Sacred Disorder | Cliff Bostock's blog – 'Finally, I came to regard as sacred the disorder of my mind' (Rimbaud)

Self-help fails Oprah

Thursday’s  New York Times included an article, relevant to New Year’s resolutions, about the difficulty of change.

The article features Oprah Winfrey, who has made herself a gazillionaire by building an empire based on self-help. Today, though, she’s an example of the frailty of the will to change.

Oprah famously reduced her weight from 237 pounds to 160 four years ago but she has re-chubbified and now weighs 200.

I know it’s schadenfreude, but I found it grimly amusing that someone who profits from tormenting so many with self-help platitudes and therefore has a huge investment in demonstrating the capacity to change, ends up demonstrating how easy it is to fail.

Since I rarely watch TV, I haven’t seen Oprah’s television program more than a couple of times. However, I have XM Radio in my car and occasionally listen to her station, “Oprah and Friends.”

It is nonstop self-help advice from a cast of obnoxious, often condescending experts in everything from de-cluttering the home to spiritual growth (like the famously intemperate Marianne Williams).  It’s not that these aren’t legitimate concerns but their inflation as defining characteristics of the highly evolved person is nothing but snake-oil marketing.

The reason the self-help industry generates billions of dollars is not because it works, but because it doesn’t. The typical self-help book or seminar  produces a kind of neural buzz, some optimism, that crashes….and then people head for the next dose.

This is also an issue in any kind of psychotherapy or life coaching. We live in a culture that is founded on the myth that anybody can become anything they want. Even if the therapist doesn’t subscribe to this belief completely, the client may be adamant and any failure to support the fantasy is regarded as harmful – usually as a re-creation of the critical parent’s role.  It’s an endless circle.

The article points to a few strategies that do work better than the usual pop psy magic and they’re all part of the techniques of 12-step recovery (even the ones the article doesn’t designate as such).

One of the suggestions is that people not attempt changing incrementally but by making a big change. For me, in my own initial 12-step recovery of over 20 years ago, that was valuable at several levels. First, of course, is the wisdom of complete abstinence; it’s well known that “cutting back” is far less successful than going cold-turkey. This was true for me with drinking and smoking.

But at another level, 12-step recovery worked for me because it introduced me to a spiritual path completely opposite to my beliefs. That’s something I’ve used with clients in subsequent years – inviting them to “play” with radically different way of thinking.

If you can identify the new way of thinking as beneficial, even before it becomes comfortable, it’s helpful to “fake it ‘til you make it,” as it’s expressed in 12-step programs. This often sounds like an unnatural, even dishonest process to many people. But if you’ve truly “played” with different ways of thinking, you realize that human identity is far more fluid than we typically think.

But even these strategies seldom work more than half the time.  The last paragraph of the Times story, summarizing Oprah’s own conclusion, points to the most important change that someone can attempt. Check out the article here.

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