The future of self-help is up to us.

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It’s really hard, at times, to separate useful teachings and techniques from the very human, imperfect people who espoused those teachings and taught us those techniques. 

Recently I’ve seen and heard from people who are struggling with feeling disillusioned with the personal development industry following allegations of improper, exploitative conduct from a very well known personal development teacher: Tony Robbins. 

Many people are struggling with these allegations specifically because they’ve found Tony’s ideas and techniques so personally helpful and inspirational in their lives. 

Tony Robbins’s writings were one of the main reasons a career in psychology even occurred to me as a teenager. Indeed, his presence in the self-help industry is one of the reasons why I continue to believe that this industry has things to offer people in pain— despite the fact that, as an industry, it is not as transparent or well-regulated as the fields of clinical psychology or mental health are. 

That is to say: I admire Tony Robbins a lot. In a field that has more than its share of charlatans and poseurs, I’ve always considered Tony to be an example worth looking up to. 

I don’t like the behavior he’s been accused of. 

Nor do I like that, even aside from the behavior he’s been accused of, his personal development events, which feature a confrontational “open classroom” style of coaching that has its roots in the “large group awareness training” (LGAT) format— sometimes walk the line between entertainment and meaningful personal growth in a way that can be confusing and potentially destabilizing for a subset of people who are vulnerable. 

I don’t know Tony Robbins. I can’t pass judgment on his character or the likelihood that he’s behaved inappropriately. I don’t think it’s fair to try to pass such judgments based on online media sources that do seem pretty invested in sensationalistic reporting. 

That said: I do know that this is a moment in our industry— the “self help” industry, an industry that, even with all it’s problems, I STILL aspire to be a positive, transparent part of— when we can step back and assess the potential for harm when we incorporate personal development and entertainment without adequate awareness of risk and responsibility. 

If you’re at all familiar with my work, you know that I encourage my readers, again and again and again, to not confuse the messenger with the message. 

Don’t find value in my work because of who I am— find value in my work because my ideas work for you, specifically. 

If you follow my work, you’re probably sick to DEATH of me telling you that no teacher, me included, as a monopoly on truth or effective life management techniques. 

You’re probably sick to DEATH of me telling you that your job is to collect the toolkit that works best for YOU— and to not get sucked into the sales pitch of a teacher who tells you that they have all the answers…which they’re willing to offer you, for a price. 

I want everybody reading me to be very clear about the fact that your first, and most important responsibility, is to YOU. It’s to find a a path to managing your life, your symptoms, your goals, and your energy. This is not about your “guru”…as they say at Seek Safely, the point is to become your OWN guru. 

I think everybody needs to read up on the situation with Tony Robbins for themselves, and come to their own conclusions. There are plenty of articles out there, including an opinion piece written by Tony himself, offering various points of view. 

As with all things, we cannot be spoon fed what to think by anybody. We need to do the digging and do the thinking for ourselves— and arrive at the conclusions that are consistent with our goals and values for ourselves. 

But as an industry, I think self-help is at a pivotal moment. 

We’ve been in the position where we’ve seen major figures in our industry be accused of, and sometimes found guilty of in court, terrible things. Behavior that ranges from irresponsible to predatory. 

We’re at a point where we, those who identify ourselves as part of the self-help industry, get to decide what our field is going to look like in the years and decades to come. 

Are we going to make choices that reinforce the self-help industry’s reputation as exploitative and callow? 

Or are we going to make choices that will increase the transparency, accountability, and trustworthiness of our field…for the benefit of our customers and audiences? 

It’s on us. That choice is ours. 

 

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Fault and Responsibility.

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There is this temptation, when things aren’t fair, to kind of go on “strike.” 

Even if a situation is not to our liking— or especially if a situation is not to our liking— we are tempted to cross our arms, sit back, and wait for whoever SHOULD take responsibility for the situation to do so…even if it seems extremely unlikely that they will. 

In the meantime, we allow that situation— which we claim to hate— to continue to exist, and probably worsen. 

I get it: it’s maddening when the people who SHOULD take responsibility for a situation, don’t. 

It’s unfair when people who SHOULD clean up their messes, do not. 

It’s frustrating when people who SHOULD have to deal with the consequences of their behavior, don’t. 

We’re allowed to be angered and frustrated by the lack of fairness of it all. We’re allowed to have, and express, our opinion on the subjects. We’re allowed to have whatever reactions we’re having. 

But what some of us then do is choose to kind of “wait out” the situation because of its unfairness. Because after all, we SHOULDN’T have to take responsibility for something that someone ELSE should by rights, take responsibility for, right? 

In principle, that’s right. 

In practice, however, going “on strike” like this has the practical effect of kind of cutting off our nose to spite our face.

There are totally situations out there that are not our fault. But if we’re invested in them— if we want them to change, if we want the situation to no longer exist or exist in a different way— then they are, in fact, our responsibility. 

Going “on strike” will not clean up a mess. Waiting for an irresponsible person to take responsibility will not clean up a mess. 

The tough truth of the matter is, if we want to see change, sometimes we have to take responsibility for things that are not our fault. 

i remember when I was working as a mental health case manager in graduate school. I had one client who lived in subsidized housing with a roommate, who was also a client of my agency. 

My client’s housemate was notoriously messy. He would absolutely destroy the kitchen the two clients shared, and never clean up his mess. It was enormously frustrating for my client, especially considering that both of them had been homeless not too long before receiving the housing provided by the agency. 

My client felt profoundly grateful for the housing; he felt (appropriately so) the his housemate was disrespecting and kind of wasting the opportunity they’d both received by refusing to do his part to keep their shared kitchen cleaned. 

It totally wasn’t my client’s fault that his housemate didn’t clean the kitchen. By rights, his housemate absolutely SHOULD have stepped up and cleaned up his mess. It was UNFAIR that my client was suffering because of his housemate’s inconsiderate behavior. 

The thing is, though: none of that mattered when it came to the fact that my client hated living in a house with a messy kitchen. 

My client’s first impulse was to go “on strike,” and to wait for his housemate to take responsibility for the mess in the kitchen. Which I totally understood: why on earth should it be my client’s responsibility to clean up someone else’s mess? 

But the fact that it wasn’t my client’s fault that the kitchen was messy didn’t change the fact that the kitchen was messy…and my client hated living in a house with a messy kitchen. 

It wasn’t his fault. But because he was invested— because he wanted the state of the kitchen to be something other than it was— it became his responsibility. 

Eventually I was able to persuade my client to be proactive and clean the kitchen himself— all the while acknowledging that his doing so didn’t mean that his housemate was somehow absolved of his responsibility or fault. 

This wasn’t about assigning blame. This was about getting a clean kitchen. 

My client SHOULDN’T have had the burden of cleaning the kitchen. But sitting back and waiting for his housemate would have been a fruitless endeavor— it simply wasn’t going to happen. 

And, in the meantime, my client would have had to continue living in a house with a messy kitchen— which was not consistent with the life he wanted to live. 

My client had to take responsibility for what he wanted— even though it wasn’t his fault that the situation existed in the first place. 

In the end, many of us are in that position. 

Assigning blame and finding fault may feel good and may be morally right…but they rarely create change. 

Only taking responsibility does that. 

 

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Know when you’re down the rabbit hole.

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A skill that most of us need to develop— desperately— is knowing when to back off, to disengage, to switch up what we’re doing. 

Very often, we find ourselves in situations where our symptoms are being exacerbated, our weaknesses are being exploited, and we’re veering away from our goals and values— but we simply don’t recognize this as a point where we need to pump the breaks, switch directions, change the channel. 

You see this a lot with peoples’ use of technology. How often have we been immersed in our social media feeds, which, for whatever reason, are firing us up in all the wrong ways on a particular day or night…but we don’t realize that it’s time to turn off the computer or close the app until we’ve gone far, far down the rabbit hole of negative thoughts and feelings? 

You see this with peoples’ time management as well. Very often, when we find ourselves with big chunks of less structured or basically unstructured time— often on weekends or in the evenings— we find ourselves bored, at loose ends, and emotionally spiraling…yet we don’t realize until it’s too late that we should maybe switch something up, maybe this unstructured chunk of time stretching out in front of us isn’t a great thing right now, maybe we should start over with a little bit of structure— or, if it’s in the evening, maybe go to bed and start over tomorrow? 

The skill of realizing when we’re down the rabbit hole, and we really need to make a switch, is more complicated than it might seem— usually because we don’t know that we’re down that rabbit hole until, well, we’re down it. 

Then, when we’re down that rabbit hole— when we’ve been sucked into a place of negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors— many of us have this attitude and/or belief that, eh, it’s too late now, I’m already down the rabbit hole…why would I want to make a change now? May as well follow through on the negative things I’m thinking and feeling, right? 

That “eh, it’s under way already, no point in changing anything now” mindset is absolutely insidious…and absolutely destructive. 

That line of reasoning has been used to crash diets, to self-harm, to self-sabotage, and to get or stay in destructive relationships. 

The truth is, it’s never too late to make a different decision and go a different direction. 

No matter how far down the rabbit hole you might be. 

No matter how long you’ve spent getting down that rabbit hole. 

No matter how hopeless that rabbit hole may feel. 

It’s always worth it to try to switch things up when you realize you’re being carried in a direction you don’t want to go. 

The skill involved in knowing when to switch things up has to do with a bigger skillset that revolves around self-awareness. A huge part of recovery is all about paying enough attention to what we’re thinking, feeling, and doing to know when we’re in emotional or cognitive trouble— and to know when some sort of change or intervention may be necessary. 

This is the essence of managing, say, the symptom of dissociation. Many people complain that they don’t know when they need to be practicing the skillset of grounding and containment, because they don’t know when they’re dissociating. 

The key to know when you’re dissociating— and thus when you need to go to the grounding and containment toolkit— is to develop a reliable routine of self-awareness. 

The way we do THAT is, to get in the habit of checking in with ourselves at regular intervals, to gauge how present we are and what we need. 

Why do people resist developing this skillset? 

Mostly because it’s a hassle. 

We don’t WANT to devote all this time to simple self-awareness. 

We don’t WANT to acknowledge that we’re THAT wounded, that we NEED to devote this much time and attention to self-awareness. 

The thing is, if we refuse to devote that time and attention to self-awareness…we’re going to get knocked further and further off course by situations we didn’t choose, over which we have virtually no control. 

Our values and goals deserve more than that. 

We deserve more than that. 

We are worth going through the trouble of checking in with ourselves— and taking whatever steps we need to change directions when we’re going down the rabbit hole. 

 

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I’m in recovery…no matter what.

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One of the ways in which black and white thinking manifests itself is is the conviction that we need to be at our best in order to make any kind of progress. 

The temptation, when we’re not feeling well, when we’re hurt or injured, when we’re sick, or when we’re otherwise compromised, is to put personal development and recovery on the back burner until we feel better. 

We’re surely not going to make any progress right now, not when we’re in pain, not when we’re feeling so lousy, right? 

Surely we should just wait until we’re better in order to move ahead with our recovery, right? 

Surely it just makes more SENSE to wait until we’re feeling better in order to try to get back on track, right?

Nope. 

If we’re serious about recovery— from addiction, from trauma, from depression, from whatever— we don’t get days off. 

Even if we’re not feeling well. 

Even if we’re injured. 

Even if we’re in pain. 

Even if we’re tired. 

Don’t get me wrong: I completely get the impulse to not want to do recovery stuff when you’re not feeling well. 

When your’e not feeling well, all you really want to do is curl up until you feel better. 

Moreover, I totally get the argument that if you’re not feeling well, you may not be in a position to make great leaps and bounds when it comes to recovery. 

The problem crops up when we use “not feeling well” as an excuse to induce in the thinking and behaviors that keep us sick. 

Many people who are trying to recover from substance abuse get it in their heads that, you know, I’m not feeling well, so I’m going to just go ahead and cave in to my cravings tonight, and I’ll get back on the abstinence bandwagon when I feel better. 

Many people who are trying to stick to a diet get it in the heads that, you know what, I’m kinda sick tonight, I don’t want to have to expend the energy to resist my food cravings tonight, I’m just gonna go ahead and cave, and I’ll get back on my diet when I’m feeling better. 

Many people who are trying to recover from trauma-based symptoms get it in their heads that, you know what, I’m just not at my best right now, I don’t feel like I can use those tools and skills that I’m developing in therapy to their fullest extent, so I’m not even going to try tonight. Maybe when I’m feeling better I’ll hop back on the “tools and skills” bandwagon. 

Here’s the thing: you don’t need to be at your best to use your tools and skills. 

You don’t need to feeling great to stick to your diet. 

You don’t need to be at the top of your game to stay way from your drug of choice. 

In fact, it’s when we’re not feeling well that it’s PARTICULARLY important that we stay on track. 

What you need to do in these moments, when you don’t feel well, is be real and firm with yourself. 

You need to commit that, you know what, I’m not about to let this moment of pain become a moment of relapse. 

I may not be making great leaps forward in my recovery tonight…but that doesn’t mean I need to take a step backwards. 

I can still use the baseline tools and skills I’ve learned to keep me out of the worst headspace tonight, EVEN IF I don’t feel well. 

We need to remember that if we’re in recovery, we’re in recovery. No if’s, and’s, or but’s. 

The name of the game is not, ‘I’m in recovery, but only if I feel well tonight.’ 

The name of the game is, ‘I’m in recovery, no matter what.’

You can do this. 

 

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Your– and my– biggest behavioral problem.

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The most fundamental set of skills we can develop in recovery are those related to tolerating discomfort. 

Every single problem we run into in recovery stems from our unwillingness or inability to tolerate feeling bad. 

If we’re overeating, it’s usually because we cannot or will not tolerate the feeling of wanting to eat something and having the opportunity to eat that thing…but not. 

If we’re smoking, it’s because we cannot or will not tolerate the feeling of wanting a cigarette and having the opportunity to have a cigarette…but not. 

If we’re self-harming, it’s often because we cannot or will not tolerate whatever we are feeling at the moment, and what we hypothesize we’ll continue to feel if we do not self harm. 

If we’re NOT using our skills and tools, it’s usually because we cannot or will not tolerate what we perceive to be the discomfort or inconvenience— the hassle— associated with using them. 

Understand, the inability or unwillingness to tolerate feeling bad is not a weird thing. It’s not a thing that makes you weak. It’s not an uncommon thing. Every single human being experiences this problem. 

We humans do not like feeling bad, and we are wired to do whatever we can to get away from feeling bad if we can. 

The problem being, things that make us feel bad in the short term— like tolerating a food craving without giving in to it, like not having a cigarette even if we really want one, like working out, like removing ourselves from our substances of abuse— are often the only ways to feel good in the long term. 

A related problem being, things that make us feel good in short term— giving in to our anxieties, addictions, and compulsions, scratching an itch we’re feeling RIGHT NOW— often lead to much worse feelings and bigger problems down the road. 

As a therapist, a big part of my job is to boil things down to basics so we can actually deal with them effectively. I’m fully aware that every behavioral choice we make comes with layers of context and history. What I’m proposing here is not an oversimplification or an overgeneralization. 

It is, however, a very straightforward equation. 

In order to feel good in the long term, we have to figure out how to tolerate feeling bad in the short term. 

Unless we’re willing to take on that problem, we will never change our behavior in meaningful ways. 

The good news is: tolerating bad feelings is a skill that can be developed. 

For that matter, we have all had the experience of tolerating a bad feeling for a period of time, and the world not ending as a result. 

Sometimes we’ve had to tolerate a bad feeling for a period of time because we’ve had no choice— there was no easily accessible option for us to escape that bad feeling. We didn’t have the opportunity to feel otherwise, so we tolerated the bad feeling for a period…and we somehow survived. 

It may not have been pleasant, it may not have been preferable…but it was endurable. 

That means bad feelings ARE endurable. 

This is tremendously good news. 

Other times, we’ve tolerated feeling bad because we’ve had a sufficiently compelling reason to do so. 

The stakes were high. The “WHY” behind our behavior was real and important to us. So real and important to us, in fact, that it became more real and important to us than escaping the pain of the present moment. 

This is more tremendously good news— because it means that we don’t need to lack an escape route to choose to endure a short-term moment of pain. 

It means we can CHOOSE to endure that moment of short-term pain in the service of a long-term benefit. 

If you’ve read my work over time, you know I’m constantly taking about focus. Our focus determines our reality— and in this case, that truth is dramatically, evocatively illustrated. 

If we can learn to condition ourselves to focus on the long-term gain— to make it real, visceral, and important, to bring it closer to our mind’s eye than the short-term pain is— then we can endure essentially anything. 

We’re left with the fact that once again: focus is the key. 

This is why I don’t believe in “therapy,” per se: I believe in mental training and conditioning. 

A purposefully conditioned mind is our only shot at real freedom. 

 

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None of this is “fair.” And that fact does not matter.

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There are absolutely lots of things about recovery that are not “fair.” 

It’s not fair that some people need to devote significant time and energy in their lives to simply functioning day to day, while other people do not. 

It’s not fair that some people have awful, inhumane things happen to them. 

It’s not fair that some people are abused and neglected by people who are supposed to love and care for them. 

It’s not fair that some people have biological dispositions toward addictions or compulsions. 

It’s not fair that some people are wired for depression or anxiety. 

It’s not fair that bad people are often not called to account for the destructive things they’ve done. 

There are lots and lots and lots of things that are not fair. I completely get it. I wish things were different— that life was fairer. 

I wish the people I’ve worked with as a therapist, and the people who read and follow my work on the Internet, didn’t struggle with what they struggle with. I’ve watched some of the coolest, nicest, best people I know labor under burdens that were categorically unfair. 

Nobody deserves to struggle the way some of us struggle. 

Absolutely nobody deserves to have been abused or neglected— let alone to have to carry those burdens forward in the form of PTSD and its associated challenges. 

The thing is: the fact that life is not fair, and because we shouldn’t have to struggle with the things we struggle with…does not mean that we have the option of opting out of the work associated with recovery. 

That is to say: I agree with you. You shouldn’t have this burden to bear. You shouldn’t have to do this work. 

But you do. 

We have the life we have. We have the biology we have, we have the history we have, we have the genes we have. 

We have the burdens we have, right here, right now. It’s not fair— but it is reality. 

We have to deal with life on life’s terms— not on terms that we prefer or define. 

If we get wrapped around the axle about what’s “fair” or not…we are going to lose time and ground that we cannot afford to lose. 

You can feel whatever way you want to feel about the unfairness of life, and the unfairness of your situation specifically. You can be angry about it, you can be sad about it, you can be numb to it. 

But do not let what is “fair” or “not fair” get in your head about how hard you’re willing to work in recovery. 

When we define what we are and aren’t willing to do or explore in our recovery, we need to focus on results, not on what is “fair.” 

None of this is fair. Addiction, depression, PTSD, ADHD. It all sucks. 

But we can’t let that define how we respond to our challenges. 

We have the challenges we have. 

We’re dealt the hand we are dealt. We cannot control that. It’s not fair, but it is reality. 

It’s up to us how to play that hand. 

We need to be emphatic and purposeful in how we do that— and not get derailed or preoccupied by our belief that what’s being asked of us is not “fair.” 

 

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Handling impulse control problems in the real world.

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A fundamental skill most of us need to work on is recovering from something we did or said impulsively, that may have temporarily set us back. 

Everybody has problems with impulse control sometimes. 

I don’t care if you are extremely smart, extremely disciplined, or extremely well-intentioned: you sometimes have problems controlling what you do or say on impulse. 

It may be the case that people who are a little further along in their recovery have lapses of impulse control that are fewer and farther between than people just starting out…but it’s absolutely the case that even people who are extremely advanced in their recovery still have moments where they do or say things that temporarily set them back. 

It’s DEFINITELY not a matter of only “bad” or “immature” having trouble with impulse control. 

EVERYBODY has at least periodic problems with impulse control. (Even me!) 

The reason why we never fully get past having impulse control problems is, no matter how disciplined we get, no matter how developed our coping skills become, no matter how stable our moods and behavior becomes as a result of dedicated therapy work, we still have these sympathetic nervous systems that can be triggered into “fight, flight, or freeze” reactions when we feel threatened. 

When we do or say something on impulse, it’s usually because we’re feeling threatened on some level. 

The way this works neuropsycholoically is, we’ve been blindsided by a trigger that we haven’t fully had the opportunity to process on a conscious level— it’s registered on what cognitive psychologists call the “preconscious” level, outside of our ordinary “top level” awareness. 

We’ve been exposed to something that our brain recognizes as a threat that needs to be dealt with RIGHT NOW— something that we do not have the luxury of thinking through and responding to in a measured way. 

Very often, after we’ve reacted to the perceived threat— after we’ve said or done something quickly and emphatically—  only THEN do we have the opportunity to analyze and really consider what has ACTUALLY happened, and what an appropriate response would ACTUALLY look like in the real world…but by then, we’ve already done or said the impulsive thing. 

And we’re often kicking ourselves for it. 

So how do we deal constructively with the fact that we’ve said or done something inappropriate on impulse? 

First thing’s first: extend yourself understanding. 

You didn’t mean to do or say something hurtful or counterproductive. 

You reacted in the moment to what your nervous system was telling you. It’s not as if you sat down and made a considered decision that reflected your goals and values; you literally did the opposite of that. 

Give yourself a break. You do nobody any favors by beating yourself up for having said or done something impulsive. 

But, after you’ve given yourself a break and met your own behavior with understanding and compassion: it’s vitally important to own it and own up to it. 

It’s vitally important to repair any damage you might have inflicted. 

It’s vitally important that a lapse of impulse control be framed, understood, and responded to as exactly that: a lapse in impulse control…not a definitive statement of your goals and values. 

In this thing called recovery, you’re going to get your brain and nervous system sending you lots of signals— and it’s important to understand that many of those signals are a response to trauma you’ve been through. 

Your brain and nervous system are trying to do you favors. 

The fact that sometimes they don’t is a bummer…but it’s super important you develop the willingness and ability to compensate for when your symptoms send you off on the wrong path. 

Don’t beat yourself up for having problems with impulse control. 

Rather, get in the habit of acknowledging it when it happens, owning it, repairing damage when necessary…and getting back on track. 

 

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