A Problem with Self Help
Bob decides to adopt some self help strategies in order to be happier in his life and relationships. In order to improve himself and his life, Bob decides to think more positively about things. Part of that intention includes stopping his negative thinking. He might even throw in some positive affirmations as a means for improvement. It’s all done with high hopes and good intentions. And so the adventure into self help begins with Bob paying closer attention to his thoughts.
There is a problem though, Bob doesn’t yet have any better control over his mind. His mind wanders with positive and negative thoughts like it always has. The difference is that he is now more aware of his thoughts. When his mind wanders off into negative thoughts, Bob catches himself. Reactively, he criticizes himself for those negative thoughts. Those criticisms about his negative thoughts add to his negative thoughts. He’s aware enough to realize that self judgments are also negative thoughts. So Bob’s inner judge judges himself,,, for criticizing himself,,, for having those negative thoughts. The result is more negative thoughts than he started with and a lot more than he was ever aware of before.
To Bob it looks like he is going backwards. He is failing miserably at this Self Help thing. Emotionally he feels like a failure. But intending to do his best, and building on “success” principles he’s read about, he decides to be persistent, and commit even harder to this process that is making him feel worse.
Bob pushes out more positive affirmations amidst his self judgments of failing at his attempts. This piles on top of his original program of negative thoughts he started with. Of course, not having done anything to eliminate the source of negative thoughts,,, they continue to arise. Thinking he should be able to just “will” or “wish” his negative thoughts away with positive affirmations, Bob maintains high expectations. The result is more negative thoughts and self judgments than he was ever aware of, and he feels worse than when he started.
Bob’s not aware of what his mind is doing with his “good self help intentions.”
What Bob isn’t aware of is that the inner judge in his mind uses those high expectations as a standard he should meet. His goal has become a measurement stick for his judge to conclude he has failed. The result of the self judgment for not meeting his high expectations is a negative thought. Bob again feels like a failure. If Bob has some awareness that he is engaged in this negative self judgment, his inner judge might use that to tell him that he shouldn’t be judging himself. What Bob’s mind does with the goals and intentions of his positive thinking program is to spiral him downward.
This is Bob’s experience with Self Help. Bob’s failing because he isn’t aware of what is driving the negative thoughts in his mind, or even the judgmental ones. Since he is not aware of this underlying program,,, he has very little chance of changing it.
Your mind has a program of its own
Imagine that you are the pilot of an airplane. You want to fly from Los Angeles to Hawaii. You take off, and set the autopilot to fly the plane west. You scan your instruments, check your charts, sip your coffee, and make a few radio calls. When you check your compass 60 seconds later you discover that the autopilot is now flying the airplane south towards Mexico.
You take hold of the yoke, turn right, and correct your course west. You reset the autopilot to fly west. After checking the fuel levels, fuel flow, altitude, and weather radar, you notice the autopilot has turned the airplane south, again. The problem with the autopilot continues each time your attention wanders from the compass for more than a few seconds. Half the time you check your heading you discover the autopilot is taking the airplane in the wrong direction. You continually take positive action to correct your course towards Hawaii. However in the process you are flying a zigzag course, burning a lot more fuel than you planned, and taking longer than you should.
We’ll this kind continual course correction approach is what people are doing when they try typical self help methods like “think more positively”.
That autopilot in the airplane is Bob’s subconscious mind filled with a program of beliefs. It does its own automatic thinking and produces a direction of negative thoughts. Those beliefs continually generate and project stories, images, and thoughts into Bob’s conscious mind. Bob’s belief system is like that auto pilot program. The result of a faulty autopilot program is that it produces negative thoughts, images, and stories. Like the compass heading, we can see the negative thoughts. But the negative thoughts are just a symptom of a faulty program that generates them.
You don’t see the faulty program in the autopilot that’s taking you off course. You just see the results and consequences on your compass heading. In the same way you don’t see the beliefs in the programming of your mind at first glance either. You can observe the negative thoughts and the judgments of the inner judge as well, but the problem isn’t the negative thoughts. Negative thoughts are just a symptom of a programmed belief system.
Do you think you can just think or will, your way towards positive thoughts? Try it. Sit for 10 or 20 minutes and quiet your mind. See how long it lasts. If you practice meditation, you learn to observe your thoughts. With some practice you will notice that your thoughts arise in your mind all by them selves. You can literally observe this happening if you gain control over your attention.
Changing Negative Thinking Requires Changing Beliefs.
If you want to change the negative thinking in your mind, there is no need to get caught up in trying to change your negative thoughts. These are just a symptom of what is going on in your belief system. It also doesn’t make much sense to continually put out positive thoughts and affirmations in an attempt to replace negative ones.
If you had a problem with the autopilot on your airplane, would you be happy to just manually course correct every time you found your autopilot going in the wrong direction? Probably not. You would probably want to fix the autopilot. When you try to replace negative thoughts with positive ones, you haven’t done anything to change what created the negative thought.
Negative thoughts keep arising from the same negative false beliefs and inner judge that haven’t been re-programmed. You can steer your mind in a positive direction when you are aware of it, but most of the day your mind is on automatic pilot? It’s operating by the same set of core beliefs that were there from years before.
It would be nice to think that we could just plant a positive thought in our mind and it would blossom. However this is naïve. It doesn’t take into account all the programmed beliefs that are already there. It would also be nice to think that we could focus our attention on positive thoughts throughout the day. This is also naïve. It isn’t that easy to consciously focus your attention for hours in this way. Also, we are so busy with our usual habits, that our mind goes into autopilot and we kind of fall asleep at the wheel. Gaining control over your ability to focus your attention through out the day is completely possible, but it takes some time and practice. More time than your inner judge has probably built into its expectations.
I say this not because it is difficult and you should be afraid of the task. But because failure to have an honest understanding of what it takes to change negative thinking sets you up for unrealistic expectations. Unrealistic expectations are a set up for failure. Failure from unrealistic expectations is fertile ground for more negative thoughts from self judgment.
Self Help Spirals into Failure
When we find ourselves failing, self help approaches try to encourage us. They sometimes tell us to; Keep trying, Persistence is the key, Don’t give up. That’s encouraging,,, sort of. They are telling you to try harder at what isn’t working. That might be encouragement, but I don’t know if it’s good advice.
It’s like suggesting to keep making course corrections when the autopilot takes you south into negative thinking. It’s ignoring the real problem and telling you to work hard while you run out of fuel. If you are new to self help, you may not know about belief systems and what it takes to change their programming. In that naïve state you assume that the positive affirmation approach should work. When it doesn’t, your inner judge will tell you that you are a failure for it not working. It isn’t true. You were given a technique that was set up for failure because it never addressed the program of your core beliefs.
Wouldn’t be better to fix the autopilot of your mind that keeps generating those negative thoughts?
There are circumstances where each self help approach is valid. It is going to work in some instances for some people, sometimes. But, by my experience, many self help techniques have a limited possibility for success. The suggestions may be well intentioned, but overall, you keep trying to correct symptoms without ever fixing the underlying core belief that is the problem.
Identifying and changing the false beliefs behind negative thoughts and behaviors takes more time to learn than an affirmation, but it can lead to a more permanent solution. Since this isn’t a “quick fix” it may not be as appealing. However, the “quick fix” way may not be a viable solution so at a certain point that direction loses its appeal also.
The Self Mastery Course provides a practical set of exercises so you can become an observer of your mind and inventory and change your core beliefs. The first four sessions are free.1