Saturday, July 4, 2009


While HBO's new Hung series may be doling out a long-overdue dose of satire to self-help hucksters, it would appear that, according to a recent BBC NEWS story, those hucksters may actually be taking a bad situation and making it worse. The report summarizes a Canadian study published in Psychological Science as follows:

The researchers, from the University of Waterloo and the University of New Brunswick, asked people with high and low self-esteem to say "I am a lovable person."

They then measured the participants' moods and their feelings about themselves.

In the low self-esteem group, those who repeated the mantra felt worse afterwards compared with others who did not.

However people with high self-esteem felt better after repeating the positive self-statement - but only slightly.

The psychologists then asked the study participants to list negative and positive thoughts about themselves.

They found that, paradoxically, those with low self-esteem were in a better mood when they were allowed to have negative thoughts than when they were asked to focus exclusively on affirmative thoughts.

Writing in the journal, the researchers suggest that, like overly positive praise, unreasonably positive self-statements, such as "I accept myself completely," can provoke contradictory thoughts in individuals with low self-esteem.

Such negative thoughts can overwhelm the positive thoughts.

If people are instructed to focus exclusively on positive thoughts, negative thoughts might be especially discouraging.

I have always been suspicious of self-help gurus (a suspicion that continues to be aggravated whenever one of them appears on Public Television during Pledge Week); but this study led me to recognize that the whole self-help movement is yet another front on what, in previous writing, I have called the "War against Reality." In the past I have concentrated on strategies for denying reality; but the self-help evangelists are actually a bizarre extension of that Enlightenment scientistic utopia in which the individual can control everything, not just the natural world but the subjective one as well. The fact that the low self-esteem subjects in the Canadian study were actually in a better mood when not trying to block out their negative thoughts may be a sign that accepting reality is preferable to either denying it or enduring the frustration of trying to control it. The study thus can be seen as reinforcing the narrative position of the Showtime series, United States of Tara, whose protagonist has decided that living with multiple-personality disorder is preferable to trying to beat the symptoms into submission through medication. Paddy Chayefsky took a similar approach in "Marty;" in that narrative, it is only after Marty comes to terms with all his negative qualities (passionately unloading them on his despairing mother) that he can finally strike up a conversation with a woman (who is, herself, very much a wallflower) and discover that he can form a relationship.

In a peculiar way it may well be that we deal with the unpleasant realities of our lives in the same way that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross postulated that we deal with the prospect of our respective deaths. As we are assaulted by those unpleasant realities, we go through the same five stages that form the basis for Elisabeth Kübler-Ross' model:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

Perhaps one way to interpret the Canadian study is that, by putting up barriers to acceptance, self-help gurus make things worse for those with low esteem whom they claim to be helping. PBS should take note of this. If all those Pledge Week Specials are actually making people feel worse about themselves, they are probably going to feel less inclined to make pledges!

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