crushing. As psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has explained, when we find what works for us, we are naturally drawn into a state of ‘flow’ in which we become effortlessly attuned, absorbed and fascinated by the task in hand.
MYTH 15 You are a master of the universe!
MYTH 16 There is no failure, only feedback
By all means let’s learn from our mistakes, but I am uncomfortable with the underlying desire to deny that failure even exists. This smacks of the kind of unflinching positivism that can easily make us look even more ridiculous than the failure itself. Why aren’t we allowed to fail sometimes?
Sometimes you need a failure to act as a full stop, a no-entry sign that decisively terminates one phase of your activity and nudges you in new, as yet unexplored, directions.
But failure is helpful and necessary in its own right, not just as a stepping-stone to ultimate success, as NLP teaches. It shows us who we are and, perhaps more importantly, who we are not. Our failures define us just as surely as our successes do. Failure can be good for the soul – often far better for us than success, which tends merely to inflate our egos and leaves us back on the treadmill scrabbling after new prizes.
Without failure, what will puncture our bubble of self-delusion, downscale our expectations and put our plans for world domination on hold?
It is very difficult to have true peace of mind when you are constantly striving towards some luminous goal over the horizon, however worthy it may be.
Our inbred fear of failure is often arrogance in disguise. We dread failure because Psychobabble has conditioned us to believe that we can, indeed deserve to be, anything we want. If we let it, failure can teach us a becoming humility, but somehow I don’t think this is the kind of feedback that the NLP crowd is referring to.
Obscurity can be a good thing because failing in private removes a large part of the associated fear. This implies that our fear of failure is actually a fear of public humiliation, fear that people will think less of us and that consequently we will think less of ourselves. Maybe we need to get over that?
When we experience failure we recognise that we have been unable to meet goals and standards that we ourselves have set, that we invested in, that we believed were worth something. Since we set the parameters of success in the first place, to refuse to acknowledge failure is tantamount to denying our own reality. When we brush aside the web of values and hopes we have carefully spun as matters of no importance we kill off a bit of ourselves too. Sometimes we need to accept and mourn the death of our dreams, not just casually dismiss them as inconsequential.
It is crucial for our well-being as individuals and as a species that we own these sorts of failures. Rather than rationalising them, we need to let ourselves inhabit them, feel their sting, and allow them to connect us to the pain we have caused. Only when we acknowledge and submit to them can these failures change us and allow us to grow.
MYTH 17 It’s all your parents’ fault
Parents know full well that they are more than likely to end up in the frame as the chief culprit and author of their child’s problems and failings, however old they may be. If there is one great myth to rule them all in popular psychology it is this: that the kind of adult you become is almost exclusively determined by what happened to you when you were younger, particularly at the hands of your hapless parents.
Whatever mistakes they may have made bringing you up, your parents can’t really be held accountable for your genetic make-up over which, after all, they had very little control once they had chosen their respective mates.
The point is that as adults we should be taking personal responsibility for all our beliefs – even those that might underlie our so-called attachment style. Babies may not be able to articulate their beliefs clearly but adults can. If they are of a mind to, they can even work on changing them.
The bottom line logically is that if you have been instrumental in shaping your own environment, then maybe you have to carry some of the responsibility for its effects on you? Generally, recognising that any relationship is a dynamic system in which both parties exert a mutual influence over each other can sometimes be an important step towards laying down arms and calling a truce.
People are people – baffling, perverse, and laws unto themselves in many cases, which is why psychological researchers have such a hard time getting adequate purchase on them. Sometimes the things that should affect us don’t, and the things that shouldn’t matter send shockwaves rippling through the rest of our lives. The truth is we can’t always tell which is which.
MYTH 18 You can heal your body
Particularly challenging in this regard is the position adopted by writers like Louise Hay, who staunchly regard physical illness as a direct manifestation of destructive thought patterns and negative emotions.
Many find such claims far-fetched, and rebel against the notion that we bring diseases upon ourselves by harbouring hostile thoughts and indulging our darker emotions. However, books by Louise Hay and other authors writing in a similar vein continue to prove hugely popular.
MYTH 19 You are in control of your life
The harsh reality is there are many things in life we cannot control and from which we cannot adequately protect either ourselves or those we love. However, our brains are remarkably reluctant to accept this.
We like to maintain the fantasy that we can even influence events that are completely down to chance.
People who believe they are in control, who believe that life is determined solely by their choices, automatically feel under pressure to get it right all the time. Under such circumstances they can easily become frozen and stilted in their decision-making processes, when they might be far more productive if they eased off the brakes and went with the flow a bit more.
I also suspect we could make things a little easier for ourselves if we didn’t take ourselves quite so seriously. In our modern age we have become terribly sold on the idea that our lives matter rather more than perhaps they do, and I don’t think we appreciate the degree to which this ties us up in knots. We can stress over every little detail, overanalyse every minor event and strive to make the ‘right’ choices as if something momentous depended upon
Our lives aren’t just jewels to be fastidiously cut and polished through our painstaking efforts. They are not something to be made so much as something to be experienced.
MYTH 20 Married bliss: a matter of give and take
This view, that a relationship is some kind of romantic cooperative forged primarily to meet the emotional needs of the two people in it, underlies many of the varied takes on love and dating within the self-help genre.
It’s certainly true in my experience that most people who don’t feel respected by their partners will probably struggle to feel particularly loving towards them.
We are not a million miles away from the utilitarian ethos of ‘social exchange theory’, a model in which ‘the guiding force of interpersonal relationships is always the advancement of both parties’ self-interest’.
For example, individuals classified as having dependent personality disorders suffer from an exaggerated fear of isolation. Terrified that they will be unable to cope on their own, they are usually pathologically clingy. They are often highly amenable, submissive, and self-sacrificing. They often put up with a great deal, and never seem to fight their corner. To put it bluntly, they behave like doormats a lot of the time.
What such cases demonstrate all too clearly is the truth of relationship counsellor Rinatta Paries’ astute observation: ‘Unfortunately, approaching a relationship to get your needs met tends to attract partners who require you to give up or alter some part of you.’
While it is one of the luxuries of being in an intimate relationship with an adult partner that we can occasionally indulge our child side, and it’s unavoidable that we all recreate the dynamics of our early years with our partner from time to time, there is nothing like deliberately focusing on our needs to bring out our most annoyingly immature and demanding aspects.
Being Cognition is a state of heightened awareness only made possible once all needs are out of the equation. Only then, he argues, can the perceiver fully attend to the essential qualities of the object or person in front of them. With no agenda, Being Cognition allows the perceiver to see what is really there and thereby appreciate the true nature of the object.
This kind of perception, he suggests, is ‘gentle, delicate, unintruding, undemanding, able to put itself passively into the nature of things as water gently soaks into crevices …’ On the other hand, Needs-motivated perception, Maslow warns us, ‘shapes things in a blustering, over-riding, exploiting, purposeful fashion in the manner of a butcher chopping apart a carcass’.
In other words, a need-oriented approach is the enemy of true intimacy. The point is that two people attempting to relate on the basis of their needs can never be fully known to each other.
We may all have needs, but that doesn’t automatically make it the responsibility of anyone else, even our partner, to meet them.
Sometimes just changing the language you use in your own head can be an important step forward. Replacing ‘I need to feel more appreciated’ to ‘I really want to feel more appreciated’ or ‘I expect to feel appreciated’ is a subtle but significant shift. It places as much onus on you as it does on your partner; it might even prompt a helpful examination of how legitimate that desire or expectation might be, a bit of soul searching as to its origins, and even whether it’s necessarily your partner who needs to do the changing.
MYTH 21 Discover the real you!
Psychobabble has convinced us that our authentic selves lie hidden beneath the surface, obscured by the grime and dust of the endless adaptations and compromises that life has forced upon
It has always struck me as a rather optimistic assumption that if people are true to their real nature then only sweetness and light will issue forth. The greed and bloodshed of over 6,000 years of human history might suggest otherwise, although maybe the conditions haven’t been altogether favourable.
When self-help authors talk about becoming ‘the real you’, they are not so much talking about shared characteristics as what makes each of us unique. As individual as your fingerprints, this authentic self is presumed to be a recurring and distinctive pattern of characteristics, drives, and preferences. It is thought to be this true self that lends continuity to our sense of personal identity and that makes each of us uniquely and consistently who we really are.
Am I really the same person when I am at work, with my children, with my friends? Some have seen this kind of switching as a negative thing, causing a fragmentation of identity, but some radical sociologists like Kenneth Gergen argue that as new selves are continually birthed through this expanding repertoire of relationships, life only becomes richer and more expansive. He suggests we should embrace what he calls the ‘pastiche personality’:
‘The pastiche personality is a social chameleon, constantly borrowing bits and pieces of identity from whatever resources are available and constructing them as useful and desirable in a given situation. If one’s identity is properly managed the rewards can be substantial – the devotion of one’s intimates, happy children, professional success, the achievement of community goals, personal popularity, and so on.
Just as some of our moral values and convictions turn out to be more transient than we can probably afford to believe, it now appears that even our personalities may be in a state of flux.
‘If you think of yourself not as a thing, as such, but as a process, that’s actually quite liberating.’
In his theory of the Ambiguous Gestalt, Angyal argued for the existence of both a healthy and a neurotic self, claiming that both of these twin patterns involved the full spectrum of the components of personality, just organised in very different ways. As he explained, ‘Each and every characteristic within the personality has a position, status and value in both organisations.’ So in the negative ‘neurotic’ configuration, the characteristic introspection might appear as social withdrawal and timidity, whereas in the ‘healthy’ self, the very same trait might manifest itself as an impressive capacity for thoughtfulness and reflection.
Sometimes it’s not so much a question of taking the first step on that journey of a thousand miles but a matter of nipping into an adjacent room in your mind, a different version of you. The trick, of course, is then to stay there.
Having said that, we should also acknowledge the possibility that many of our problems might actually stem from our instinct to hole up in particular rooms rather than move freely through the whole house.
MYTH 22 Make every second count
We may think of ourselves as a nation of couch potatoes, but the truth of the matter is that often we flop in front of the TV because our working lives are so demanding that it leaves us little inclination or energy to do much else.
We no longer know how to savour unstructured time, recharge our batteries, or allow ourselves to daydream and play in a spontaneous, non-goal-directed fashion.
Psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek concurs that doing nothing is far from being a ‘waste’ of time. She also regards idleness as a helpful precondition for renewal and creativity.
MYTH 23 We must all strive to be happy
There is a general consensus out there that happiness is the supreme good, and that the pursuit of happiness is a legitimate objective, if not the most important objective, of every human being during their lifetime.
It’s ironic that, despite its apparent significance for all of us, not that much effort has been dedicated to defining precisely what happiness is.
Happiness has become so strongly associated in the modern mind with feeling good that the two concepts are becoming increasingly hard to tease apart.
Urged on by popular psychology, we are becoming unapologetic subscribers to the eighteenth-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s ‘greatest happiness principle’ whereby we consider it a moral duty to maximise our pleasure and minimise our suffering at every turn.
People reported higher levels of contentment when they were absorbed in purposeful activity and therefore not consciously aware of their mood. This supports Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s observations about the quality of absorption characteristic of people in a state of ‘flow’, a privileged condition in which action and awareness are merged and self-consciousness is suspended.
Show me someone who has an extensive personal development library and I will show you someone who spends a lot of time thinking about their life, and not necessarily in a very upbeat fashion.
When push comes to shove, most of us would rather endure the tribulations, disappointments and patchy satisfactions of real life than settle for virtual nirvana.
The Psychobabble generation finds it hard to grow up because it believes (mistakenly) that we ought to feel okay all the time and, if we don’t, that something is seriously wrong. We sometimes forget that we need the lows to appreciate the highs.
It’s a modern parable that all Psychobabble-speaking natives should take to heart. Life can be rich and wonderful at times but it is also extremely complicated. Consequently, few of us really know what we are doing, and it takes a particularly brave (or foolish) man or woman to stick their head above the parapet and cry: ‘Follow me! I know the way.’
As Voltaire cautioned, while doubt may not always be a pleasant condition, ‘certainty is absurd.
Today’s wisdom is tomorrow’s folly. As I have gently hinted, much of what we take on good authority turns out to be fairly flimsy if you poke it with even a moderately sharp stick.
The true value of science is not in providing us with answers but instead in reminding us just how hard it is to know anything for sure.