Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Self- Improvement: A Pathway to Psychosis?

In the American cultural and social milieu, self-improvement is taken almost as a right of passage or some singular spiritual birthright. Anyone who would disclaim such effort is generally regarded with deep suspicion and his/her American creds questioned. I mean, only a communist would disavow the need for everyone to partake of self-improvement. Right?

Not really! Enter now clinical psychologist Richard Lind, in his book, The Seeking Self (Phanes Press) who argues that those who aggressively strive or seek to be vastly better than their “natural” selves, are in fact neurotics and might be on the way to becoming psychotics.  Is this some kind of heresy or is he serious?

Well, it turns out he’s totally serious.  And he warns that dogging the efforts of every self-improvement seeker or striver is a barely concealed “shadow identity” just itching to break loose and make the passionately striving self-enhancer look like a proverbial fool. Therapy itself is not to be trusted because it “mirrors a dysfunctional dominant relationship”. In other words, the therp plays the role of Domme, while the patient acts as the submissive who blurts out, “Beat me please!’

Breaking away from the path to self-perfection  then means “unlearning the conditioned patterns of self-dominance and submission to dominance by others”. In other words, being able to toss that little voice in the head that keeps harassing you to “do better” into the shit pile, as well as those external voices that harangue you for  not being better than you are. (Ok, you don’t want to toss them into a shit pile, but at least ignore them)

Lind puts all personal goal directed self-perfection and improvement schemes and agendas under what he calls the “progressive development” meme. In all such cases and instances, these schemes rest on the delusional assumption (according to Lind) that human nature is infinitely “perfectible” and can be pushed to become something beyond what is characteristic of one’s natural self. Hence, the use of the term “progressive” in the sense of being able to get better and better, i.e. “progress” in the goal of self-perfection.

Quoting psychologist Martin Seligman (p. 129):

Improving is absolutely central to American ideology. It is tantamount in importance to freedom in our national identity. Indeed, advancement is probably the end for which Americans believe freedom is the means

Which Lind takes as one of the most pathetic attributes of Americans ever unearthed. He also goes on to another pertinent Seligman quote (ibid.):

Traditionally, most people in the West have believed that character is fixed and unalterable. That people do not and cannot advance, improve, advance or perfect themselves.  This change from a deep belief in the unchangeability of character to the equally deep belief in the capacity to improve is recent and it represents one of the most fundamental and important developments in  modern thought.”

But in Lind’s theory, it also represents the deepest reservoir of personal frustration and inner rage when the sought after advancement doesn’t materialize. The person then devolves into a psycho of sorts who is consumed by self-hatred and whose shadow identity may well take control. (Think of the ‘Joker’ persona in the case of mass murderer James Eagen Holmes.)

As Lind puts it (p. 130):

The goals may then become the substance of madness that operates by continually mistaking fictional prescriptions and goals for reality

I.e. if God “loves me” then I need to become the best God-believer I can be and that means praying at least five times a day for a half hour each time. But I find there are too many time conflicts and I can’t do it, can’t meet the goals! Then I have failed and am no longer a godly God believer, so God must hate me! I’ve now no choice but to hate myself as well for how can it be otherwise,  if God does? And what of those people out there…..hmmmmm…they must hate me too! This must mean I am evil, so I could as well…… (Perish that thought!)

Lind then cites contrarian psychologist James Hillman and observes that “Hillman is proposing that the Self’s compulsive tendency toward striving can be regulated by recognizing the illusory, fictitious ideals it is striving toward.”

Thus, from the example earlier, the “best God believer one can be” amounts to an illusory goal, a fictitious ideal. It’s no more sane or real than the goal of counting angels on the head of a pin. If one pursues it, therein madness lies and a likely trip to the nearest rubber room with thorazine and ECT administered three times daily.

What then is the healthy approach for a human to take? (A human that doesn’t feel obliged to take him-herself too seriously 24/7?)   The answer in a nutshell is to learn to recognize one’s “natural self” or basic  character, and leave it be, i.e DO NOTHING! Live with it, as opposed to treating it like a pie or cake that hasn’t been fully baked!

Lind does admit this can be damned near impossible for most Western culture psychology and self-improvement addicts, especially Americans. As he writes (p. 152):

“Although many people seem to reach the end of their rope in the pursuit of ideals, they do not recognize the alternative of giving up altogether. This is because, after creating and structuring a self construct based on the progressive developmental paradigm, to give it up is experienced as mental illness or psychological death.”

Which begs the question of WHY?  After all, if reality dictates one recognize the goals of self-improvement are illusory or unreal then surely cessation is the only sane response.  Hence, the very self construct that actively and endlessly strives for an ideal self is that for the genuine mentally ill person.   Worse, the ‘shadow identity’ that is persistently disowned or disavowed (because it is too ‘weak’, or too ‘sexual’ or too ‘uninhibited’) then threatens to break loose and foul everything up anyway. Lind observes this usually happens via assorted unpredictable pathways including: forgetting important events or duties, blurting out foolish statements in inappropriate settings, making boondoggle mistakes (forgetting to correct an important line of code in a new beta program) or all the above. Basically, you can keep the ‘shadow self’ out part of the time but not all the time, and if you’re too effective it’ll break free in the least appealing conditions. To contain it and tread the ‘perfecto’ path you better be damned good at ‘whack-a –mental mole’!

Lind also cites a book that can be of use to perpetually hooked self-improvement addicts:

Stephen Harrison’s  Doing Nothing – Coming to the End of the Spiritual Search  “where the realization of the futility of seeking is described in personal, graphic  and convincing language.”

More to the point, Lind leaves all those enmeshed in the self-improvement matrix to seriously consider answering the following questions:

-        What are you seeking?

-        How are you seeking it?

-        How are you going to achieve this goal?

-        How much progress have you actually made?

-        WHY are you suffering?

-        WHO are you?

-        WHY don’t you like yourself as you are?

-        What would it be like if you achieved your goal?

 Lind argues that these open-ended questions "ought to provoke a thorough questioning and understanding of the modern, heroic, self-improvement construct”. And to the extent that self-interest is imbued in this effort, the person is pursuing an illusory path destined to end in pain, suffering and disaster.

 Fortunately, speaking for myself, I ditched the self-improvement bullshit soon after getting prostate cancer and having it treated. I realized then and there that whatever I am I will remain and the odds are slim to none I will ever be any “better”.  So, I accept myself as a basic pessimist and curmudgeon and see no need to delude myself  that I can become a chirpy  “Pollyanna” even after another decade – should I live so long.

 Of course, this goes counter to the twaddle pushed by the self-improvement BS factories which actually insist that “cancer ought to spur you to becoming a better person”. And hence, for some reason, those morons believe a disease – a freaking awful disease – can spur you to betterment, to personal advancement. Don’t believe it! I was no different, no better after the disease than before. Indeed, it’s likely I still have the disease though it is in abeyance.  The point is that no amount of “attitude adjustment”  or  self-seeking goal pursuit can suddenly convert you to being a better human being. The main lesson in Lind’s book is to therefore accept who you are and live with it. Trying to change who you are to become a superior human is a fool’s errand.


No comments: