It is a common idea that a thorough soul-seeking can solve any personal problem.
According to Professor Svend Brinkmann from the Department Communication and Psychology at Aalborg University in Denmark, this idea is utter rubbish created by the “self-help” industry.
In the protest against self-help books, Brinkmann has written one himself.
Brinkmann opposes the idea that every individual person can change themselves by means of mindfulness, coaching, and positive thinking.
These are all methods based on the assumption that all answers to our individual problems are to be found within our individual inner selves.
"Self-development is not something we can just take or leave. Today, it is a requirement if you want to be an useful employee or an attractive partner,” says Brinkmann. "When people are expected to constantly develop, they run into problems when it comes to building personal integrity -- i.e. being the same person regardless of time and place"
Brinkmann has chosen a rather unconventional way of presenting his points. He has written a book that resembles the self-help books he is criticising.
"It’s a self-help book with a humorous twist -- you might call it a self-help book against self-help books. I wrote it like that to generate debate."
In the best self-help book writing style Brinkmanns book has a seven step structure:
1. Stop soul-searching: From medical science we know that the more we try to feel, the worse we feel. The more we focus on our own health, the less well we feel. This is known as the ‘paradox of health’.
2. Focus on the negative aspects of your life: You have to acknowledge that you will gradually feel worse and worse and finally one day die. If you bear that in mind every day you will value life more highly than if you spend your time constantly searching for something positive to focus on.
3. Say no: As an adult you have to be able to say no in order to maintain personal integrity.
4. Repress your emotions: It is a common psychological assumption that you become neurotic if you do not express your emotions. However, research is unable to confirm this. Physical illness cannot generally be provoked by repressing one’s emotions. There is, however, evidence that men face a slightly smaller risk of getting cancer if they do express their emotions. The reverse is true for women, but this is trifles.
5. Fire your coach: Coaches encourage you to search within yourself and hierarchise your problems in order to focus on the most important ones first. Brinkmann objects to this. It is much more rewarding to look outwards and ask: "What historical and cultural traditions am I already grounded by?’, because you will not find useful answers by merely looking within yourself.
6. Read a novel -- not a self-help book or a biography: Analyses of self-help books and biographies reveal that both are very simple and linear in structure. What they are all about is growth during life, ultimately ending in redeeming success. The trouble is, though, that life is not like that. It is multifaceted and disorderly. Instead, pick up a novel, because they capture the complex psychological interplay between people and show how complicated living life actually is.
7. Dwell in the past: If you want integrity as a person you must remain the same tomorrow as you were yesterday. Which is why you should dwell in the past so that you can find out what you are made of.
"The seven bits of advice are key statements, which I regard as an antidote in a time were we have been too preoccupied with soul-searching. They obviously can’t stand alone, though. They are advice – not dogmas," says Brinkmann. "It’s social analysis, although I don’t put across my findings in the same way as most researchers do," Brinkmann comments on the format.
Brinkmann makes a point of emphasising that he is not on some kind of party-political, religious or political-ideological mission. The basic value-based inspiration for his criticism comes from philosophers who lived long before there was anything called socialism, liberalism or conservatism – even before Christianity and Islam emerged as world religions.
He has borrowed his approach to self-help literature from the Stoicism, a school of philosophy personified in particular by three great thinkers -- Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Lucius Annaeus Seneca, all of whom lived around 2000 years ago.
"They contemplated over what was fundamentally most important to people long before the modern political ideologies and monotheist religions came into being," says Brinkmann.
The Stoics believed that people felt most at ease if they kept emotions and reason as separate as possible. Doing so meant they were able to reach rational decisions using reason alone. Instead of allowing themselves to be influenced by irrational emotions, a Stoic had to remain ‘stoically calm’ -- that is to say, refrain from changing their behaviour no matter what happened. You have to be self-contained, take root and not allow yourself to get carried away.
Brinkmann approached examined the scientific justification for claims made by proponents of self-help. For instance, he looked for scientific evidence which could prove that it is a good idea always to listen to our emotions or that we can improve our lives by always staying positive.
His investigation showed that these two aspects of self-help are only true to a very limited extent.
"I took a good look at the texts that tell us that we should take decisions on the basis of gut feeling. I analysed the claims and looked for research that could shed light on the negative consequences of their thinking. I asked: What happens if we do the exact opposite? What if we say there is no answer to be found within ourselves?" says Brinkmann, "That’s how I found out the antithesis of the established truths is actually more reasonable".
Brinkmann is not the only Danish researcher to concern himself with self-development. Reinhard Stelter is Professor of Coaching Psychology at the Department of Sport and Nutrition at the University of Copenhagen. He conducts research into how we can improve analysis by means of coaching, mindfulness and learning.
Stelter would appear to be the academic opposite of Brinkmann. However, Stelter does not feel the very direct criticism of his field of activity is actually aimed at him. He feels namely that Brinkmann’s criticism is mainly targeted cheap coaching and self-help – what Stelter calls ‘airport literature’, books with titles like ‘Ten steps to a happy life’.
"I don’t think he’s really getting at me. Admittedly, I have only had the chance to read his statements as quoted in the press, but I get the impression that it is a polemic pamphlet. So some things are a bit exaggerated."
The American professor of psychology, Daniel Kahneman, won the Nobel Prize in 2002 for discovering that our gut feelings are often mistaken. Instead, we should think our problems through properly.
Source: Professor Brinkmann.
Stelter believes that his own methods actually already take into account the problems pointed out by Brinkmann. However, telling people that they should ‘fire their coach’ is not entirely fair. At least if you have a coach who works on the basis of the new methods which Stelter has developed together with Ole Fogh Kirkeby, a professor of philosophy at Copenhagen Business School.
Their book "Third Generation Coating" breaks with the idea of finding the answers in your own inner self.
The book is about creating a space for reflection, in which you seek the meaning of life, or the things you are engaged in, together with your coach. The answers are not to be found within the people themselves, but in the relationship – in the interplay and dialogue between two people or in group coaching. “You actually develop together with others," says Stelter.
According to Stelter this is part of what Brinkmann is talking about. “You shouldn’t constantly be seeking something new,” he says.
"Stelter is quite right to call the message of my book polemic," says Brinkmann. The message that we should rather make roots than constantly be on the move is deliberately exaggerated in order to enhance our understanding.
Brinkmann would not recommend that we slavishly adhere to his seven-step guide. But it is necessary to spell things out in block capitals if one is to penetrate the conception of how we should behave in a society strongly influenced by the self-help industry.
"At the moment we only have language for readjustment and flexibility. That is what I’m trying to change. But both extremes are wrong, of course. It’s wrong only to change and develop, and it’s also wrong only to stand still and grow root," says Brinkmann.
The book "Stå Fast - et opgør mod tidens udviklingstvang" (Stand firmly - a revolts against the development force of today) has been published by Gyldendal in Danish only.
Read the original story in Danish on Videnskab.dk