A Letter from Randy J. Paterson, PhD, author of our new book How to Be Miserable
Clients (and others) are often tremendously motivated to engage in self-improvement. They go to three different kinds of therapy, read only self-help literature, and spend the rest of the time in the gym to change the parts of their bodies they don’t like.
All of this can be helpful in the right circumstances. But much of the effort can be predicated on a hidden assumption: that they are simply not good enough as they are. And engaging in so much self-improvement can reinforce the self-perception that they are inadequate. “I wouldn’t be doing all this if I was already good enough.”
Given the fact of their inherent faultiness, they cannot afford to waste time going to parties, reading novels, or enjoying life. Their energies must be directed entirely at overcoming their inadequacy. The good life must be put off indefinitely until they are fully confident, until they have attained their ideal weight, until their depression is gone, and until they have become someone they believe to be worthy of love and respect.
In this way, the problem—and the therapy—can stand in the way of living the life they truly desire.
For these clients it can be useful to suggest leapfrogging the problem—without directly challenging the negative self-perception. “What if you didn’t have all these perceived flaws? What would you do? What books would you read? Having corrected your faults, how would you spend your time?”
Often we’ll discover that if they were in better condition they’d take up cycling; if they were happier they’d read trashy novels in coffee shops; and if they were confident they’d call friends more often.
Then we can suggest spending at least part of our therapy “pretending” they really are good enough already, and devote much of our energy to promoting the life that they envision after their faults have been erased. Doing this, we might discover that the negative self-perception fades on its own, or becomes much more open to challenge.
Our client may also arrive at the conclusion that at least some of our flaws may never be fully erased, that traits we define as flaws may prove to be assets instead, and that perfection is not a prerequisite to living one’s life. By skipping past the problem (as at least part of what we do), the change we bring about may be greater than if we targeted it directly.