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Recently, while visiting a colleague in another city, I attended a dinner party. While there I was introduced to the neighbor of the people who had invited me. Within the first ninety seconds I had decided I did not like her. "I'm going to an intervention this weekend", she cooed with pride. "The woman we are doing the intervention on is an old friend of mine. She's So CO!" (meaning, of course, "co-dependent"). I fought hard to keep from groaning.
What followed was a litany of complaints, stories and detailed diagnoses (most glaringly inaccurate) that she had created for her coworkers, neighbors, family and friends. She had, she admitted with pride, told every person she knew just what was "wrong" with them and what they needed to do to "get better". The training that made her qualified to make (and to share) these diagnoses? Self-help books and seminars, daytime talk shows, and a variety of 12-step programs and support groups.
You will excuse me if I am brutally honest. I realize that such honesty is something reserved for the privacy of one's home and 12-step meetings nowadays, but someone has to say it. Here it is: I have had it up to my ears with the self-help/self-awareness movement. I yearn for the days when words like "survivor", "codependent", "exhale", "virilepause" (the male version of menopause) and "inner-child" were not a part of our society's everyday vocabulary---when there were not seven rules, seven laws, or seven secrets for doing anything. When people developed problem-solving skills on their own and when they couldn't, they turned to family members and professionals to help attain them.
I long for the days when people did not air their dirty laundry in public, and did not feel obliged to drag the dirty laundry of their mates, friends and family out of the hamper for them. Perhaps the good old days were just an illusion. Maybe Mr. and Mrs. Cleaver were swinging with the neighbors down the street. It's possible that Wally was a drug addict, or even that Beaver was a girl trapped inside a boy's body (hmm) but, thank God, at least back then we did not have to hear about it.
It's not that I am callused or insensitive. Quite the contrary, I think it is terrific that people who might not otherwise be able to gain insights and tools to improve the quality of their lives are able to buy a book, watch a talk show, attend a support group, or call into a radio program to find direction. I do, however, believe that many of the consequences of the self-help rage have been something less than positive for our society.....
Whining and Complaining
One of the more annoying (not to mention embarrassing) consequences of the self-help craze has been the increased tolerance for crying when the world isn't perfect. And, with this increased tolerance, has come the perpetuation of some very public displays of whining and complaining.
Am I the only one sick to death of this? Do I have a skewed memory, or was there a time in this country in which people did not feel it was appropriate to publicly whine and cry about their life choices and conditions?
Recently, while taking a lunch-break, I received a call from an associate. As I took a bite of sandwich, I reached over and turned up the volume on my answering machine to hear the caller. Much to my chagrin, what I heard was a long, detailed diatribe about my associate's latest trials and tribulations. Apparently, bad timing and sloppy planning had ended in my associate getting caught by her husband in bed with her lover.
The lamenting went on for several minutes. Somewhere between the incessant whining about the mess she was in, and the lurid details of the bedroom scene, I had to turn the volume off. "Do I need to hear this?", I wondered aloud. "I'm trying to eat a cheese sandwich here."
How did this happen? How did we get to this point? I remember a time when I heard parents firmly tell their children, "Stop your whining! No one likes a whiner." Nowadays, though, whining is not only tolerated, it is seen as socially acceptable. In some places in fact (like Berkeley, California, for instance, a place I often refer to as "The City of Perpetual Whining") whining is not only viewed as acceptable, but as expected. Don't have something to whine about? You must be really insensitive.
There is a direct correlation between this increased whining and the self-help/self-awareness movement. One of the primary reasons concerns the analytical nature of self-help. Hold anything under a microscope long enough and you're bound to find flaws with it. When you focus on what is wrong with yourself, other people, places, and things all the time, it can be pretty frustrating and pretty ugly. (I maintain that unless the words "abuse" or "incest" pop up, people should stop dissecting their lives. Having a mother who separates the food on her dinner plate so that the mashed potatoes do not "touch" the vegetables, or an uncle who must continually check his fly to make sure his zipper is closed is weird, to be sure. But so what? Let it go already. Whining about it isn't going to change anything anyhow.)
With all of this self-analysis comes a hyper-awareness and hyper-sensitivity---especially towards those people and conditions that do not subscribe or conform to the new insights the self-help recipient has acquired. What results is an incessant inner-voice crying out, "Why can't everything be perfect? Why can't everyone be like meeeeee ?".
Yikes! What channel are these folks on? And, perhaps even more importantly, what can we do to put a stop to this trend? Somewhere in the background I hear the voice of my old gym coach, with that 1960's tone of incredulity in his voice, shouting, "PEOple! PEOple! Let's pull it together, PEOple!".
A Nation of Walking Wounded
Perhaps one of the most peculiar outcomes concerning the self-awareness/self-help movement is the creation of problems that previously did not exist. As the twenty-first century nears, we have now learned that our culture has toxic people (with toxic minds, toxic intentions, and toxic relationships), people who are doormats, codependent, control freaks, and people who actually love too much. There are people who are emotionally bankrupt, spiritually immature, and success starved. And, according to many self-help sources, plenty who are either addicted or obsessed with love, drugs, alcohol, spending, gambling, violence, bad relationships, sex, work, food, neatness, or pornography. Yuk. It's enough to make you want to avoid getting to know anyone new.
If you believe the self-help gurus, we are, in short, a mess. A nation of walking wounded, held together by paper clips and rubberbands. My advice? Enough already. Tell your inner-child to stick a sock in it and move on!
The writer of this article welcomes your comments: firstname.lastname@example.org