Monday, February 04, 2008

What I Hate About Self-Help

(Warning: this post contains explicit language and controversial thoughts.  If you don't like that sort of thing, don't read it.)

While doing a bit of market research recently, I had occasion to search the 'net for self-help forums, blogs, and other sites.  And frankly, I'm apalled by what I found.

Actually, appalled isn't a good enough word.  What word would you use for, "a desire to vomit, induced by the sight of maggot-infested rat droppings"?

No, I don't really want to vomit.  What I really want is to scream "eeee!  eeee!  eeee!" at the top of my lungs while beating myself over the head with a large self-help book.  I'm reminded of a co-worker at a previous job, who, when faced with some brutally stupid corporate policy would say something like, "Excuse me, I'm going to go beat my head against the wall until I'm stupid enough for this to make sense."  Only, I think I'd need to use a .45 caliber pistol to kill enough brain cells for the crap I just read to make any sense.

It seems like every how-to article these days consists of random tips thrown together from random sources, even if the tips contradict each other.  For example, a motivation tips list might say to make your goal the most important thing in your life, and then also tell you to remember that it's not really that important.

I'm sorry, but self-help is not fucking astrology.  You do not get to say shit like "you're very friendly, but can be hard to get along with at times."  If you aren't prepared to be wrong, you don't get credit for being right.

You also do not get credit for advice that's no more specific than "stop doing that."  I remember reading a book many years ago called something like "Overcoming the Fear Of Success".  It was full of case studies of various people who were afraid of success and why.  When I finally waded through all that to get to the advice part, it was one chapter that basically said, "Try not to be afraid of success."

Fucking useless!

And the forums, dear god, the forums.  Every question it seems, must be answered by three kinds of ignorant windbags.  First, you have the airy-fairy new-age flower children who say you just have to believe and everything will be okey-dokey.  Then, you get the skeptics who insist that 1) no change is possible, 2) all self-help materials are scams, and 3) you just need to have enough willpower, or at least quit your whining and learn to live with your obvious lack of self-control. 

Last, but not least, you have the so-called "mental health professionals" who should fucking know better, but apparently haven't been trained to actually do anything about anything, except maybe to hang around people long enough to take credit for any spontaneous change that might occur in spite of their presence.

Now it's also true that most MHP's are caring, conscientious people who are doing what they do in order to help people, and it's not really their fault they weren't taught any better.  (Then again, some of their colleagues have gone out and gotten better training on the open market, or actually advanced the field by paying attention to what's in front of them, so I'm not sure they can be held entirely blameless, either.)

But never mind all that: my dream is that in 500 years (or less) humanity will look back at what passes for psychology today in the same way that we now look back on the dark ages, when they were drilling holes in people's heads to drain out the crazy.  Oh wait, we were still doing that in the twentieth century.  (And we're still trying to shock out the crazy in the twenty-first, which is a bit like trying to change the channel on your TV set by hitting it with a sledgehammer.)

A few sensible therapies exist, but they are mostly silos right now.  CBT, RET, and ACT, for example.  These are good attempts to document pieces of the puzzle, but they lack coherence and efficiency.  Seen from the point of view of 500 years from now, they will still look positively medieval, like the theory of humours looks to us today.

Why?  Because even our best therapies today are roughly equivalent to programming a computer by trying to entice a cat to walk across the keyboard in just the right pattern.  And nobody is even trying to learn the programming language!

Oh sure, thirty years ago, Bandler and Grinder and Dilts and a handful of others went down that road -- and what did we get?  Tony effing Robbins, that's what, and hundreds of half-trained NLP charlatans who wouldn't know a programming language from a mantra.  They've thoroughly confused the (relatively) hard science of programming, with "visualization" and "affirmation", and other loosey-goosey claptrap.  And not just in their own minds, but in the minds of the public as well.

(Meanwhile, the hard-core skeptics are still busy shouting that NLP doesn't exist, because of a disproved hypothesis that the NLP developers themselves abandoned maybe twenty years ago -- but which the wannabees still seem to believe in and teach.)

Mark my words, and mark them well: computer science is the future of psychology.  Bandler and Grinder were able to do what they did because they were outsiders who understood formal systems and symbol manipulation: the roots of computer science, in other words.

But the people they trained were mostly people who did not have this kind of background and were therefore ill-equipped to talk about it, even if they had learned (and were certified) to do what they were taught.

Of course, it also didn't help that a lot of early NLP models weren't quite right -- and that even now, the founders still disagree on how the models were wrong.  I also personally don't think that you can really "get" the brain without understanding at least a little about how evolution shaped it, and a little about the brain's hard-wired biases and modelling methods.

Still, considering that evolutionary psychology barely existed 30 years ago, and neither did we know a fraction of what we know now about how the brain behaves on a physical and logical level, NLP wasn't half-bad.  The basic principles and philosophy of NLP (not to mention those of CBT, RET, and ACT) could take us quite a long way, in much the same way that alchemy eventually led us to chemistry.

And I don't even pretend to claim that I know what that chemistry will look like.  Today, I'm still just a poor alchemist deciphering and experimenting with a few basic properties of mind.  But I do have something that most other self-help gurus and wannabees don't: I know what a programming language looks like, and also what it doesn't look like.

And it doesn't look like something that only works for some of the people, some of the time, if only you believe in it strongly enough!  Would you take your car to a mechanic who told you that you have to believe in oil changes for them to work?  Would you pay him if he told you he replaced your transmission, but it seems that for some unknown reason, your car just wasn't ready to change yet?  Jeez!

Even as a poor part-time alchemist, I already know enough to be able to make individual "program changes" reliably in the human computer, even if I don't yet have an easy way to know how many changes a person will need to get a desired result.  Science: it works, bitches.  (More precisely, testing works.)

And I wish I knew how to tell the world about it, in some more effective way than this profanity-laced ranting.  But for today at least, this will have to do.  Maybe tomorrow or the next day, I'll think of something better, or at least more positive, to say.