In his 1969 best-seller, I’m OK—You’re OK, American psychiatrist Thomas Harris argued that self-acceptance can play an important role in the search for happiness. Since Harris offered his prescription, theories about how to achieve self-fulfilment and self-help books, on topics ranging from weight reduction to mood therapy and assertiveness training, have proliferated in North America. In communities across Canada and the United States, members of self-help groups meet to discuss such problems as chronic lateness and shopping addictions. To some critics, the surging growth of the so-called recovery movement is a disturbing trend. In I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional (Addison-Wesley; $24.95), published last month, Wendy Kaminer, a Cambridge, Mass.-based magazine writer, attacks the movement’s underlying premise that everyone is a victim of something. Writes Kaminer: “You don’t have to be a therapist, MD or any other certifiable expert in drug and alcohol abuse and other bad behaviors to wonder about a society in which people are so eager to call themselves addicted and abused.”
Kaminer contends that for more than two centuries, self-help experts have been influential in American society. During the 1800s, she says, Americans bought books that offered guidance on homemaking, etiquette and how to succeed in life. Then, during the 1950s, Norman Vincent Peale’s book The Power of Positive Thinking was a major best-seller. The current recovery movement, says Kaminer, “is only the latest in a line of personal developments that encourage surrender of will, to a system if not a higher power, and unqualified acceptance of an expert’s advice.”
Kaminer snipes at some of the ideas that are currently popular with members of self-help groups, including the theory known as “codependence.” That term, which originally referred to the problems of people who were partners of alcoholics, is used, according to Kaminer, to refer to the mental state of people battling low self-esteem, drug abuse and other disorders. Now, says Kaminer, the term is applied to “any problem associated with any addiction, real or imagined, suffered by you or someone close to you”—and, as a result, has become almost meaningless. Kaminer’s vol-
ume also surveys books, television talk shows, workshops and seminars, and concludes that “if the self-help industry is any measure of our state of mind in the 1990s, we are indeed obsessed with disease and our capacity to defeat it.”
In researching I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional, Kaminer says that she read about 35 self-help books and attended numerous support groups dealing with various issues. While she claims to be neither a critic nor a supporter of the recovery movement’s forerunner, Alcoholics Anonymous, she is clearly skeptical of the new, expanded definitions of addiction, which include neuroticism, sex and love, and even compulsive shopping. Programs that address such problems, Kaminer says, are based on self-pity. “In recovery, people seem to think only of their own emotions, which are always justified,” she writes. “You don’t hear anyone ask, ‘If anger is always OK for me, why wasn’t it OK for my parents?’ ”
Psychologists and other experts differ on the value of the self-help movement. Finding something or someone to blame for personal problems is a familiar psychological process, according to Barry Beyerstein, a professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. As well, adds Beyerstein, “there’s this general assumption that people should never have to be unhappy and that there should be a quick fix.” Because many people feel powerless to change their lives or society, he says, they search for someone to tell them that they can change things. “What the particular malaise is called at the time and what the prescription is may be different,” he says. “If you scratch the surface, you find that the underlying messages are always the same, but stated in the trendy vernacular of the time.”
Still, others contend that a self-help program can be an important step in achieving a sense of well-being. Pierre Leichner, a professor of psychiatry at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., says that any process that makes patients more aware of the causes of their illness and gets them more involved in their recovery is beneficial. “We’re starting to understand illness as being multi-determined—biological, psychological and social,” explained Leichner, who has developed self-help groups for people with eating disorders. “We’ve come to terms with the fact that drugs or magic cures are not going to be 100 per cent effective.” Added Leichner: “I’m also convinced that for mild psychiatric disorders, self-help may meet a major need—and there may not be a need for much else.”
For her part, Kaminer criticizes the self-help movement for encouraging simplistic beliefs “in which order and obedience to technique are virtues, and respect for complexities, uncertainties and existential unease are signs of failure.” Kaminer says that another underlying belief of the self-help movement is that feelings are more important than ideas. And when people exaggerate the importance of their feelings, she writes, they have little energy and compassion left for the larger issues of society.
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