[W]e are in a new era of mass self-help, wherein the laboratory and the writer work together to teach us how to change ourselves, rather than our world. (Boris Kachka)
I’m interested in self-help for the same reasons I’m interested in healthism. “Self-help is the psychiatric equivalent of healthism,” I once wrote. Healthism is an anxious preoccupation with one’s physical health, encouraged by those who profit financially from inducing anxiety. Self-help is an anxious preoccupation with one’s psychological self, encouraged by an abundance of self-help literature, personal seminars, and tell-all TV shows. (More fundamentally, of course, the proliferation of self-help advice is the result of a profound twentieth century change in how we understand ourselves, which is the subject of this blog.)
Both healthism and self-help assume that individuals are ultimately responsible for their problems, whether medical or psychological. Personal responsibility relieves society of the expense and inconvenience of creating healthier, more equitable lives for its members. Robert Crawford pointed this out in 1980. That early glimmer of a potential trend has done nothing but escalate. Read more
What follows was originally published in 1981. (You can tell from the sentence “Would it be worth getting an answering machine?” Yes, folks, not only was there a time when not everyone had a cell phone. People actually used to talk to each other on the phone rather than send a text message.) See the posts Something I wrote a long time ago and More thoughts from the past.
For the most part, the events of everyday life appear intelligible. We’re able to deal with almost any situation, no matter how inconvenient or confusing it may seem at first, in a manner that’s sufficient to satisfy our immediate interests. But since socially constructed worlds are inherently unstable, and our knowledge of everyday reality is essentially inadequate, anxiety is inevitable. We don’t experience anxiety as a problem of knowledge, however, but as a problem of who we are. We’re concerned about “me.” What will happen to me? What does this mean to me? What am I doing here? What will I do next?
“Who we are” is not only a matter of the externally obvious job, marriage, address, appearance, and acts of charity, but of the unseen life of the mind. What we think and feel depends on where the mind spends its time, as in “his mind is either in the clouds or the gutter” or “I can’t get it out of my mind.” We are what we think, that is, we are what occupies, invades, crosses, and rests on our minds in the course of a day. Read more
Identity and self-opinion are acquired through a series of personal relationships. Our impressionable natures come under the influence of others and we respond by adopting new ideas and opinions or by resisting pressures to be more industrious or prompt or truthful. The situations created by personal interactions create facets of our personality that weren’t there before. Gradually we pick and choose which traits to keep and which to reject, sedimenting and consolidating this unpolished gem into an identity we can call our own.
Our need to maintain a belief in the underlying constancy of our identity often blinds us to the process by which we actively and willingly change ourselves. It’s not flexibility itself that we deny as much as those wholesale binges we go on when we incorporate someone else’s viewpoint. We recognize plagiarized traits more readily in others than in ourselves, as when a friend with a new mentor displays novel opinions, vocabulary, and mannerisms that he wears like new clothes before they’ve become his. Read more
Please see the previous post, where I explain that this is something I originally published in 1981. The chapter title, Present Shock, was probably meant to contrast with the idea of Future Shock, a book by Alvin Toffler that was quite popular in the 1970s.
As long as anxiety has an identifiable object we know what to worry about. We can locate our problem in a specific set of circumstances. We seize on all the evidence we can find and attempt to impose an interpretation. Because there is a focus for our thoughts, thinking is still organized and cohesive. But when anxiety becomes excessive, the particulars of the situation become unimportant. Anxiety itself becomes the problem. Under conditions of severe stress, the ability to process information breaks down. Knowledge appears inadequate and threatens to become useless. We cannot give meaning to a world whose contradictions, conflicts, and locked control room exceed the bounds of our limited reason. This lack of confidence in the order of the world is anxiety in its purest form, an awareness of the gap between the self and the world it has come to know and depend on. We sense there is something drastically wrong, but we’re unable to identify what it is. Threatened from all sides, unable to advance in any direction to confront the problem, we search for the name of the danger and for the security an unambiguous label would bring. Unable to make sense of our own reactions, such feelings can become unbearable. Fortunately it is the rare individual who feels this in its full oppressiveness, but in its milder forms this objectless, free-floating, chronic anxiety is the most common “neurosis” of our time. Read more
I once wrote an essay – actually it was a chapter in a book I wrote — where I described my childhood reality shock as “anxiety in its purest form, an awareness of the gap between the self and the world it has come to know and depend on.” I’ve reproduced that (rather long) chapter in the next post, called Anxiety, mysticism, and reality.
The book was on anxiety and was published in 1981. Something that old seems like a museum piece now, but it does at least remind me that my interest in the self and reality goes back a long ways. Read more
As I mentioned in the last post, it was my personal experience of healthism that motivated me to start a previous blog. When I now ask myself why I want to start a blog on the self, I find multiple motivations.
I decided to write a few initial posts where I talk about this. I’m admittedly not aware of all that motivates me, but I should at least be able to reveal some of the personal prejudices I bring to the subject matter. As it turned out, the idea of a “few initial posts” got a bit out of hand, and I now have 24 “introductory” posts. To help you locate what might be of interest, I’ve summarized those posts below.
The self-conscious blogger
Blogging makes me uncomfortable, but it’s a discomfort I find interesting. To blog – to participate in social media — is to be a self in a public space. This creates self-consciousness and stimulates reflection on self-presentation. It turns out what I needed to do to alleviate my self-conscious discomfort about blogging was to acknowledge that learning in public is the best way for me to learn new things. That doesn’t make it any more comfortable, but – I tell myself – it’s only a blog.
Learning in public
For me, writing is a way to pursue new interests and incorporate new knowledge – a type of active learning. As an ex-academic, however, am I willing to be seen learning in public — warts, insufficiencies, and all? After considerable initial hesitation, I’ve changed my mind about this. Read more