Above all, what we as Americans prize are magic elixirs: simple solutions, closed and totalizing systems of explanation, grand schemes at once easy to understand, applicable to everything and everyone, and which thereby reduce the heart-stopping complexity of the world to a set of nostrums or dicta that we can recite like mantras, when things go bad, to quiet the soul.
Peter Marin, "An American Yearning"
There are many approaches to self help and many unhelpful ones advocated in the self help literature. Steve Salerno wrote a book titled Sham: How the Self Help Movement Made America Helpless about this. In order to sell themselves many self help writers promise more than they can deliver with the negative consequence that people who fail to achieve the promised happiness may either feel like failures for not having done so or may reject self help entirely.
There are many self help approaches whose message is that positive believing leads to a positive reality. The hypothesis that I base my self help methods on is that if we strive to have a realistic view of the world we are likely to become more effective in making the world a better place and a happier one for both ourselves and others. This hypothesis brings two questions to mind. One of these questions is, "How do we know what is realistic thinking?" The other is that when reality is depressing, wouldn't we be happier not facing it?
In the case of realistic thinking how do we know which of our beliefs are true and which are false? Just because we are convinced a belief is true doesn't mean it is. Many very bright people believe the opposite of other very bright people with great conviction. There are exercises we can do to evaluate the belief like considering the evidence for and against etc.. My Computer Aided Self Help program has a section in it with exercise for helping evaluate beliefs. Additional ways to evaluate beliefs are research and experimentation. If we want to persuade others sometimes the most effective way is suggesting an experiment that would conclusively test their beliefs. In fact some mentally ill people who were very firm in their beliefs changed them and recovered from mental illness when they conducted experiments testing their beliefs. Of course some people will never be convinced. There is a joke about a patient who goes to see a psychiatrist and when asked what's bothering him says "I'm dead". The psychiatrist gives him a pin and says prick yourself. He does and a drop of blood comes out. There the psychiatrist says, "you're not dead". The patient says "Yes I am but I didn't know that dead men bleed." If someone is sufficiently convinced something is true, sometimes all the evidence in the world will have no impact on their beliefs. I have a section in this web site about holding on to beliefs despite contrary evidence.
The second question brought to mind by my hypothesis that realistic thinking makes us happier, is "aren't their circumstances where we would be happier not facing reality?" Won't we be happier if we think positive? There may be such circumstances however often we pay a price for false positive thinking. If we think the happy thought that "I won't gain weight if I just have one more chocolate bar" we'll feel happy while we enjoy the chocolate bar but many chocolate bars later, we will be unhappy because we are overweight. If we surf the net at work thinking we won't get caught that may make us happier as we surf but may lead to our getting fired and being very unhappy. If we believe that everything will work out for people who need help we won't offer them out help.
Sometimes positive thinking and realistic thinking are the same. In the case when negative thinking such as "I'm no good" or "They're out to get me" or "I will fail" is false it clearly will make one happier if one is realistic in one's thinking. Martin Seligman a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, has an exercise called three blessings in which each night for a week a person writes down three things that went well during the day and why. An article in Newsweek tells about Donna Ryan, a 43 year old mother did this exercise as follows:
One rainy day, Donna, a mother of three who works as an administrative coordinator in Philadelphia, was struggling to get out of her car with her briefcase and umbrella when her 7-year-old son grabbed an umbrella and rushed out of their house to usher her in. That night, when writing down why her son was so helpful, Ryan gave herself credit for “raising a thoughtful, considerate child.” It was the first positive thought she’d had about herself in months.
An important point here is that Donna's positive beliefs were also realistic ones. What about an exercise in which we wrote down three things that went wrong during the day and why? Would that exercise make us depressed? Should we avoid doing that exercise? In my opinion that is also a valuable exercise since we need to learn from our mistakes. That won't necessarily make us depressed, we can be proud of being honest with ourselves and learning from our mistakes.. Thinking about what we did right also helps us learn what to do in the future. In my opinion we should do both exercises.
There may be circumstances where delusional thinking may make one happier than realistic thinking, however there are things in life that are more important than happiness, such as facing problems and solving them instead of being deluded about them and doing something to help others even if we pay a price in doing so, this is discussed further on another page of this web site.
Although I argue that realistic thinking makes things better that doesn’t mean that I believe that reality is good or that it will ever be perfect. Our world can be good and it can be bad and it is both. Men will always be able to choose between good and evil, and there will always be some who choose the latter, there will always be new natural disasters and new ways of coping with them. There will always be new diseases and new cures developed for diseases. Our personal lives can always get better and always get worse. This is the price of life. My argument is not that the price doesn’t have to be paid but rather that generally the more realistic we are in our thinking the more we can make the world a better place and the more we can be happier.
Knowledge of the truth is a two edged sword, scientific knowledge can be used for good or evil. However when the masses know the truth generally things are better. I draw this conclusion because I see what happens when the masses are deluded (things are a lot worse). When Chamberlain appeased Hitler he was able to do so because of the deluded masses of Britain who supported him, the consequences was untold death and suffering. When Europeans are unwilling to face the Islamic threat that it faces and instead blame America they feel better because America is a lot less threatening than any Islamic threat but they then do not take adequate defensive action against the Islamic tide that is drowning them. They may feel better in the short term but unless they think realistically they face disaster.
Self Help Approaches:
Self help is like medicine too much of it is not good. I think of it as something to use to tweak myself in the right direction when necessary. The following are self approaches that I have tried. The first step of my approach to self help is not to attempt to eliminate a painful emotion but rather to attempt to evaluate whether it is warning about something I should be concerned about. If one concludes that there is a threat to be concerned about, the next step is to develop a plan to deal with the threat that one faces. Sometimes we feel a painful emotion such as anxiety because we feel we must be anxious in order to motivate ourselves to deal with a threat. If this is the case, we may be able to reduce our anxiety by telling ourselves that once we develop a plan of action and follow it, further anxiety is not to our advantage. If we're very anxious it's unlikely that telling ourselves this will cause our anxiety to vanish, however it may help. It is not practical to plan a course of action every time we don’t feel happy and sometimes we just need a faster approach and sometimes it’s best to just feel the way we feel and not try and change it too much because that is part of being ourselves. If we care about someone who is in pain we may feel pain, in that case it may not be better to simply try and be happy but rather be better to care.
Core Painful Thoughts
Most painful thoughts fall under the following three categories.
I have found this for myself and Aaron Beck, one of the key developers of Cognitive Therapy has come up with similar categories. Painful thoughts often take the form of painful self talk in which we tell ourselves things that fall into these categories ie. that hurt our self concept or that make us feel that others are hostile (paranoia) or that lead us to feel pessimism. These core thoughts can form a self feeding cycle.
We can use these core problems as an aid to self diagnosis and self therapy. I describe how I have used them below. I encourage the reader when I describe a self help approach to try it. The best way to understand what I'm talking about is to try it.
Self help does not have to be a complicated and difficult exercise. We have a lot of power to help ourselves the key concept is time. We need to pause and take the time to do so when we're upset. How many of us when we're all worked up and upset, pause, and try and relax and feel less upset? Many of us just go around our business while feeling upset. The fastest approach to dealing with anger is simply to pause and feel less angry, likewise with anxiety and other painful emotions. Sometimes simply trying to be happy works.
It may not be easy to do this. If we have been spending the last month thinking negative thoughts they may not go away with a single minute of effort. I don't think the answer to this is to continually try but rather to make periodic small attempts. So if you try this morning, try again later some time.
If one attempts to be happy and fails, one can try and determine if some resistant thought came to mind. For example if one tells oneself "Try to be happy" and one's mind responds with, but if I'm happy I won't be motivated to work, or but I haven't achieved what I want to achieve, or my pet turtle died, then one knows what the obstacle is, that is preventing one's happiness. Once one has identified the source of resistance one can focus on dealing with it. I discuss this further on The Happiness Muscle web page.
A longer approach is to try and correct the negative thoughts that give rise to the negative feelings. If a negative thought is exaggerated or overgeneralized we can point out to ourselves that it is. An example would be “Everybody hates me”. The correct thought is probably “some people dislike me but there are people who like me as well including me.” Lists of these kinds of errors have been written in self help books based on cognitive therapy.
Another fast approach is to use responses to the three core problems listed above. When I started to help myself deal with emotional problems I tried to think the opposite. In the case of Low Self Concept that would mean thinking "I'm terrific". In the case of paranoia that would mean thinking, "everybody loves me". In the case of pessimism that would mean thinking everything is going to be great! The problem with these approaches is
Having said that thinking the opposite did help me in the beginning when I was struggling with paranoia. Still we need to ask ourselves how can we come up with a better fast approach than trying to think the opposite? Is there a way to deal with low self concept, pessimism and paranoia while still facing the truth? What if we did something bad that we should be shamed of? We can make a plan to make amends. What if we failed to accomplish something we believe we should have been able to accomplish? We can forgive ourselves our weaknesses and like ourselves anyway. We can try and deal with low self concept by thinking of something to be proud of that we accomplished even if it is a little thing. When we accomplish little things during the day we can tell ourselves "I'm proud of you for doing that." Also we can tell ourselves "I approve of you". Whether you approve of yourself or not is a decision you make and if you make it true, then it is true. Finally we can try and catch ourselves when we think critically of ourselves during the day and try and correct ourselves. If we’re thinking, you are not accomplishing enough we can praise ourselves for what we have accomplished. If we’re feeling paranoid we can tell ourselves that it is possible that they don't hate us as much as we think they do. We can try and think of evidence that shows that people like us. We can try and do nice things for other people so that they do like us. Also we can try and like ourselves. We can tell ourselves "I like you."
What about optimism? We don't know what the future will bring and we all face threats to our well-being and to the well-being of our loved ones that we need to take action to protect ourselves from. How can we be optimistic under such circumstances and protect ourselves and be realistic at the same time? One of the threats we face is being unhappy because we are pessimistic and we can remind ourselves of that. Another threat is always being anxious because we're always worrying about the threats that we face. We need to make the decision to not constantly worry about the threats that we face. We can have a planning time once a week during which we we plan to deal with the threats that we face. We can tell ourselves that it's possible that things will be better than we think they will be. We can try and think of things that we can be optimistic about. If we're optimistic we'll be happier and that is something to be optimistic about. Other consequences of being optimistic is that "We'll make others happier if we're happier" and "People will like us more if we're happier." and we can remind ourselves of that.
Sometimes we motivate ourselves by making ourselves anxious about the consequences of not doing something. Sometimes that anxiety can interfere with doing what needs to be done and we can remind ourselves of that in order to reduce it.
Addressing the three core problems of low self concept, paranoia and pessimism together as well as the anxiety they lead to, is sometimes more effective than addressing only one since they can feed each other.
I give a table below with painful thoughts in one column, the reversal of those thoughts in the second column and other positive counter statements in the third column.
Possible Positive Counter Statements
Low Self Concept
I approve of you.
They love me
I love you.
Everything's going to work out great.
I'll be happier if I'm optimistic. I'll make others happier if I'm happy.
Everything's going to work out great.
I'll be more effective at dealing with threats if I, take my time to do things right ,and relax and don't make myself overly anxious.
In the case of both reversal and positive counter statements there are times they are true and there are times they are not and they should only be used if they are true because it's important to face reality. There are times however, when reversal may be closer to the truth than what we think is true. A surgeon for example, may feel he's no good because a patient died on the operating table when in reality he may be a terrific surgeon and the patient died due to circumstances beyond his control. In this example his thinking "I'm terrific" would be closer to the truth than "I'm a terrible person".
We can attempt quick diagnosis as part of our fast approach. We can try and identify our negative thoughts and address them.
Here is an example. Lets say we are under pressure at our job to accomplish a project quickly and we run into a difficult obstacle that is take us a long time to overcome. Some of the thoughts that might go through a person's head in that situation are:
Some of the emotions one might feel are anxiety and pessimism because one is afraid one will lose one's job, low self esteem because one is not getting the job done quickly and paranoia or the feeling that one's environment is hostile since one faces the threat of being fired. If after a day of feeling this way one tries to apply self help it may not be of much help. It's better to catch the self talk immediately during the day and that is a big advantage of fast self help techniques. Fast techniques might be to counter "I'm not doing a good job" with "the fact that I am encountering time consuming obstacles doesn't mean I am not doing a good job and I have made progress". Progress can simply be furthering one's understanding of a problem. A fast technique for countering the anxiety of "They're going to fire me" could be statements such as:
We can't use all these techniques all the time so what should we do? I find that the fast self help that I use most of the time is to tell myself "I love you and I'm proud of you". Sometimes at work I praise myself when I accomplish something even if it's a small thing. Sometimes I try and be happy by telling myself "Try and be happy" and then telling myself "I'm proud of you for being happy".
A disadvantage with fast self help is that it doesn't always deal with the cause of the painful self talk. Problems one faces in life can be complex and can't always be solved with simple answers. If one treats the symptom and does not eliminate the cause then the symptoms will keep coming back and one will have to keep treating them.
One slow approach is to diagnose the cause of the painful thinking and then to deal with that cause. Freud used to try and trace childhood and subconscious causes to problems. His approach has been rejected by cognitive therapists and by neurolinguistic programmers for a more here and now approach. In my opinion Freud went too far in tracing problems to the past and his attempts to uncover subconscious thoughts only led him away from uncovering the true causes of problems. I also believe that it is wrong to totally reject looking at past experiences in therapy. If one was bitten as a dog as a child and that's why one is afraid of dogs one shouldn't ignore that.
How do we diagnose the causes of our painful thinking? This is discussed further on the self diagnosis page.
We may be motivated to think painful thoughts. At first that may seem ridiculous. Why would any one be motivated to feel low self worth, or paranoia or pessimism?
Lets start with the motivation to feel low self concept. Sometimes people put themselves down because they are angry at themselves for doing something foolish. By punishing themselves in this way they hope they will prevent themselves from doing it again.
What would be a motivation to feel paranoia? The temptation to blame others is an example of such a motivation. Supposing we do something that causes a problem for a coworker for example and that coworker gave us constructive criticism so that we won't do it again. We can react with acknowledging that the criticism is correct and thanking our coworker for bringing our mistake to our attention. Many people however, are more likely to become hostile to the coworker giving the criticism. Many people are likely to react to his criticism by blaming him for the problem. In that way they are creating paranoia in their minds toward him. It's easier on one's self esteem if one regards the coworker's criticism as resulting from his hostility than regarding the criticism as true.
What would be a motivation to feel pessimism? We may believe that it is best to be pessimistic so we will be on our guard against threats that we face or take action against them.
These types of self motivations can occur at work. For example, anxiety that we will fail may lead us to push ourselves by exaggerating to ourselves the danger of our situation and also lead us to attack our own self esteem for not performing better.
How does one deal with such motivations? The first step is to identify the motivation and to evaluate the beliefs leading us to be motivated in such a way. For example, we may believe that it is best to be pessimistic so we will be on our guard against threats that we face. We can correct that belief to we will be just as effective in facing the threats that we face if we plan a course of action to deal with them, follow that plan and try to be optimistic. In fact we may be more effective if we come across to others as optimistic and we may have more energy to do what we should do if we are not burdened by pessimism. With the above correction, not only do we reduce our motivation to be pessimistic, we also create motivation to be optimistic.
Realistically there always is the danger that if we become too optimistic we may feel less motivated to carry out whatever plan we come up with to deal with the threats that we face. Being motivated and not feeling too much painful emotion is part of the struggle of self help.
Here is a list of what I call core painful emotions.
One approach to dealing with these emotions is to take some time to concentrate one's effort on not feeling the emotion. Another approach is to diagnose the thoughts leading to the emotions and altering them and a third is to displace the emotions with positive emotions.
A slow approach that is similar to reversal and yet doesn't involve false beliefs is trying to come up with correct arguments that support the opposite belief. Supposing a fictitious person named Jim has taken the bar exam once and failed it and is too discouraged to take it again because he believes he will fail again. He could consider arguments supporting the opposite of his belief that he will fail again. Such arguments might include that he was close to passing, that more studying for the next exam will might give him the extra bit of knowledge to pass, and so on.
Love is one of the greatest sources of happiness but many of us have trouble finding love or keeping love in our lives. This web site has a large section devoted to social skills and to dating skills.
If paranoid thoughts could lead to a paranoid emotional state then perhaps a paranoid emotional state could lead to paranoid thoughts and a self feeding cycle would be created. There are many vicious emotional cycles.
In order to deal with these cycles we need to recognize they exist. If we are pessimistic because we don't have friends and we don't have friends because we are pessimistic than if we recognize that this is the reason that gives us hope that we can make new friends if we are more optimistic in our outlook.
In order to deal with cycles it is important to deal with all the parts contributing to the cycle if possible. Once a circle is created that circle no longer has a beginning and an end. The original cause may be removed and then reappear as it is being created by another member of the cycle.
We can be trapped in very destructive and powerful cycles. If we can identify the cycles however, and the contributing factors to the cycles, we then have a chance of overcoming them. One can use the existence of cycles to one's advantage. Just as there are vicious self destructive cycles there are also positive cycles. We can make an effort to create positive cycles in our lives.
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