Tuesday, October 27, 2009

self-help is not benign...,


WSJ | Self-help is not benign. The $11 billion industry can hurt you psychologically, it can hurt you financially and, as we see, it can hurt you physically. It can hurt your family and friends too.

Consider that today's increasingly popular "large group awareness training" (LGAT) incorporates tactics more commonly identified with psychological warfare. Facilitators bully attendees verbally and sometimes physically, call upon them to relive their worst experiences in humiliating detail in front of strangers, deprive them of sleep and even bathroom privileges—all in the name of self-actualization. In expert testimony in a 1992 lawsuit against the best-known of these LGATs, Landmark Forum (long a favored choice for corporate retreats), the clinical psychologist Margaret Singer observed that Forum "applies a number of powerful and psychologically disturbing, emotionally arousing and defense destabilizing techniques to large groups of people, in an intense, marathon-like period." How can this not have a catastrophic effect on people in a fragile emotional state—which is surely the case with a sizable contingent of those who seek out these "transformational" courses to begin with?

Other offerings, bracketed as "relationships therapy" or "assertiveness training," can wreak havoc on existing interpersonal bonds. Stories abound of couples whose marriages fell victim to gurus who celebrated promiscuity and "personal morality," or who chastised participants for their codependent (that is, caring and empathetic) ways.

Apologists argue that there are bad outcomes in any endeavor, that it's unfair to single out self-help when, say, conventional medicine kills thousands each year. The difference is that in medicine, practitioners share demonstrated expertise in methods that evolved over time and have been tested and retested for efficacy. A bad outcome in a field with proven benefits is unfortunate. A bad outcome in a field with little basis for existing in the first place is unforgivable. As noted psychologist Michael Hurd told me, "Gurus encourage these poor, already troubled souls to literally take leave of their senses, as if departing reason will somehow liberate you."

Meanwhile, the self-help industry continues to expand, with dozens of new gurus flooding the market each year, seeking their slice of the pie. Though modern self-help had its origins in works by classically trained psychiatrists like Eric ("Games People Play") Berne and his disciple Thomas ("I'm OK, You're OK") Harris, today's leading exponents have as much business trading in mental health as they do performing neurosurgery. They're snake-oil salesmen, pitching regimens that have never been validated.