A unifying theory of self-improvement
The problem with self-improvement can be boiled to one concept, "method abuse." Method, by itself, is when you say a word or mantra in order to elicit a desired response from yourself, much like method acting. Method abuse occurs when you get stuck in a loop saying those words, falsely believing that you're changing your whole life.
I've distilled my personal experience with method abuse in Dear Hannah: 70 Methods I Used and Abused to Change Who I Am. It comprises over 70 letters I wrote to Hannah over 16 years, detailing every book, pop psych article, and method that I used—and abused—to change who I am.
Psychology makes us believe that talking about our unwanted traits automatically leads to coping with them
The term "method" in self-improvement refers to a word or series of words that someone says to themselves (audibly or inaudibly), to get some desired effect. Positive proclamations, such as telling yourself you're handsome or beautiful, are a form of method, with the desired effect being confidence and improved self-esteem.
Method abuse happens when the use of the method follows an obsessive-compulsive disorder cycle of relief. The method actor feels down, then says the positive proclamation to achieve some relief, but quickly returns to their downcast state.
Some forms of method abuse are so enduring that we've ingrained them into our culture and language. For example, the psychological trope that says our problems stem from issues in our childhood is a series of words and ideas that provide some temporary relief. For example, someone could say, "Wow, you're really shy," to which your response could be, "Yeah, I was told to keep my mouth shut when I was a kid." Somehow that ends the conversation by explaining the source of the shyness. But explaining the source of something doesn't do anything meaningful to it. It is maybe the beginning of addressing the concern, but the childhood trope becomes a repeatable form of half-work that simply gives the sensation of fixing by identifying a cause. One could respond, "Yeah, I'm shy because I have low levels of dopamine," and again the conversation is ended.
But rather than gaining relief and sympathy by implying that it's out of your hands, it might be better just to reply, "Yes, I know."
Self-improvement depends on renewable energy, which is why positive thinking only lasts as long as one's excitement to try it
If it's the bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, and your team is one point down from clinching the pennant, you might need a little help. You could whisper to yourself, either audibly or in your head, "Come on, you can do this, this is your moment." The words will give you extra confidence, focus your talents, and immerse you into the moment. And under this pressure, with these words, you might perform better and hit a home-run.
Why can't we always say this to ourselves? Why can't we whisper to ourselves every time we go to bat, even if it's not a clincher? These mantras—these powerful, encouraging words—are the bulk of self-improvement literature. Nearly all self-help books are empty words with the right rhetorical spin. If they hit the right, vulnerable person, they will feel great at the time.
But after two weeks, those same words stop working. They become satiated, and repeating them no longer carries the same force. Just as the baseball player can only repeat those words when there is a real pressing need for them, the words from self-help literature often don't live beyond their novelty.
The best self-improvement methods, then, are those that have persistent emotional sources. For example, if you were to construct a method to improve your driving skills, you could give yourself a rule, to always remember the last time you were in a car accident. The idea is that, like the baseball player, the visual will strike fear into your heart, and therefore urge you to pay more attention. But this may work for two weeks, and eventually, the fear won't carry the same weight. You will become numb to the visual, and return to a complacent driving pattern.
The better approach is to construct a safe-driving method that taps into a renewable source of emotion. Someone could focus on visualizing what could happen if their dangerous driving continued. "That sloppy left-turn, had you been a little more distracted, might have made you swerve suddenly away from that pedestrian." The near-near-miss, even though harmless, can become a fresh source of anxiety. The method takes that anxiety and visualizes the consequences of yellow flags become red flags becoming actual accidents. Since the method is only applied when there is, in fact, a real potential risk, there is always just enough emotion to summon a correction in one's behavior.
The baseball player can't say those words all the time because it isn't always a clutch moment. Reliable self-improvement methods require reliable emotional sources.
Self-improvement is method acting, but whereas the stage only requires conviction, true life-change requires authenticity
The study of self-improvement is, at its core, the study of "method." Method is when you use a mantra to change your state of mind to achieve a goal. A typical example is when athletes use method to clinch games. They repeat a phrase quietly to themselves, "Come on, you've got this, you're the best, win this, come on, you got this," and that spurs them on to victory. It motivates them, focuses their energy, and otherwise makes them play better. Why does this happen? It seems like magic. These are positive, encouraging thoughts, and the power of positive thinking is a tired trope, but how come you can't use method all the time? Why can't you "pump yourself up" throughout the entire game? Method often operates like a turbo boost; You can activate it for just a few minutes, and then it takes some time to recharge.
Method is the most common output of self-improvement literature, and it usually springs forth from an epiphany. For example, consider a segment from Tony Robbins's Awaken the Giant:
"My answer is simple: I learned to harness the principle I now call concentration of power. Most people have no idea of the giant capacity we can immediately command when we focus all of our resources on mastering a single area of our lives. Controlled focus is like a laser beam that can cut through anything that seems to be stopping you. When we focus consistently on improvement in any area, we develop unique distinctions on how to make that area better.
A similar segment exists in Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life:
The power of focusing can be seen in light. Diffused light has little power or impact, but you can concentrate its energy by focusing it. With a magnifying glass, the rays of the sun can be focused to set grass or paper on fire. When light is focused even more as a laser beam, it can cut through steel. There is nothing quite as potent as a focused life, one lived on purpose.
These books and pages immediately strike the typical reader with an epiphany. The readers think to themselves, "This is it, this is how I will conquer X," where X is some problem or barrier they think is holding them back. They will form a vision of themselves behaving like a laser beam as if they are moving faster than normal and conquering their destiny. This positive visualization gives them energy and enthusiasm, and they make some immediate, significant steps toward their goal. If for example, the goal was to lose weight, they may go to their fridge and throw out all of their ice cream. They may go online and sign up for a membership at the gym. They may even go out for a run right then and there.
That initial burst of progress will further reinforce the method in a positive feedback loop such that they may glow for an entire day, maybe a whole week, fixating their attention on the idea that they personify a laser beam. Every time they think about the beam, it spurs them into proactive action toward their goal.
But at some point, the strength of the method will fade. The reader will eventually reach a point where mentioning the laser beam creates no emotional reaction. This method, of invoking text to get a desired reaction, becomes method abuse when you keep going back to the text, expecting the same response, without receiving it. A common abusive symptom is a neurosis, which lasts depending on how desperate you are. But probably the worst symptom is an abuse of assumption. The practitioner may think their life is changing and so they reorganize everything around that assumption. When the illusion shatters, though, it can be devastating.
Not all methods are like this, though. Some methods do create lasting change, but nobody knows why. The field of psychology may eventually discover a revolutionary insight, where we learn the structure of permanently repeatable methods.
Types of Social Acting
There are two kinds of acting: method and standard. In standard acting, you put on a smile even if you're unhappy or bored on the inside; the inner doesn't have to match the outer. In method acting, you first synchronize the inner with the outer. In order to smile, you think happy thoughts. Then when it's time to produce a smile, it all comes out naturally.
The problem with method acting in everyday life, though, is that it compromises your inner-authenticity. You have to bend your understanding of the truth to accomplish a social outcome. Self-deception isn't inherently wrong, though. Much of our social cognition steers us to ideal social outcomes. For example, flirting is often unconscious to give ourselves plausible deniability. Or, we often believe the best in others for game theoretic reasons, to encourage games of reciprocity.
But method acting adds a layer of self-deception on top of our unconscious one. At least with standard self-deception, your deceptions are consistent. If you unconsciously believe yourself to be more powerful than you are, for example, when the world proves otherwise, you'll still maintain that self-image. But if you consciously prop yourself up with positive thinking, when you encounter resistance, that inner muscle responsible for keeping your self-image may become satiated, losing its force, and leading you to a reckoning.
Happiness may require self-deception, but if you consciously convince yourself to be happy, then you'll have to consistently apply pressure against your inner truth to make the outer truth work. If you apply enough of that intentional thinking, your cognitive load will distract you so much, that your mannerisms will lack the vitality and life of someone behaving spontaneously. By that point, you would have been better off with only relying on the occasional fake smile rather than becoming a robot.
While we can all flex into a different persona now and then, it's cultivating new reflexes that ultimately count as true self-improvement
Some mental phenomena operate like muscles. For example, if you try to imagine a pink elephant, the image will appear immediately. However, if you try to hold that image in your mind's eye for longer and longer periods of time, it will eventually fade. It is almost like your brain is flexing, and to sustain the grip any longer requires increasing effort.
Discipline also follows a muscle-based pattern. Studies show that discipline is much like a reservoir. If you push yourself to do something now, it becomes harder to push yourself to do something later. Your general reservoir needs to recharge. In some instances, a compensatory pattern emerges, whereby someone works hard throughout the day, but then binges or splurges on other vices during happy hour.
Perhaps a similar process happens with method. When you first "psych" yourself up, you may get an initial boost of confidence. For example, if there are just a few minutes left in the game, and you tell yourself, "Come on, you've got this. This is it. This is your moment," the words will calm your nerves, increase your muscle strength, raise your adrenaline, etc. However, you can't do this throughout the entire game. At some point, the same words cease to have an impact.
Likewise, consider the onset of a self-improvement technique, like when you first read a self-improvement book. When you first apply the words to your life, the first couple hours or days may lead to increased self-confidence and effectiveness, which may be falsely attributed to the book's qualities. But then, eventually this reservoir gets tapped, and you're left in the same state as you were before you read the book.
The best lessons from self-improvement, therefore, create methods that have some of these properties:
- They don't satiate right away
- They don't require constant, sustained visualization
- They are self-motivating so that they come up automatically without deliberate effort
You could abuse cognitive therapy if you mistake a distorted negative belief for a fixed inclination, like trying to dispute one's sexual orientation
What is the basis of one's stance toward something? Is it taste or belief? Some stances we take because of taste. You can't, for example, use cognitive therapy, to make yourself enjoy heavy metal or hip-hop music. That is unless your negativity toward those genres is based partly on a distorted negative belief toward those underlying subcultures. By extension, is it possible that some negative attitudes toward ourselves are not based on distorted beliefs, but a natural distaste or revulsion?
Most likely it's a spectrum, of taste and belief, and at the very least, cognitive therapy should be used to rule out the belief component. But beyond that, a different tool has to be used.