Brendon Towle Coaching

Photo by Graham Wills ( Used with permission.

What’s Wrong With Self-Help Advice?

I saw a post on Instagram the other day that perfectly encapsulated everything that’s wrong with self-help advice. It was entitled “How to Change Your Mindset” and included, among other things, the following suggestions:

  • Challenge limiting beliefs
  • Cultivate a positive outlook
  • Set inspiring goals
  • Embrace failure as a learning opportunity

Now, to be clear, I’m a fan of all of these suggestions. They’re all good ideas. Done consistently and even moderately effectively, they will change your mindset. And, as I say that, I hear you saying “So, Brendon. If these are all good ideas, what’s your problem anyway?”

Great question. The problem isn’t that they’re bad ideas. The problem is that if you’re not already doing them, being told to do them without guidance on how to do them is almost certainly useless.

Let’s take the first suggestion as an example. Challenging your limiting beliefs is awesome. It’s a great way to see how you’re preventing yourself from being successful, and to help yourself be willing to try new things. But, if you’ve never challenged your limiting beliefs before, the odds that you’ll be able to do it successfully are, shall we say, slim. The odds that you’ll even be able to identify your limiting beliefs are not great. If you’ve spent enough time in those limiting beliefs to actually be limited by them, they’ve probably faded into the background, and you may not even be fully aware that they’re there. In the same way that you probably don’t pay much attention to the air you’re breathing most of the time, it’s easy to not pay much attention to the things you’re thinking or to the beliefs that are driving your behavior.

Even if you can identify them, questioning them is hard. Confirmation bias is a human thing. What this means is that if the limiting belief is pointed out to you, you can probably think of at least a handful of events that support that belief without much trouble. It takes practice (and usually guidance) to think about the kinds of evidence that might disprove the belief, and even more practice and guidance to successfully look for that evidence in your own life.

All the rest of the suggestions above (as well as the ones from the post that I didn’t quote) have similar issues. Cultivating a positive outlook? Awesome. If you’re used to being negative, just hearing that suggestion doesn’t help you actually do it.

Setting inspiring goals? Beautiful idea. Doesn’t help much if you don’t know how to set inspiring goals that are also achievable or partially achievable, or how to evaluate your progress with respect to those goals, or how to break those goals down into steps and plans.

Embracing failure as a learning opportunity? Yes! I’m a big fan of the perspective that every circumstance or hardship can be turned into a gift and/or opportunity, and learning is often one of the opportunities that comes along. But, the emotional maturity necessary to do that is challenging.

Now, some of this is just me being grumpy. I would have had very little problem with that post if it had been titled “How To Change Your Mindset (If You Already Know How to Change Your Mindset),” but that’s not nearly as attractive of a hook. All of those suggestions will help if you do them effectively. They all do become easier with practice. And, they all are the sort of thing that can be easy to forget, and so a reminder can be useful.

But, the biggest problem with limiting beliefs is that we believe them. Challenging them requires us to go against our confirmation bias. It’s possible, for sure, but rarely without help.

There are all sorts of inspiring stories about someone who had a mindset breakthrough—out of the blue, they had a thought or a realization that completely changed how they approached their life. While these stories are inspiring, they’re also rare. Most of us learn how to do life slowly, bit by bit, mistake by mistake. And, evaluating our own actions is hard. Tasha Eurich talks about a “loving critic” as a critical part of the growth process, and that aligns 100% with my experience.

I’ve talked on numerous occasions about having a sponsor in recovery, and the benefits I get from that. Now, of course, my sponsor is a human being in recovery and thus has his own set of issues. But, one f the major benefits is that he doesn’t have any denial about my shit, and loves me enough to tell me the truth even when it’s going to piss me off, so he can offer insight and feedback that is literally life-saving and that is difficult to find anywhere else.

Now, is it self-serving for me, as a coach, to point out that having a coach is going to make it much easier to do these things? Of course. But, it’s also not wrong.

So, if you’re looking at the suggestions out there, and wondering why it is you seem to struggle with them, maybe it’s just that nobody has ever shown you how. Think about finding someone who can do that for you.

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