A growing number of over-caffeinated individuals can be found hawking their trademarked methods for self-improvement on the internet. In their videos these folks will say they were once just like you once: uninspired, underachieving, and unhappy. That is, before they overcame their lowly position in life to blossom into the massively successful and/or fulfilled person they are today. There’s room on the mountaintop for you too, if you’re willing to pay for the retreat/program/coaching et cetera.
What these folks are selling is usually some technique (read: shortcut or “hack”) designed to help you overcome your fear/self-doubt and unlock the untapped potential justunderneath the surface. The premise is that by “hacking” your mind or life, you can become the successful and happy person you were born to be (and deserve to be, damn it!). The self-help industry rakes in $10 billion dollar per year by capitalizing on this very human desire to bypass the hard work of self-transformation and personal growth. There is something undoubtedly alluring about the promise of rapid results, of course. The undying hope is that a better life is just a hack (or diet, or retreat) away. The reality is that life is disorderly, complex, and often out of our control.
The modern self-help movement can be traced, in part, back to the work of Norman Vincent Peale, whose controversial book The Power of Positive Thinking inspired a generation of self-help gurus to extol the virtues of positive thinking. Peale’s shallow philosophy rests on an outlandish premise: that we can somehow hypnotize ourselves into success by telling ourselves it will be so (i.e. if we imagine ourselves as rich with enough intent, we will manifest riches). Peale proclaimed that manifesting things through thinking about them repeatedly was nothing less than a law of the universe.
A Dog Chasing Its Own Tail
Let’s explore some of the connotations of the word hack. When it comes to life hacking or mind hacking, are we trying to “beat the system” like a brilliant self-hacker, tweaking our mind for optimal functioning in a society that demands we produce, produce, produce? Are we hacking our way through the forest of our mind a machete, strong-arming our way past all self-doubt until we are completely confident we willsucceed no matter what? Or are we just being hacks, in love with our image and unaware of how shallow our life philosophy actually is? The self-help industry preys upon our insecurities, our tendency toward self-aggrandizement, and our need to follow someone who seems to have it all figured out.
When we believe that “the new me” is right around the corner, we tend to get very excited about what is coming to us. Our excitement may drive us for some time, but how long can we sustain the enthusiasm before life knocks us back down again? Don’t get me wrong. Setting goals is great. Making a plan and sticking to it is great. What is not great is getting caught up in a game of denying or repressing negative emotions (though some self-help gurus might encourage harnessing our anger toward our “haters” as motivation). The objectification of happiness or success is simply a bad set-up. This notion that we can “hack” our way through life is only half-true. Yes, we can implement systems that make us more effective or productive, but happiness and success are byproducts of a life well-lived. A life well-lived is something we all have to figure out for ourselves, and it’s not easy. Self-transformation is a labor of love. And, in fact, we often hate ourselves more than we realize. If we do not address that underlying self-sabotaging part of ourselves, all the positive thinking in the world will not save us.
The Way Through
In a world of quick fixes and cure-all solutions for the masses, a good therapy relationship is a refuge from the bombardment of cultural messages luring us into dependency on something or someone for inspiration or guidance. (This may sound contradictory, as one might assume that dependence on a therapist must be unhealthy. Healthy dependence, however, is letting others matter to us. Unhealthy dependence looks like compulsively seeking advice or affirmation from an external source in lieu of engaging in a process of self-discovery). What makes therapy special is that the therapist does not profess to be an expert on your mind or your life, per se. Instead, what a therapist is expert at is forming a real relationship with you designed to stretch your capacities for facing your internal world. And let’s be real—it’s a scary place in there at times.
The therapist’s presence makes going deeply into our feelings, fantasies, and fears more tolerable. Thoughts and feelings that were too much to process alone can come into the light of consciousness through surrendering our defenses against intimacy and self-knowledge (it’s hard to get to know our “dark” parts!) This kind of change is subtle and can be slow-going, but it is powerful and lasting. Therapy is uncomfortable. Most of us enter therapy highly afraid of what we might have to face in the process. That’s okay. That’s why the therapist is there: to be with you as you venture into the recesses of your mind. There is nothing simple, direct, or easy about it. We are not objects, and when we buy into quick fixes we objectify ourselves. We are human subjects. We have a will, a conscience, a need to connect, a need to make meaning, and a need to grow. When we view life as a game or a code to be “hacked”, we are treating our life as a product rather than a process. If we go on too long in this way, we may burn out or become estranged from who we really are apart from the image we hope to embody (successful, happy, enlightened, etc.). Getting to know ourselves deeply and intimately is a less glamorous but more robust and sustainable path to self-transformation. It’s hard to trust the process, it’s easier to put our faith in a method that we can see on paper. The lesson here, I believe, is we get out what we put in. And if we put in our full presence and deep work into our growth, we will grow in full and deep ways. And if you ask me, it’s worth all the hacks in the world.