Why self help doesn’t work at times

When self help techniques don’t work you can feel like a failure

There are many wonderful self help suggestions to assist people to change their life and be happy. However it is my experience that much of the time the techniques offered aren’t effective in creating lasting change. They also might leave people judging themselves for failing in their efforts when they don’t work. The real problem was using and ineffective self help approach. A self help technique is like a tool. If you don’t know how to handle the tool it won’t help you. You can also hurt yourself with it emotionally if you are not careful.

MP3 Audio on why we resist the very change we desire
Fear of Emotional Change mp3 (30min)

I don’t want to condemn the possibilities for self help because just about any technique will work provided the desire to change is strong enough to overcome the obstacles. My point is that many of them don’t provide a comprehensive approach to deal with the obstacles and resistance that can show up. This leaves the person without the proper arsenal of tools and sets them up for failure.

If self help the way it is being done was really that effective it wouldn’t be such a growing industry. Rather it seems that the self help industry is much like the diet industry where most people go from one to the other without long term solutions.

Here is a simple example of a self help suggestion that is a set up for failure: “Let go of being right,” or, “Stop being critical.” Implementing this “simple” change can do wonders when it is accomplished, but these are difficult changes to implement by themselves. Most people will struggle or fail with their attempts, here’s why.

I use these two together because they have the same obstacle. A person that criticizes is operating from the assumption that they are right. This point or view isn’t just about finding fault with others; it also props up a person’s ego. When a person believes they are right they feel better about themselves. It has the effect of building a person’s self esteem, and produces an sense of self acceptance in their mind. A positive self image is served and a person feels good about themselves when they believe they are right even if it is at another person’s expense. Probably the most powerful element in being right is the positive emotion one feels

For a person to drop their criticisms they would have to let go of their ego’s version of their positive self image. They would also have to move away from the good feelings this creates. That is not easy to do.

Add to that most people’s minds are conditioned to work in duality. Their unconscious mind is likely to assume that if they are not right, they must be wrong. When their mind assumes they are wrong they project unconscious self images of being a failure. This is an emotionally unpleasant association that is to be avoided. Letting go of being right is more than walking away from a mind set that feels good, it means walking into an emotion of feeling bad. This isn’t the only option but most people’s mind’s automatically split behaviors into right/wrong and good/bad associations.

A person may want to change, but the emotional consequence is too high. Often a person will try to stop being critical, fail, and then beat themselves up for failing because of an emotional obstacle they didn’t see. These unseen obstacles in the mind make progress with self help techniques slow or non-existent. A decision to change a behavior isn’t likely to be effective if there are subconscious

An effective way around this obstacle is to first develop an emotional base that isn’t founded in being right. The free session on Gratitude is a simple practice that builds a secure emotional base needed to make other changes. When the mind doesn’t have to cling to an imagined self image to feel good it becomes easier to let go of being critical.

Resistance to Self Help Techniques

What about the suggestion to “Start thinking positively,” or “Shift your attitude”? These have their obstacles too. To change our thinking lets first understand where our thoughts come from. The thoughts we think mostly arise out of our core beliefs. Consider that two people have different thoughts on an issue then they also hold different beliefs. This means that to make permanent changes in your thinking requires that you change your core beliefs.

To assume that you can adopt a different thought process without changing the beliefs that form your thoughts is a naïve approach to making real change. An anorexic person doesn’t drop the belief that she is overweight just by thinking the idea “I am thin”. You might feel like you have done something for the moment, but behaviors and core beliefs probably haven’t moved any.

Can affirmations work? These are the phrases you consciously tell yourself over and over until you actually become aligned with those thoughts. Can these work for some people? I suppose they can but most people do not have the patience and discipline to continue with them to be effective.

I vividly remember a man describing his experience with affirmations in an effort to overcome his insecurities. Each morning in front of the mirror he would tell himself, “I am a man, and a man is a wonderful thing to be.” When he did this all the beliefs of unworthiness in his mind would counter back with judgments that his affirmation was a lie and that he was stupid for saying it. He felt like a fool. His core beliefs were speaking loudly against his positive affirmations. Each time he affirmed his new thought his old beliefs would assert themselves and counter his efforts. He continued saying the affirmation and after 2 years he stopped feeling foolish. He no longer felt like he was lying into the mirror. I personally don’t have the patience for this approach.

Putting on a positive attitude or adopting positive thinking without changing the underlying core beliefs isn’t likely to bring sustained change. It is a lot like putting a new coat of paint over material that is rusting and peeling. For the new paint to really take and be lasting you first need to clean up the core belief structure underneath.

Exercise to eliminate negative internal dialogue is just as likely to create self rejection

This suggested exercise comes from a popular TV psychologist. I pulled it from his website where he suggests a journaling exercise for eliminating your negative internal dialogue. If anyone has done the exercise please let me know. If a number of people are successful I can remove it from this page but I find that highly doubtful. Here are the basics of his recommended journaling exercise.

“Suggested exercise During a low stress day periodically take a break from what you are doing and write down the internal dialogue in your head. You are to look back over the writing and ask a series of questions to assess for any patterns and habits.”

This part is a good opportunity to become aware of your thoughts and patterns. Greater self awareness will allow for greater opportunity for personal change. However he also asks you to make some assessments whether what you have written is positive or negative. This is a little dangerous as it can open the door for our inner judge to be harsh on ourselves. Here is part of what he suggests.

“As you look at your writing, answer this question: What kind of a friend are you to yourself throughout the day?”… “You’re the one who talks to you, all day, every day. What kind of friend are you? Are you actively creating a toxic environment for yourself, contaminating your experience of the world? Or are the messages that you send yourself characterized by a rational and productive optimism?”

This approach doesn’t account for the critical voice in our head

My assumption is that a person doing this exercise is probably unhappy and unfulfilled in their life. People who are really happy and filled with joy don’t usually do this kind of introspection. If this is the case they already have an actively self critical voice in their head. Having someone ask these questions is an open opportunity for the critical voice to judge themselves. It is more likely that the inner judge of their mind will answer these questions instead of them. This is just adding fuel to a fire of negative internal dialogue and doesn’t seem to be an effective means to eliminate it.

This assignment has a potential upside for some people IF they are able to read what they wrote, AND they can see the beliefs behind the thoughts without believing them!, THEN, they have an opportunity to dissolve these beliefs. However not many people will be able to do this the first day out.  Besides, these suggestions aren’t offered nor are the steps to take in dissolving a belief.

Becoming aware of the internal dialogue is a step in expanding your awareness and an important step in permanently changing the emotional quality of your life. You can’t change something until you are aware of it. However you want to have effective tools and skills available for dealing with what you find in your internal dialogue. Probably the most important skill is to refrain from letting the critical voice in your head take you down with self judgment. In Audio Coaching course I provide number of exercises to neutralize the sabotaging voice in our mind.

Any self help technique is a tool that can set you free, or hurt yourself

Any technique or method to make changes in your attitude, emotions, and beliefs can be effective if the person has enough desire or awareness to avoid the obstacles. Any technique can also be twisted by your mind in a way to cause more emotional pain than it eliminates. The Buddhist traditions are quite good at identifying these distortions and commonly refer to them as “near enemies”. I’ve seen just about any method of personal growth twisted into something that creates self judgment. It is important to have a sense of when a tool is doing more emotional harm than good and put it aside for a while. This is where a mentor can be extremely helpful if they have experience navigating people around these obstacles.

Self Help and Personal Growth for Happiness

If we are to be successful in our path of life change we will need to effectively deal with obstacles of ego, fear, core beliefs, and the judgmental voice in our head. These elements of the mind have a survival interest and don’t usually give up easily. If you don’t have tools and practices in your arsenal to deal with these obstacles your path to happiness will be much tougher. I think dealing with these obstacles is so crucial that I’ve built many of the Online course exercises around navigating these obstacles and avoiding the pitfalls they create.