EP 176: Why You Hate Psychology – Self Esteem Movement and Positive Thinking

PositiveThinking Why do so many people have strongly negative feelings about the field of psychology? I think there are a handful of reasons and in this episode I talk about two of them: the so-called “self-esteem movement” and the “positive thinking” movement. Are psychologists responsible for why “kids today” appear to be so self-centered? Do psychologists think that changing yourself is as simple as just changing the way you think? Hear one psychologists opinion on this and my explanation on two reasons why I think maybe you hate psychology. Just hear me out.

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Reason 1: Why You hate Psychology: the Self Esteem Movement

The idea that we should let people know that they are important and good was indeed popularized in psychology during the humanistic psychology movement with Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. The idea is that if you are right environment – one which emphasizes unconditional positive regard, then you will be able to freely explore the issues that are keeping you from becoming your best self (self actualization in Maslow’s term). This idea spread to the world of education and somehow morphed into the idea that we should tell all students that they are special. While it’s true that some popular psychology books did emphasize this idea, it is definitely NOT embraced by all psychologists (see the article by psychologist Marilyn Price-Mitchell below). A more realistic picture of how to improve self esteem is provided in episode 9 of The Psych Files.
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Reason 2: The Positive Thinking Movement

It’s true that there is WAY too much emphasis on positive thinking when it comes to how to feel better about yourself. It would appear that thinking positively will cure just about anything. This is a distortion on what psychologists would refer to as positive psychology. Psychologists like Aaron Beck, Albert Ellis and Martin Seligman did indeed focus on how realistic your thinking is and how unrealistic and negative thought patterns can lead to depression, but their solution is not simply to “think positive thoughts”. The Secret and the Law of Attraction is NOT psychology – although they can seem to have the “ring” of psychology and psychology does have a lot to say about how to get a positive attitude. Positive affirmations is also not part of the true field of psychology. Listen to episode 46 for more of my opinion on the potential dangers of positive thinking.

Why People Hate Psychology

Comments

  1. Toby says

    When I think of psych I think of Gideon and his study of men drinking water to weed out the dogs from the alert warriors. Also, Solomon and his understanding of the psychology of mothers.

  2. Michael says

    I have to say I’ve never heard of either of those studies. If you’ve got a site or a citation I’d be interested in taking a look.

  3. says

    We really dig the idea behind compassion and empathy. The idea that being listened to can help us in a way, feel, appreciated and understood. Being able to validate our own feelings with a sounding board who is willing to be open and receive your message makes us feel calmer just thinking about it. Great Podcast. Cheers! -PsychedinSF

  4. Michael says

    Thanks PsychedinSF (great name). Yup – just having your feelings validated with no judgement and even no follow-up is a powerful. Sometimes “That sounds frustrating” is enough. “That sounds frustrating, but….” will probably be less helpful.

  5. says

    Bravo! I am a psychotherapist in Toronto and was just browsing around for new information and material and came across your podcasts, and this episode in particular. Your observations about therapy and its outlook are bang-on – there are different styles, modalities and quality of therapists. I too take strong exception with how much of today’s self-help movements have pilfered the works of Rogers, Maslow and Fritz Perls, who founded my modality of therapy – Gestalt. For a further example, NLP which seems to be growing in leaps and bounds, was founded on studying transcripts of Perl’s therapy. I am convinced that Fritz would roll-over in his grave if he saw how his transcripts were being used.

    I like to say that therapy is an “art”” and a process that takes patience. On a very base level, people have to realize that the psychological symptoms or dysphoria that they face are founded on decades of unaware thoughts and behaviours which cannot be “cured” over-night. To make matters worse, the job or occupation of a therapist is like any other. The practitioner has good days and bad days, and we are always learning. This, coupled with so many modalities and styles of therapy makes the therapeutic endeavour challenging for many patients. My hope is that people do not “hate” us because of this. Who knows, maybe the reason people learn to have more patience for themselves in therapy is simply because their patience is tested by the vagaries of the therapeutic process itself.

  6. Accendo says

    Just recently stumbled upon your podcasts, very thought provoking. I would have to say that I’m one of those that doesn’t hate psychologists. I admit I don’t like them, but only because I see psychologists as closed minded. I dislike that your way of thinking is based off society’s thinking, a little too impersonal I think.

    Just one other thing you mentioned, regarding “Change the way you think, change your life”. You said its it’s not that easy, I agree, it is not that easy. I think that hard or easy is irrelevant, the point is, if you do change your way of thinking it can and will change your life. When that will happen depends on the person and their will power. By placeing challenges into categories of easy and hard, I found that you would succeed in the things you thought were easy and most of the time give up on the hard. So by changing those thoughts of hard and easy and looking at them in a different way, will lead to a more thought changing process. Hence change your thoughts, change your life, it can happen, and yes it takes time, but if it makes you a better person, does time really matter?

  7. Michael says

    Brian: thanks for your comments. I haven’t done an episode on NLP (not that familiar with it). Sounds like a good idea for an episode (you an expert by any chance…?). Excellent point, “…people have to realize that the psychological symptoms or dysphoria that they face are founded on decades of unaware thoughts and behaviours which cannot be “cured” over-night.

    Accendo: I’m not sure what you mean when you say that psychology is “based off society’s thinking”. I agree that when you change the way you think you can change your thinking and behavior, but I worry about referring to someone’s “willpower”. We have to be careful to use terms like this because they allow us to blame someone’s difficult situation on their “lack of willpower” (blaming the victim). What is “willpower”? A person’s ability to change (and the speed at which they are able to change) is affected by so many things.

  8. says

    Hi Michael – Alas, I know very little about NLP. According to a Wikipedia Entry – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuro-linguistic_programming – and brief references in their first book, “The Structure of Magic”, the founders indicate that they have studied Perls’ transcripts as a way of coming-up with their methodology. I use NLP as an extreme example of therapy that is being taught as a “copy-of-a-copy-of-a-copy”. That is to say, we degrade a bit of the original every time we sort of reinvent it, or re-teach it. This is not to say that certain theories or modalities don’t need updating because of changing knowledge or a changing culture. However, as it relates to the proliferation of positive psychology and how it has entered into the self-help field, many seem to be taking only selective bits and pieces of larger theories.

    I remember one time I had a very distraught client in front of me, and I paid her a significant compliment, or in technical terms – I validated or provided meaning to her struggle. That comment accelerated her therapy significantly. A few sessions afterwards, she mentioned that my validation had meaning to her because she felt I was not the kind of therapist to say things that I don’t mean. In other words, the impact came not from the positive regard, but from the fact that she understood I meant what I said – or from the genuine encounter between us.

    I look at positive regard and inspiration this way… As a non-medical therapist, I am not able to prescribe medications, and quite often I feel that inspiration or positive regard is really the only “narcotic” that I can “dispense” to my patients. That is to say patients often demand it of me, and are often addicted to it. I find, however, my most potent use of it is when I am able to time and dose it correctly. Too much inspiration on my part makes patient immune to it, such that they require more and more of it, thus making therapy less and less effective.

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