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What I Hate About Self-Help

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.

Join the discussion
  • So many of your previous articles were so helpful and inspiring. Amazingly so, actually and their advice meant a lot to me.
    What happened with this one…??
    In a previous one, you also wrote that you used to be scared of internet criticism and that they only criticise because they’re jealous. What’s what you wrote, then? Sounds similar to me.

    It’s too harsh. Next time I’ll take the warning seriously.

  • Evo: three points. First, I didn’t name names, so this isn’t a criticism of any individual(s) (aside from the backhanded reference to Tony Robbins, which wasn’t really all that critical). If somebody sees themselves in this, though, perhaps it will be a wake-up call for them.

    Second, I’m genuinely appalled by the state of things out there. It’s been too long since I last looked — back before I really believed that things could be better. Now that I know just how *much* better, I’m far less patient with things-as-they-are.

    Third, I also wrote in that very same article you reference, that I was holding back my real opinions due to fear of criticism. Now that I’m over that problem, I may occasionally post some rants/barbs, although I expect most of them in the future to have more useful content than this one. This was just something I wanted to get off my chest, to redirect my mind towards what I’d like to see *instead* of the current state of things.

  • Very eloquently stated!!! This sort of language that some of us must hear in order to “hear.” Sometimes it is the “harsh” words that make a difference. Thank you SO MUCH for being REAL!!!

  • Well said m8! That sounds like the ‘real you’ talking instead of the guy who is cluttering my inbox with emails that look useful but all turn out to be an attempt to get me to join your expensive ‘circle’.
    This post I agree with. More like these!

  • I used to read your blogs and loved your common sense approach. Still do – but I haven’t read any in a while…that expensive circle thing was way over the top for me. Anyway, as a caring MHP, (I’m a psychiatric nurse) I certainly agree that we should be doing WAY better…I think it’ll be less than 100 years until we’re seen as being in the “dark ages” of psychology. A huge part is the drug companies…prior to psychiatric meds, about a third of people diagnosed with “schizophrenia” got better. Now, with those expensive miracle drugs, it’s less than 5%. (And by “better” I mean all better…like you would never know this person was ever diagnosed with any mental health issue. For some reason, “better” can be defined as “well enough to live in a group home, smoke cigarettes all day, fight with your roommate, and periodically need a tune-up at a local psych hospital.)
    You did make one point that I think maybe I can clarify. The self help books that give conflicting info? It could be that different (and sometimes opposite) things work for different people. I mean I know it happens to people who hear voices (besides the ones most of us hear.) Some people say ignoring the voices or just imagining them as background noise on a television you’re not watching. Other people are helped by disputing the voices, or mocking them (like when kids repeat everything you say to annoy you.) Or writing down why the stuff the voices say isn’t true. I think voices, delusions, major depression, along with problems “normal” people have – procrastinating, a little social phobia, anxiety about speaking in public, maybe some not-too-intrusive OCD – are symptoms but NOT necessarily symptoms of the same thing. Put a guy who thinks everyone in his life is a Mafia “plant” (assuming it’s not true) in front of a working psychiatrist and he will be diagnosed with Schizophrenia, Paranoid type, in acute exacerbation. But not necessarily. It’s like every time you have a rash, the doctor tells you it’s measles. Every rash = measles. Not true. I don’t think it’s true of all those major and minor problems people have either. Different reasons…different experiences…traumas…whatever…but putting them into neat little categories and labeling them doesn’t work, doesn’t help.

  • Someone commented thanks for being real.

    What is real? Cmon! You guys know this stuff! You're an intelligent writer PJE which is what would lead me to believe that you have an idea of how the human nervous system works…. right?

    What you've consistently put (or let) into your brain determines both what you'll believe, and what you'll see. There are literally billions of variables in what makes a person try, fail, give up and then build philosophies based on that. In other words, it isn't black and white and you'll only like shrimp, or have the ability to make a determination, if you try it with the intention of liking it.

    Additionally, conflicting information isn't really conflicting information. One of the foundations in this paradox we call life is balance. I'm not saying you're wrong, I think you're a great writer! But I'll be accurate: you're going off of what has been conditioned in your brain. You're speaking from neural networks. The filters from which human beings judge incoming sensory data can't really be accurate right? By the looks of it, you know that the map is not the territory. I spend my time helping other human beings to run their brains. By the way, a little feedback if you don't mind! The way you wrote this article is bound to get resistance – If you wonder why people challenge your beliefs, go out there and break fears everyday of your life for 1 year, take extraordinary, unreasonable, unrealistic action towards something that most people will tell you is impossible, and when you achieve the result, you'll know what self help has been trying to teach for years, the true capability of human beings. It's ok if you subscribe to the hypnosis of the culture, but there will always be someone learning the world, learning their brain and learning everything else, on a consistent basis, that can help you make some pretty helpful distinctions. You can only move, as fast as, your own mental programming lets you. Thanks for reading!



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Cover photo of "A Minute To Unlimit You" by PJ Eby
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