Locating ‘Psychological-Self Help’ Within the World of Self-Help
This essay will discuss the online self-help book Psychological Self-Help by Dr. Clayton Tucker-Ladd. Since late 2004 I have had the good fortune to be able to discuss the book with Clay via e-mail (I am British and live in the U.K.). During that time I have both read the book and tried to apply some of the self-help techniques covered.
Most of us have things about ourselves that cause us some concern. A wish to change ourselves is a good thing if it helps us to overcome our problems and live our life better. If we are unable to live up to our ideals, however, that wish may be a source of disappointment and frustration.
The self-help market caters to our wish for personal improvement by providing us with a wide range of products promising to help us deal with many aspects of our life. Many of them make bold claims that seem to suggest there are simple solutions to all our problems. Some of our problems may be amenable to simple solutions, but the truth is that planned self-change is rarely likely to be easy or completely effortless. One of the striking features of Psychological Self-Help is that it starts out by presenting us with this hard truth.
One problem with most self-help books is that they brush over the awesome complexity of life for the sake of providing clear ‘answers’ to life’s problems, many of which may be quite wrong. Why do they do this? The authors may sincerely see things in these terms, but it may also be that they want to lay claim to a ‘magic’ method of self-change from which they can profit.
Self-help authors also may simplify things to present their ideas in an easy-to-use, easily understandable format. Perhaps they emphasize the effectiveness of their own method and ideas partly to encourage people to use them and benefit from them. The combined dynamic of all of these factors, however, creates a situation where truth is likely to be compromised for the sake of expediency.
While this may benefit the author in terms of sales and profits, and even, sometimes, his or her readership in terms of getting good results, it does little for the credibility of self-help as being trustworthy and reliable. I am not suggesting that highly effective methods don’t exist; I believe they do, just that this is a likely temptation for all self-help authors. This will continue as long as the popular success of self-help material depends on its level of commercial backing and its emotional appeal. It may still be possible for self-help books to achieve success on the basis of their effectiveness as we would hope. This is a possibility too and a more hopeful one, but by no means guaranteed.
The effectiveness of self-help material sometimes depends upon its emotional appeal and persuasiveness. Are the dual aims of persuasive presentation and objectivity inherently at odds with each other? People of a highly scientific or intellectual temperament tend to present facts and truths as they understand them in a measured and unexaggerated manner. They allow the facts to speak for themselves rather than advocating on behalf of their cause, and can sometimes appear dry and unemotional. It is as difficult to imagine this sort of person as an effective motivational speaker as it is to imagine the motivational speaker as a good scientist.
I am not suggesting that it is not possible for someone to be both persuasive and right. The goals of objectivity and persuasiveness, though, are very different and often conflicting ones.
The ability to persuade others to cooperate is an important skill that can be used for good or ill. The problem is that any sort of emotional appeal runs the risk of compromising objectivity for the sake of argument. Self-help will never be taken seriously as long as this is considered to be a defining characteristic.
A major area of concern for Dr. Tucker-Ladd is why this state of affairs has been allowed to develop (see Chapter 1). Why has this important area of human knowledge spawned a massive industry while receiving relatively little attention from academia and the educational system? Dr. Tucker-Ladd has spent his own working life as a university psychology lecturer and has taught self-help psychology to thousands of undergraduate students in order to try to pioneer a new approach to self-help; the book itself arose as part of this endeavor. He maintains a strong commitment to the importance of honesty in the effectiveness of self-help methods and their free distribution to everyone who can benefit from them. He envisions a future society in which self-help is given far greater importance in academic research and teaching.
Dr. Tucker-Ladd tries to rescue self-help from excess commercialism present it anew as a practical strategy for navigating life. No one can lay claim to self-help — self-help is simply that which each of us must do if we are to guide ourselves wisely through life. It belongs not to the media or the celebrity authors, but to everyone who questions the wisdom of being pushed along by life and starts to try to exercise some control.
Dr. Tucker-Ladd simply seeks to provide us with a new perspective on the possibility of self-change and the best available knowledge while giving us the the choice to select and apply the ideas most relevant to our own situation. We come to develop a sense of self-confidence based simply on having sincerely committed ourselves to a process of positive change, with an open-minded attitude and a willingness to take advantage of the many ideas and methods made available.
Of course, there would be little reason for us to want to try to apply self-help ideas if we didn’t hope to get anything from them, but overly optimistic expectations can lead to big disappointments. Those disappointments may lead us to abandon our efforts altogether.
Narrowly prescriptive solutions to life’s problems place us in the position of trying something that either ‘works’ or ‘doesn’t work.’ If we find a particular method doesn’t work for us we may even conclude that the fault lies with us, particularly if the book or product in question enjoys widespread renown. Psychological Self-Help offers us an invitation to learn to view our behavior, thoughts, emotions, and skills as a dynamic process, arising from a huge variety of internal causes and external stimuli. Those may be beyond our understanding and control in many significant respects, but they are potentially understandable and controllable to at least a somewhat greater degree. We are asked to approach the task with an open mind, to evaluate our progress, and to learn from our own experiences. The contrast with the standard prescriptive and formulaic presentation that most of us associate with ‘self-help’ could barely be any greater.
This understanding of human behaviour, known as ‘determinism’, is explained most extensively in Chapter 14 but is introduced from the start of the book (see Chapter 1) and referred to throughout. It is a powerful and profound way of viewing human behavior that helps us increase our tolerance and understanding of both ourselves and others.
Dr. Tucker-Ladd tries to be as realistic as possible about the effectiveness of self-help methods; he also tries to be as realistic as possible about what we humans really are like. This perspective contrasts sharply with the many unwarranted assumptions we tend to make about ourselves and others; the many cultural myths we have about humans and human behaviour; and moralistic attitudes that emphasis how we ‘ought’ to be and view human error and weakness in a judgmental and presumptive manner.
His perspective is a secular and scientific one, but is combined with genuine warmth and a compassionate acceptance of human frailty. A principal goal of self-help, as he understands it, is to help people to become more responsible and considerate in the way that they lead their lives; progress in this area can be made only through an initial acceptance of ourselves and others as we currently are. Such acceptance and understanding will give us a solid foundation from which we can plan positive change – something that we will never achieve for as long as we are in constant denial of what we are really like (see Chapter 15, Becoming Open-Minded).
Of course there are big areas of similarity with other self-help books, especially with respect to topic areas covered. The book reviews many methods and offers further reading recommendations. It also categorizes the specific advice given within individual books by problem areas or methods of change.
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Waterhouse, A. (2013). Locating ‘Psychological-Self Help’ Within the World of Self-Help. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 5, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/locating-psychological-self-help-within-the-world-of-self-help/