On January 4-6, 2009, PBS will air the 3-part series, This Emotional Life.
The official website is rich with video clips, blogs, links, and other resources.
The site describes This Emotional Life as “a multiplatform project exploring the science behind our quest for emotional well-being and the importance of social relationships in surmounting life’s challenges.”
I checked out the website to write this precap — since they’ve devoted comprehensive web sections to each topic covered in the show.
I was hoping to report back with lots of nice things to say — uplifting, inspiring.
Well, in the second-to-last section I talk about the good stuff. But most of the time I couldn’t help noticing three major pitfalls that I’ll be watching out for when it airs.
Daniel Gilbert, social psychologist and best-selling author of Stumbling on Happiness hosts the show, interviewing several celebrities and key figures in psychology and even self-help.
Gilbert’s journalistic tone turns up in the “Self-Help or Self-Harm?” video segment under the Perspectives section of the website.
In clip four, he speaks with Dr. John Norcross on the lack of scientific guidance in the bulk of self-help books. They touch on some important points, particularly referencing the recent widespread of The Secret.
This book-turned-to-movie sells The Law of Attraction (LoA), which holds that thoughts attract external life events. So it’s wise to choose only happy thoughts for a nice, happy ending.
I’ve written before how the common LoA pitch endangers emotional health. But not to get off topic.
It appears from these four clips that Gilbert is adamant at shining negative light on the self-help industry — to bolster professional help. In clip two, he commends Dr. Phil and his TV show staff for having a healthy respect for scientific evidence as basis for advice and understanding.
He then says that most therapists, most good therapists, also share this healthy respect.
Most self-help literature, on the other hand, with a clear raise in his pitch — doesn’t. (I really like how Dr. Phil answers the questions on this by the way.)
… without being critical of psychology
It’s true that self-help has license to publish any personal opinions with no regard for scientific thinking. But the problem I see with Gilbert’s logic is this faith that most therapists do have this regard — in the privacy of an office that is never monitored, due to confidentiality issues. And I’m not the only one with this reservation.
Head over to Psychotherapy Brown Bag where Mike Anestis, M.S. in this article expresses the need for more common ground between clinical psychology research and clinical psychology practice — so that professionals can be more in tune with empirically-based treatments.
When the head of the American Psychological Association (APA) deflected this need at all (by responding to this Newsweek article)… Anestis responded to APA, with assertiveness and tact. He is not afraid to take a mindful look at his own field.
(The debate’s in no way simple or settled, as it appeared on NPR this past Friday.)
I wonder how Gilbert would follow this exchange. He’s focused on the dangers of self-help advice, but equal criticism needs to be turned to all industries for us to really get anywhere.
In other words, what I see is a clear attempt at polarizing the issue. Self-help is bad, therapists are good. Personal opinions are not valid, scientific ones are. The problem with this approach is that it hides the fact that both are in fact quite gray, and that’s where education and personal discernment need to come in.
I’ve seen science fall short in many ways, and self-help pick up the slack. And I’ve also seen self-help that’s extremely dysfunctional, and science that’s extremely necessary. The bottom line is, they are both works in progress.
Success comes from using the best of both to give people what they need to know in order to take action in their lives — right now.
Being more journalistic than documentarian
In clip three, Gilbert questions self-help bestseller Louise Hay, who founded the Hay House publishing company. He tries to appear open to her viewpoints, but his irritation is visible.
After all, a video clip is shown of Hay speaking at one of her conferences, saying “[S]omebody that has depression is choosing thoughts that make them feel rotten.”
This is an obvious paradigm clash with what’s posted on This Emotional Life’s website (and what’s dictated by the DSM-IV): “People who are depressed can’t just ‘snap out of it.’ … Depression is a real illness, like heart disease or diabetes.”
The tension in the clip with Hay mounts when Gilbert asks her how she regards scientific evidence. She responds saying she doesn’t believe in it.
What she then clarifies, is that she doesn’t believe scientific evidence has all the answers for society right now — that data’s going to be updated with time, so why put all your belief into what’s “known” right now? Gilbert then concedes a bit by acknowledging how science is a work in progress.
There are points brought up on both sides in this clip, amidst the tension. And there’s an untold story too. Hay was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was younger. There wasn’t much the doctors could do.
Then she focused really hard on making positive affirmations a part of her life. She decided to heal her pain from the past, and the cancer disappeared. Why didn’t Gilbert ask her about that? (Since he directly asked her about cancer.) Maybe he does in another clip?
Why more documentation is needed
Science still can’t explain spontaneous remission.
Hey, that’s important!
We’re still searching for answers. People know that science doesn’t have all the answers; that’s why they go to self-help. Not that it’s right or balanced or the smartest thing to do — just that it’s human.
Another untold story is that before Hay got serious about affirmations, she worked with a therapist to vent out her anger from childhood abuse and trauma — bats on pillows, in the office.
That part of her story never did get as much spotlight as the affirmations part, which I think caused real dysfunction in her ultimate message.
And then, some good ole anger bashing
And no, Gilbert’s likely not going to promote batting on pillows either. This Emotional Life’s website warns:
“Venting is the worst way to manage anger; a better strategy is allowing yourself to calm down, such as by counting to 10 or taking deep breaths.”
You might not notice at first glance, but this statement is in direct contradiction to a statement higher up on the page:
We often regard anger as the ugly stepchild of emotions, making it less acceptable to express than sadness or anxiety. The result: we don’t always learn how to handle our anger constructively. Yet, when managed with care and attention, anger can be a force for reflection and even the impetus for major breakthroughs in how we feel and live our lives.
Most of psychology has passed on the belief that venting anger only perpetuates it and causes rumination of negative thoughts.
Spreading dysfunctional beliefs about anger
Well, that’s a result of not knowing how to constructively vent anger and follow-up the session with a mindful look at the real problems that need to be fixed.
Or following the site’s lingo: How to manage a vent with care and attention, so that venting anger can be a force for reflection and mobilizing response ability.
Condemning all venting of anger — when it can be safely constructed in an appropriated environment — sounds like outcasting the ugly stepchild of emotions to me.
And this is one area where I side more with Hay — when smarter studies come along, maybe five to ten years from now, there will be well-documented ways to constructively vent anger.
Until then, I’m pretty sure the current studies won’t convince me that… when I am experiencing intense anger and can express it safely and appropriately (vent) to then follow-up with a mindful look at how to be response able to my real problems… that counting to ten to stuff my anger is a better alternative.
And onto meditation…
So you can see that I have some reservations about This Emotional Life. I’m not impressed with how Gilbert handles the adversary to his message: self help. Not surprised that venting is given a cursed name.
(Won’t even get into how predictably forgiveness is subscribed on the site — for that would take too long.)
And definitely not surprised that meditation seems to be the subtle agenda.
The site claims:
“Meditation is not about running away from or denying problems and feelings. Quite the opposite; meditation requires self-awareness and honesty. Rather than deny feelings, meditation helps people learn to be aware of them and observe them in a nonjudgmental way.”
(I’ll be writing on this in the future, but observing emotions in a nonjudgmental way is interchangeable with simply not experiencing them. That contradicts the basis of “mindfulness.”)
Let’s hope that this is true to the actual airing, because this clip with Richard Gere on meditation tells a slightly different story:
“The early stages of meditation is just to break that lock — that intoxication with the surface of things.
Did you catch that? Intoxication here is derogatory. Surface of things means everyday life events.
Translating Gere’s statement to: “Meditation helps you realize that your problems aren’t really that important. They’re surface level. They’re how things appear. Simply mind chatter.
“Let the senses go a little bit their own way. Let the surface of the chatter of the mind go its own way. It’s the awareness that’s the important thing. It’s how open one’s heart is.”
The awareness? Hmm.
To feel the weight of the problems, no matter how surface level they are.
Having the courage to face the pain. The unpleasantries of life.
Meditation needs more mindfulness
Meditation has its place. Meditation can really be a beautiful, powerful thing. It can help to fix real-life problems. This Emotional Life will probably highlight some wonderful ways how.
But what meditation can’t do is substitute real mindfulness — about what you’re feeling — and true response ability to life.
It can help in this process, yes, but not when relegating thoughts and emotions to nothing of truth or real importance is involved.
So when I see the good-looking celebrities go on with abstract language about meditation, I’ll be thinking, they did well casting attractive, familiar faces to sell the agenda. That involves not really working with all of your emotions, especially anger, in safe and appropriate ways.
But you can bet I’ll be focusing on the words, and especially those abstractions.
Meditation talk needs less abstraction
“You can’t stop thought. But you can stop your attachment to thought.”
We’ll probably see more abstract language like this in This Emotional Life.
“Attachment to thought” or “attachment to emotion” tends to mean “identification with.”
Which really means, believing in and feeling.
Which really really means, being able to “go there” emotionally. Being able to get upset, or feel hurt, or act like a four-year old who doesn’t get her way.
Many people today use meditation to bypass that mindset, that choice to really feel. They want to skip the hard to part and go straight to the reprogramming of dysfunctional beliefs. Or even straight the bliss fix where everyday problems don’t seem as important. In my opinion and observation, short-cuts and quick-fixes don’t work. That’s why Gilbert can’t stand LoA.
What I look forward to in the series
I’m really glad This Emotional Life is coming to life next January.
Emotional health’s going to get much needed air time.
But emotional health is a complex topic — that’s why I’m critical of several of Gilbert & Co.’s approaches. What can I say? I have high expectations.
Here, I pulled out a golden quote just to show you I really am excited for this:
“[S]cience reminds us that we are of two minds—a rational brain that’s relatively new and an emotional brain that’s older than time. Sometimes emotion overwhelms reason, sometimes reason outwits emotion, and it is the endless struggle that makes our lives so painful, so joyous and so interesting.”
And you can check out my favorite video clips as well (from This Emotional Life’s website):
- Joan Rivers’ honest look at why we as a society obsess over happiness
John Leguizamo’s realistic look on happiness, and how resilience is a prime ingredient
I think the biggest prize of the show will be in showing how happiness comes from within (the interviews so far on this are great), and how healthy relationship attachment from childhood forms the basis.
Also, it’s probably going to gives us a healthy reminder that best way to be happy in life is to maintain healthy relationships. If it accomplishes this alone, I’ll consider that a big success.
I really hope though that they include a mindful look at meditation, without glorifying it, because mindfulness meditation can subtly diffuse one’s direct experience of their emotions.
And you need to be absolutely connected to the direct experience of your emotions if your relationship with yourself, and your relationship with others, are going to have a chance.
So what do you think?
If you take some time to check out the sites and watch some videos (including the preview), let us know your thoughts!
Things you’re excited for?
Maybe wary of?
Are you planning to watch along?
I sure am. :)
I’ll also be sharing my thoughts in recaps of each episode, so don’t forget to grab your feed.
isemotionallife/home” target=”_””>This Emotional Life, called “Confronting Our Demons.”
I hope it follows the same formula of honesty and fearlessness in delving into all things emotional (which as I outlined in the critical precap for This Emotional Life, can be tricky when it comes to the darker emotions).
And I look forward to recapping it with you tomorrow night as well.
This is the 1st article in the series, “This Emotional Life.”