Psychobabble: Exploding the myths of the self-help generation

Here are some highlights from this 2012 book by psychologist Stephen Briers:

* 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.

* The ideas and values associated with popular psychology have infiltrated our culture so deeply that we now take them largely for granted.

* Thanks to the powerful engine of the self-help industry, the memes of popular psychology are busy replicating themselves so effectively that they have become an integral part of the fabric of our lives and thought processes.

* The congregational minister Edwin Paxton Hood once admonished: ‘Be as careful of the books you read, as of the company you keep; for your habits and character will be influenced as much by the latter as by the former.’

* 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.

* …every society needs its myths to stabilise the treacherous, swirling vortex of reality. In our modern world, successful self-help books are almost certainly filling the gap left by the ebbing tide of religious faith.

* The self-help section of your local bookstore is actually a Bill of Rights in disguise, and it sets the bar pretty high. Let’s not forget, you deserve to be happy, accomplished and beloved – just like everyone else. After all, you’re worth it!

* Shimon Peres: ‘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.’

* 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. If I were to awaken the giant within, familiarise myself with the rules of life, become highly effective, lose 40 pounds and embrace a more confident, happier, assertive, creative, focused, flowing and decisive version of myself I clearly had my work cut out. Where was I going to find the time for all this? Perhaps what I needed was a book that would teach me to speed-read or give me some top tips on managing my time more effectively? Surveying the vast amount of help out there it’s easy to feel like a gardener who returns from a long vacation to discover that their whole plot is completely overrun by weeds.

* I will admit upfront that I am about to start lobbing stones from the glassiest of houses. As a practising clinical psychologist I am a fully paid-up member of the change industry and painfully conscious that over the years my clients have heard a constant stream of Psychobabble issue from my own lips. Even worse, I have written self-help books myself.

* 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.

* Let your feelings out! If one had to pinpoint the most significant developments that have taken place in society over the last 50 years, an obvious candidate would be our radically revised position regarding the expression of our feelings. 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.

* The growing consensus that repressing your feelings is a bad thing has only been reinforced by reality TV’s love affair with characters whose appeal to the public lies not only in their larger-than-life personalities but their apparent lack of any kind of emotional filter. Jade Goody, who sadly died in 2009, was a prime example. Her utter emotional transparency in the Big Brother house assured her celebrity status. Every fleeting emotion, every high and low was writ large for all to see. Although she was sometimes treated as a figure of fun because of her poor general knowledge (‘Has Greece got its own moon?’) and some fairly spectacular malapropisms (‘They were trying to use me as an escape goat …’), Jade Goody achieved cult hero status. Whatever her educational shortcomings, there was an emerging consensus that her unparalleled degree of emotional directness and expressivity was admirable, while it also made her highly watchable. What previous generations would have considered childlike or undisciplined was construed as a positive: it made Jade ‘authentic’, someone who was always truly and fully herself. Jade Goody’s fame was a product of a culture that views emotional repression as self-denial, surely the most heinous of modern sins.
And yet the story of Jade Goody is also a cautionary one for all advocates of wearing your heart on your sleeve. The Greek Orthodox church has a saying, ‘the greatest virtues cast the longest shadows’, and, ultimately, Jade’s lack of emotional restraint caused her downfall. Her inability to ‘bite her tongue’ and moderate an outpouring of frustration and resentment towards Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty in a later series of Big Brother caused an international outcry. On this occasion it appeared that Jade’s unmediated emotions had unfortunately found expression in an outpouring of racist abuse, although Goody herself always denied that Shetty’s ethnicity had ever been either a cause or focus of those feelings. However, the overnight transformation of Jade Goody from popular folk hero to cause célèbre in the wake of Celebrity Big Brother in 2007 should have been a wake-up call to the potential hazards of giving such free range to the expression of one’s emotions.

* How do we explain the fact that Japan, a collectivist culture in which the suppression of certain emotions is actively encouraged, is also one of the most physically healthy countries in the world?

* According to Professor Jeffrey Lohr, who has reviewed over 40 years of work addressing the issue, ‘In study after study the conclusion was the same: Expressing anger does not reduce aggressive tendencies and likely makes it worse’. Lohr argues that while indulging your angry feelings may be a briefly enjoyable thing to do, this kind of venting doesn’t even ultimately reduce the feelings of anger.

* research has sadly found no convincing evidence that emotional intelligence confers any significant advantage in terms of getting on in the world.

* Nicolo Machiavelli: ‘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.’

Take Machiavelli’s advice. Read the biographies of outstanding high achievers throughout history or those of our contemporary Captains of Industry and ask yourself honestly: ‘What is it that enabled these men and women to get to the top?’ If you discover a significant and consistent overlap with the assorted traits and characteristics cobbled together under the heading of ‘emotional intelligence’ I, for one, will be most surprised. There may be many valid reasons to try and become a more empathic, sensitive, and likeable person but, regrettably, I strongly suspect that getting ahead of the pack isn’t necessarily one of them.

* 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.

* 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. Your grey matter will rebel by seeking to pull you back towards the comfort of the familiar. This process is analogous to what happens in muscles that are overstretched. The myotatic or ‘stretch’ reflex automatically causes muscle fibres to contract and resist the process of stretching, which is why, as any fitness coach will tell you, effective physical stretching has to be done gently and in incremental stages.

* Another problem with our goals is that they can also unhelpfully narrow our attention as all our resources are funnelled towards our target objectives. Under such circumstances we can very easily lose sight of the bigger picture and our lives can get hopelessly out of balance.

* In an article entitled ‘Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Effects of Over-prescribing Goal-Setting’, the authors point out that losing touch with the context can encourage risky and unethical behaviour and the neglect of equally important objectives and relationships. 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.

* Whilst our goals may all too often induce the kind of tunnel vision demonstrated so elegantly in the Simons-Chabris task, by contrast contentment is one of a group of positive emotions that the cognitive psychologist Barbara Fredrickson believes actively expands our field of attention and the range of thoughts and actions that lie open to us.

* 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.

* 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. The prospect that our rationality is a fire extinguisher capable of dampening down every unwanted emotion may be comforting, but it is largely a fantasy.

* Various studies have confirmed that people tend to copy each other’s body language, facial expressions, speech patterns and vocal tones. The reason this automatic mimicry is crucial in understanding social influence is because psychologists believe it may be one of the mechanisms that underlie emotional contagion, i.e. the ability of one person to transfer emotions to another. What we do with our bodies has a direct impact on the emotions we experience. Smile (even though your heart is breaking) and science suggests you will indeed feel better. Slump in your seat and your mood is more likely to become listless and despondent.

* It seems likely that by unconsciously copying the behaviour and micro-expressions of people around us we consequently end up replicating their emotions. In fact, research has established that even feelings like loneliness can be catching.

* we are neurologically configured to connect up with what others around us are experiencing.

* Mirror neurone research suggests there is substantial psychological mileage in the old adage that ‘we become like the company we keep’. Whether this is pleasurable, enlightening, soothing or discordant depends on a host of interpersonal variables. Other people can expose us to the best and the worst in ourselves. They can transport us to delirious emotional heights but, as Sartre pointed out, they can also take us straight to hell. However, it is certainly naive to assume that we are in full control of the emotional impact of such encounters.
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.’

We should also be mindful of our own impact on others. We’ve seen that other people can’t necessarily choose how to respond to us. So how we are around other people really matters – yet this is rarely, if ever, the subject of any self-help guru. They and we naturally attend to the way other people leave us feeling, but how much do we reflect upon the way we can change the atmosphere in a room or how our manner affects other people?

* Of course, you might also want to question whether you might not want to allow other people to make you feel things from time to time. Rumour has it that other people can sometimes make you feel pretty good. Even when they don’t, while it might be prudent to keep those feelings to yourself sometimes, our spontaneous internal reactions to the people around us and the things that happen to us are an important part of being fully alive. Surely we’re not now aspiring to be emotionally vacant Stepford Wives who sail through life’s twists and turns completely unruffled, with never a hair out of place? Other people will always have the capacity to make us laugh and cry. They can light us up with joy one moment and cast us into despair the next. That’s just how it is. And to be honest, would we really want it any other way?

* Psychobabble has promoted the general misconception that the majority of tensions experienced in relationships are the result of communication failure.

* 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. Based on a careful literature review conducted in 1992, M. J. Lambert estimated that while the particular techniques employed account for only approximately 15 per cent of the effectiveness of therapy, the quality of the therapeutic alliance forged between therapist and client contributes a whopping 30 per cent. This is only one in a whole range of studies that would suggest it doesn’t matter so much what particular brand of therapy is being used as how you feel about the person doing it. In 2001 Bruce Wampold, a former statistician who examined the outcomes for treatment of depression, supported Lambert’s conclusions and reported that no one modality of treatment emerged as significantly better than any other – including CBT. More recently the American Psychological Association sponsored a task force to sort out once and for all what works in the therapy relationship. 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.

* CBT has encouraged a widespread and misplaced assumption that our thoughts (positive or negative) are always the root cause of our emotions and on the back of this rides the expectation that we can reliably mobilise our thoughts to subdue any emotions we don’t want around.

* 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.

* 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. They exercise an inexorable pull over our actions, feelings and choices, rather like a magnetic field draws scattered iron filings into alignment with its own invisible lines of influence.
When dealing with the steady undertow of someone’s implicit narrative, reason and logic often prove feeble instruments.

* the brain is at its most creative in its ‘resting’ state, since this is when multiple regions of the association cortex spring to life.

* Rather than affirming that we are all stronger than we know, a more honest bumper sticker for the human race would probably read: ‘Most of us are weaker than we could possibly imagine.’

* …life should feel like some kind of an endurance sport. Ever since Jane Fonda first encouraged us to ‘feel the burn’ back in the 1970s, we have come to view chronic discomfort not as a warning sign but as reassuring evidence that we are getting somewhere. This is not always the case.
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’. When you feel physical pain in your body and carry on regardless, sooner or later something is going to break. The same is true of your mind and heart. Yet because endurance has become such an aspirational activity, we don’t always pay enough attention to the warning signs.

* 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. Also, however busy we are, we must ensure we take time to do the things and nurture the relationships that will replenish our resources. If Baumeister is to be believed, from time to time this may even include eating the odd Mars bar, but boring stuff like adequate sleep, regular meals and a bit of physical exercise will also help.
Secondly, we should probably reconcile ourselves to our human frailty rather than denying it or (even worse) berating ourselves for it all the time.

* 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. Rather than feeling like we are setting our faces against a gale, under these conditions we find the wind forever at our back, propelling us forward or even plucking us into the sky like mad, dancing kites.

* Re: There is no failure only feedback: Although the NLP maxim looks like it offers us a life raft, the refutation of failure is ultimately a denial of ourselves. 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. NLP’s reframe casts us into the role of a widower avoiding the pain of grief by leap-frogging into a rebound relationship with a younger woman, never pausing to say a proper goodbye to his dead wife.

* Most psychologists would agree that we all share a need for some level of control in our lives. In fact, as I know only too well from treating people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder following a car crash or an assault, one of the things that shakes people up the most is the unwelcome revelation that we actually have far less control over what happens to us than we generally imagine. Without control we are not only left vulnerable, but we also have our noses pressed up against the prospects of chaos, dissolution and death – possibilities that really frighten us.

* People are highly complex, inconsistent creatures who reveal very different aspects of themselves in different contexts. We can only explore our full range within a variety of relationships. Friends, relatives, colleagues all have a role to play. The notion that one person (however marvellous) can respond to every dimension of your multifaceted nature is frankly unrealistic. It can put enormous pressure on a relationship. The phrase ‘They mean the world to me’ is not supposed to imply that any one person can be an adequate substitute for the collective. If we cling to the idea that our partner can be everything we may seek from life, we are setting ourselves up for a fall.

* Discovering the ‘real you’ is a recurrent motif in popular psychological lore. Thanks to the legacy of humanistic psychologists like Carl Rogers, it is widely accepted that most of our emotional tribulations stem from a failure to inhabit our true selves. 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 us. By various ways and means, self-help books urge us to excavate them. They promise us that once we have shed those unhelpful defences and pathological habits, escaped the legacy of our troubled past or learned the recommended life skills, then our true nature will shine through.

* The humanist psychologist Carl Rogers, on the other hand, believed that given generous lashings of empathy and unconditional regard, our positive ‘true’ selves will emerge spontaneously like Athena from the head of Zeus. I really like Rogers but 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 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. All are possible if one avoids looking back to locate a true and enduring self, and simply acts to fulfil the potential of the moment at hand … Life becomes a candy store for one’s developing appetites.’

* Bizarrely, if you ask a bilingual person to fill in the same personality questionnaire but present it in each of their different languages they often generate strikingly different profiles. Asking the ‘real’ self to step forward seems an increasingly futile gesture.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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