The War Against Psychobabble
The Cure for Popular Nonsense
“Fool’s gold exists
because there is real gold.”
It’s a dirty, thankless task – wading through the mountains of toxic ideas – but somebody has to do it. And after trying to to avoid it for a pretty long time, we stepped up. Eventually.
“Follow Your Heart!”
“Live Your Dreams!”
The Church of Self Esteem
“Live Up To Your Potential!”
“Men and Women are the Same”
“It’s All In Your Genes”
“It’s All Brain Chemistry”
“You Only Use 10% of Your Brain!”
Note to our beloved readers: we’d like to work together on this. So talk to us.
What kind of psychobabble drives you crazy? What unfounded, unproven, wishful-thinking-sugar-coated thinking really makes your toenails curl up and turn green?
Let us know, and we’ll work on putting a task force together and setting it in motion.
Follow Your Heart!!
“I ‘followed my heart’…and wound up pregnant.”
Of course, “following your heart,” as advice, seems to be a no-lose game. Who could possibly be against your “heart”? Simple (and misguided) answers to complex problems seem to be baked into the cake of life.
So, what’s the problem with “following your heart”?
The problem, of course, is knowing what your real “heart” is, and what isn’t.
(This isn’t dissimilar to another juicy tidbit of advice: “Be yourself!” Saying that is easy; knowing yourself, for real, is hard.)
So, the hard part and the real challenge is figuring out what exactly your real heart is, and what it’s really telling you.
For example, all too often, someone sets about “following their heart,” and what it really means is “turning off their head.” The rationalization for it is that it’s romantic, it’s throwing caution to the wind, it’s a rebellion against cruel fate toward what is imagined to be something deeper, truer, more real.
But in fact, all too often (not always, but often)…it’s just plain old stupidity, dressed up in all kinds of flowery romanticism. “Following your heart” really means “turning off your head,” which means your head is telling you that you’re doing something stupid, and you aren’t listening to it. Which is how so many women wind up dating musicians.
Our advice: if you want to follow your “real” heart, get a taste for what your heart is not.
The way we see it, your “real” heart is not your appetites, desires, or shallow, self-serving indulgences. Often, it’s what is hard, uncomfortable, not easy, and not immediately rewarding. It’s not always romantic or rebellious. It’s closer to something you just have to do.
But more, our advice would be to follow your heart and listen to your head at the same time. If you have both a heart and a head (and a gut, and instincts, and many more instruments of detection) – why limit yourself to only that? Why not listen to everything you can?
There’s a hint of something real in this advice to “follow your heart” – otherwise it wouldn’t be necessary to repeat and hear repeated all the time; it’s supposed to point to something rare. “Rare” sounds more like folks who truly “listen to their heart” as much as they can and also “listen to their head” as much as they can…and, if they strain hard enough, hear something even deeper that they can follow, that incorporates and transcends both. And a better word for this might be, “conscience.”
So here’s our advice: don’t just follow your heart. Aim higher than that. Aim to follow your conscience.
“I only wanted to live
in accord with the promptings
which came from my inner self.
Why was that so very difficult?”
Live Your Dreams!! Make All Your Dreams Come True!!
Bookshelves are packed with all manners of books claiming to help you “live your dreams.”
And of course, living your dreams, following your real dreams, keeping your deepest dreams alive, is, well, a thing well worth doing. (The authors of these books have probably been dreaming of ways to write a book that folks like us will buy.)
Yet we believe that you have a much better chance of actually living your dreams (the real ones) if you are not blinded by the undue optimism which these books encourage, and so, we are therefore forced to point out what may seem like the cold hard truth of the matter. It’s a tough job, but as the saying goes, we’re going to do it anyway.
So, what’s the problem with wanting to “live your dreams”?
The way we see it, it’s this: sometimes, frankly, you might be dreaming of the wrong thing.
If it were up to 3-year olds, almost everyone would be a fireman, astronaut, princess, mermaid, or superhero. We’re probably glad that those dreams don’t come true. (After all, somebody has to do the thankless but important jobs like answering 911 calls, fixing phone lines, digging through toxic ideas and defusing them…)
Then, of course, there are the classic stories of folks who not only dream, but work and sacrifice for years to achieve something…say, becoming Miss America, or a famous actor. And soon after they achieve it, sometimes almost immediately, they start complaining about it. (“Oh, the burdens of wealth and fame! Where’s my fainting couch? Assistant! Bring me a fainting couch, now!)
The classic fairy tale goes something like this: a magic genie grants a hero three wishes that will come true. The hero wishes for a few things, gets them, then figures out that what he or she wished for was a bad idea. The last wish is used to make everything the same way it was before. (It’s as if everything was already perfect; we just weren’t seeing it.)
We often wish for the wrong things. And it’s often a good thing that they don’t come true.
Just in case you need any more convincing: consider some of the worst real-life historical villians thoughout history. Many of their dreams didn’t come true. And isn’t that a very good thing?
So in regards to “Live Your Dreams,” consider the following possibilities:
There is a decent chance that folks might be dreaming for the wrong thing; if their dreams wind up not coming true, that’s often a good thing for the rest of us (imagine the dreams of young adolescent males); very often, your dreams coming true would mean my dreams not coming true, and vice-versa; if your dreams do come true, you might be just as dissatisfied with them then, as you are now.
Sorry. Not pretty, but we’re going for keeping it real.
(Consider this: when you were five, you dreamed of being ten; when you were fifteen, you dreamed of turning sixteen, when you were seventeen, you dreamed of turning eighteen; when you were eighteen, you dreamed of turning twenty-one; when you were single, you dreamed of being married; when you get married, all too often, you’re dreaming of being single…an on it goes.)
“We are always getting ready to live, but never living.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
What if a lot of your dreams have already come true; what about being satisfied with those, or say, feeling gratitude? When does the whole process cross over into, well, being greedy for more dreams come true, more dreams, MORE . . . Does this “the universe is here to make me happy” attitude create the impression that the purpose of the universe is a big candy store, chock filled with lollipops for us all to grab and suck on?
Does an acorn become an oak by “making it’s dreams come true”? Or just by growing naturally?
There is the possibility that you can spend your whole life working towards a “dream” and end up completely empty-handed . . . sometimes dreaming of the future makes you miss right now;
Maybe it’s a better idea, instead of following our dream, to “do what we’re good at”? Maybe the world needs fewer starving artists and more, say, great dads, moms, “everyday heroes”?
More often than not, we actually learn and grow more by not getting what we think we want…
A Thought Experiment: If you have a certain dream, why do you want that particular dream? Is there a chance that there’s any kind of deeper reason or motivation behind it all?
This might all sound a little harsh, but hey, we’re actually not interested in dashing hopes, dreams, plans, real life missions, etc. Rather, we’re just trying to add a small dash or two of reality to a way-overhyped marketplace that encourages us to chase all kinds of stupid and irrelevant fantasies at the cost of ignoring things that really matter.
In other words, sometimes it can be a good idea, well, to pause for a moment and make sure that the “dreams” we have aren’t really just the offspring of some commercial, movie, or sales pitch we got when we were fifteen . . . and are really our own.
That said, sometimes, the deepest, most secret, hidden dreams we have tucked away in the most private corners of our minds . . . are ones that do become realities, and that actually are everything they’re cracked up to be, where every ounce of sweat we had to lose to get them was well worth it. Those are the dreams we can make happen, whether we buy and follow that book, or not.
“. . . I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing . . .”
– T. S. Eliot
“When people do not respect us
we are sharply offended;
yet deep down in his heart
no man much respects himself.”
– Mark Twain
The Holy Grail of psychological health, as considered by some in popular culture, goes by the name “self-esteem.”
The discussion seems to go something like this:
“Why am I unhappy?”
“Because you don’t have enough self-esteem.”
“How, then, do I become happy?”
“Get more self-esteem!”
– and from there on, the self-esteem-building exercises, practices, and lifestyles multiply and flourish, and “building” this invisible thing called “self-esteem” becomes a primary objective of one’s life.
Your truth-seeking yet super-humble folks at LiveReal, of course, have nothing against honest, solid, real confidence. And if “self-esteem” equates with happiness, competence, health, confidence, fame, virtue, wealth, character, and any “good” – who would be against it? Not us, that’s who.
At the same time, something about it all just seems a little…off.
Maybe even more than a little. So it seemed worthwhile to dig a little deeper.
And of course, we’ve discovered that what passes under the term “self-esteem” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and the truth of it all is, unsurprisingly, a little more complicated.
“The Trouble With Self-Esteem” By Lauren Slater (NYT)
Lauren Slater article questions widely held view that high self-esteem is key to well-being, success and social responsibility, and that low self-esteem steers you in the opposite direction . . .
she notes three recent studies that concluded that people with high self-esteem pose greater threat to those around them than people with low self-esteem and that feeling bad about yourself is not the cause of the country’s biggest, most expensive social problems; she suggests putting more emphasis on self-control and self-appraisal…”
– New York Times, February 3rd, 2002
First of all, a point to consider: when you think of the people you know who seem to have real, solid confidence, did they “get it” by “working on their self-esteem”?
Not in our experience.
The basic theory about “self-esteem” seems to run something along these lines: a person has two “selves,” one that is actually a “self,” and another that “esteems.” The goal, then, is to get one “self” to hold a high opinion of the other “self,” like some kind of inner status game or popularity contest, and this is then taken as a sign of mental and psychological health. Success and mental health are therefore defined, sometimes, as any individual who thinks highly of themselves.
This entire topic warrants a deeper investigation which we’ll only be able to touch on here.
As with most popular myths, there is a grain of truth to the whole self-esteem issue: the real intent behind the effort is for one to have true confidence, a healthy, intact ego, stability of mind and honest self-respect, a state of clarity, well-being, health, and innocence, in which one knows that he or she is a good person. It’s a sense that some of us today, in some way or another, might have lost. Thus ensues the cacophony and cries of “self-esteem.”
That’s the positive side of things; the possible “grain of truth.”
Then there’s the other side. For example:
“High self esteem” being the socially acceptable pretence for narcissism, vanity, and self-absorption;
Whatever arrogance, rudeness, or obnoxious buffoonery a person exhibits, it can be justified and excused by either claiming a lack of self-esteem or need for it;
“Feeling good about oneself” is the ultimate measure of all actions (so, when a husband cheats on his wife, when a teenager takes drugs, when a person eats too much, the claims is that it is perfectly justified because it helps one’s ‘self-esteem’ or soothed his or her lack thereof…);
“Moral Narcissism,” where the important thing is one’s solely one’s declared motivations and not the actual results; so for example, as long as I think of myself as trying to help the poor, nothing else matters, including the fact that the real-world results of my actions actually hurt the poor;
…calling attention to one’s “self-esteem,” or lack thereof, can sometimes be one of the more humiliating experiences a person can experience at all, and so, becomes self-defeating;.
. . . many believe that constantly praising, adoring, affirming, and complimenting another person increases their self-esteem (and therefore psychological health). Therefore, they engage in a campaign to praise, adore, affirm, and compliment certain others under any conditions and at all costs, no matter how insincere, phony, untrue, or manipulative it may be. This practice of forcefully injecting another with psychological health, in a manner similar to blowing air into a rubber raft, or blowing smoke into another part of one’s anatomy, can often substitute for genuine affection, honest communication, and realistic discussion;
An overwhelming obsession with self-esteem can be an attempt to persuade a mental and emotional inner “judge” to change courses, so that instead of droning incessantly about how terrible we are, for example, it’s instead prattling on incessantly about how wonderful we are. – as opposed to the alternative, which is something along the lines of living without some internal narrator constantly commenting on everything all the time. Or in other words, there could be a process of becoming free of the internal incessant judging itself, instead of merely being re-programmed via external affirmations that are internalized. Seeking “approval” rather than “criticism,” could be a different side of the same coin; both are external judgments about yourself rather than internal, innate, vital, lived realities. The real gold could very well lie in tossing away the whole coin.
It is a popular myth that “self-esteem” is an essential precursor to being a productive human being; The reality is that most of those who suffered unhappy childhoods go on to lead healthy, productive adult lives, and even those with little or no self-esteem are still often remarkably effective human beings.
Many of us do feel an emptiness, a lack, that something wrong, that somehow we’ve lost something and need to get it back. This feeling perception lies at the root of a lot of self-esteem frenzy, but all too often, the frenzy does not seem to help it or stop it, and is not actually the source of it. It is actually something different, and there are better ways to deal with it.
That’s just a bit of our disorganized ranting on the matter for now.
Real confidence, and the investigation, creation, and undoing of it, is definitely one of the areas of interest of LiveReal, which we hope to explore and investigate. More could and should be said on this topic, and will, but for now, for those interested, we suggest an investigation of the LiveReal Products in the Psychology Arena.
This one is another that has a grain of truth that is woefully oversold.
It definitely seems true that, say, if someone wastes their life on an addiction, in some fundamental way, they didn’t live up to their potential, whatever that was. However you might say it, it seems like something would have been better through taking another course in life.
That said, if the average human male would successfully “live up to” his potential in the reproductive sense, he would produce enough babies to populate the entire planet and many others besides.
The point is: we should be a little more specific about exactly what potential we’re hoping to live up to.
Many people sense that there is something more to being human than is part of our ordinary experience. This intuition may very well be correct. (And if it is, then what are we supposed to do about it?)
At the same time, many of the people who say this are, frankly, trying to sell something. While some of this is sincere, one continually has to watch for yet another aspect of the culture of hype…
Just think positive! That’s the answer!
And if you do that, what can possibly go wrong?
To clear the air and allow the proverbial grain of truth the merit it deserves: yes, we see needless pessimism, gloom, complaining, whining and negativity as a waste of time and energy.
That said, many positive-thinking fanatics take things a little too far.
There are some mind-training programs of “positive thinking” which, in fact, don’t actually seem that “positive” at all
The basic view of this perspective is that “we create our own reality,” so by positive thinking, we will create a positive reality (instead of our usual negative thinking, which will create a negative reality.)
Implicit in this view are the following assumptions:
- That one does in fact create his or her own reality and can become a kind of puppetmaster over it;
- That reality is something one can and should bend to one’s will;
- That “reality” is something that is completely manufactured, instead of something we discover, or something that exists regardless of what we’re doing about it;
- That we know how things should be;
- This reality-bending is done simply through thinking, wishing, hoping, wanting;
- That humans are defined as essentially things which need to be programmed.
– Again, all of the above assumptions may sometimes have some positive aspects when used with the appropriate perspective. However, as with all good things, they can go awry when taken too far.
This can foster an attitude of “I’m going to get what I want” in the future, which actually creates a future-orientation or infinite-delay-of-gratification, which keeps us away from the present moment, and continually chasing an elusive carrot, which hangs and tempts always just beyond reach . . . the “life is what happens while you are busy making other plans” approach, or “we are always getting ready to live, but never living.”
This can foster the Philosophy of the Ostrich, or the habit of sticking one’s head in the sand and insisting that things are just fine from from this perspective, because, after all, we see nothing bad, a.k.a, unpleasant things go away by ignoring them.
This can be nothing more than a type of compensation for negative thinking. In a way, this is the belief that spraying mental aerosol all over a stinking pile of negative thoughts will make things smell rosy, enough that the smell of roses will hopefully dominate and overpower the stink. In reality, if there were no stink there, we wouldn’t need the roses.
As Roy Masters might say: Notice your finger. What does your finger feel right now? Probably nothing. Now, imagine you burn your finger. Then imagine that you run it under a cold faucet. Then, the cold water would feel great. Moral: if you don’t burn your finger, you don’t need to run it under the faucet. Translation: If you don’t have a bedrock of “negative” thoughts you’re trying to suppress, you don’t need any cold splash of positive thoughts to soothe them over.
On affirmations: we belabor ourselves with the need to affirm that things are so-and-so instead of such-and-such.
This “reprogramming” done by affirmations which are, in a way, invasive attempts to reprogram a “bad” program, with the ongoing assumption that we have no choice but to run programs. We “program ourselves” with positive affirmations, positive thoughts, etc, and then wonder why we act like robots.
Further, affirmations are often attempts to invalidate our real, living perceptions (“Pretend, as hard as you can, that you don’t see what you see”) and try to replace them with what we wish we would perceive instead. Hence, voluntary self-delusion.
These implanted suggestions or forced-ways-of-perceiving are not solid, but as Byron Brown said, “positive judgment is like makeup: it must always be reapplied, and a good hard rain will wash it away.” And life is full of good hard rains.
Positive thinking isn’t really as positive as it would like to be. For example, it’s very negative towards negativity. Or really, whatever it considers to be “negativity.” Sometimes, as Richard Rose would say, a negative reaction to a negative situation can be very positive. What about, say, the “lemons into lemonade” approach, where negatives are used and transformed into positives?
To elaborate, perhaps fear, worry, depression, nagging feelings of dissatisfaction and unsettledness – have very positive messages they’re trying to communicate, messages that we should not ignore or affirm away, but should take heed of, listen to, and learn from.
Further, affirmations are attempts to program mentally what we think we should feel emotionally and even physically. This doesn’t work.
As any actor or actress would tell you, we can’t feel things by trying to force yourself to feel things – for example, trying to “feel an emotion” by repeating “Get angry, get angry, get angry” to yourself. It is fruitless, because our emotions do not work that way. In a sense, emotions speak a different “language” than thoughts do, and to understand or see something emotionally cannot be controlled through a mental process or technique.
All in all, there are better ways to see the bright side of things than by forcing a mindset of positive thinking. An alternative to positive self-judgment is, well, seeking to know who you really are.
After all, most of the time, the best things in our lives happen in spite of us, not because of us.
And regardless of whatever your feelings are about “God,” one thing should be relatively clear: whoever of whatever is in charge here, if there is anyone or anything in charge at all, it isn’t us. And that’s probably a good thing.
Calvin and Hobbes says it well:
“Men and Women are the Same”
Some facts stay true, even when people stop wanting to believe them, and especially when they’re politically unpopular.
Just in case anyone does actually still believe that “men and women are the same” (not equal; the same) . . . we’ve designed a little experiment you can run yourself:
- Go into your local bookstore
- Switch all magazines in the “Women’s” section over to “Men’s,” and all the “Men’s” magazines over to “Women’s.”
- Observe results.
Some basic sanity and clarity of thought is needed here. Being “equal” does not necessarily mean to be “exactly the same.” Not being “the same” doesn’t mean that one is inferior to another. Apples and oranges have a different “nature,” yet that fact does not make apples superior to or inferior to oranges, or vice versa. Difference does not imply inequality.
For more evidence, read Brain Sex.
“It’s All In the Genes!”“
From Exploding the Gene Myth by Ruth Hubbard and Elijah Wald:
“Molecular biologists, as well as the press, use verbs like ‘control,’ ‘program,’ or ‘determine’ when speaking about what genes or DNA do. There are all inappropriate because they assign far too active a role to DNA…
In a way, the DNA in our cells is like a cookbook. We need a cookbook if we want to make a complex dish, but it does not make the dish, nor can it determine which dish to make or whether the dish will come out right. The cook and the ingredients will determine whether and how a recipe is used, whether we end up eating soup or cake, and how the food tastes.”
This passage from In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Mate, M.D., this shows the typical overreach that seems to happen all too frequently:
In 1990, newspapers and broadcast outlets across North America reported that researchers at the University of Texas had identified the gene for alcoholism. This news was greeted with tremendous interest, and the major media waxed enthusiastic with pronouncements about the imminent end of alcoholism. Time magazine was among the foremost cheerleaders:
The benefits from this line of research may be huge. In five years, scientists should have perfected a blood test for the gene, to help spot children at risk. And within a decade, doctors may have inhand a drug that either blocks the gene’s action or controls some forms of alcoholism by altering the absorption of dopamine. Eventually, with genetic engineering, experts may find a way to eliminate altogether the suspect gene from affected individuals.
The researchers in question had never made the claim that they had discovered the “alcoholism gene,” but they came close to making it. Some of their public statements fed that mistaken impression. Six years later the lead scientist, pharmacologist Kenneth Blum, published a much more subdued assessment:
Unfortunately it was erroneously reported that [we] had found the “alcoholism gene,” implying that there was a one-to-one relation between a gene and a specific behavior. Such misinterpretations are common – readers may recall accounts of an “obesity gene,” or a “personality gene.” Needless to say, there is no such thing as a specific gene for alcoholism, obesity, or a particular type of personality…Rather the issue at hand is to understand how certain genes and behavioral traits are connected.
What the Texas group had located was a variation of the dopamine receptor gene (DRD2) that appears more commonly among alcoholics than nonalcoholics and “confers susceptibility to at least one form of alcoholism” – or so they thought after examining the brains of a few dozen corpses. Even this more modest hypothesis, however, failed to stand up to future investigation. Subsequent studies were unable to confirm any association between the gene variant and alcoholism. “The most important finding of research into a genetic role for alcoholism is that there is no such thing as a gene for alcoholism,” writes the addiction specialist Lance Dodes. “Nor can you directly inherit alcoholism.”- In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Mate, M.D.
Michael Yapko, Ph.D. also asks some poignant questions, for example, on depression:
- “Why is depression rising in every age group?
- Why is someone born since 1945 likely to be up to 10 times more depressed than their grandparents?
- Why are adolescents the fastest growing age group of depression sufferers?
- Why is a child born to depressed parents 3 times more likely to be depressed?
The answers to these questions make it clear that depression involves much more than just a chemical imbalance in the brain, the popular but less than accurate belief many people hold. Drugs are not the ultimate solution to the rising rates of depression, because depression is about more than just biology.”
For now, let’s just leave it at this: genes are not destiny, and for all practical purposes, you’re better off assuming that your life is in your control.
Scientific trends often seem to come and go much in the same way as fashion trends, and often complex scientific observations and theories often mutate into oversimplified and overgeneralized solutions to complex problems.
This seems to be the case with biochemical explanations of human behavior: “Why do I do what I do? Because of brain chemistry.”
This idea that “It’s All Brain Chemistry” is discussed in greater depth elsewhere (Does Therapy Work?), but on the whole, we’ll skip to the back of the book answer: we do not need to feel that all our problems, behaviors, misfortunes and suffering are due to an unfortunate (or fortunate) random arrangement of the mush inside our skulls.
Ian H. Robertson, in his book Mind Sculpture, states that “Your brain is changed physically by the conversations you have, the events you witness and the love you receive. This is true all through your life, not just when you are an infant…We can modify our inclinations in countless ways in a process which constantly shapes and reshapes us…”
We have no idea who started this neo-urban myth, but well, in true scientific fashion, you can test this out. Which 90% would you want to cut out?
To further combat this misconception, we will quote Stanovich (2001) who quotes Radford (1999) who quotes Robert Samuelson’s definition of a psycho-fact as “a belief that, though not supported by hard evidence, is taken as real because its constant repetition changes the way we experience life,” and uses this as an example of the “folk myth” that lives on despite “no basis in cognitive neuroscience.”
Why, then, do such myths persist?
Our guess: it’s because of the proverbial grain of truth. We really are capable of doing or being more than we ordinarily think. We really might be coasting by using only a fraction of what we could be, if we were really pushing it.
But let’s not blame it on our brains. If, for some reason, we’d want to assume this is true, then let’s take the positive approach, and do everything in our power to use every neuron, every wrinkle of gray matter, every ounce of brain we can.
To our Lovely Readers:
What other psychobabble drives you crazy? Let us know. Contact us & tell us what you think.