Some self-help approaches make people feel worse

heart_magnet_i_am_loved_loving_and_lovable-p1473713350131806217pdm_275I’ve always thought the positive thinking crap and most CBT was detrimental to my mental well-being. I know it helps some people but I’ve carefully avoided it for years, while every now and then revisiting it just in case I might be missing something. At this point though I know it’s not for me.

Now I’m talking pollyanna bullshit. It is of course a good thing to think positively but if you really feel like shit, I think it pays to pay attention and take yourself seriously. There might be something you need to attend to by BEING REAL. Not by pretending all is dandy.

I might add, I don’t think all “self-help” books should be lumped together here. They speak of one kind in particular here where affirmations are encouraged.

In general I think when one tries to force changing the way they think and feel it’s a denial of themselves. So it makes sense to me that it would hurt rather than help.

From the BBC:

Canadian researchers found those with low self-esteem actually felt worse after repeating positive statements about themselves.

They said phrases such as “I am a lovable person” only helped people with high self-esteem.

The study appears in the journal Psychological Science.

A UK psychologist said people based their feelings about themselves on real evidence from their lives.

The suggestion people should “help themselves” to feel better was first mooted by Victorian Samuel Smiles 150 years ago.

His book, called simply “Self Help”, sold a quarter of a million copies and included guidance such as: “Heaven helps those who help themselves”.

Self-help is now a multi-billion pound global industry.

‘Contradictory thoughts’

The researchers, from the University of Waterloo and the University of New Brunswick, asked people with high and low self-esteem to say “I am a lovable person.”

They then measured the participants’ moods and their feelings about themselves.

In the low self-esteem group, those who repeated the mantra felt worse afterwards compared with others who did not.

However people with high self-esteem felt better after repeating the positive self-statement – but only slightly.

The psychologists then asked the study participants to list negative and positive thoughts about themselves.

They found that, paradoxically, those with low self-esteem were in a better mood when they were allowed to have negative thoughts than when they were asked to focus exclusively on affirmative thoughts.
(emphasis mine–read the rest here)

In other words self-acceptance is more important than trying to change what you think or feel! Read Jayme’s piece to see how this can really work.

12 thoughts on “Some self-help approaches make people feel worse

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  1. When the CBT,EMDR,EFT etc.,etc. don’t work we are the ones blamed for not wanting to get well etc., etc. Excellent blog – you are smarter than most therapists.

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  2. Yes, sometimes being authentic…no, not sometimes, just plain BEING AUTHENTIC is the most empowering thing we can do! Most positive thinking is like throwing a chlorine tablet into a swamp and hoping it will turn into a swimming pool. I’d rather be at peace with exactly what I feel when I’m feeling it! Great blog by the way.

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  3. I’m totally with you on this one…I started noticing long ago that “self-improvement” books seemed to be in a language that was subtly shaming. Also the “expert” writing the book will usually speak in a patronizing tone…all the examples of their poor miserable clients, who once they did what the wise old therapist recommended, blossomed and grew into productive citizens…”When Marcia first came to me she was frumpy, overweight and depressed…”. They always seemed to speak of these people like they were total losers. You didn’t get the sense the therapist actually even _liked_ the client. Those books totally depressed me. I like what Cheri Huber says, that many times so called self-improvement is really just an act of aggression towards oneself. It certainly feels that way to me. I still fall into the addiction of self-improvement though. My partner likes to mock the whole self-improvement thing by saying with a big psychotic smile on his face, and using a 50’s style Ward Cleaver voice “There’s gonna be a brand new me!!! One that doesn’t include me!”…so much of “self-improvement” is built on effectively trying to ditch the person you actually are. The red-headed step chile.

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    1. so much of “self-improvement” is built on effectively trying to ditch the person you actually are.
      yes, and yes also to the shaming quality of many of these books…

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  4. I’ve had a couple of people over the years try to tell me that bipolarism is a “gift”. Which is the biggest piece of pollyanna crap I’ve ever heard. While I believe in limiting exposure to negative influences like TV news and to challenge self-destructive negative thoughts, I also believe it is important to be aware of what one is feeling. Awareness brings understanding which can bring healing. Forcing “happy thoughts” into the mind only strangles this. Constant happiness is not possible and should not be a goal.

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    1. life is a gift in whatever form it comes in…

      I just got disturbed in one of my email groups because someone was saying the “mentally ill” are superior to “normals.”

      I called BS and told her that is bigotry equal to those who think we are less then them because we have psychiatric labels…

      human beings always want to feel superior…it doesn’t matter what they happen to have been born with or where.

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  5. When you are told to feel a certain way, and you don’t really feel that way, a part of you rebels. Somewhere inside of every person, we want to be genuine… My theory is that I spent so long bottling up my feelings that when I went manic, everything just spilled out… EVERYTHING… (this is just my experience and doesn’t fit with everyone’s experience of “bipolar disorder”

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  6. Yeah, great quote, and I also like how she describes depression:

    It felt morbid, cosmic, and unavoidably essential.

    I find the more comfortable I get with the morbid, the more access I have to what she might mean by the cosmic, the totality of it all, not just the positive things we ascribe to enlightenment. (Did that make sense? My brain lapsed into a cognitive lull in mid-sentence… eating time, I think.)

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    1. It felt morbid, cosmic, and unavoidably essential.

      yes that’s lovely and I don’t call any mind states depressive anymore because that pathologizes my reality…

      I just feel what I feel and it is so utterly fluid all the time…the pathologizing language actually makes no sense to me personally anymore. If you look at stuff I write about my experience I don’t ever call myself depressed anymore and it wasn’t by design… I literally stopped thinking in those terms…

      I do feel morbid at times and a whole host of other feelings often considered negative…and yeah it does feel cosmic and, unfortunately, necessary/essential…I don’t love it — feeling like crap…I think perhaps true embracing would be the ability to find beauty even in the darkness…Tom Wootton of Bipolar Advantage experiences his “depressions” that way, though he still uses all the pathologizing language.

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  7. Thanks for this. I also just read a great post called “how to be depressed” that speaks to this:
    http://whitehottruth.com/white-hot/how-to-be-depressed/

    Recently came across a passage in Alice Miller’s “The Drama of the Gifted Child (The Search for the True Self)” that helped explain to me why I am finding my negative thoughts and self-shame redouble since getting back into CBT:

    A good deal of advice for dealing with depression (for example, turning aggression from the inner to the outer world) has a clearly manipulative character. Some psychiatrists, for instance, suggest that the therapist should demonstrate to the patient that his hopelessness is not rational or make him aware of his oversensitivity. I think that such procedures will not only strengthen the false self and emotional conformity but will reinforce the depression as well. If therapists want to avoid doing so, they must take all of the patients’ feelings seriously. How often depressive patients are aware that they have reacted oversensitively, and how much they reproach themselves for it. It is precisely their oversensitivity, shame, and self-reproach that form a continuous thread in their lives, unless they learn to understand to what these feelings actually relate. [Otherwise] the discovery cannot take place, and depression will triumph.

    I think relying too heavily on CBT techniques also leaves you vulnerable to the legitimate passive-aggressors in your life because you learn to own all their shit rather than confront their behaviour (if not them), and to tolerate and internalize what may be genuine attacks on your person, even if it’s not happening at a conscious level.

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    1. I have the quote that opens that post you link to saved as one of my “quotes of the day!” It’s a good post and definitely is in keeping with Jayme’s which I post again and again.

      sometimes moving through emotional distress takes much more than a day, though I think that if you practice this sort of acceptance eventually it won’t be more than a day in general.

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