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The Big Answer


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The Shrinking of America: Myths of Psychological Change

a book by Bernie Zilbergeld

(our site's book review)

The author is critical of therapy and therapeutic thinking in general. He states that “. . . people are very difficult to change . . . [people] are not as much in need of changing as is commonly thought. Most people are basically healthy and resourceful, quite capable of dealing with the trials and tribulations of everyday life on their own or with the help of their friends, and are not, as we now seem to believe, in need of constant monitoring and fixing up by behavioral experts.”

Psychiatrist
Psychiatrist

He quotes Jerome Frank: “Psychotherapy can be viewed as a social institution created to fill the gap left by the decay of other institutions that gave meaning to life and a feeling of connectedness to others.”

He admits the limitations of the therapeutic change process. If people’s childhoods are bad enough, this places “. . . powerful obstacles for some people to the amount of change they can make in or out of therapy. This is especially true when early negative experiences continue through adolescence and early adulthood. The main problem for some is that their first experiences do get set in concrete and do not leave room for modification. . . . Humans are social beings. To a very great extent, the amount of change that can be made and maintained is dependent upon how much it is supported or fought by important others. [Think MC, the best support around.] For many, there is little support and even outright hostility.”

He asserts that “. . . there are advantages to not trying to improve ourselves. The . . .American assumption about malleability, that people need to change, is largely a myth. We are not nearly as bad off and in need of fixing as therapists tell us. Much of what we now think of as problems . . . are not so much problems as inescapable limits and predicaments of life. We see them as problems only because we have developed peculiar notions about what life can and should be.” He needs to read The Adjusted American: Normal Neurosis in the Individual and Society—perhaps he'd be able to shed some light on his delusions. The average person is a real mess compared to his actual potential.

If one takes all the correct, incorrect, insightful, naïve, cynical, hopeful, discouraging and ambiguous ideas in this book and adds them to his account of leaving an est training before it was done—smart-assing Werner Erhard on the way out, one gets an interesting and somewhat disturbing picture of a very conflicted man who underwent therapy for five years, and then became a therapist himself for a dozen years. The image one picks up is of someone who isn’t sure whether he’s coming or going, needing or giving, constructively or destructively analyzing and discussing the therapy scene. He obviously finds himself bedeviled by constantly tripping over his old baggage, hangup, and failures. This has left him negative, cynical, and whistling in the dark.

A guy whistling in the dark
A guy whistling in the dark

It all makes sense only in the context of a person who has had problems which therapy tried to fix but failed to, so the person kept trying therapies but eventually gave up hope and became a therapist himself to see if he could learn the self-healing secrets from the inside. When this didn’t “fix” whatever it was, he got cynical and gave up, and decided not only that he was unchangeable and he might as well accept himself as he was, but that most everyone else was in that same boat.

Everyone else is in the same boat
Everyone else is in the same boat

This book could be considered constructive only in the narrow sense of helping others—who’re plagued with problems they’ve been unable to change—somehow learn to accept themselves as they are, including their problems, their shortcomings and their negative feelings about it. Perhaps a few people might quit seeing themselves as not okay and a few others might “adjust” to their sorry situations more comfortably and with less self-disparagement. But nothing else about the book is constructive. A book that says that therapy can’t really help much, but that’s okay because you don’t really need help anyway because you’re already okay, will be overlooked by most people, who have better ways to spend their time (e.g., nose picking) than reading such a thing. But the few readers of this book who are really looking for a life that works and feels alive and human, and are really ready for and open to change, and have the courage to go for it, and are looking for guidance about how they can get what they want, may be convinced by this tome to forget it and give up. Ouch!

Why did he feel the need, after giving up about therapy, to get others to do the same? Why write a cynical book? It’s almost like he can’t have what he wants, so he’ll make sure others can’t get what they want either—a very selfish act. This is not a mature response to frustration—nor was his ungraceful exit of est, where he attempted to ruin the experience for the others in the training.

Why wreck a seminar for others—who were braver and more serious than he was?
Why wreck a seminar for others—who were braver and more serious than he was?

So what is all this about? There seems little doubt that it’s about the avoidance of pain and the lack of courage to experience the pain inherent in therapeutic change. “No pain, no gain” is true in bodybuilding and in some sports and in all nonsuperficial therapies. Most of us have met people who were hurt enough in their upbringings that they developed a basic fear of trusting people, a basically cynical attitude, and sometimes even a numbed, paralyzed existence where the false self safely handles the realities of life while the real self quivers in fear, hidden, undetected, unnurtured, and sadly abandoned forever as a liability/vulnerability not worth the risk of uncovering.

For some, the false self safely—if falsely—handles the realities of life
For some, the false self safely—if falsely—handles the realities of life


For such people, their real self quivers in fear, hidden
For such people, their real self quivers in fear, hidden

This book has exactly that feel to it. Is change toward a more happy and alive existence really a lost cause to such people? Yes, as long as they define the safety of functioning without risk or pain more important than feeling alive, happy and fulfilled. But, the good news is that they are in charge of their decisions. They can choose to leave the pseudosecurity of the stagnant pool and take the risk of going back out into the rushing river of real life if they really want to badly enough. The issue boils down to a purely existential one expressed best by the Bard: “To be or not to be, that is the question.”

Leave behind the stagnant pool and take the risk of going back out into the rushing river of real life
Leave behind the stagnant pool and take the risk of going back out into the rushing river of real life