Telling Yourself Something Encouraging: A Pet Peeve.

With some regularity I read about psychological experts, or some quasi-therapeutic organizations, who have recommended to their members or readers that they tell themselves something or other: “Everyday I’m getting better in every way,” or “I can do this” or “I’m really attractive deep down” or some such seemingly factual statement. This advice is intended to help these subjects become more optimistic. Essential to the success of many different therapeutic programs, including, for instance, those dedicated to weight loss, is an optimistic, if not enthusiastic, attitude of their clients, customers, or patients. Therapists want their patients to feel good about themselves.  Most therapies are based on the need to behave differently; and it is hard to convince participants to change unless they feel they can change. But either these statements are true, or they are not. Why should someone remark to himself/herself, as if he/she were some other person, something he or she already knows? We don’t customarily remind ourselves of things we know to be true: “I am a college graduate,” or “I am married with a child,” or “I am capable of getting up every morning and going to work.”  I think encouraging someone to affirm these other statements implies that there is a doubt about them and simply repeating them over and over again will make them come true. Does anyone really believe that?

Imagine a person with low self-esteem repeating over and over again: “I am a worthwhile person.” Will that give that individual courage to behave in a way which will allow others to be more respectful? No. If such an individual has behaved in ways that encourage bad treatment by others, it is for good (important) psychological reasons; and change cannot be accomplished just by pretending they do not exist. And I think the therapists, or group leaders, know that. They are attempting to say, “I believe you can do this.” or “I believe you are a worthwhile person.” It is a way of giving the patient a pat on the back: “You can do it, kid. Get out there and give it your best.” Maybe this works sometimes. Patients have told me that they think it works sometimes. They feel better repeating a sunshiny mantra. I think   something more subtle may have changed. But maybe encouragement is all that they needed.  Certainly, this sort of advice is not uncommon.

But very often it does not work—because the client/patient knows that it is a pretense. After this half-hearted stab at self-hypnosis, he or she will continue to struggle and find it difficult to live up to the therapist’s expectations, at least in his/her mind. Then that man or woman is left feeling just a little worse than before. The very fat person who has been told repeatedly to say, “I can do it, I can do it,” like the little engine who could, will need more help than that to lose weight.

Change is possible. Of course, those who feel that they are always falling short are worthwhile. But telling them to buck up and hold their heads high is not going to make any difference. So, what then does work?

Consider this thumbnail description of neurotic—or self-defeating—behavior: Men and women  grow up in a setting where important people, and events, have led them to believe that for one reason or another, they cannot or should not behave in those ways that assertive and healthy people do. They then fail and begin to think of themselves increasingly as failures. Treatment is directed at giving them a more realistic and more optimistic perspective on themselves so that they can assert themselves more effectively and succeed—making them feel better about themselves, which works to make them even more courageous and successful. So, a number of things have to change—more or less simultaneously—their attitude about themselves and the behavior that grows out of that attitude. Just telling someone what to think will not change anything.

Anyone who does therapy will come more or less to these conclusions:

  1. Telling a client how to feel about anything will not change those feelings. What people feel  is not under their control. It is a consequence of events and the self-image that person has learned over many years. The only way to change what that person feels will be to change his/her experiences. When things go well, that person is likely to feel better.
  2. Telling a client what to think will have only a small effect on those thoughts. Many of the neurotic thoughts such a person has are automatic. Someone can be persuaded to direct his/her attention away from a frightening or disheartening thought, but only briefly. Sometimes that is enough time for a panic attack to recede, or enough time to restrain inappropriate and impulsive behavior; but only for a very brief while.
  3. What is under control, although the client may not believe it, is behavior. If someone can be persuaded to behave effectively, even if such behavior feels uncomfortable or not authentic, good things happen; and everything changes.

I also think that just telling yourself that you will study tomorrow or diet after the holidays is not likely to work either. (c) Fredric Neuman