Is Self Help a Source of Our Problems?

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As someone who spent five years running self-improvement seminars across the country, I am certainly no stranger to the culture of positive thinking that continues to expand throughout our nation. I am also well aware of the many valuable benefits that changing your thought patterns can have on the success, meaning, and overall excellence of your life. And yet, as life seeks its balance, we must always be ready to embrace the other side of life’s coin.

Just as there is day, there is night. Just as there is summer, there is winter. And just as there is positive thinking, there is negative thinking… or what we will call here, critical thinking. And if we truly want to be successful, both individually and collectively, we will have to realize that critical thinking is neither “wrong” nor “bad.”

You see, pessimism balances optimism because the learning that comes from questioning balances the confidence that comes from faith. We are not perfect and our imperfections will naturally surface during the course of our lives. If we never step back to be critical and look at what is “going wrong,” we will never learn how to “make it right.” Positive thinking might give us confidence and an openness to possibility, but we need competence to match our confidence in order to make use of our openness and make our possibilities real.

The problem that occurs when positive thinking goes to extremes is that people often lose touch with reality when they avoid accepting that something might “go wrong.” They can also be unprepared when times of scarcity come around to balance our times of abundance and challenge us to grow and perfect our imperfections. So their positive thinking can lead them to try to accelerate their lives forward on the highway of progress faster than the highway can actually be built. And then when there is no foundation beneath their feet, the fall can sometimes be harsh.

Finally, while those practicing positive thinking are often very caring people, their positive thinking can sometimes be quite self-focused, leading them to neglect to think about other people (i.e., “there’s enough for everyone so I can keep having more and more and more…”). Yes, this world is potentially abundant, potentially infinite, but we have to make that potential real through actions, and when we neglect the current realities of inequality, the system ultimately crashes.

As examples of this trend, I will use comments from two of my colleagues (though of course I won’t use their names). Keep in mind that I’m talking about teachers in the self-help field, leaders in the field of expanding your “awareness” and understanding of life, and so they even more intimately demonstrate some of the potential pitfalls of the field.

In the first case, over two years ago, upon having a conversation with one of colleague about the topic of my first book, one that discussed the approaching possibility of a severe economic crisis, he said that he did not believe it would happen because he had studied in his business graduate course that the government had fixed the core problems that surfaced from both the Great Depression and the East-Asian financial crisis.

In his mind, even though the current trends and facts matched the same types of trends that led to past economic crises, his positive thinking would not let him open his mind to the possibility that something might be going “wrong” because we had supposedly made all the changes that we needed to. And the fact that he comes from the world of “self” empowerment can make his approach seem all the more incongruent based on the fact that, in the face of very clear trends, he was expressing such a strong willingness to depend on “others” to save us from the situation – which is an approach that we would tend to call “blind (or unaware and unquestioning) faith.”

This kind of hopeful (or wishful) thinking, the kind that does not allow for critical thinking, is common in the self-help field. In fact, in the second case, another colleague (one who was on the hit DVD movie, The Secret) specifically went on the attack of what he called the “gloom-and-doom” mentality about our economic situation – a field (i.e. economics) that, based on his comments and background, he probably knows very little about).

Now, he talked about the opportunities that would surface from our problems, and in this comment, he is definitely correct because rebuilding will certainly be needed and growth can also occur in some areas while many others might be in a decline. But a recognition of the reality that our economic situation is moving downhill for our nation as a whole does not have to be posed as something harmful. Conditions are worsening, and if we really want to learn from it, we should focus on it (and focus on it seriously) so that we can learn from it in order to make “real,” substantial change.

This second teacher’s perspective also reflects a common lack of substantial concern, within the “self”-oriented “self”-help community, for the collective experience.Yes, people can “take advantage” of the opportunities that exist in economic markets. But that drive to take advantage of situations for personal gain is part of the problem that has led us to this current reality. The positive thinking, self-improvement minded people who wanted to “get ahead” were part of the group focused on gaining from the rise of real estate, gaining from the mortgage riches, gaining from the rise in commodities, and gaining from the multi-level marketing pyramid structures, and so they rode the wave way beyond what was actually created through work and production and now, as a result, the markets and prices are falling like a rock from a skyscraper, gaining momentum on the way down and leaving lots of damage to others along its descent.

Positive thinking is valuable and it feels good. Questioning can also be valuable and feel good. So be willing to see your imperfect patterns just as much as your successful patterns. Be willing to recognize and embrace the fall that might come when you move to a place of extremes and excess. Be willing to question yourself when your confidence strides too far past your competence. And look around you at the effects of your actions when times might be abundant for you but not for others as a result of your actions. We live in an interdependent world. And we live in a world that has a bit more complexity and depth than just “thinking positive thoughts” and “expecting the best.”

If you look around at our national scene and our current national problems and then look at the kinds of attitudes that played a role in the build-up to those problems, you can clearly see how the self-oriented, ignorance-of-collective-challenges-is-bliss, and at times naïve, self-help, positive psychology movement is a reflection of the imperfections of our national confidence just as much as of its tremendous value. So maybe, the self-help movement and its leaders need a little help from and need to give a little help to those “others” who live by their side in this country and in this world.

To learn more about the trends of our constantly changing global world, purchase Thriving at the Brink of Disaster at:

To begin applying these ideas to your own life, answer the questions below:

  • Where in your life do you use positive thinking in an attempt to avoid having to work and build success rather than to add your work and progress in building success?
  • Where in your life do you seek opportunities for easy money without regard for how your investment or involvement might adversely affect others
  • List all the ways you’ve made easy money and thoroughly evaluate what effects they have on others. If you don’t know, then research it and be willing to hear from the other side. What does the other side of the coin say? How can you understand their point of view? What can you do to help?
  • Where in your life has your confidence can too far past your competence and led you to take actions you weren’t prepared for?
  • Where in our society have these types of patterns created adverse effects? And what can you do to be a part of changing that pattern and redirecting the course of our fate?

Todd Levinson

My life is dedicated to furthering the ideals of truth, freedom, justice, and peace. I love life. I love people. And I love this world. My work is for anyone desiring to make the best of who they are while helping to create the best of this world. It is for those who don't simply take life at face value, but instead seek to understand the deeper truths in their experiences while still enjoying the beauty of each moment. Expand your mind; open your heart; perfect your body; evolve through your actions - that is what I strive to do every day.

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