Self-help is no help

By , 17 July 2009 6:30 pm

I don’t know how many of you picked up the following news item but it is a worthy subject of reflection. As reported on the BBC site, it was that Canadian psychologists have come to the conclusion that self-help mantras actually make you feel worse. “Those with low self-esteem actually felt worse after repeating positive statements about themselves. They said phrases such as ‘I am a lovable person’ only helped people with high self-esteem.”

Now of course this is just one piece of research and it should be surrounded by endless qualifications (see the NHS comments). Nevertheless I found it extremely interesting. This sort of thing is pretty widespread (see your local bookshop) and indeed sanctified-to-some-degree versions widely occur in modern Christianity.

The fact is I have always been suspicious of this form of self-help. Curiously enough it is not, I think, that it poses theological problems; it is rather that it flies in the face of science. It has always seemed to me to be the mental version of trying to lift yourself up by your own bootstraps. I believe that facts stay facts whatever we say about them. I suppose the extreme example here is the dismissal of the reality of illness by Christian Science (which, of course, famously is neither Christian nor science). Surely we have all had times when if we had tried to say to ourselves ‘I am a lovable person’, the honest response would have been ‘No, I am not!’

It’s a pity really. I honestly wish the world’s ills could be cured by simple mantras, regularly applied. I would cautiously suggest instead that the traditional Christian approach is better. Here two elements seem vital. The first is the honest (and, no doubt, painful) evaluation of the flawed beings that we really are and the second is the recognition that God, in Jesus Christ, loves us. (By the way, the latter is a vitally different thing from ‘finding us lovable’.) These two elements must be applied together or we get into trouble. God deliver us from ‘wretched sinner’ preaching unless it comes with the antidote of abundant grace. We must only make wounds where we also administer healing: and there cautiously. Such a two-pronged message has a double virtue: on the one hand it allows us to make an honest diagnosis of who we are and on the other it offers us a source of help that is outside of ourselves. Instead of sinking in a bog of internal self-denigration, we are able to stand on the rock of abundant external grace.

I wish indeed it was otherwise. But it isn’t. While psychologists may not agree with the Christian solution they seem ready to agree that the alternative doesn’t work.

3 Responses to “Self-help is no help”

  1. Katharina says:

    Exceellent, timely article. Self-esteem, mantras, empowering our children, etc., are all just building on so much sinking sand, if they're not grounded in the Gospel. Grace alone. God loves us — yes, but NOT because we're so lovable (I love the way you put that!), but EVEN THOUGH we are not at all lovable! That's what makes His grace so amazing. And what frees us to admit openly how not so lovely we are….and then, to throw ourselves on Him in gratitude!

  2. Bill says:

    What's troubling here across the pond is the growing volume of "preaching" (especially on television) that's devoid of the mention sin or grace and full of psycho-babble and feigned emotion. You may come out of such a session feeling good, feeling relieved, or worse, feeling entertained – but not feeling redeemed.

    God help us all!

  3. Nate says:

    “Grace alone. God loves us — yes, but NOT because we’re so lovable (I love the way you put that!), but EVEN THOUGH we are not at all lovable! ”

    I have never been able to understand this piece of logic. I’ve encountered it in a lot of conservative-evangelical materials, and I can’t make it make sense.

    If God loves us, surely that means by definition we are lovable – since what God does and perceives is the foundation of true reality.

    It would seem to follow that the ‘hard teaching’ of Christian grace is NOT that ‘we are not lovable’ but the opposite: that even when we think we (or others) are unlovable, we are.

    Saying ‘God loves you but really you are unlovely and you must always remember that and tell yourselves that you are unlovely’ doesn’t seem to be what Jesus lived and taught.

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