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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.

During a walk last night I came up with the idea of posting some favourite quotes on my blog.  Since the quotes are usually thought-provoking as opposed to “motivational” I thought I would call this feature the Daily Demotivator (in the spirit of www.despair.com)

Instead I am taking it one step further.  The time frame is weekly instead of daily, but you can read the quote, and if you are so inclined, take the challenge along with me this week, and post a comment and let me know how it goes.  I will let you know how mine goes too.

Here’s this week’s quote.

“There is a time to admire the grace and persuasive power of an influential idea, and there is a time to fear its hold over us.  The time to worry is when the idea is so widely shared that we no longer even notice it, when it is so deeply rooted that it feels to us like plain common sense.  At the point when objections are not answered anymore because they are no longer even raised, we are not in control:  we do not have the idea; it has us.”

– Alfie Kohn, Punished by Rewards

Which idea or concept is so rooted for you that it is beyond question?

The assumption I am going to question this week is “I have to feel confident in order to sell my services.”

Questioning doesn’t mean you must take action, i.e. go out and attempt to prove the assumption false.  Do that if you want to, but spending a little time each day thinking about it is acceptable too. 

Contemplate other possibilities. 

And if you can’t think of any other possibilities, think about the possibility of other possibilities.

The idea is to create some wiggle room, throw in some doubt, create a little space around it.

Here are some examples of assumptions you might question.

I can’t quit my job, I need the money.
I need to love myself first before anyone else will love me.
A good woman is….
A good man is….
I need to do ________ before I can be happy.
If I leave my current career field, then my expensive education getting trained in this field was a waste of time, money and effort.
I can’t ask for help on _______, I have to do it alone.

Let me know how your experiment goes.  “Horrible” is an acceptable answer, because then we can talk about it and at least you’re aware of how deeply rooted whatever-it-is is for you. 🙂

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?