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I have noticed that, especially on Internet discussion boards and comments, people feel the freedom to perform what I refer to as “psychic back-alley surgery” on each other – tell others what they should do, what they need to change, or criticize their behaviours, thoughts and/or character.  I can’t say whether this is any more or less than it was in the past, I will just talk about what I observe now.

Some people would say it is the “anonymity” of the Internet that makes people feel free to say things to people that they never would to their face, but I believe it is due to two other trends.

1)      A trend in psychology, at least in pop psychology, towards reductionism, i.e. breaking a mysterious whole (how to be happy?  How to attract women/men?) down into its parts so that, theoretically, anyone can follow the same procedure and get the same results.  Examples:  neurolinguistic programming (NLP), cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), and the “pick-up artist” manuals.  It becomes more socially acceptable to treat ourselves and others as a bag of parts, as though it’s possible to separate and “surgically remove” an offending behaviour, thought, or way of being.  As though it weren’t connected to everything else.

2)      Psychological analysis and self-improvement has gone pop culture mainstream, through the New Age movement, Oprah, Dr. Phil etc.

When you take yourself apart and put yourself back together, without some inherent organizing principle, do you get a Frankenstein’s monster?

Some people believe in “faking it till you make it” and that may work for some people and for some issues.  However, I believe that a “change” (in behaviour or thinking) needs to be rooted from something inside you in order to really take hold.  And perhaps both people who want to change, and “experts” telling them how to do it, focus too much on altering the results (external observable behaviour or differences in it) and not on the causes (the inner self, desire, fundamental psychological needs, soul) when we try to make “changes”.

As I see it, the inherent organizing principle that allows change to happen is to view the person, whether yourself or someone else, as whole, complete, and un-disassemblable.   Furthermore, undesirable behaviours or thoughts or symptoms come from imbalances or disconnections within the whole, not from a “bad part” or parts that need to be removed.

Of course this raises the question “If I am whole and complete within myself, and OK the way I am, what do I need to ‘change’ for?”  It is for this exact reason that I see the process of personal growth as expansion or inclusion rather than change (i.e. “I used to be like this and now I am like that”)  No, all of it is part of you.  🙂

Knowledge of yourself as a complete and indivisible whole has benefits.  You are far less likely to
succumb to the weariness of the “self” that needs to constantly be “improved”.  Self-knowledge also provides a useful anchor as you sort through the mountains of information available out there in the
self-help and how-to genre.  You can tell what will be harmonious with you, and what will not.

Let’s say you are dissatisfied with your life in some way.  Is the cause personal or societal?  Notice what emotions arise in you just from hearing that question.

Some quotes.

Micki McGee in Self-Help, Inc.:

“I have yet to find a best-selling self-improvement book that prompts one to consider, for example, the following:  “If you could live in a world where profit were not the motivating force of production, what would your life look like?” or “How would your life be different if the nutritional, medical and educational needs of children were the top priority of every individual, every group, and every institution?”  or “How would your life be different if racism/sexism/anti-Semitism or other religious intolerance were no longer a structuring principle of social relations?”  Were such questions part of the discourse of self-improvement culture, the writing exercises found in self-help books might be a remarkable tool for social transformation. One’s realization of one’s self might genuinely lead to societal change (though the steps between imagining the idealized future and realizing it would likely involve a good bit more than imagination.)  However, in its current insularity, the literature of self-improvement directs the reader to familiar frameworks, namely, what should one seek for one’s self narrowly conceived as a private individual rather than as a citizen or stakeholder in larger and more public arenas.”

“Self-improvement culture, as it actually exists, derails the opportunities for indivdiuals to understanding injuries or grievances as part of systematic social problems.  [….]  The literatures and practices of self-improvement culture do this in two ways:  first, in self-improvement literature, victims are anathema, and second, when victimization occurs, it is almost exclusively located in the past, in the lost world of childhood, where the family, imagined as isolated from society as a whole, is named as the cause of the violence or injustice. [….] Thus the usual political strategy of organizing individuals around their grievances is short-circuited, and culpability is turned back on the self. Problems and grievances are cast as personal “challenges” that the individual must strive to overcome.  [….]  What the literatures of self-improvement do offer is the promise of power, however limited in scope and mistakenly located it may be in isolated individual action.  Traditional political organizing, for example, the recruitment strategies of labor organizers, builds on a sense of aggrievement and then moves the aggrieved individual to locate his or her power in the group, forging a sense of collective identity that is not wholly a function of victimization but takes victimization as its starting point.”

In this way, self-help can be said to reinforce the social status quo, or at least not to challenge it.  Whether this is intentional or unintentional (I’m steering clear of conspiracy theories for the moment), in my opinion it would be at minimum convenient, to a relatively small group of people who wanted to gain disproportionate economic and social power over a relatively large group of others, if those others believe their problems are all “personal challenges” rather than symptoms of unhealthy, unjust or exploitative social systems.

Furthermore, notice recent propagation of catchy pop-psych memes, specifically the freedom people now seem to feel to tell strangers on Internet discussion boards, for example to “stop complaining and look at your own self and your own role in it” or similar.  Now, nobody has to regulate the populace against rebellion or broader scale social change.  They regulate themselves.

David Smail (who I’ve quoted before here) writes about societal and environmental factors in the context of mental health and psychotherapy:

“From a psychological point of view the Twentieth Century has been a colossal diversion (certainly in the West) from an examination of the way individuals are created and maintained by their environment. The   quality of thought Plato gave in his Republic to the kind of cultural diet most suitable for its future leaders is barely conceivable now, where about the most we get is cursory studies or literature reviews to show, for example, that television has no influence on violence. Our emphasis, as I have already indicated, is very heavily on the inside, on mental factors such as choice and will, and moral factors mostly seen as personal, such as ‘responsibility’. Because of this, our gaze is diverted from the social world around us and our preoccupations are with self-transformation of the personality rather than political transformation of the society beyond the boundaries of our skin.

[….]

We have become absolutely to depend on the notion that it is possible to change aspects of ourselves we find inconvenient, to erase the inscription upon us of the environmental influences which surround us. Rather   than accepting that experience marks us for good and all, we wish to insist – indeed have come to expect and demand – that its effects can be counselled away.

But would it really be so terrible if psychotherapy didn’t work in the way we seem to expect it to? Perhaps if we were shaken out of our bewitched fascination with imagination and ‘virtuality’, the wishful invention of interior worlds which have no embodied substance, we might come to see that paying sober attention to the realities of social structure and of our relations with each other as public, not simply private, beings is an option. A difficult one certainly – not so easy as dreaming and wishing – but at least a real one. What this would entail is a recognition that maybe prevention is more possible than cure; a down-grading of psychology in favour of an up-grading of politics.

Where, though, would this leave individuals? Would we not, for example, be in danger of depersonalizing ourselves and risking becoming part of a grey, undifferentiated mass, prey to totalitarian solutions of the kind too often experienced already in this now dying century? I really don’t see why this should be. Politics doesn’t have to be dishonourable. There is no reason in principle why we shouldn’t be able to resurrect a politics whose central concerns are with such things as liberty, justice and equality. Very difficult, certainly; naïve, Utopian, idealistic, I can’t deny. But at least not, like the psychology of self-creation and self-transformation, impossible.”

As Smail suggests, somebody has to start dreaming.  But so often stating these dreams out loud in public is immediately met with a response of judgment or evaluation:  “there’s no way that could happen for everybody worldwide, economic/political/whatever systems don’t work like that” or “what are you personally doing to make this happen?”

Personal integrity is certainly an admirable goal.  Note the popularity of the Gandhi quote “be the change you wish to see in the world” – quoted so often I don’t know if that is even the original wording.  It is difficult to be a leader and get others to follow you if you don’t practice what you preach.   But does “being the change” refer to changing personally, or changing in groups?

Especially if you are a very conscientious idealist, it is easy to focus so much on integrity that you think you can’t accomplish anything  until you’ve worked out all your own problems.  Oh, and especially if you’ve been reading about the Law of Attraction, you interpret the failure of your change initiatives (or of people to respond favourably to them) as being caused by your own “negative thoughts”!

Note that the authors I quoted above do not discount individual actions.  Instead they are saying that societal factors (e.g. government, economics) have significant (if not determinative) influence on the individual, but are largely ignored as a cause of individual distress by both the self-help industry and psychotherapy.  Collective action is needed to alleviate individual distress.

So, the next time you hear someone mention a possibility for social change, instead of jumping right to evaluating it….consider responding with a moment of stillness for contemplation of the new thing that has emerged.  Maybe even an attitude of “what if?”

Here’s mine for today.

Imagine a society where everyone who wants meaningful work has it, and anybody who finds their job unrewarding has options, isn’t stuck in it for practical reasons (for most people it’s financial, “I hate my job but I have to pay the bills”)….they can find something that pays the bills but is also personally fulfilling.

This might even involve a duty on the part of employers to provide people with meaningful work (or ways to make even the “…well, somebody has to do it” work meaningful).  Imagine that!

Yes, there are real obstacles.  Just….sit with me in the “what if” for a while.

I have noticed something interesting when listening to and reading the stories of “successful” people (by conventional definition:  money, power, status), what they say about themselves and the advice they give to others.

There are some things that are stated outright, and some that are only hinted at.

The advice given is usually something like this:  discipline, perseverance, hard work, commitment, never give up, wake up at 4 in the morning and run marathons, etc.

And yet if you listen to the anecdotes from their lives that they tell, there is one obvious factor that is mentioned in passing but RARELY, at least from what I’ve heard, specifically drawn attention to.

These gurus and tycoons do not start their advice with “You will never succeed in the world of business if your emotional needs are not met at home and in your community.  Never give up on finding a group of people who support each other’s success.  Stop at nothing to find a loving caring family, whether it is your family of origin or not.”

Yet, when they tell stories about their lives these people are right there in the background.

Yes, they do talk about finding mentors.  And yes, the concept of the mastermind is out there, and they do say “if you want to be successful, surround yourself with successful people” but there’s something about the way this is presented that strikes me as…detached.  A signed contract to use each other, rather than actually caring.

People who have succeeded (again, by conventional definition) can take credit for reading external conditions accurately, anticipating trends, leadership, and innovation.  And yes, plenty of hard work.  However, no person or event is disconnected from, or unrelated to, the environment in which it occurs.

Government regulations allowed them to do what they did, their business partners supported them, their spouse and family supported them, their employees did the work that supported them becoming successful….

When a person (or a company) succeeds, people want to look at it, figure out why and how it happened, so they can reproduce those outcomes for themselves. 

There is nothing wrong with analyzing an event, breaking it down into its parts in order to have someplace to start.  However, you can’t recreate yourself as that person or company, nor can you recreate the people who were around them who participated in the opportunities they had.  Nor can you recreate their exact environment.   

We (humans) have this compulsion to understand our world, but as science gets more and more advanced and we learn more and more, it appears we start running face into the parts that can’t be explained, or duplicated.  In this reductive “science of success”, is there something about the whole that is lost?  

We can analyze “successful” people, and see what they have in common, but are the common variables necessarily the relevant variables?

And hey….why do we idolize multimillionaires anyway? 

If you are one of these people (you are one of these people if you read books that have at least two of the words “millionaire”, “wealth”, “rich”, “grow”, “think”, “mind”, or “secret” in the title), I think you have to ask yourself, do you really want to be like them?  What is it that makes you not want to be yourself? 

Do you not trust yourself enough to know what to do, and others are only too happy to try to supply the answers for you (at a price)?

Who says that in order to succeed, you have to do it exactly the way they do?

We live in the Information Age.  Every process, from sales to sex, has been broken down into its constituent parts so that, in theory, anybody can pick them up and follow the same series of steps and get the same results as the proprietor.

Sounds empowering, right?  It is, in the sense that it demystifies success (and knowledge).  Now anyone can have success, not just a chosen few.

But what if the steps happen not to work for you? 

Either start asking questions, and feel alienated if the guru gets defensive. Or, in my opinion more damaging to self and others in the long run, pretend it worked for you (and bully or lecture anyone who questions you).

There are a couple of things at work here.

The steps that work for the expert may not necessarily work for you because you are a different person.  More importantly, following someone else’s steps doesn’t necessarily help you discover your own resources, your own unique strengths. 

Followers of “7-easy-steps-to-success” also never get to experience the temporary breakdown, the state of chaos and uncertainty that I believe is necessary for creativity. 

If you approach your chosen guru or trusted expert expressing uncertainty, uncomfortable emotions, and chaos….does he or she blame it on your failure to get with the program, and try to whip you into shape to get back on track…

Or does he or she congratulate you?