Psychobabble and Self-Help: Psychologist Stephen Briers

A recent book by British psychologist Stephen Briers, called Psychobabble: Exploding the Myths of the Self-Help Generation (2012), takes on the industry of self-help books.

In an interview with Lucy Walton, Female First, Briers explains:

For me the term ‘psychobabble’ is just a cheeky way of referring to what happens when ideas from psychology are hijacked and carelessly injected into the wider culture without due care and attention to what they mean or respect for the limits of our current understanding. In my experience self-help books can be amongst the worst offenders. They may adopt the language, jargon and buzz words of scientific psychology – but often there’s precious little that’s scientific about them. We dress up opinion, superstition and wishful thinking as if they stem from an established understanding of what human nature is all about.

It’s not that he’s opposed to self-help books. He just wants us to be more thoughtful and aware of what we’re being asked to swallow. Moreover, he doesn’t want us to fall for the oft-perpetrated self-help lie that life doesn’t have to be a struggle. Or for psychobabble.

Briers lists the top five myths of self-help books on New Humanist. They’re listed below with descriptions excerpted from his essay:

1. The root of all your problems is low self-esteem.

All the evidence suggests that your self-esteem rating does not predict the quality of your relationships or how long they will last…The science suggests that, if our self-esteem is riding high, we may feel great, but we may also be slightly delusional.

2. You can control your life.

Life can be frightening, unpredictable and unfathomable at times…As the great mythologist Joseph Campbell shrewdly observed in The Power of Myth, ‘We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the life that is waiting for us.’

3. You can never be too assertive.

Most books on assertiveness are ultimately manuals on how to gain the upper hand. They have a place but let’s not fool ourselves: passive aggression is aggression nonetheless.

4. You should let your feelings out.

…(T)here is emerging evidence that letting it all out isn’t always necessarily the best strategy. After the tragic destruction of the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001, University of Buffalo researchers found that witnesses who ignored a request to record their feelings actually fared better psychologically and physically than those who agreed to write their emotions down. And while we are routinely taught that ‘letting your anger out’ is good for us, reviewing 40 years of evidence led Professor Jeffrey Lohr, a leading clinical psychologist from the University of Arkansas, to conclude that the expression of anger actually intensifies feelings of aggression.

5. We must all strive to be happy.

Modern psychology agrees with the ancients that feelings of pleasure and contentment are the felicitous byproducts of a life well lived, rather than prizes to be grabbed directly. The 19th-century author Nathaniel Hawthorne gave us a poetic but fairly neat summary of the situation: ‘Happiness is as a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.’

Why or how do psychobabble and self-help books grab our collective attention? Through fear, Briers tells Walton at Female First: “Fear of not being good enough. Fear of being out of control. Fear of being unhappy…”

If, in fact, you’re currently afraid you’re not “leaning in” enough or you’re not “vulnerable” enough or you can’t crack Dr. Phil’s “life code” or feel the “power of now,” you’re part of a large group of today’s book buyers. And that’s okay (and you’re okay). Just don’t be fooled into thinking a book is necessarily going to change your life in a significant way, Briers may tell you. “The secret” is that it rarely does.

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