This may sound strange coming from someone trained as a mental health professional, but I’m perpetually disgusted with the majority of self-help babble in bookstores, or worse yet on daytime TV. My gripe is with the emphasis on “how to.” “How to” feel better. Or, “How to” be more rational. These goals are perfectly reasonable, but the methods don’t address the fundamental errors in thinking that trigger most problems. These errors include faulty logic, minimizing or denying facts, or holding on to mistaken premises or assumptions.
People are often rushed or stressed, and never get around to developing clear thinking habits. As a result, their mental states are chaotic. Instead of relying on daytime TV to convince them to feel better, people can best help themselves by improving their thinking.
Of course, it’s easier to say, “I’m going to make myself feel better” than it is to say, “I’m going to uncover errors in my thinking.” But the latter will actually lead to your feeling better, while the first is futile and often expensive. I’ve stopped counting the times people have said to me, “I’ve read ten (or seventy-five) self-help books. They all made some sense, but I don’t feel any better.”
The point isn’t to find tools to make you happy. The key is to take control of your environment. And it all starts with logical thinking. Take romance, for example: If your goal is to find the love you want, you first ask yourself, “What kind of person do I want to love?” Then you ask, “What kind of person do I have to be in order to earn that person’s love?” The chaotic thinker will stop after the first question and start making a list of what they’re seeking in a partner. Sounds reasonable, but then the challenge becomes the open-ended process of finding that person. Depression and anxiety can set in, and life becomes hostage to compatibility issues that you can’t control.
The logical thinker proceeds to, “What kind of person do I have to be in order to earn that person’s love?” thus placing him- or herself in control of the process. They identify, in concrete terms, how to become more desirable to the person they idealize.
Sometimes it starts with little sub-goals along the way. Real-life examples might include, “My ideal will love someone with more interesting hobbies.” You then pursue more interesting hobbies, rather than defaulting to couch-potato status. Or, “My ideal will love someone who reads good books.” So you start reading more of the great books. Another example, “My ideal will love someone who’s willing to have fun and relax.” You know the drill. As you shape yourself into more of a catch, you’ll also build self-esteem. Nobody ever rejected someone because they had healthy self-esteem.
Bookstore and TV self-help seeks ends without means. It skips to “feeling better about yourself” before engaging in the steps required to achieve that. This is why most self-help doesn’t help.
In his book, “SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless,” Steve Salerno writes, “We all want so badly to believe in miracles. And that’s what makes us vulnerable.” A miracle is something that happens “to” you; something that someone else engineers for you. Sadly, this isn’t self-help. It’s “help me!”
You don’t need the pop-mental-health industry to encourage you to wallow in the past or blame biology for whatever happens to you. Over thirty years of talking to people professionally has convinced me that most problems reside in how people think and how they approach the task of improving their lives. Once you get into the habit, it’s easy to change your thinking. A good psychotherapist can often provide an objective viewpoint; not with justifications to “make” you happier, but by guiding your thoughts toward building a meaningful life.
Give it a try! You have nothing to lose but those tired feel-good clichés that will never make you feel any better.