Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Turning Self-Help Into Real Help

January 13, 2003

What are you going to do about that unwanted behavior - the particular vice or problem you are trying to overcome? Is it excessive weight, overspending, smoking, excessive and uncontrolled drinking, or an issue with anger management?

"If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." Why try again when repeated attempts at self-help fail? It seems like we are not designed to accept defeat easily. It is testimony to the resiliency of the human spirit we attempt again and again.

Yet getting on and off the self-help merry-go round leads to harm, endangerment, discouragement and a host of emotionally distressing symptoms. These include such things as obsessive preoccupation with the problem, increased stress, anxiety, irritation, depression, loss of concentration, fatigue, guilt, self-hatred, impaired social relationships and damaged physical health.

Hope and false hope. What is the difference between hope and false hope, confidence and overconfidence, realistic goals and wishful thinking, eventual success or failure?

Setting a self-improvement goal is not the problem. Goals direct our attention and energy. They motivate us. They call on our past repertoire of skills and knowledge in dealing with similar problems. Goals are important for setting a standard for judging satisfaction or dissatisfaction about our progress. They are markers for personal rewards and building blocks for self-confidence.

Why self-help fails. The reasons so many people fail at self-help changes center around setting unrealistic goals, underestimating the difficulty and complexity of the change, how long it will take and how much effort will be required. When it comes to change, the best is an enemy of the good. Goals need to be modest and achievable.

Unrealistic goals can be beyond any combination of effort or ability to conquer them. The initial effort leads to early success followed by resistance to change - such as the body's natural defense against weight loss resulting in a plateau effect - then lack of change and finally abandoning attempts to change. It is how people interpret failure that leads to their determination to try again. They convince themselves that with a few small adjustments success is within their grasp.

Unfortunately people tend to blame themselves for the failure. The problem wasn't with their effort. It is tempting to blame lack of effort because, by definition, effort is correctable and that gives hope.

More than likely, the problem is with their incomplete analysis of the problem and persisting in wrong strategy. Their well-learned strategies for attacking the problem are inadequate and inappropriate. By denial, avoiding facts, wishful thinking and an unwillingness to focus on the process of the change and learning from mistakes, further attempts at change result in another repeated and discouraging failure. These repeated attempts take a psychological toll in terms of emotional distress.

What constitutes a good self-help strategy? Change is hard. Change takes time. People shouldn't try to change too many things at once. We have a limited amount of energy for self-regulation. Goals and effort take memory, thoughts and energy.

The long term goal should be specific and attainable. It then needs to be broken down into short term goals with ways to monitor progress and reward success.

People in the process of change need regular feedback. They need to monitor ways the environment hindered or helped toward the change. This helps them develop better strategies for dealing with the change and taking corrective action that is required to accomplish the goal.

Another key component of success at this point is an honest appraisal of where success and failure came from. This honest willingness to learn to admit and learn from mistakes and to deal with specifics makes for realistic hope. In the lyrics of Kenny Rogers in, The Gambler, "You've to know when to hold them, know when to fold them, know when to walk away and know when to run."

Regular feedback also gives an opportunity for experiencing satisfaction and rewards for goal attainment. Being with others who are working toward the same change gives an opportunity to exchange information and experience social support and encouragement.

Don't give up. We need lofty goals in our life. We need hope to make the effort and persist. Stars are something to reach for, not sticks to beat ourselves up with. What is often missing from the equation is the plan, the method and the stepping stones to get there.

We can play with the hand we are dealt and turn it into a winner. Setbacks are not defeats. Mistakes are to be learned from. The only true failure is the failure to learn from mistakes. Goals can be revised, broken down, made possible.

Change is hard. Change takes time. Change means we have to get down and dirty and take a hard, honest look at ourselves, not so much in terms of the ultimate goal or our effort, but our pathway we have chosen to the goal.

Have you set your goals for the year? I have.

(Thanks to psychologists Janet Polivy and C. Peter Herman at the University of Toronto for their analysis of futile attempts at self-help.)