Critical: What are the issues with self-help?

Self-help author Mark Manson writes about some of the toxic aspects of the industry including having some non-qualified people peddling ideas that can make people feel inferior and create unrealistic expectations if they can’t follow the same path and have the same results.

So how can we critically analyse the ideas that we follow?

Thanks to the following guests for participating:

Michael Brian McDonnell, coach, entrepreneur, and author of Dear Me: There’s a Better Way. Here is the full interview:

Sian Young, Founder of © Sustainable Success Coach and CEO of © The Centre for Sustainable Action.

Personal coach and life strategist Nicolina Werther

Authentic happiness coach, healer, and spiritual guide Angela Ward

Books looked at this week:

Michael Brian McDonnell: Dear Me: There’s A Better Way

Dr. Stephen Briers: Psychobabble: Exploding the Myths of the Self-help Generation

PS. I do not receive commission for reviewing books and talks.

Transcription

Exploring how we can master ourselves by looking at how experts say it is possible with your host Suswati Basu.

Intro music

Welcome to episode 36 of How To Be…with me Suswati as your timid presenter, guiding you through life’s tricky skills by taking this learning journey with you.

It was only a matter of time that I would need to take a critical look at the industry I’m reading about. I realised, especially after the last episode, that of course not everyone has the same starting point or privilege. Yet the multi-billion dollar self help industry seems very much like it’s catered to a specific clientele.

Ironically, self-help author Mark Manson writes about some of the toxic aspects of it including having some non-qualified people peddling ideas that can make people feel inferior and create unrealistic expectations if they can’t follow the same path and have the same results.

He says: “Be skeptical. Be selfish. And be ruthless. This is your life we’re talking about.”

With that being said here is personal coach and life strategist Nicolina Werther:

NICOLINA WERTHER

Our first book is from Michael Brian McDonnell, who is a bestselling author, award winning entrepreneur, celebrity podcaster, philanthropist, and international speaker. His new book is Dear Me; There’s A Better Way which looks at some of the token techniques from the self-help industry. We spoke earlier this week, hence here’s a snippet, but find the full interview on www.howtobe247.com or on YouTube.

MICHAEL BRIAN MCDONNELL

McDonnell says when he began his journey, there were many success stories and examples of amazing transformations that he wasn’t experiencing which made him feel like there was no hope for him.

It was either too complicated or the strategy was for people that had some kind of positive starting point. There was very little for those that literally couldn’t find where to start so he felt he was never going to get to the point where the other resources would even help him.

But as a coach himself he realised the industry has been to blame for making people dependent on them in a world where the only person that can actually change things for you, is you. It’s easier to blame the readings if you think it’s a miracle cure.

However, personal responsibility is a double edged sword in that while you can use life coaches to fill the gap in the short term, long term means being proactive, self motivated and committed to doing things on your own too.

He says feeling good and motivated doesn’t last forever and when it starts to drop, magically you seem to buy a course, book or event that “pumps you up” again for just long enough to justify the financial investment. Thus this dopamine driven cycle is perpetuated.

Mcdonnell believes self-help and self improvement should be viewed as a way of enabling a better quality of life because of who you become as a person by dedicating some time each day to improving yourself mentally, physically and spiritually.

Hence firstly it’s important to remember that every single person in the world is unique with a different set of thoughts, feelings, environments and circumstances. This makes your individual solution and results completely different to your anyone else, which is why you’ll need unwavering faith in yourself.

Next is the idea of self-proactive-responsibility which means you have to be willing to do things off your own back and take responsibility for the results, whether they be good or bad, even if this means failure. As a result many people avoid any risk at all.

One of the unwritten rules of taking action is combining intention and alignment with the outcome you want. Thinking before you act is a real thing but also being in a state of reflection and adjusting allows you to pivot or change if needed with minimal loss and risk of failure.

The third item on the agenda is learning, growth and change, which is something you have to want to do, which implies that no matter what position you start in, things will change.

Next is the fact that change is inevitable, the best you can do is create the space for it. You have to then focus on yourself and the progress you’re making, others don’t matter.

McDonnell complains that some self help coaches peddle the idea that things are all about mindset and simply changing your inner world is enough to change your outer world is actually far too simplistic. He says it can actually make you feel like something is wrong with you when there is nothing actually wrong with you. And he feels like that it isn’t actually explained to people how this may be the case.

Three factors for a more positive life he recommends are one, being more proactive about seeking opportunities, two, creating a suitable environment because your environment shapes you in a subtle way by naturally meeting similar people just through being proactive with how you spend your day, and three, having more positive self talk.

The way to do this is to ask yourself more positive questions; but you can also tell yourself statements that are more empowering and self enhancing to encourage you to do more than you normally would or put yourself in a more positive mental space.

McDonnell says these three things (environment, self talk, and actions) work together to create your reality; and by altering one, the others change along with them.

Now some of the common tropes are journaling, which the author says should be uncensored and used more as a free form exercise, writing the good, the bad, and the ugly, instead of a constant vomit of toxic positivity.

Next is the idea that meditation solves everything. As someone who has struggled with it, the reality is that it may take some time before you actually start to feel the benefits of meditating to then use that change to come up with more creative solutions to the problems you’re facing. In order for meditation to work for you there are some key things to consider:

-There’s no bad meditation session
-It’s okay to keep trying new things
-There is no destination

Believing in yourself is a common idea that is pushed. The very idea that you can “just” change how you think doesn’t factor in the decades of believing, thinking, feeling and doing certain things to get to where you are today. Half a strategy, done badly, causes you to doubt the full strategy because you’re not given the full strategy as it should be and how it looks in practice.

In order to avoid commitment bias or confirmation bias, use your past to help you in the new direction and you will likely make progress quicker, easier and more straightforward because everything in life is a lesson no matter how you learned it and make room for the new. The key is to be open minded about your progress.

Telling someone they’re enough might make the same person feel a big release of pressure in one situation; of confusion the next because they lose a sense of motivation to know what they should actually be doing. Similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, there’s self esteem needs that you need to meet for your mental survival and in order to thrive. Mcdonnell says these needs are:

Joy – Once you go above your foundation of self esteem and enoughness, the peace you feel within yourself causes you to instantly find more joy in your life
-Curiosity- You find new ways of thinking and start to explore
-Legacy- working on things that outlive you
-Freedom- Some skip the legacy way of thinking and go straight to freedom, so this would be a similar level to that but coming at life in a completely different way.

Just being grateful as a tool can be problematic as well. The act of comparing based on the things we can feel grateful for is slowly becoming how people then judge you as a person. You can end up judging yourself for not being grateful for the same things as others. Hence he recommends to just focus on the small things that you can be thankful for and work your way from there.

Goal setting can be a stick you use to beat yourself up with and make your life a living misery. But McDonnell says that is the best way of achieving something. A lot of the time, goals aren’t as motivating unless you actually choose the right things to achieve; in order to do that, you need to know what you actually want and be realistic.

Being surrounded by likeminded people can also create an echo chamber. While the benefits of having like minded people can’t be overstated, being exposed to different ideas is also important, as you can learn how to get along with people that are different from you and have more creative ideas allowing you to evolve. It’s about finding a middle ground.

ANGELA WARD

That was the authentic happiness coach, healer and spiritual guide Angela Ward on her thoughts of the industry.

Our next book comes from Dr Stephen Briers, who is a clinical psychologist, appearing as an on-screen expert for BBC and Channel 4 documentaries, and author of Psychobabble: Exploding the Myths of the Self-help Generation.

The book explains how the self-help industry can mislead people, and why the human mind cannot be swayed by catchy self-help mantras and lucid pop psychology diagrams alone. Simplistic philosophies, he says, produces woefully inadequate strategies for our complex lives.

Dr Briers believes they raise our expectations to the point where we can no longer be content with anything that is less than perfect, which is simply not possible in an intricate world with so many influences and actors.

In pop psychology books, poor self-esteem is blamed for a whole slew of problems including bullying others or a partner’s lack of self respect. Yet for many behavioral problems, Dr Briers believes that self-esteem just isn’t an issue.

For example, research has shown that there is no link between a teen’s self-esteem and problematic behaviors like stealing, excessive drinking and promiscuity. Moreover, neither a person’s job performance nor their relationship skills are affected by their level of self-esteem.

What’s more, psychological programs that aim to boost students’ self-esteem do nothing to improve their performance in school.

Dr Briers says behaving too assertively is just as bad as behaving too meekly. He believes highly assertive people are considered by their peers to be less friendly, and also enjoy less popularity.

And because extremely assertive people tend to strive to achieve their goals irrespective of the interests of those around them, they are more prone to insult or annoy others and even inadvertently isolate themselves from their peers.

In one study where participants were asked to assess their managers’ leadership abilities, they found that extremely assertive managers tended to be rated as poorer readers – just like their meeker counterparts.

In addition, assertiveness can disrupt the flow of any social group. Indeed, the group just can’t get anything done if everyone is trying to push through their own agendas.

And this one is particularly disturbing. Dr Briers talks about instances where pseudo science has suggested that meditation and changing your mindset could affect disease progression or survival rates in cancer patients. The short response is that it doesn’t.

This is evidenced by several well-designed studies that set out to find any demonstrable effect psychotherapy might have on the survival rates of those suffering from cancer. According to most of the studies, there was absolutely no effect on survival.

It should be noted, however, that therapy did significantly improve the patients’ quality of life. Likewise, meditation had no effect on the progression of the disease. It did, however, help to reduce the pain brought on by the disease and the treatment.

He also says we overestimate the impact of parenting on a child’s personality. Our personalities are strongly influenced by our genetic makeup in fact. Identical twins, for example, share many personality traits even if they are raised apart. In fact, their personality traits, such as their their degree of self-control, correlate 75 percent of the time when they are raised apart and an astounding 85 percent of the time when they are raised in the same home.

These statistics suggest that only a fraction of the variations between them depend on how the twins were raised in their separate homes.

However, it is quite clear that a child’s development can be impaired by abuse or neglect. There’s no doubt about that.

But actually he says that parents can adopt a parenting style to suit their child’s inborn personality. Even when there are correlations between parenting styles and a child’s behavior, you can’t necessarily determine the cause, i.e., whether the child or the parent has more influence over the child’s outcomes.

In addition, when environment does actually affect a child’s development, there’s more to that environment than just the family. Parents, therefore, are not always responsible for these developments.

For many hours a day, kids are exposed to other children, teachers and media. We cannot hold parents completely responsible for the impact of extrafamilial environments, as there is much that lies beyond their control.

Dr Briers doesn’t believe that with the right mindset and lots of practice, you can accomplish anything! The fact is that there are some goals that are simply out of your reach. While it’s true that everyone has untapped potential, there are also limitations that even superhuman willpower can’t transcend.

But let’s say that you want to try anyway: Do you have the determination necessary to practice for the 10,000 hours that experts consider the minimum requirement for outstanding performance? You could, I’m not denying that.

However, it’s logically impossible for everyone to be better than all competitors in a given field. Finally, you aren’t 100 percent in control of yourself – there’s always the influence of other people. While self-help books will tell you that no one can make you feel a particular emotion, in actuality, we’re hard-wired to respond to others.

In fact, our brains are outfitted with a specialized set of neurons called mirror neurons, that react to and reproduce people’s body language. For example, when another person is crying, you’ll feel like crying yourself.

In addition, we react to other people’s expectations of us without even knowing it. When investigators randomly pointed out average pupils as “gifted” to their teachers, these students began objectively outperforming their peers without any idea that they were labeled as “gifted.

Our notion of control over our lives is also apparently flawed because there are many downsides to assuming that we can determine our fate.

For example, if you perceive all your daily choices as having life-altering consequences, then you may feel reluctant to make any spontaneous decisions, as any mistake might be fatal in the long run.

Apart from provoking severe anxiety, this outlook will also stifle your creative process, since creativity involves freely spontaneous and non-evaluative thought.

Furthermore, if you believe that you can determine everything, then you’ll consequently feel responsible for every single mishap in your life which is an incredible amount of pressure to put on yourself.

Like with the example of illness, if you believe you could heal yourself but continue to experience symptoms, then you might feel like an utter failure. What’s worse, you might also fail to seek timely medical help.

Next is Neuro-Linguistic Programming and the idea that it can reprogram your brain. NLP is a practice based on the belief that all high-functioning people have specific thinking habits, and that anyone can become higher-functioning if they learn to think like a successful person.

But apparently it doesn’t work because one foundational belief in NLP is that we can replicate an expert’s performance by emulating her expert knowledge and imitating her thinking habits. However, expert knowledge isn’t just a compendium of rules, but rather a set of highly developed skills. And even the simplest of skills, like riding a bike, can’t be acquired without practice.

Another NLP technique is changing the way you talk by calling setbacks “feedback” rather than “failures” in order to raise your morale. This can be misguided because feedback is only for you, while failure is something that affects others as well. Dr Briers uses the example of a lifeguard unable to save a life, this wouldn’t be considered feedback.

Real failure hurts. It’s not just some useful information to help you succeed. It should motivate you to reconsider your values, and not merely adjust your strategy in pursuit of your goal.

Controversially, Dr Briers also criticises cognitive behavioural therapy which makes the assumption that behind every problematic behaviour or negative emotion there’s an unhelpful thought. Dr Briers thinks it is often our emotions that precede our thoughts, not the other way round for example when we encounter a phobia we are flooded with fear.

CBT also wrongly assumes that what filters through from our subconscious takes the form of a proposition. However, it could just as well be an abstract image. At times of heightened stress, we can visualise various manifestations, and it’s difficult to reason with an image.

Furthermore, CBT assumes that we should simply change negative thoughts that are irrational. In reality, those thoughts belong to a whole network of other thoughts and memories. Uprooting them is like taking apart our lives, so we’re sometimes reluctant to change them. Challenging one negative belief means challenging potentially hundreds, and this is no easy task. Consequently, CBT isn’t always effective.

In fact, while studies show that patients exhibiting symptoms of anxiety do moderately improve through CBT, roughly three quarters still experience significant symptoms, and the statistics are even worse for those suffering from depression.

In terms of toxic positivity, studies show that people who already feel bad may feel even worse if they are confronted with positive affirmations. In one study, after repeating the positive mantra “I am a lovable person,” participants with a low self-esteem actually felt worse.

The researchers believe that these counterintuitive results occur because the participants don’t actually believe the mantras, and they thus trigger contradictory thoughts, such as, “That’s not true; I’m not lovable at all.”

Of course, this isn’t an argument against positive thinking per se, but rather against parroting positive affirmations that you don’t believe – a tactic advocated by too many self-help manuals.

Conversely, people in bad moods are actually less prone to mental errors. This was evidenced by one study in which subjects watched movies aimed at lifting or dampening their moods, and were then asked to complete several mental tasks, such as judging the truth of rumors and those with dampened spirits seem to do better because they were less gullible, made less errors, and focused better.

Overtly positive thinking can also breed denial which can have dangerous consequences, as we’ve seen with the Titanic. This is because sometimes the most realistic take on a situation is a negative one. Whilst it’s mot inherently bad, it isn’t always healthy, helpful or rational.

So to sum up:

McDonnell says in Dear Me that his rules For Life are that:

-Self awareness can solve almost everything because it naturally creates boundaries
-Know yourself well because you can speed up the process of what works for you, which means realising what your top ten values are
-Belief mapping creates the lens through which your expectations, vision for your future and what you think life should be like. So you need to know your top 3 beliefs, how they have served you and what would you replace it with?
-Like things about yourself that you want to keep on the journey
-Trust yourself
-Be kind to yourself
-Being selfish and selfless because you can benefit from your decisions and help others along too
-Acknowledge that you care about what others think
-Do what you’re saying you’re going to do as integrity is everything
-Do what you enjoy as much as possible
-It won’t feel like a sacrifice if it makes you happy

Sr Briers says in Psychobabble that the self-help industry promises simple solutions to all our problems. However, many of its suggestions don’t stand up to closer scrutiny. In fact, the prevailing message that “we could do better” might make us anxious that being a regular person with reasonable success just isn’t good enough. He does share a lot of his own opinions however so keep that in mind.

He recommends to wait until you’re in a foul mood to make important decisions as sad people are more conscientious and less gullible than their happy counterparts. Though also take ownership of the situation and make a judgment call.

I am no doctor, nor am I a self help expert so I take everything with a pinch of salt. Of course the lack of diversity in the industry is pretty glaring which means there’s only a specific lens we’re seeing it through. It’s also important to see who you’re getting advice from, check how much experience they have, and whether they are embellishing or not or holding an agenda. A lot of anti-self help books also end up being self help books in disguise!

With those final cheery words, here’s Sian Young, Founder of © Sustainable Success Coach and CEO of © The Centre for Sustainable Action on and if you enjoyed this, please hit subscribe!

SIAN YOUNG

Published by suswatibasu

Suswati Basu is a writer, journalist, producer and feminist activist residing in London. She has written for the Guardian, Huffington Post and the F-Word blogs, and has worked for various media outlets such as the BBC, Channel 4 and for ITV News/ITN. She currently works as a senior intelligence expert.

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