A philosophy of “self-help”

This is really about the critical importance of wording.  Suggesting that a do-it-yourself approach to “self help” is most likely to be effective if the image in your mind is not of somehow getting “cured” of an “illness” or “problem,” but more akin to the way they talk in sports psychology or coaching: seeing yourself as striving for “higher performance.”

That and the idea that most self-help approaches basically work alike, regardless of the particular “illness” you are treating.  While the particulars of treating depression may be different than those in treating agoraphobia, the core template or skeleton of the treatment amounts — for the most part — to the very same thing.

I was writing a note about this blog in my other blog in Tumblr (which is sort of a place I use for quick posts on random topics, tweeting but longer), and said this:

My second realization was about the nature of self-help approaches: that basically, whatever the problem you are addressing, there is really just one main schema or approach or way to do them.  If you break it down, it’s about studying and defining your problem behaviors. The first thing is learning to view your problems as caused by your “behavior” (mental as well as physical), instead of seeing them as caused by, say, the idea that your spouse is a jerk or that the universe hates you.  Next is learning to take small, simple steps to chip away at that way of thinking and feeling and doing, until you gradually have a greater sense of control and well being.

My third realization was related to something I was recently discussing with my own physician: that most medical care, I think, starts off from a wrong premise.  Instead of seeing health and wellness as flowing from a very active, vigorous mindset and lifestyle (like Teddy Roosevelt’s “strenuous life,” say), our culture reinforces a model, drummed into us at every medical visit, that yeah, while you’re supposed to be “living healthier,” basically you get buried in pills until you die. The assumption is that medicine is a sort of slow hospice death, with gradual deterioration as pills are applied.  Versus the model I have come to see as much more helpful: a self-directed striving toward “higher performance”, as they put it in the coaching or sports psychology fields.

So I wanted to do a blog that integrates self-help and high-performance notions, that you can apply to phobias or depression or improving your social intelligence or career productivity or running time.  To show that the basic tools are the same, that psychological self-care is really a set of common techniques much like a “swiss army knife of the mind.”  Not always, sure, but that’s the general idea.  And it’s the general idea of the blog.

Of course one’s mileage will vary depending on the problem, their skill at problem-solving, and so on.  And sometimes you really do need the meds, the shrinks, the “whole catastrophe,” as Zorba said.  But basically, I think we can cover a lot of self-help topics in a simple, 80-20 approach (more on that later, in the blog), with just one blog.  Sort of, the “last self-help blog you’ll ever need.”

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Getting oriented

Once upon a time, psychologists were supposed to keep their mouths shut.  It was an era of mysteries, confusion, a time of just emerging from the dark, murky world of ghosts and mysterious maladies, and for a time the only torch lighting the day out of the dark cavern was the work of Sigmund Freud.  Which was actually a huge improvement over the options which came before him, when depressed persons had the options of suffering or becoming novelists or drinking themselves to death.

But over time, Freud’s idea that people often need basically a good listener who doesn’t jump in with all sorts of unwanted advice, became distorted.  Shrinks started to believe that doing things like actually giving someone advice was a bad thing.  This went to absurd links — perhaps peaking when prominent psychologists move to revoke the membership from the American Psychological Association of one of the pioneering psychologists of the self-help field, Dr. Joyce Brothers, just because she answered people’s questions and tried to help in a more active way than mumbling “uh huh” every twenty minutes.

Eventually, common sense prevailed.  Building not just on the discoveries (which strictly speaking, weren’t all bad) of the European masters like Freud, we began to apply the findings of a more modern science to our understanding of the human mind, human relationships, and even to how our minds and bodies affect each other.

It’s been nearly a century and a half since the first psychology laboratories were established (by Wilhelm Wundt in Leipzig, and William James at Harvard), and in that time whole libraries have grown up to contain our findings.  In the spirit of a true “Renaissance” (a rebirth or rediscovery of knowledge), we can now benefit from the best thinkers of ancient Greece and Rome, the philosophers and novelists and spiritual pioneers of the past 3000+ years, but most especially, from the discoveries and innovations of modern behavioral, cognitive behavioral, and neuropsychological researchers and practitioners.

Whether it’s how to keep your brain functioning through the lifespan, to protect and ehnahce your physical functioning or athletic performance, how to understand and connect effectively with others, how to reduce a depression or a phobia, or how to manage your career, there is a huge amount of information out there to help you.

In my work, I meet daily with people teetering on the edge of permanent disability (my clinical practice is mostly doing psychological evaluations and consulting with agencies and with businesses and organizations.)  Often, people have been relying on rather passive, antique methods of coping, such as hoping the latest medication from their primary physician will somehow “kick in,” or maybe just relying on alcohol or drugs to ease the pain of living.  But seldom do people have even the vaguest familiarity with highly effective psychological/behavioral ways to reduce chronic pain, to cope with a depressed mood, to cope with a severe phobia that keeps them housebound, or to be more effective in their career, business, marriage, or parenting skills.

I’ve wanted to set up a blog about phobias, which I’m supposed to do to let folks know about my phobia book. (I have one on the topic of social intelligence.)  But I’ve been writing some stuff on depression and other topics, and have ideas for a variety of other books and writing projects with similar themes of “you can take control of your own psychological functioning, at least some of the time.” (I’m actually a kind of “how to manage your life” nerd.)  So instead of doing scattered blogs, I’m doing a single one now, merging some other material here.

Because to a large extent, you can approach a depression, weight loss, interpersonal skills at work, anxiety control, flirting, or “getting things done” in very much the same way.  If you become an expert in managing one part of your behavior and life, you can use most of the same tools for the other areas as well.

That’s what I want to share with you in this blog.