Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Case of The Guilt-Trip Gurus

I get a lot of emails from people who are struggling to change their lives in one way or another: losing weight, quitting smoking, getting fit, fighting procrastination, changing careers, and generally trying to live their dreams.

And I've been seeing a really common theme lately, that mirrors my personal decades of degradation as a self-help junkie.

You see, I've spent a lot of years guilt-tripping myself over my supposed inadequacies, and agonizing over things that really weren't my fault.

So I'm writing this, in the hopes that it will save someone else -- maybe you? -- an awful lot of grief.

However, be warned: if you are currently a self-help junkie, addicted to one or more of the (figurative) sacred cows I'm about to slaughter, you will probably find some portions of what you're about to read to be personally offensive.  So if someone whose teachings you follow, someone you look up to and admire gets ripped a new one in this article...  don't say I didn't warn you.

'Cause junkies never like it when you mess with their supplier.

The Struggle To Change

Now, if you are currently struggling to make a change in your life, then your attitude towards this struggle makes an enormous difference.  It will affect what you will do, how you'll feel about your results, and most importantly, whether what you do will succeed!

But out of all of the hundreds of self-help books I've read over the years, virtually all of them have one of just three possible attitudes towards the struggle to change:

  1. Life is tough, so you just have to be tougher.
  2. Life is great, so you just have to believe!
  3. Life sucks, so you just have to live with it.

Of course, the books in category #3 are usually written by scientists or therapists, and are almost never popular.  When I was a teenager, I wasted many hours reading a book called "Overcoming the Fear of Success" only to discover that the only advice it had to offer, buried deep in the final chapter, basically amounted to, "try to cope with it"!

(So ever since then, I always try to check books before I buy them, to make sure they have something more substantial to say about my problems than "just deal!")

But that still leaves the other two schools of thought....

The Hardassians and The Fairylanders

Now in some ways, I hate to tag folks with nicknames like that, because hey, I'm sure they mean well.  However, is meaning well really an excuse for the huge amounts of suffering these attitudes have caused in the world?  (Because if you look at the consequences of their teachings, rather than the intent, they might deserve a lot worse than my cutesy nicknames!)

So anyway, the Hardassians are the guys -- and they nearly always seem to be guys, for some reason -- who approach the struggle to change by glorifying the struggle.  These dudes just love the smell of willpower in the morning...  They say it smells like victory.

They earnestly believe, in their heart of hearts, that struggling is noble and important.  And that it makes you a better person to struggle...  as long as you win, of course.  So their main course of advice is to urge you to get better at struggling.

So these are the guys who tell you to toughen up, because the tough get going when the going gets tough.  You gotta keep your eyes on the prize, and be in it to win it...  keep your shoulder to the wheel, and your your nose to the grindstone, with your head out of the clouds, and your feet on the ground.  You gotta get a job, get a life, and for god's sake, get over yourself, you big goddamn crybaby!  (And lord help you if you suggest trying to make anything easier...)

Now the Fairylanders, on the other hand, are almost the exact opposite.  Their whole approach is that you should try to be above the struggle.  Because as far as they're concerned, struggling is coarse and ignorant, and an affront to God, nature, and/or the Spirits of the Universe, who have Generously Provided Us With All.

So, these are the folks who tell you that if you just emit only positive vibrations in harmony with the cosmic something-or-other, then the quantum resonance will shower you with happy coincidences by reloading the matrix with the law of attraction, or something equally silly.  (Like, "believe in yourself and everything will work out".)

Now, most people tend to identify with either one or both of these groups, or swing wildly back and forth.  However, despite the superficial differences, both the Hardassians ("no pain, no gain") and the Fairylanders ("no brain!") are really one and the same, because...

They Both Depend On Guilt-tripping You!

See, the Hardassians focus on the world outside you ("you didn't DO what you're supposed to") and the Fairylanders on the world within ("you THOUGHT something you weren't supposed to"), but in either case, the burden of success is placed squarely upon YOUR shoulders.

Or in other words, if you don't succeed, it's because you sinned, and therefore, you're not good enough.

This is a delightful scam for the self-help gurus, because it means all you need to do to have a great business is set the difficulty level of your program so nobody can realistically do everything you tell them to.  Then, you can actually sell something that doesn't even work and 95% or more of your customers will never get far enough to find out!

(Not too long ago, Perry Marshall wrote in his newsletter about how he used to be in Scamway, er, Amway, and that out of a room full of 200+ people, he and one other guy were the only ones who'd actually DONE everything on the list of what you were supposed to do to be successful in Amway...  and they still weren't successful.  At that point, he realized you could have a very successful business selling pure crap, because you could just give refunds to the 1-5% of people who actually did enough to figure out it was crap...  while living handsomely on the profits supplied by the other 95%.)

So, you must understand this:

Your Guilt Is Their Business!

Now, I'm not saying that every self-help author and speaker sets out to consciously deceive people and take advantage of their guilt.  I'm just saying that, no matter how good their intentions are, that's just what happens.

Now, some people might say at this point, "Yeah, but what about all the people who DO succeed using the wonderful method of Guru X?"

Heck, I used to wonder that myself!  Plus, if you take a lot of these gurus at their word, then they used to have problems too, and then succeeded using their own method!

Hence the common saying that, "different things work for different people" -- so if method X didn't work for you, then maybe method Y will.

But I was never really satisfied by that idea: people are a lot more similar to each other than we usually think.  In particular, at the "hardware" level of our bodies and brains, we're practically identical.  Plus, "different things for different people" just isn't scientific.  That is...

It doesn't tell you anything!

At least, it tells you nothing you don't already know.  For example, it doesn't tell you which things will work for which people.  Must we all try everything, then, in order to find the one thing that will work for us?

No, I thought to myself back then.  There has to be a better way.

And finally, I made two discoveries that showed me exactly what was going on.

The first discovery was something I wrote about in The Hidden Meaning of "Just Do It": the majority of self-help sayings and instructions are simply verbal summaries of what happened in someone's brain.

This readily explains why methods that rely largely on stories, slogans, and vague descriptions are very hit-and-miss affairs.  The less specific the details of the desired mental process, the less likely that someone will stumble onto the right process just by trying to follow what the slogans say.  It's mostly a matter of chance, and heavily depends on what else the person has tried, where they are in their life, and so on.

But wait, it gets worse!

The second discovery was something I realized only this year, and first wrote about in my article on Backpedalling Your Brain.  I noticed a peculiar dichotomy among my clients, and between generally-successful and generally-struggling people in any field of endeavor.

A few people seemed to always naturally approach life the way self-help gurus say to: focusing on the positive, taking risks, being willing to pay a little pain to get a lot of gain, and so on.

But they didn't do these things because anyone told them they were good things to do.  They did them because, well, "what else would you do?"

Meanwhile, the rest of the people seemed to naturally do just the opposite of these things!

Not only that, but you couldn't get them to do anything the way the naturally successful people did them.  (At least, not by just talking about it...  but more on that later!)  Oh sure, you could tell them to try...  but somehow they always managed to translate whatever you said into either the exact opposite, or at least something different enough to...

Make it fail, anyway!

In fact, I've done experiments in my workshops where I've demonstrated that people operating in the "naturally successful" brain mode have a very hard time perceiving the very concept of "failure"...  while "naturally struggling" people have a hard time comprehending the idea of "success"!  (Or at least, the idea of them succeeding.)

On a subliminal level, they both translate the ideas that are outside their current perception, to fit the model they're already using in their minds.  So if you ask a naturally successful person what they'll do if they fail, they'll start talking about what other great things they'll succeed at instead.  But meanwhile, if you ask a naturally struggling person what will be great when they succeed, they'll talk about all the things they won't have to do or feel anymore.

In other words, the naturally successful person describes even failure in terms of good things, and the naturally struggling person sees even success in terms of bad things!

And this makes it ridiculously difficult for a naturally struggling person to succeed at anything.  Because neither the Hardassians nor the Fairylanders...

Can Even Speak Their Language!

You see, Hardassians and Fairylanders have something else in common, besides the guilt tripping: they both operate from a "naturally successful" frame of mind!

That's right, the guilt-trip gurus already naturally do the things they're trying to tell you to do on purpose.  So it's not even that they're lying to you: most of them are actually telling you the truth -- and nothing but the truth -- about how they perceive the differences that distinguish them from the rest of us.

They're just not telling you the whole truth, and they're not doing it in a language that most people are able to understand!

Because if people did understand, they would already know what the gurus were saying.

Do you see the catch-22?  If you truly understand a guru's slogans, it means you already know what the guru does, and can do whatever he or she does.

Conversely, if you cannot do what the guru does, then you only think you understand!  You have a merely intellectual kind of understanding: one that does not actually change who you are.

Because in order to change from "naturally struggling" to "naturally successful", you must first make one or more profound shifts in how your brain works.

And unless you are extremely lucky, you will not make those shifts by listening to the guilt-trip gurus' slogans... whether they're shouted sternly in Hardassian, or chanted meditatively in Fairylander!

Next time: How The Gurus Got Their Shifts