Mike the Psych's Blog

What if psychologists ruled the world? In real life?


Is self-help bad for your health?

319hladwknl-_sx279_bo1204203200_Well a scandinavian psychologist and professor at Aalborg University in Denmark thinks so.

Svend Brickmann, author of the best-selling “Stand Firm. Resisting the self-improvement craze“, says we live in a “culture of social acceleration” and in such a world standing still, being content, and not particularly feeling the need to constantly “grow” is almost heretical (writes Carol Midgley interviewing him in The Times).

What seems to be required in an era of constant change is to keep moving, keep adapting, keep ahead of the game both professionally and personally.

Well Brinkmann doesn’t buy into that at all.

He suggests that you throw away all your self-improvement books, embrace negativity and doubt, and stand firm against the tyranny of positivity. He particularly dislikes the obsession with introspection and self-analysis that risks stress, depression and might even turn us into mini-psychopaths.

His book is essentially an anti-self help book which mimics the self-help genre. So don’t expect any suggestions that you “listen to your feelings“, “trust your inner voice” and similar mantras.

He says “cut out the navel gazing”, “focus on the negatives in your life”, suppress your feelings“, “dwell on the past”, and “sack your coach”! I’d love to see him speak at the UK coaching or psychology conferences.

He wants to get us away from the all the self-analysis and self discovery that is pervasive in today’s culture.  Away from the priesthood of life coaches, therapists and the self-help manuals supporting the new religion of self.

He thinks our inability to accept what we have and our need to continually grow and indulge our feelings and emotions actually infantilises us, swaddling us in our own feelings, as we can’t continue to grow in reality.

He believes that as adults we should admire those who are capable of controlling and suppressing their emotions, not those who let it all hang out.

He also thinks the self-help industry fools us into thinking we are actually in control of our own destinies. “One of the problems with the self-help ethos is that it privatises or individualises social problems. If there are no jobs it’s not due to your lack of positive thinking that you can’t get a job”.

He sees a paradox in the self-help industry where the literature focuses on the individual’s freedom of choice and self-realisation yet helps create people who are addicted to self-help and therapeutic interventions. I know of people who go back year after year to the same NLP experience in Hawaii or to Tony Robbins conference events. Didn’t it work the first time?

He recommends reading a novel instead of a biography (which is about an individual) or a self-help book. (Interestingly there is some research that found that reading a literary – not popular – novel is good for developing your empathy among other things as it introduces you to things outside your experience).

As for the claim that self-realisation creates self-sufficient adults he refutes it saying it actually creates infantile, dependent adults who think the truth lies within them.

He mentions self-help guru Tony Robbins who has coached George W Bush and Bill Clinton. Robbins says “Success is doing what you want, when you want, where you want, with whom you want, as much as you want” (I can see the appeal to Bill Clinton). Brinkmann says that taken to extreme this way of thinking resemble sociopathy or anti-social personality disorder because it encourages you to do whatever is necessary to achieve your aims.

He also notes that this approach has no ethical substance and life coaches encourage people to follow their dreams, be passionate, and do what is necessary to achieve it. Not caring what other people think and being encouraged to “do it now” is similar to the lack of impulse control that is part of what makes a psychopath.

It seem that at heart Brinkmann is a stoic. So rather than practising positive visualisation about things you want practise negative visualisation. What would life be like if you lost everything? This makes you appreciate what you’ve got and prepares you for not having it.

Defensive pessimism – lowering your expectations and preparing yourself for the worst can be an effective way of managing anxiety and be very positive for some people and improve performance. I have experienced this attitude with friends in the Slav and Baltic countries.  I’ve heard “Don’t count your blessings until the day is out” and similar sayings in Ukraine and Lithuania and pout it down to their temperament.

So always looking on the bright side doesn’t work for everyone and can become tiresome and oppressive. In Carol Midgley’s article she starts with a reference to performance reviews and what to say when you are asked the question about your development plans over the next five years.

Brinkmann’s view would be “I don’t want to develop I’m happy as I am” which probably wouldn’t go down well. However several years ago working at a multi-national pharma company based in Sweden I had the same experience.

I was coaching teams on the performance appraisal system to ensure it was rolled out the same in all countries when a Swedish team member asked why his manager kept asking him the same stupid question every year “where do you see yourself in 5 years time?” when he was happy doing what he did and just wanted to continue to do it to the best of his ability. There are definitely cultural differences at work here.

Brinkmann ends his book with an Appendix about stoicism which he sees as a useful anti-self help philosophy. And that’s because it emphasises self-control, a sense of duty,integrity, dignity, peace of mind, and a willingness to come to terms with (rather than find) yourself.

Sounds a bit old-fashioned? But well worth thinking about in our increasingly self-centred and narcissistic society.

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The end of “stiff upper lips” and a cold sore virus for stress?

Most of us –  80% – believe “it’s good to talk” and better than taking drugs and almost 95% of us believe that we should seek counselling or psychotherapy before our problem gets out of hand.

Brits have definitely lost their stiff upper lips with 1 in 5 having consulted a counsellor or psychotherapist and half knowing someone who has.

This is according to a survey by the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy. They say six years ago only two-thirds of us believed in seeking this kind of help for depression or anxiety and now more than 9 out of 10 do. And only half thought it appropriate after a divorce or relationship breakdown and now it’s 85% of us.

Over a million people a year receive treatment for mental health problems and many of these are likely to be women aged between 35 and 54, separated or divorced, and living alone as single parents.

Many people believe that there is not enough talking therapy and doctors are too keen on medication that treats the symptoms but doesn’t get to grips with the causes and with 39 million prescriptions a year for depression you can see their point.

Meanwhile in America Californian scientists believe they are on the point of a breakthrough in developing a vaccine to tackle stress that with a single injection will relax us without slowing us down. Dr Robert Sapolsky believes that he can now alter brain chemistry to create a “focussed calm”.

This genetically engineered alternative to yoga and pills uses a modified herpes virus to get modified genes into the brain. It short-circuits the feedback caused by stress so you don’t have lingering feelings of tension and will be less likely to continue to snap at people after a stressful event.

So far it works in rats but the scientists are optimistic that they can develop this for humans in the near future. Given how many people suffer at the moment this will probably be welcomed but we shouldn’t forget that stress symptoms exist to warn us something is not right.