EP 176: Why Psychology Annoys You: Clearing Up Self Esteem and Positive Thinking

MichaelCritical Thinking, Therapy19 Comments

PositiveThinking Why do so many people have a negative attitude about the field of psychology? I think there are a handful of reasons and here I talk about two of them: the so-called “self-esteem movement” and the “positive thinking” movement. Are psychologists responsible for why “kids today” appear to be so self-centered? Do psychologists think that changing yourself is as simple as just changing the way you think? Hear one psychologist’s opinion on this and my explanation on two reasons why I think maybe you hate psychology. Just hear me out.


Reason 1: Why You hate Psychology: the Self Esteem Movement

The idea that we should let people know that they are important and good was indeed popularized in psychology during the humanistic psychology movement with Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. The idea is that if you are right environment – one which emphasizes unconditional positive regard, then you will be able to freely explore the issues that are keeping you from becoming your best self (self actualization in Maslow’s term). This idea spread to the world of education and somehow morphed into the idea that we should tell all students that they are special. While it’s true that some popular psychology books did emphasize this idea, it is definitely NOT embraced by all psychologists (see the article by psychologist Marilyn Price-Mitchell below). A more realistic picture of how to improve self esteem is provided in episode 9 of The Psych Files.


Reason 2: The Positive Thinking Movement

It’s true that there is WAY too much emphasis on positive thinking when it comes to how to feel better about yourself. It would appear that thinking positively will cure just about anything. This is a distortion on what psychologists would refer to as positive psychology. Psychologists like Aaron Beck, Albert Ellis and Martin Seligman did indeed focus on how realistic your thinking is and how unrealistic and negative thought patterns can lead to depression, but their solution is not simply to “think positive thoughts”. The Secret and the Law of Attraction is NOT psychology – although they can seem to have the “ring” of psychology and psychology does have a lot to say about how to get a positive attitude. Positive affirmations is also not part of the true field of psychology. Listen to episode 46 for more of my opinion on the potential dangers of positive thinking.

Why People Hate Psychology


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19 Comments on “EP 176: Why Psychology Annoys You: Clearing Up Self Esteem and Positive Thinking”

  1. It sounds like you had a really bad therapist. Therapy can differ a lot from one therapist to another. Give it a try.

  2. I found therapy to be completely useless at best = at worst the therapist mocked and humiliated me. It was a terrible experience and I would not suggest it to my worst enemy.

  3. Sorry to hear that your experience in therapy didn’t go well. Unfortunately, it is true that’s it hard to know if a therapist will work for you. As for what therapists are actually doing, well, at the very least they should be listening to you in a nonjudgmental way, helping to see patterns in your life and helping you to better understand your feelings and your relationships with others. I think that most therapists will explain what they’re doing to their clients but maybe some won’t. There certainly shiouldn’t be any humiliation going on. It sounds like you had a bad experience. Don’t give up on it.

  4. I hate psychotherapy because it is a giant scam. Nobody knows what therapists are actually doing. They won’t explain to the client. They sit there and get paid to do nothing at best or to humiliate the client at worst.
    I regret having tried therapy and will never do it again.

  5. When you have direct experience with a psychologist (and by the way not all psychologists are psychotherapists), you’ll find that they don’t typically “tell you” who you should be. They’re interested in helping you find out who you are.

  6. Care to mention something that you feel is non-scientific bullshit? How, for example, could you say that about the work of B.F. Skinner? His was very carefully designed research the results of which have been used to help youngsters with Autism?

  7. I hate psychology because you are talking non scientific bullshit which causes more harm to society than it cures.

  8. Hello! Can anyone debate this saying that I have heard a few times, and I don’t know how to reply to. “I don’t like psychologists because that is, a person trying to tell me who I should be.” It always confuses me. I am very new to the psychology world, I want to start psychology, but as of the moment I have little knowledge of it. I have heard this from family and friends, and I wondered what some of you may think?

  9. I dontlike to use the word hate for Pyschology but I personally am not a fan for me. Though I have no educatiion in this topic I hope I have read enough to carry a good debate. Also realize this thread is from a long time ago but would love to discuss.

    So my biggest reason is the idea of create rules, understandings and god forbid facts. I always believed that Pyshology is really the understanding of ones self. The scary thing for some people is being 100% honest with themselves….maybe thats what you guys do. To do that is very hard. very hard. I am never a fan of rules or a basis of thinking that narrows the mind(not that whats your doing) but people are inherently, sorry I know its rude, but sheep. We like to have labels and understandings. Rues to explain and help us undersatnd. Adn for this reason maybe its a good thing like religion is to others. Maybe it gives the simpler direction and a path.

    For me(and I am going to get weird but I am actually not that strage) believe in the things I can grasp and see. That doesnt mean a negative reaction to new facts or lessons but the idea to take things as they come and ‘try’ to understand them.. Never create solid facts or beliefs but things that will evove and grow. TO never have pessimism but never completely submit. WHere I go with this is my understands evolve from the thing I can prove…number one..I exist and think for myself. This is the one rule I believe to be true. Everything else is just things I try and understand. Now with this I find it empowers me to look at things differently. I believe I am in control of my life and where it goes. I believe this world is only the world in which I seem to be a part of and only understand my own mind. It is both epowering and exciting.. I find myself understanding the things around me better, and not being upset about the things I dont understand. Its not ignorance is bliss but the idea of you dont know everything so let it go. Do what feels right, do your thing. I like the idea that I can do what ever I want and have the power to do it when I set my mind to it. I dont mind that I might have flaws to some people. but what they dont understand is everything is my strength.

    I am drifting a bit for pyschology but the thing I dislike is trying to understand and catergorize the mind. I would never visit a pyschologist because I could honestly careless what he would say. Not rude or arrogant but more its my thing to unravel and understand. We are all way to complex. I like the idea or more know that I am in control of my reality.

    But all this said it can be a good thing too.. I am not going to debate the good and bad of religion as I can debate either side very strongly, but Ithink of it as a way for people to cope and a simple understanding.. A way to help people by knowing (as a psychologist) that(I am sorry but rude and blunt) they are mainly sheep waiting to be herded. You can help people by directing them and listening.

    For the real alpha or the strong you have to be honest and strong. Not fake strong but understand what it really means. only you can learn that yourself.

    Hense I dont care about psychology.


  10. Hi Michael – Alas, I know very little about NLP. According to a Wikipedia Entry – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuro-linguistic_programming – and brief references in their first book, “The Structure of Magic”, the founders indicate that they have studied Perls’ transcripts as a way of coming-up with their methodology. I use NLP as an extreme example of therapy that is being taught as a “copy-of-a-copy-of-a-copy”. That is to say, we degrade a bit of the original every time we sort of reinvent it, or re-teach it. This is not to say that certain theories or modalities don’t need updating because of changing knowledge or a changing culture. However, as it relates to the proliferation of positive psychology and how it has entered into the self-help field, many seem to be taking only selective bits and pieces of larger theories.

    I remember one time I had a very distraught client in front of me, and I paid her a significant compliment, or in technical terms – I validated or provided meaning to her struggle. That comment accelerated her therapy significantly. A few sessions afterwards, she mentioned that my validation had meaning to her because she felt I was not the kind of therapist to say things that I don’t mean. In other words, the impact came not from the positive regard, but from the fact that she understood I meant what I said – or from the genuine encounter between us.

    I look at positive regard and inspiration this way… As a non-medical therapist, I am not able to prescribe medications, and quite often I feel that inspiration or positive regard is really the only “narcotic” that I can “dispense” to my patients. That is to say patients often demand it of me, and are often addicted to it. I find, however, my most potent use of it is when I am able to time and dose it correctly. Too much inspiration on my part makes patient immune to it, such that they require more and more of it, thus making therapy less and less effective.

  11. Brian: thanks for your comments. I haven’t done an episode on NLP (not that familiar with it). Sounds like a good idea for an episode (you an expert by any chance…?). Excellent point, “…people have to realize that the psychological symptoms or dysphoria that they face are founded on decades of unaware thoughts and behaviours which cannot be “cured” over-night.

    Accendo: I’m not sure what you mean when you say that psychology is “based off society’s thinking”. I agree that when you change the way you think you can change your thinking and behavior, but I worry about referring to someone’s “willpower”. We have to be careful to use terms like this because they allow us to blame someone’s difficult situation on their “lack of willpower” (blaming the victim). What is “willpower”? A person’s ability to change (and the speed at which they are able to change) is affected by so many things.

  12. Just recently stumbled upon your podcasts, very thought provoking. I would have to say that I’m one of those that doesn’t hate psychologists. I admit I don’t like them, but only because I see psychologists as closed minded. I dislike that your way of thinking is based off society’s thinking, a little too impersonal I think.

    Just one other thing you mentioned, regarding “Change the way you think, change your life”. You said its it’s not that easy, I agree, it is not that easy. I think that hard or easy is irrelevant, the point is, if you do change your way of thinking it can and will change your life. When that will happen depends on the person and their will power. By placeing challenges into categories of easy and hard, I found that you would succeed in the things you thought were easy and most of the time give up on the hard. So by changing those thoughts of hard and easy and looking at them in a different way, will lead to a more thought changing process. Hence change your thoughts, change your life, it can happen, and yes it takes time, but if it makes you a better person, does time really matter?

  13. Bravo! I am a psychotherapist in Toronto and was just browsing around for new information and material and came across your podcasts, and this episode in particular. Your observations about therapy and its outlook are bang-on – there are different styles, modalities and quality of therapists. I too take strong exception with how much of today’s self-help movements have pilfered the works of Rogers, Maslow and Fritz Perls, who founded my modality of therapy – Gestalt. For a further example, NLP which seems to be growing in leaps and bounds, was founded on studying transcripts of Perl’s therapy. I am convinced that Fritz would roll-over in his grave if he saw how his transcripts were being used.

    I like to say that therapy is an “art”” and a process that takes patience. On a very base level, people have to realize that the psychological symptoms or dysphoria that they face are founded on decades of unaware thoughts and behaviours which cannot be “cured” over-night. To make matters worse, the job or occupation of a therapist is like any other. The practitioner has good days and bad days, and we are always learning. This, coupled with so many modalities and styles of therapy makes the therapeutic endeavour challenging for many patients. My hope is that people do not “hate” us because of this. Who knows, maybe the reason people learn to have more patience for themselves in therapy is simply because their patience is tested by the vagaries of the therapeutic process itself.

  14. Thanks PsychedinSF (great name). Yup – just having your feelings validated with no judgement and even no follow-up is a powerful. Sometimes “That sounds frustrating” is enough. “That sounds frustrating, but….” will probably be less helpful.

  15. We really dig the idea behind compassion and empathy. The idea that being listened to can help us in a way, feel, appreciated and understood. Being able to validate our own feelings with a sounding board who is willing to be open and receive your message makes us feel calmer just thinking about it. Great Podcast. Cheers! -PsychedinSF

  16. I have to say I’ve never heard of either of those studies. If you’ve got a site or a citation I’d be interested in taking a look.

  17. When I think of psych I think of Gideon and his study of men drinking water to weed out the dogs from the alert warriors. Also, Solomon and his understanding of the psychology of mothers.

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