Why Self-Help So Often Fails (And How To Actually Help Yourself)

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Acceptance. Forgiveness. Self-love.

These concepts sound so nice, warm, and inviting. I would love to accept others, unconditionally. I would be ready and willing to forgive other’s trespasses. I would love to love myself.

The concepts seem so seductive, yet I believe they are fake self-help and can do more harm than good. Let me explain why I believe these ideas look good and sound good, but are actually fake self-help approaches.

They are fake because they are ideal states that are not achievable and, even if achievable, I can’t even begin to describe how to get there.

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For example, how do I love myself more? Do I look in the mirror each morning and repeat affirmations of self-love? Do I read new age books each day to remind me to love myself more? If I am able to convince myself that I am kind and caring and that is good enough, am I kidding myself and hiding my weaknesses?

How do I accept others if they are acting badly? Do I accept what they do, make excuses for them, and look the other way? Is that acceptance or is it denial?

Is forgiveness given or is it earned? Is the abused wife who keeps on forgiving wrong when she finally leaves?

Another confusing effect of concepts like acceptance and forgiveness is that they take away the requirement for healthy people to make judgments about people, places, and things.

Judging or being judgmental sounds the opposite of being accepting. However, there is a difference between judging a person’s character and judging their behavior. It is essential to judge whether somebody is acting in a healthy or unhealthy way. It's important to decide what degree of exposure you want to them or the situation.

Getting distance from what harms you is vital to maintaining your health and well-being. That is different than judging why the person did what they did or jumping to conclusions about their character.

People aren’t necessarily selfish, weak, lazy, or have no self-control. They are just as likely to be sad, mad, or misinformed and you can’t tell until you talk to them. Judging behavior is essential to health.

Judging character is not fair. That difference is not explained in a fake self-help approach and makes concepts like acceptance and forgiveness confusing and unworkable.

Here are some other criticisms of the fake self-help approach:

1. It is too superficial.

There are too many different situations and reasons for human behavior to have a simple solution apply in each case. Simple solutions to complex problems don’t work.

2. There is no model for failure.

Approaches that emphasize the power of positive thinking lack a model for failure. If you try to be positive and fail, the explanation is that you didn’t believe enough or weren’t positive enough.

Failure is your fault and shame on you. You end up feeling worse for trying.

3. You get outside-in solutions.

Real answers lie inside the individual. Any approach that tells you what to do implies that you don’t know what to do without their help. The answer lies in their magical solution rather than in your belief in yourself.

Real self-help helps you believe more in yourself and understand the competing thoughts and feelings that exist inside of you. They empower you rather than make you dependent on external help.

4. Diagnosis is NOT treatment.

Real self-help provides assistance, a framework to understand your thoughts, feelings, and behavior. It helps you diagnose yourself, define the problems, and speed up the treatment process in therapy.

What you get from self-help is a blueprint for treatment. It gives you a map for the journey through your mind and emotions. Just like the map is different than the journey, it is not a replacement for treatment.

5. Happy is different from healthy.

Approaches grounded in making your life happy confuse emotional states with life goals. Happy is a momentary state like anger or sadness that is experienced for a short time in response to some event. It is not meant to last a lifetime, just like anger or sadness passes with time.

A happy life is not possible to achieve. You can achieve a healthy life.

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The most real and best self-help is different than fake self-help. Real self-help starts with some different assumptions about people.

Change is hard to do on your own. You go to a medical doctor or dentist because they bring more knowledge to the problem than you can.

Emotional health is no different. You need a professional trained to point out the emotions that you don’t see, help you to sort out the emotional conflicts that naturally exist, and to support you to take the risk to do what often feels wrong.

That is not a sign of weakness. It is a realistic acceptance of the complexity of the mind and emotions.

With that goal in mind, here are some ideas behind real self-help:  

1. Use natural reason.

Made famous by Thomas Jefferson’s writings and other more recent philosophers and psychologists, natural reason is based on the simple idea that people know what is best for them. It assumes that people intrinsically know the truth.

That is why Jefferson wrote, "We know these truths to be self-evident" in the Declaration of Independence. Natural reason employs both head and heart to make decisions. It is an internal process and not the result of listening to authority to tell you what to do. It is empowering and makes the person feel stronger each time it is used.

Real self-help approach will help you trust your natural reason.

2. Know yourself.

Effective self-help will help you learn more about your emotions and how to blend your heart and your head to make decisions and build better relationships. It is critical for an effective self-help approach to teach you that not all the emotions you feel come from you. Some were learned from your socialization in your family and the culture.

These learned emotions are different than natural emotions. Natural emotions are simple and originate in the application of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have done to you. Each of these sets of emotions forms the core of the two sides of you — a self-designed to please others and a self that represents how you truly feel.

Effective self-help will describe a framework to understand how your mind copes with emotions.

3. Struggle for independence.

Real self-help will help you to achieve independence and prepare you for the struggle. You are born into dependency.

As a small child, you need your parents to survive. Pleasing them keeps you attached to them. You quickly learn to act to please them and fear the disconnect and loneliness that comes from bad behavior. The fear of being alone carries over from childhood to adulthood and prevents you from learning to become independent.

While dependency is your default state, independence is your natural state. Children fight to become independent. You can hear a little child say, "You’re not the boss of me." You have an instinct to survive and need to be independent to exercise your right to do what you think needs to be done.

Children need the encouragement of their parents to be independent. Independence is homegrown and supported by the family. A parent-centered family is not designed to promote independence. Asserting your right to be independent requires you to face your most basic fears, and to take the risk to go it alone if necessary.

Real self-help will prepare you for the emotional backlash of breaking free from your family and asserting your own independence. This is not a selfish act, nor does it require you to stay distant from your family.

It does require you to face your fears and stand up for yourself in your home as a first step to being independent in the world. This is a life-long struggle and real self-help prepares you to face for the rest of your life.

4. You learn trial and error from failure.

Real self-help is realistic and does not offer a cure. There is no magic formula to remove people’s pain and suffering. Failure is a normal part of life, part of trial and error learning and not a sign of weakness. The sadness of failure or loss is as much a part of real life as joy.

Sadness is not a mental health problem nor is anger a sign of instability. You need your anger to solve problems. Rage is destructive, but reasonable anger is your best friend.

Real self-help helps you organize these emotions and manage them to become a healthier human being.

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Stephen van Schoyck is a clinical psychologist who has been in private practice in Bucks County since 1984. For more information on emotions and health, go to Dr. Van Schoyck’s website to read the sample chapters of his new book, Looking for Your Self In All The Wrong Places: How To Recognize Your Authentic Self To Live On Your Terms.