Monday, January 15, 2007

Why New-Age Self-Help Formulas Make Me Crazy

Happy MLK Day! This seems as good an opportunity as any to indulge in a rant that's been building for a while now.

Every month, when I go through my Carnival of Hope submissions, I find a lot of posts from human-potential, seven-surefire-steps-to-success, self-help type blogs. You know: those perky sites that suggest that all your problems are a function of wrongthink, and that if you just adjusted your attitude, your life would suddenly become wonderful? The ones that claim that yes, you can do anything you want -- overcome all obstacles! become rich and famous! never be unhappy again! -- if you just approach your problems the right way?

I use very few of these posts, because I don't believe them.

Let me preface this by saying that if this stuff works for you, more power to you. Certainly attitude's important, and certainly maintaining a positive outlook is a key component of physical and mental health. But I have three very big objections to this approach: a) it's profoundly individualistic, denying the human need for interdependence with other people, b) it ignores real, material, physical circumstances (poverty, hunger, illness, war), and c) it leads inexorably to blame-the-victim thinking, which means that at bottom, it's more cruel than compassionate.

Are you a starving, HIV-positive victim of genocidal conflict in Darfur? Feeling down? Hey, it's just wrongthink! Adjust your attitude, look on the bright side, and everything will be fine!

See how quickly this stuff breaks down when you remove it from the bubble of American affluence?

Before I became Episcopalian, I briefly attended a Unity church. (Not to be confused with a Unitarian church; they're completely different!) It was a very welcoming, non-threatening place for someone who hadn't gone to church before: there was no creed, no scripture, nothing dark or scary. Everything was love, peace, joy, and bliss. The people were very friendly and outgoing, and I was genuinely fond of many of them.

But it quickly became too fluffy for me. Even when I was still going there, I took to calling it "woo-woo New Age ecumenical Christian light," which drove the minister nuts. I got tired of hearing "Chicken Soup for the Soul" read from the pulpit, rather than any scripture written more than five minutes ago. And I started getting very itchy when, at the end of each service, we all held hands and sang "Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me," while swaying back and forth.

At Unity, "let it begin with me" meant adjusting your attitude. What passed for theology there was a metaphysical approach that maintained that if individuals changed their consciousnesses, the world would change in response, without any physical effort. So we often sat and meditated about peace, but the church had no social-outreach projects: although some individuals were certainly involved in volunteer work of various sorts, there was no organized effort to improve material conditions for people suffering from a lack of peace (or water or food or clothing or money or healthcare).

I tried to talk to the minister about this. I remember suggesting that if someone's dropping a bomb on your head, changing your attitude isn't going to change the situation. She was unconvinced.

Unity's approach also made it profoundly unhelpful to people who were in pain. If you were in pain, you had a bad attitude, and that made your pain your fault. When I expressed grief that someone in the congregation had died of cancer, I was told briskly, "You shouldn't be sad; he's better off now." When I tried to talk to a friend there about a difficult conflict with someone to whom I'd been close for many years, I was told gently, "People can only upset you if you let them."

After nine months of this, I fled to the Episcopal Church: where matter matters; where service to the poor, the ill and the lonely is an obligation conferred by baptism; and where people hug you, listen and sympathize when you're having problems. (Can you imagine my trying to be a hospital chaplain with a Unity outlook? "Nonsense, that cancer shouldn't upset you: just adjust your attitude!") Incarnational Christian theology acknowledges that people need each other, that they can and should help each other, and that the world is a broken place that often hurts us, even as we try to mend it. Incarnational Christian theology acknowledges that social problems are real, pressing, and very often seem intractable. Incarnational Christian theology acknowledges that there aren't any easy answers, that there aren't seven surefire steps to success.

(On the subject of "steps" and self-help, let me say here that my family and I have been greatly helped by various 12-Step programs. The 12-Step, model, though, explicitly states that we can't do everything by ourselves, and that the most effective model of self-help is helping others.)

Today we celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. He recognized injustice and took concrete steps to address it. He spoke, took to the streets, joined with other people. He had a dream, but instead of simply sitting at home and meditating about it, he used it as his inspiration to do hard, meaningful, material work. His dream, and his willingness to be visible in the service of that dream, ultimately killed him, because changing your attitude about an assassin's bullet won't make you any less dead.

The world is better now because of Martin Luther King, Jr., but there's still more to be done. He wouldn't want us only to sit home and meditate about peace. He'd want us to get out there and help make it happen.


  1. I've recently been reading The Power of Intention by Wayne Dyer, so I've been totally into the whole "change your outlook" thing. As somerone w/depression, tho', my outlook needs a change. Faith without works is dead-or as we used to say, "if you pray for potatoes, you better get a hoe." Plus, doesn't it say somewhere-they will know us by our works? Or something. I like the way you tie it all in w/MLK. Nice

  2. Hi, TC! As a fellow depression patient, I'm a big fan of cognitive approaches -- but depression isn't just "wrongthink." It's also a genuine medical condition that frequently requires medication in addition to talk therapy.

  3. I hear ya about self-help books but I admit that there are two that I do recommend to people who are interested in either meditation or healthier partner relationships: "Wherever You Go There You Are" and "If the Buddha Dated".

    I'm not a fan of self-help books. I agree too much emphasis is placed on "thought control". If you could just think like this then suddenly everything you want in life is right around the corner.

  4. So well put, Susan! You pointed right at the creepy, scary line between responsiblity for oneself and blaming the victim. I know far too many people who are delighted to blame people for what happens to them, for everything from poverty to cancer. It gives a nice fiction of logical order in the world, but it's horribly wrong and unfair and deeply unhelpful. Anyway thanks for spelling this all out so well!

  5. 'Always look on the bright side of life' is a good, cheerful song, until you look who is singing it and where they are singing.

    I have problems with the happy shiney people, especially the kids who have been out of nappies about 5 minutes who tell me the magical effect of taking Jesus (or whatever their panacea is) into my life, totally ignoring that I've had him there longer then they've been alive, and got through times that would wipe that vacuous smile right off their face.

    We are all individuals. One size does not fit all. What works for me is not necessarily going to work for me, and believing it will is the most extraordinary arrogance. As you say, sometimes it isn't your fault, your responsibility.

    Of course, if it is your responsibility it cannot possibly be theirs. Obviously he didn't know what he was talking about when he asked 'Am I my brother's keeper?'

    Thank you for sharing the insights of your life with us. They certainly make me think.

  6. Excellent points, Susan! I liked this a lot and shared it with my dad today. Thank you.

  7. I used to have a Unitarian co-worker--she said she didn't believe in God or the afterlife-- and I was always trying to "witness" to her, much to her amusement. Oh well, I tried. Although I am "sinful" and rarely attend church, I do belong to a 12-Step Group, and I rely on my Higher Power on a daily basis. I can't manage things on my own...

  8. BRN, Unity and Unitarian are two very different things! (Thanks for reminding me how often they're confused; I've put links in the post to clarify this.)

    Unitarians are a bit too intellectual for my taste, but they're extremely active in social causes.

    As for being sinful: welcome to the human race! And going to church isn't a requirement: God's everywhere (although some churches would tell you otherwise!).

  9. Hi, Susan,

    I like to think there is a happy medium in all of this (but then, that's where I sit in most debates)

    Positive outlook and self-help aren't the cure to most problems, but a lot of problems are easier to solve with them in place...

    While positive feelings won't help solve the problems of those in Darfur, for a lot of the "professional victims" our society has been working so hard to churn out, it certainly is an important step.

    A lot of sufferring is made worse by the "woe is me" outlook, and made worse by the "my life is everyone else's fault" thought process...

    I cerainly agree with the premise of what you are saying; a huge industry has been created out of the "If you believe, you can achieve" mindset, and it is only your personal mindset that a positive outlook can affect.

    I guess the best way to sum up this REALLY long comment is from a quote from a sick, frail little old lady I took care of once. When I entered her hospital room, and said "How are you today?" she responded with, "Well, I woke up... Its off to a pretty good start!" There is something to be said for optimism...

  10. Susan, obviously you need to change your attitude towards New-Age Self-Help formulas. It's this wrongthink that keeps you from being able to embrace and truly understand your true potential.

    I mean, duh. *flips hair*

    (Did i get enough of the condescension in?)

  11. I'm glad you took the time to rant... I know I could not have said it better (even if I told myself I could!). I appreciate your insight and honesty.

    I lost a lot of blogging time over the holidays, but I'm trying to make up for it now... and catching up with everyone's old posts!

    Happy New Year!

  12. I agree that too many smiling faces can overwelm you, make you angry because they and seem fake.

    Everyone has different personality types and that is why some don't like going to "Unity," but it fits in nicely with some 12 step recovery programs and that is very good. I recommend it for those who are letting go of the past wounds at this time, because "Unity," cures the past programing that cripples many.

    Maybe after a while someone can join a traditional church when he feels more grown-up spiritually and that is great, but "Unity," is on target with mental and spiritual foundations to begin a brand new start, leaving behind the horrible wounds of yesterday! I agree that it can become overwelming to go there too much and get overstimulated by leveled up positives that are slightly above 12 on the happy mood scale, but it works sometimes too, and you can take what you want and leave the rest anytime. I sometimes do leave the fellowship earily when it gets too thick for me with mollasses and honeyfied, but all in all, I have caught a good natural high on life and appreciate it, especially in a time in history where so much war and depression is taking place, because it feels good to focus in on "me," and take the "happy cure," at church. Namestae folks!

  13. Hi, Robin! I agree that Unity's very good for newcomers to church, and for people who've been wounded by organized religion. I personally find the 12-Step programs more realistic, though, because the first step there is acknowledging that there really are things over which we're powerless -- a concept with which Unity (at least in my experience) seems to have some difficulty.

    Thanks for your comment!


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