Dangerous Trends in Personal Development

personal development


There is an ongoing trend in personal development that seems to ignore the consequences of reality and instead focus on wishful-thinking and excessive optimism. Although I am certainly not the first to criticize works like “What The Bleep Do We Know?,” “The Secret,” or “The Law of Attraction” – I believe there is real damage being done by fostering these unhealthy beliefs, and people who know better have a duty to dispel these myths.


I hate to sound a bit cynical this morning, but there have been some ongoing trends within the personal development community that really rub me the wrong way.

“Personal Development” suffers enough negative connotations as it is, and it only exacerbates the problem when other so-called “experts” and “gurus” continue to spread dangerous lies and superstitions.

The main culprit: The observer effect.

In essence, “documentaries” like What The Bleep Do We Know? have described the observer effect (in quantum physics) as evidence that our minds are the sole creators of reality.

Now, I’m no physicist (and neither are most of the people in the personal development community who cite this research), but the observer effect basically describes how we can’t observe an electron without changing it’s behavior.

However, it has nothing to do with consciousness.

What The Bleep Do We Know? claims this is an effect of consciousness on reality, but this isn’t how most physicists explain it. In fact, the reason an electron is difficult to observe is because it needs to interact with a photon in order for it to be detected. A photon is nothing more than a particle of light, and light is necessary in order to detect the positioning of an electron. It has nothing to do with consciousness in-and-of-itself.

According to Wikipedia:

    “Physicists like David Albert, who appear in the film, have accused the filmmakers of selectively editing his interview to make it appear that he endorses the film’s thesis that quantum mechanics is linked with consciousness.”

And as if that wasn’t disingenuous enough, other personal development “experts” have taken this documentary and have wrongly applied it to their own beliefs. Followers of The Secret and The Law of Attraction have taken this misinterpreted evidence to suggest that our minds are all-powerful creators of the reality.

They believe if we can imagine it, and we can desire it, then we can achieve it. Period. Nothing can stand in our way but our own minds.

The real danger of these beliefs.

When people fully adhere to the teachings of something like The Secret, they often fail to acknowledge the realities that exist outside of their minds.

James Arthur Ray, a popular affiliate of The Secret and The Law of Attraction, had a “Spiritual Warrior” retreat in 2009. He had the participants go through very physically demanding tasks such as fasting for over 36 hours and then cramming the 60 participants into a sweat lodge.

Although participants had a big breakfast before the sweat lodge, one site owner reported that participants had went 2 days without water leading up to the event. The goal was to go on a “vision quest” that would teach participants to overcome their fear of death.

The results were much worse.

Ray truly believed that the power of thought and intention would be strong enough to overcome these physical obstacles. So long as he pushed the possibility of anyone getting hurt out of his mind, it would come true. He was wrong.

Instead, two participants died before the exercise was over. Another 18 were hospitalized due to various burns, breathing problems, and dehydration. Another participant died after being comatose for a week due to the event.

Ray was finally convicted earlier this year for 3 cases of neglected homicide.

An alternative approach to personal development – acknowledging reality.

Listen. I’m a big advocate of taking responsibility for your life. But I also acknowledge that sometimes bad things happen to good people for no good reason. This is because our mind – however positive our thoughts and noble our intentions – is not the only thing that exists in this world.

Instead, there is a whole other reality that exists outside of our minds that affects our lives. And sometimes that reality can be incredibly cruel, harsh, and impersonal.

It’s important to acknowledge this reality for several reasons:

    1. We don’t have to blame ourselves for everything bad that happens in our lives.
    2. By accepting these other facets of reality, we can better respond to them.

I know this isn’t the most positive and optimistic thing you want to hear – but it’s true. And accepting reality is more beneficial in the long-term than ignoring it.

I truly believe that. I’ve been hurt by wishful thinking before, and I’ve become happier and better off once I dimmed my optimism and became a little more practical.

Personal development fueled by science, reason, and honest self-analysis.

I think if the term “personal development” is going to restore any of the integrity it once had, then individuals within the community need to make an earnest effort to distinguish truth from fiction. And there are resources and tools out there to help us do this (that is one of the primary reasons I write on this blog).

psychology

To start, paying attention to scientific research in psychology and neuroscience is a good way to stay privy to many of the biases and imperfections that riddle our minds (and there are a lot of them, believe me).

I’ve written before about some of these biases and how they can negatively influence our thoughts and decision-making – these are the kinds of findings we should try to be more mindful of (not pseudo-scientific bastardizations of quantum mechanics).

If you have a choice, I say go with psychotherapies that are supported by scientific research over psychotherapies that depend more on hearsay and anecdotal evidence. Modern therapeutic techniques like Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Mindfulness Meditation, and Positive Psychology all have positive track-records in being able to treat various mental ailments. Look into these therapies before seeking alternatives (in fact, a lot of alternative therapies that get recognition today – like Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) and acupuncture – can usually be attributed to the placebo effect).

But, above all else, the most important thing is that we remain honest with ourselves. Life isn’t always pleasant or forgiving, but trying to ignore these aspects of reality won’t make them go away. Sometimes we have to grit our teeth and bear it – because the more we ignore it, the harder reality is going to bite back in the end.

Taking a more pragmatic and modest approach to personal development (one fueled by science, reason, and honest self-analysis) is a trend I would like to see more of in the future.


Questions

  • Have you ever seen What The Bleep Do We Know? or read The Secret or The Law of Attraction?
  • How did these affect your personal development – was it negative or positive? (try to be specific)
  • What do you think about more scientifically-backed approaches to personal development (like Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Mindfulness Meditation, and Positive Psychology)?
  • What are some trends in personal development that worry you?

Be sure to answer these in the comment section below!

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How to use Exposure Therapy for Overcoming Social Anxiety

social anxiety


Exposure therapy is one of the most common therapies used today. It is a treatment for many different anxieties and phobias. In this post I will discuss how to use exposure therapy for overcoming social anxiety.


What is exposure therapy?

The main goal of exposure therapy is to expose ourselves to situations that elicit anxiety. And by exposing ourselves to these situations in a gradual and systematic way, we can slowly habituate to environments that once caused us great fear and panic.

Usually, the individual first comes up with a “hierarchy of behaviors/situations” that cause them to feel anxious. For example, someone who is trying to overcome social anxiety may have a hierarchy like:

  • Going out in public (Low Anxiety)
  • Making eye contact (Low-Medium Anxiety)
  • Saying “Hi” to a stranger (Low-Medium Anxiety)
  • Having a short conversations with a stranger (Medium Anxiety)
  • Being interviewed for a job (Medium-High Anxiety)
  • Talking to a boss (High Anxiety)
  • Approaching a good-looking guy/girl at a bar (High Anxiety)
  • Going on a first date (Very High Anxiety)
  • Giving a public speech (Very High Anxiety)

Everyone’s hierarchy of behaviors/situations is going to be different depending on the individual and the type of anxiety. Therefore, it’s very important that you take the time to systematically break down your anxiety in a way that works best for you.

For example, if you start by exposing yourself to situations that elicit high levels of anxiety (like a public speech), then you’re probably just going to get frustrated and give up.

Therefore, it’s crucial that you start with situations that elicit low levels of anxiety first, then – once you overcome those – you can gradually move on to more difficult ones.

By doing this in a step-by-step way, you slowly condition yourself to these new situations and behaviors. They begin to become more familiar – you may even realize they weren’t “as bad” as you first thought they were. Your social anxiety diminishes more and more, and one day you look back and forget what it was ever like to be the “old, anxious you.”


What’s the “right exposure?”

It’s very important that you get the “right kind” of exposure. Because if you go into these situations without a clear goal in mind, then often you end up just making your social anxiety worse.

“Exposing yourself” to a situation doesn’t just mean walking in a room and standing their idly. You have to ask yourself, “How do I want to act in this situation?” Because if you expose yourself to new situations, but keep acting in the same old ways, then you’re just re-conditioning yourself to continue being anxious. You’re sort of exposing yourself to the situation, but you’re also partially avoiding it. Thus, you’re not really exposing yourself to your anxiety head-on.

For example, if you walk into a bar with the intention to meet new people, but you don’t actually approach anyone, then you’re just re-conditioning yourself to go into a bar, stand by yourself, and be really nervous.

If that’s your strategy, then it won’t matter how many bars you expose yourself to – you’ll still always be partially avoiding what you really want. Deep-down you may think you are trying something new, but you’re actually avoiding your social anxiety, which is the opposite of exposure therapy.


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Face-to-Face with Your Fear and Anxiety

anxiety


“Courage is not the lack of fear. It is acting in spite of it.”

Mark Twain


In many ways we may try to get rid of our fears and phobias by taking medication (or alcohol and drugs), going to psychotherapy, reciting affirmations, listening to hypnosis tapes, or by simply avoiding environments where we feel too much anxiety and worry.

But the truth is that experiencing some fear and anxiety is unavoidable, and it’s actually a good sign of a healthy mind. Often times, by acknowledging our fears (not avoiding them or suppressing them) we gain insight into areas in our life that we may need to improve upon.


Fear as a compass

When your hand touches a hot stove, it feels pain, and that pain motivates you to move your hand away. In the same way, fear is an important signal and motivator that can help guide our behavior.

Fear is like a compass that points you towards the life you want. All of your deepest desires are fear-ridden, from approaching someone youʼre attracted to, to starting a new business, to conquering your social anxieties. Whenever you feel fear, you know that you are going after what you truly want and growing as a person.

The truth is that whenever you try to make a significant change in your life, that change will usually be met with some kind of resistance or fear.This is because making changes requires that you start engaging in new and unfamiliar behaviors. And when engaging in these new behaviors, there will always be a degree of uncertainty – you’ve never acted in this way before, so you aren’t sure exactly what the rewards or consequences will be. This uncertainty can be a huge contributor to our fear, anxiety, and worry. But we have to learn how to embrace it anyway.

Confronting your fears face-to-face is the only way to truly overcome them. Avoiding fearful situations only exacerbates the problem. But when you begin to see fear as a sign of growth and boundary-pushing – when you are willing to step outside of your “comfort zone” – then you give yourself an opportunity to actually learn more about yourself and improve your life in the face of those fears.

You can’t get rid of these fears completely – you just have to find ways to embrace them in positive ways.


DIWA: Do It While Afraid

Fear doesn’t go away by learning about it. You need to actively seek new experiences and gain confidence in facing these physical and psychological obstacles. Only by exposing yourself to these new experiences do you begin to rewire your brain and habituate to these new environments and situations.

Sean Cooper has a mantra that helps him overcome fear: “acknowledge feelings and take appropriate action.”

There is no sense in suppressing or ignoring these feelings when they really exist. In fact, often the more we ignore or suppress our feelings, the bigger the feeling builds up inside of us. I like to sometimes think of our emotions as a baby throwing a temper tantrum. If you try to ignore the baby, it will only get louder and louder until it gets your attention. Our emotions work the same way – they are calling to us to get our attention.

Therefore, it’s crucial to acknowledge and accept our feelings. And while doing this, we can often become more aware of what causes our emotions, what they are trying to tell us, and how we should act in response to these feelings.


New actions can lead to new feelings

It’s important to remember that even though our fears and anxieties feel like they inhibit us from acting in ways we want to, our feelings don’t actually dictate the way we behave. In fact, by feeling fear and anxiety, but actings ways we want to despite these feelings, we can actually end up feeling better about ourselves in the end. By adopting new habits, we also adopt a new self-perception.

For example, some research has demonstrated that introverts who initiate social interactions (even when it makes them feel uncomfortable or awkward) later report feeling better about themselves. They often end up more proud of themselves, because they know they tested their limits and in return learned something new. This indicates that sometimes doing something outside of our normal code of behavior – while it can be a temporary source of pain – can also lead to long-term positive feelings like confidence and self-esteem.

The paradox is that we can’t experience this new sense of ourselves until we first face that fear or anxiety. In other words: it isn’t until we expose ourselves to these fearful activities that we truly find out they “weren’t as bad” as we first thought.


Facing fear in small daily doses

If you find yourself trying to face your fears and feeling utterly crippled by them, then you are probably starting off too big. For example, if you have social anxiety, then it’s probably not a good idea to start off by giving public speeches to hundreds of people or running for President.

You need to start with smaller activities, like maybe sparking a small conversation with a waiter or cashier. Or asking a really good-looking girl what time it is. Or maybe just making eye contact with everyone you walk passed on your way to work.

Where you start ultimately depends on what kind of fear and anxiety you have, and how strong it is. As a general principle: you should try to face your fears on a gradual basis. But you ultimately have to determine for yourself what are the appropriate steps to take – because everyone’s fears and anxieties are a bit different.


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Social Anxiety and the Amygdala

Social anxiety


A lot of our social anxiety is affected by an area in the brain called the amygdala.

Research shows that the amygdala plays a big role in our emotional reactivity, especially our “fight-or-flight” response when the brain senses danger. Studies have found that an overactive amygdala often correlates with higher social anxiety and social phobia. In theory, a more active amygdala triggers increased feelings of fear, worry, uneasiness, or dread.

Sometimes our amygdala can be conditioned to have such a strong emotional response to a stimulus that it overrides our logical thinking or reason. We may rationally understand that a fear has no basis in reality, but the amygdala’s reaction is so strong that we feel this fear anyway.

Neuroscientist Daniel Goleman coined this phenomenon amygdala hijack. Other researchers on emotion, like Joseph E. Ledoux, have further elaborated on this concept, describing it as when “emotional reactions and emotional responses can be formed without any conscious, cognitive participation… because the shortcut from thalamus to amygdyla completely bypasses the neocortex.”

The neocortex is usually associated with the conscious “thinking parts” of our brain, so when our fear response bypasses this region, then we often feel as though our emotions are emerging from a deeper part of our brains that lies outside of our conscious awareness.

Logical thinking is not enough to overcome social anxiety.

Many people may try overcoming their social anxiety solely by reasoning inside their heads and trying to adopt healthy beliefs (and these can certainly help!), but they are rarely enough to fully rewire our brains in order to experience less anxiety.

Thankfully, there are other methods we can use to help change the structure and reactivity of our amygdala. Here are some of those options:

  • Medication. There are several effective drugs currently on the market that have shown to have positive results in changing the structure of the amygdala. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRIs), like Citalopram (Celexa), Escitalopram (Lexapro, Cipralex), Fluoxetine (Prozac), Paroxetine (Paxil), and Sertraline (Zoloft), have all shown to be effective in the treatment of social phobia. See a psychiatrist and they will help you determine if medication is right for you.
  • Meditation. Daniel Goleman has theorized that meditation helps rewire connections between our amygdala and pre-frontal cortex. Our pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain that causes us to stop and think about a situation; on the other hand, the amygdala is often seen as the opposite of this: it is more impulsive and it’s activity is more subconscious. However, by rewiring the connections between these two brain structures it is possible for us to exercise more conscious control over our emotional reactions. By engaging in weekly meditation, an individual can often develop stronger feelings of relaxation and equanimity, these are great combatants toward social anxiety.
  • Exposure Therapy. Exposure therapy is an important part of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) that encourages individuals to gradually expose themselves more to social situations and thereby become more habituated to these kinds of environments. Often by engaging in more social situations we find that our previous fears and worries were actually unfounded. And when we give our amygdala new experiences to learn from (and rewire in response to), then our anxieties can often diminish overtime.
  • Minimize substance abuse. Abusing drugs and alcohol can often damage our amygdala to the point where we depend on these substances in order to lessen our anxiety and inhibitions. While alcohol can sometimes be a valuable social lubricant, we have to be careful not to train our brains to rely on these substances in order to function properly. Moderation is key here. Here is a useful resource to help overcome substance abuse disorders.
  • Cognitive Restructuring. Cognitive structuring (or “reframing”) is another important part of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy that can help diminish social anxieties and phobias. While it doesn’t affect the amygdala directly, it does affect other structures connected to the amygdala including the prefrontal cortex (a part of our brain responsible for conscious thinking and decision-making) and the hippocampus (which is responsible for memory formation). The goal of cognitive restructuring is to change our perspective and beliefs which can often reduce “contextual fear” – fear caused by certain attitudes and beliefs about ourselves and the world we live in.

As you can probably tell by now, your social anxiety can be managed with a wide array of different treatments and techniques. I and many others have found through personal experience that sometimes the very best treatment is to mix-and-match several of the above techniques. Often one technique can help, but it isn’t enough to fully overcome our excessive anxiety all by itself. Instead, you should give multiple techniques a fair chance, and by doing that you will definitely increase your probably of improving your social anxiety in the long-term.


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An Extreme Fear of Disapproval

fear of disapproval


We often have an extreme fear of disapproval from others.

This can often be driven by our evolutionary history (in the past, we depended on social approval from members of our tribe in order to survive), as well as social conditioning at a young age (from our parents and schools).

Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” defines love and belonging as one of the core needs of a healthy human being. Next to food, water, and shelter, our survival also depends on our ability to adapt to our social world and build positive relationships with others.

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