When Self-Help Turns Toxic: Why We Can’t Always Be Rational

In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, there’s a process labeled cognitive restructuring, wherein beliefs are explored in a systemic manner to confirm or disconfirm them. For example, you’ll search for the evidence for and against the belief that you’re a failure. Some of my clients, especially the men, begin treatment enthusiastically, hoping to quickly learn and master the process, reaching the pinnacle of psychotherapy.

While treatment is meant to have an end-point, it isn’t anywhere near as linear as those clients hope for it to be. And most of them hate having to revisit old ideas and methods, asking, “Why do I have to keep doing this if I already know it?” Unfortunately, knowing something, or having already succeeded, isn’t enough; that’s an elemental fact of life, rather than an indicator of personal failure. But it’s easy to perceive it through the lens of the latter. We often wonder about the link between self-acceptance and self-enhancement, looking to therapy, self-help, entertainment, and significant others for answers. Yet, the world fills us with contradictory information about what we should aspire to, making it almost impossible to decide. And for the obsessive types, the perfectionists attempting to mold themselves into super-humans, advice is a cudgel, no matter how inconsistent.

Generally, many use self-help, which includes CBT skills, to the same ends that Jay Gatsby used his own internal resources, for perpetual progress, to go up, up, up. And while this process works well for some time, it eventually falls apart, causing its pupil to toss it from the pedestal it was placed on.

We can’t separate ourselves from our weak memories, our abilities to handle stress, and how overwhelmed our prefrontal cortices become by it; essentially, we aren’t simply comprised of pure free-will. Having to go backwards, to reuse the tools of cognitive restructuring, feels like a failure when we start to doubt whether we were ever successful at all. “If I already know this, then why do I have to do it again?” Because when you’re overwhelmed with sadness and anxiety and all you have is a vague recollection of using the rational thought process, your doubting mind will be too skeptical to accept your new conclusion; it will demand further proof. (While he emphatically states that he already knows something, the contrarian part of my client asks, ” Isn’t that what I’m supposed to believe?!”) And, sometimes, the environmental stress is so overwhelming that our ability to reason becomes completely clouded. In those periods, no matter what others say, or what we tell ourselves, we just don’t believe it, reverting back to past explanations for why positive evidence isn’t “really” evidence. Ultimately, our feelings engulf us.

Albert Ellis, the founder of Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy and self-help guru, was known to chastise his patients for not being rational. To him, like for the above-noted clients, once you’ve learned the tools, reason is firmly in your possession. And the self-help industry, in general, is full of charlatans imploring you to take on more responsibilities. Some parents, teachers, and other authority figures seem to believe that minds are machines, functioning according to knowable rules. And, in a perfect environment, they usually do. It’s much easier to be rational when you aren’t living in hell.

So, we often hate having to relearn and revisit old formulas. One of my clients asked me, “How can I get to a point where, after using these tools, I can finally trust my brain not to make stupid mistakes?” Really, it’s a great question. He’s asking if there are any foolproof methods to becoming an exceptional thinker. And for someone like me, who continually struggles accepting his own emotional side, it’s a question for which I wish there were a better answer. Even if you utilize the CBT skills frequently and consistently, even if you become a proficient thinker, your mind will, sometimes, still let you down. They say practice makes perfect, but, in realty, practice merely increases the probability of a perfect performance; that’s all.

If you’re looking to therapy and self-help to master and conquer, you’ll find that you’re consistently disappointed in yourself. At best, we can only live in harmony with our emotions, choosing to take them and their accompanying thoughts seriously because they frequently tell us something important about ourselves and the life all around us, if not the full truth. Sometimes, they’ll exaggerate and, at others, they’ll minimize. Sometimes, our minds will save us from chaos and, at others, they’ll cause it. I’m sorry to say that these are some of the existential facts of reality. But, now maybe you’ll give yourself at least a short break.

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