Friday, April 1, 2011

Better Living Through Self-Absorption

One thing that's always bothered me about the self-help and therapy establishment is how often the techniques for feeling better seem like they're really techniques for becoming more of an asshole.

Now, now, not always of course.  And obviously, there are many people in the world for whom the actual right treatment probably is to become more of an asshole.  I mean, if your problem is no self-esteem, and you hate yourself or feel guilty all the time, learning to care less about other people is probably just what you need.  I'm the last person to begrudge you that.

But it's a mode that seems to me more widespread than I'd have thought was warranted.

For one thing, there's this huge emphasis on individualism.  Like, it's really important to be happy on your own terms and not need anyone else.  But this strikes me as really peculiar.  What kind of relationship can you have with someone who really, when it comes down to it, can take it or leave it?  Being dependent on other people is a natural state of affairs, and being dependent on the people closest to you is a good way to organize your life.  I wrote about this before, so it must be true.

What we need isn't lessons on being independent.  What we need is lessons on how to be a person who functions well in interdependent relationships.   As in, how to be yourself, and still be part of a partnership, at the same time.  As far as I can tell, you'll learn more about that from L. M. Montgomery than you will from anywhere else.

Then there's believing all these good things about yourself.  I bought this self-help book that is based on cognitive therapy.  One of the things it instructs you to do is to look for alternate beliefs from the ones that are making you feel bad, and to seek out evidence for those alternate beliefs.  If you think your colleagues is giving you a dirty look because she's mad you took the last doughnut and thinks you're a greedy slob, you might form a new belief -- that she's just got a funny look on her face because she's having a bad day.  Then you might look for evidence, like she was reprimanded for being late or something and that's why she's having a bad day and that's why she's upset.

I know I'm being hopelessly reality-based, but it really bothered me that there was no exploration of the possibility that your original beliefs are true.  In the ordinary world seeking evidence to support a belief you've just decided to hold is considered just bad reasoning -- it's a way of just being wrong about the way the world is.

Isn't it strange that to feel better about yourself you should willfully ignore evidence that you're making other people unhappy?

There was an excellent New Yorker article recently about an inventive So Cal therapist who treats actors, writers, agents ... all the Hollywood types.  He teaches his clients techniques like "Dust" -- in which you imagine all the other people are covered in a thick layer of dust like they've been sitting there inert for years and years -- and "Fuck You" in which you imagine all your critics and you imagine screaming "Fuck you" at them over and over.

It's not surprising to me that you can feel happier and more successful by systematically downplaying the importance of other people, by pretending they're not real, or not people, or by practicing telling them to fuck off.  But unless you're starting off at empathy 400 percent, how is this not going to make you just another successful asshole?

Confidence makes everyone feel good.  But confidence without self-doubt is a recipe for disaster.

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