Often when we work on ourselves, we find helpful tips from friends, news articles, and social media posts. These well-written stories of how to better your life can be inspirational, but for someone already overwhelmed, depressed, or anxious, these stories may perpetuate feelings of chronic frustration and internalized failure.
A cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) concept, “compare and despair,” is a good starting place to better understand this struggle. When we read those inspirational stories of struggles and success, we often compare those struggles to our own. The tricky—and often upsetting—point comes when trying to understand why we cannot succeed like the storyteller succeeded. When we compare our life circumstances to those of another, this comparison can create a false notion that if we were that person or if we had what they had, we would be happy. The shiny stories actually only tell a small part of a particular reality, and the story often doesn’t show the real conditions that led to the other person’s success. While these inspirational stories can have value for some, or be entertaining or energizing, they can also have the opposite effect and can intensify feelings of hopelessness. Our triggered vulnerability can prompt doubt: “Why can they succeed when their life is so much harder than mine, but I can’t?”
Another possible detriment with inspirational stories lies in how a story is read and interpreted compared to the author’s intention. Once something is written, the writer has no control over how it is read, and readers put in their own feelings and experiences into these stories. While feeling moved by a story can be good for some, others may feel worse when these stories are unintentionally filtered through a lens of anxiety, depression, or avoidance. It is very possible to read an article that repeatedly recommends getting professional help and only mentions a self-help hack in passing and a reader believes the key point of the article was the self-help hack.
Not only can inspirational stories inadvertently intensify stuck feelings but self-help articles and books can do the same thing. Self-help articles and books can be deceiving because they make it seem that some specific task, like eating vegetables or exercising, could make a huge and long-lasting change. While there is some truth to these claims, self-help assertions can create an unrealistic expectation of how change will occur. For many people, personal growth is grueling and requires many uncomfortable events and realizations. Often, the long, insight-driven work can seem overwhelming and while a shortcut or hack is a welcome distraction, these hacks may be another way to avoid facing larger issues.
Instead of relying on these self-help hacks or inspirational stories, a healthy therapeutic relationship can be the place that real change occurs. This relationship can be a space to hear things that you don’t want to hear and empower you to make the difficult changes with long-term impacts. In therapy, clients often ask me to hold them accountable for accomplishing their goals in a certain time frame. Instead of holding them accountable for meeting these goals, I often hold them accountable for how they treat themselves during this process. In addition to meeting these goals, I help clients focus on treating themselves gently during this sometimes difficult process. I cannot tell you how many times I have asked, “Did you hear what you said to yourself just then?”
There are so many amazing books, articles and personal stories that can provide help and guidance. But, these stories are often mixed with content that can stimulate more feelings of shame and alienation for the very people who need the most caring and support.
Learn more about the author of this post: Robert Yata, LCPC