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Self-Improvement Gone Mad

According to the business blogger Brandon Gaile, the self improvement industry is estimated to be worth $11 billion in the United States alone with the book industry for self help estimated at $776 million of which women are responsible for a majority of those sales—up to 90 percent, according to a recent Forbes survey.
How long have you been reading self-help books? One year? Two? Five? And are you successful yet? Are you where you want to be in your life? Or are you still going around in circles unable to break away from the anxiety or depression that is ruining your life?
It’s frustrating isn’t it? The self-help books make it sound so easy. Simply smile, breathe, be in the moment. You do these things while realizing how hard it is to do these things. Your husband is criticizing you again: smile. The doctor said your mother has Alzheimer’s: breathe. The ex-boyfriend is getting married to your former best friend: be in the moment.
Your own miserable reality keeps getting in the way. On some level you realize that if it were as easy as smile, breathe, and be in the moment no one would ever feel depressed or anxious. It’s a vicious circle. The self-help books have to make curing anxiety and depression sound easy or they won’t sell books. Just as you’re realizing it’s not helping, you get lured into another author’s promise of an easy fix. Another version of smile, breathe, be in the moment—which is simply code for: just forget about it.
As well-meaning as these authors might be, the technique of just forgetting about something like anxiety and depression is no use to the person so consumed by frustration, fear, and anger that they can barely function on a daily basis. This comes down to the reality that anxiety and depression are not simple or easy to cure.
The people who most need help are often those in the most desperate circumstances. They feel closed off, entrenched, hemmed in, trapped, lost, scared, uncertain, hopeless, helpless. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that they have already tried to forget about it. Telling anyone that the solution to her problem is to smile, breathe, and be in the moment can actually be insulting.

The Disconnect

I suspect there are legions of people who feel disconnected from much of the self-development wisdom found in books and floating around the web. In order to sell an idea of eternal happiness, the authors have to make their ideas sound simple to adopt. But, in my experience, this is never the case.
Changing your mood is about changing the way you think. And that’s going to take a while. If you’ve spent thirty-five years as a pessimist or a worrier you cannot expect to become an optimist by the end of the book. Or the end of the week. Or the end of several months.
Ironically, packaging the self-help game as simple ideas that are simple to adopt can lead to more self-flagellation. I failed the self-help game! I often wonder how many people’s lives have been made worse because they read self-help books. It’s not your fault. Words on a page can’t help you because words on a page can’t understand you.

So what’s the answer?

The answer is exactly the opposite of what the self-help books peddle. Instead of covering up your feelings with a self-help chant, immerse yourself in the feeling. Depression and anxiety are like a smoke alarm. They are telling you something you need to know but are afraid to see.
This is where it gets tricky. In order to cure your depression and anxiety you have to understand it. But it’s painful to sit with depression or anxiety! That’s where a therapist comes in. A therapist gives you the space, attention, and encouragement to examine those difficult emotions even when, and especially if, you don’t want to.
The key here is this: a problem can’t be resolved until it is understood. No architect would fix a building with a crack in the mortar until the painful truth about what went wrong was investigated. Airlines listen to the black box recordings not because it’s fun to hear those pilots’ last words, but in order to understand exactly what went wrong so it can be repaired. Surgeons don’t cut you open the moment you complain of a belly ache, they run tests, look at x-rays, and consult with other experts to fully understand the problem before they attempt to fix it. And that’s the main failing of the self-help books. They can’t understand you because they can’t hear you.
It boils down to this: Self-help books are a one-way street. That can be great for encouragement, advice, and cheerleading. But to fix a problem like anxiety or depression, it needs to be understood. And to be understood, one needs to be heard.

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Laura F. Dabney , M.D.

Laura F. Dabney, M.D., trained at Eastern Virginia Medical School and practiced emergency, in-patient and consult-liaison psychiatry at all the area hospitals including Sentara Norfolk General and the Veteran’s Hospital in Hampton. As a doctor of psychiatry, she treats patients with medication as well as all of today’s popular therapy techniques. As a physician, she can figure out if your symptoms are due to a medical or an emotional problem. Many medical problems, such as hypothyroidism, can cause emotional symptoms and thus be mistaken for a psychiatric problem. A medical background provides Dr. Dabney with the ability to give you an accurate, safe diagnosis. Dr. Dabney keeps up to date with her medical training as a member of various professional organizations. For more information, visit www.drldabney.com, call 757-340-0800, or email dabneyoffice@gmail.com.

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