Encouraging critical thought and autonomous decision making (should be) part of any mental health provider’s core objective for clients. My assertion is that this applies to not only health care providers, but also the information that flows across your screen. People sharing their experience, and more specifically their personal successes in overcoming life obstacles is a wonderful aspect of mass media, and should be celebrated. Most of us would like to assume that we are resilient and insightful enough to distinguish plausible and useful self-help articles from ill-conceived and amateurish messages parading as fact.
And this very well may be the case for you.
The concern is that even the on-line messages that we do recognize as somehow ‘off’ or skewed can nonetheless impact us. If you find yourself engaged in some form of social media or online presence; you may have noticed the ubiquity of self improvement posts/blogs/editorials/websites/ted-talks, etc. There tends to be a full spectrum of professionalism around these blogs ranging from disguised advertisements and charlatans to journal entries to actual new information based on scientific data to support a hypothesis. In this era of so-called ‘fake news’, I have often wondered about the notion of ‘fake expertise’ in terms of espousing opinions lacking research based credibility and/or information emanating from an individual lacking any kind of training or professional accountability.
So the question becomes: why would someone want to critically assess a self help article that ‘rings true’ or aligns with one’s values and/or goals?
Simply put: because often times our ‘default thought process’ (i.e.how we emotionally respond to something in the moment) may actually NOT have our best interest in mind. An example is a self help blog that taps into a person’s internalized shame via covert messages that ultimately translate to ‘you are not good enough’, ‘you are responsible for others people’s feelings/behaviors’, you are an inadequate spouse/parent/lover/etc’.
Every time a blog, ted talk, or pod cast lists out the ways you SHOULD be doing or thinking about something; please keep in mind there is a not-so-obvious implication that you yourself are not good enough.
This actually is a rather successful marketing strategy that has been used for decades. I remember in the early days of social media; I would take the time to consider if a particular article/message was in some way a commercial in disguise. More recently I have noticed that I stopped really caring one way or the other. . . that can’t be a good thing. The problem arises when marketing, shaming, and self-help become blurred into easily digestible messages leaving us satisfied in the moment; but unsatisfied over time (rather sounds akin to fast food, no?).
Another way in which one can critically examine a self help message is to look for the ‘grey’. That is, does the author address the plurality of ways to achieve a desired goal as opposed to doing something the ‘healthy way’ (i.e. the author's way) or the wrong way (essentially anything else). No matter how much you may agree with a blog’s message, ask yourself if the author is stumbling into a black or white thinking error. If only real and healthy change was as easy as finding the right way to raise your children, or cure addiction, or vanquish depression, or nullify anxiety. It is definitely NOT my intention to vilify the attempts of people to share motivational messages and strategies to navigate through life.
Again, our lives are a shared experience and are deserving of a shared narrative that other can benefit from. The only way to sift out the helpful messages from the rest is via critical thinking and avoiding the trap of seeking out messages that act to simply confirm what we already believe. Because, more often that we might hope or think, that which we ‘already know’ may be emanating from unhealthy parts of ourselves (i.e. addiction, shame, fear, anger, jealousy, etc.). So don’t turn off your screens (or do, but that is for a different blog), simply remember to use you critical thinking skills on even the self help messages that resinate the most. . . yes, yes - this one too.