A post I wrote earlier this month — Character, personality, and cosmetic surgery — reminds me very much of something I wrote 30 years ago. It was a chapter called “The Problem Is You” in a book I published in 1981. Today I write about personal responsibility for health. In the 1980s my phrase to identify that emerging phenomenon was “the problem is you.”
The 1980s saw significant shifts in medicine and health care, among them a shift away from focused attention on disease and chronic illness to an emphasis on individual risk factors, the need for greater self-surveillance, and the promotion of personal responsibility for health.
Health includes psychological well being, and one of the areas where blaming yourself was most apparent was the self-help industry. What I wrote 30 years ago was prompted by Wayne Dyer’s book, Your Erroneous Zones, first published in 1976 and now available from Amazon in 17 different formats. Dyer’s message: responsibility for emotional dissatisfaction lies with the individual. The problem is you.
The dark side of positivity
The message from the self-help industry (you control your own destiny and have no one to blame but yourself) was also popular in the business community (successful positive thinking is essential if you want to impress employers, customers, and co-workers). It was eventually adopted by the health care industry (you are personally responsible for living a healthy lifestyle).
There is a dark side to positive thinking, however, as Barbara Ehrenreich describes in her recent book Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.
[P]ositive thinking has made itself useful as an apology for the crueler aspects of the market economy. If optimism is the key to material success, and if you can achieve an optimistic outlook through the discipline of positive thinking, then there is no excuse for failure. The flip side of positivity is thus a harsh insistence on personal responsibility: if your business fails or your job is eliminated, it must [be] because you didn’t try hard enough, didn’t believe firmly enough in the inevitability of your success.
And if you fail to live a healthy lifestyle and get sick, you can blame yourself — not the hexavalent chromium in your water supply.
The flip side of positivity turned out to be something I’m still very much interested in today: How does a society convince people to feel personally responsible for what ails them – physically, mentally, or economically? By telling them “the problem is you.”
In what follows I reprint this chapter from my past. The writing is a bit dense. (I try not to write like that anymore.) I now happily contort sentences to avoid masculine pronouns. And I try to avoid jargon (primary and secondary socialization, life plan). At the time, the jargon came from what I was reading (Alfred Schutz, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, Aron Gurwitsch, Karl Mannheim). Jargon is an efficient way for experts to communicate with each other, but a subject like health should be accessible to the general public.
The only change I’ve made is the removal of two words that strike me now as gratuitously snide. I’m less angry now than I was 30 years ago.
The Problem Is You
Reality is inherited automatically in the course of being socialized — in the primary socialization of preschool years and in the secondary socializations of kindergarten, Sunday school, and Girl Scouts. The process is as simple and direct as it is inevitable, as effortless as aging. From the moment of birth we live within the prefabricated grid of the locally and currently prevailing world view. Even our earliest preverbal experiences are mediated through adults who treat us as prospective members of their world.
The child who lives in society, who is treated as a distinct personality, gradually comes to know himself as separate from both the physical world and from others. We become aware of our own behavior and the response it elicits. We are evaluated and judged by our appearance and attitude, behavior and ideas, deficiencies and deviations. This constant feedback is the raw material for the creation of identity, and it is through these interactions that we form an initial opinion of who we are. Throughout life we are continuously socialized by expectations we perceive, advice we receive, and social environments we encounter. But as we accumulate experience and grow in intellectual maturity we become better equipped to recognize the often arbitrary nature of what we’re being asked to accept. We can be more selective in the continued creation of our own identity once we’re able to reflect on the process itself and participate in it more directly.
This Is the Way
Society provides a blueprint for the life of the individual. We grow within a superimposed life plan, a mold that supplies form and direction. A lifetime is divided into phases, but it’s not merely the stages of life that are determined by society. The style in which they should be experienced has also been designated: grateful and obedient children, happily married and proud parents, dutiful and loyal workers, respected and not too troublesome senior citizens. Adopting the proper life-style is conducive to feelings of security and of the correctness of one’s way of life.
In illiterate primitive societies the transitions from one stage of life to another are marked by rites of passage. Modern societies have retained a grab bag of ritualistic ceremonies, social events that may or may not have religious origins: baptisms, bar mitzvahs, graduations, marriages, retirements, funerals. These publicly executed events are the outward signs of the proper course of a life. But they confirm and reinforce society’s life plan only for those who have already been successfully socialized, for those whose identities have gelled into the prevailing molds.
Animal behavior is guided by instinct. An animal has no choice but to behave according to its genetic program — flying south, mating in season, storing nuts for the winter. In the human being, instincts are replaced with institutions: religion, marriage, democracy, criminality. Although institutions regulate human activity by supplying stable, more or less permanent patterns of behavior, they are obviously not as inevitable and self-perpetuating as instincts. Once institutions are imposed, they must be maintained with the promise or threat of the actions and values they embody: redemption, sex, freedom, death.
An individual’s lifetime contains a succession of situations in which choices must be made. Institutions provide readymade, inheritable frameworks of values and guidelines for making these decisions: Thou shalt not ______; all responsible citizens vote; one doesn’t say shit in polite company. The imperative of society is to make its institutions appear as natural as instincts. Ideally, they will not be matters of voluntary cooperation but will exist outside the realm of what can be questioned. The question about marriage on the minds of young singles should not be whether to marry but who and when it will be. Severely limiting the options available “frees” the individual from the task of inventing an original form for his highly malleable nature.
The most effective tools for achieving, on a mass scale, the cultural uniformity necessary for social stability are psychological theories — theories about the self, identity, roles, personality development, etc. It’s not necessary to have direct contact with the works of psychology or popularizations to come under their influence. Ideas that originate in abstract, intellectual theories trickle down to the general public through the institutions of society: the courts that accept insanity as a legal defense; religions that dictate and attempt to justify their particular morality; teachers who help raise society’s children; and advertising that uses these findings as instruments to direct consumer behavior.
Scientific psychology regards human beings as factual objects to be examined through the lens of an objective theory, observing an individual in the laboratories of sexuality and consumerism the way an astronomer probes the sky or a biologist scrutinizes a plate of mutating cells. The most interesting and challenging material for psychological theorizing is provided by those individuals who have not been socialized successfully: the mentally ill, criminals, artists, loners. Psychology is used to explain social deviation and to provide therapies for the “improved socialization” of those who are exceptional. After professionally administered theory addresses itself to the extreme cases, easier-to-understand popularizations help promote socialization by reassuring the less deviant, less unnormal public that they are not alone in their difficulties with the stages of life (Passages), that they are not alone in their sexual resentments (The Hite Report) and fantasies (My Secret Garden, Men in Love), or, most important for society, that the responsibility for emotional dissatisfaction lies with the individual (Your Erroneous Zones). A nation diagnosed as narcissistic can conveniently be blamed for its own problems. The problem is you. Any political leader, recognizing the opportunity to deflect blame from faltering institutions and prop them up at the expense of the anonymous mass, will readily endorse such a point of view. This morality is again reflected back into the cycle of mass produced communication. But how do you know you don’t go wrong when you take the advice of a popular song?
I’ve Got a Theory
If the self is formed by internalizing the reality it encounters, it follows that its development can be influenced by controlling the information available for consumption. Just as you can get uppers and downers around the corner or from someone someone knows, the use of psychotherapeutic technique will not be limited to accredited professionals or sophisticated psychoanalytic theory. A radical alteration in personality can be accomplished by your run-of-the-mill terrorist, religious cult leader, or encounter group actualizer. The technique is to approximate the conditions of primary socialization: total dependence on one or two individuals with whom there are intense emotional ties, generally manufactured for the occasion. Given the right setting and motivation, a conversion can be effected by dismantling the previous reality, replacing it with the new one, and preventing any contact with the convert’s former way of life until the new identity has firmly taken. A simple conversion can be accomplished over a weekend. The maintenance of the new identity, however, requires a steady diet of fellow converts, a legitimating apparatus for the new reality (refresher courses, weekend rallies, regular mailings), and advice and support in resisting the temptation to revert to old ways.
The resocialization of a deviant personality is similar to a conversion. The past is dismantled, more desirable interpretations are labelled “insights,” and, relieved of the burden of being different, the deviant can return to normal. Of course there remains the question of to whom the burden was so intolerable in the first place.
Any theory that claims to interpret reality — a scientific theory, an economic theory, a historical perspective — defines what it’s talking about, selects what to look for, and, by its very existence, gives weight to what is described. Psychological theories are especially potent in this regard because of the particular reality they explain: the inner workings of personality. Since an individual becomes the experiences he takes in, mere exposure to psychological conceptions can produce the dynamics described. In a climate permeated with psychological pseudo-knowledge, there is equal opportunity for everyone to function as an “undercover Sigmund Freud,” each running his own outpatient clinic.
Just as a scientific theory may include the role of the observer (the relativity of simultaneity, the indeterminacy principle), all applied psychological theories contain implicit images of what a human being should be. If someone claimed that the gods were visible in the stars and pointed to his evidence in the night sky, this would hardly be considered verification of a hypothesis. Yet when an individual internalizes popular psychological insights, in one form or another, and adopts a more well-adjusted personality, this is interpreted as verification of the correctness of a particular psychological conception. In fact it is merely evidence of the general malleability of human beings and our vulnerability when it comes to our problems, unhappiness, sex lives, and spiritual yearnings. Of course we produce the “evidence” that proves the theories. To the extent that values and institutions are first unquestioned, then invisible, then ultimately unquestionable, we have no choice. Where would the individual encounter evidence that revealed the reality-generating machinery at work: the theory producing the effect, the description creating the described, the medium that is the message? To interpret human behavior as evidence that verifies a theory — to fail to recognize the relation between the theories we externalize and the patterns of behavior we internalize — is to be perpetually confused by an illusion that prevents us from consciously utilizing the most powerful asset available to us — our own flexibility.
Any theory that claims to tell us who and what we are contains a potential for abuse. Advice from “legitimate” sources, addressing itself to areas of human weakness and vulnerability, can deprive an individual of the confidence that he could know for himself who he should be. Religion used to have this potential on a wide scale when the population was less educated, less self-conscious, less “sophisticated.” Organized religion still has the advantage of being able to hide behind a veil of crossed intentions and a choirboy squeaky-clean. But any closed system of thought can gain ascendancy using perfected psychological, that is, commercial, techniques.
Self-consciousness is inherently ambiguous. It is producing what it is trying to observe. To regard acts of consciousness solely as outside events in the “real world,” to put them in the same category as molecular bonding and ion exchanges, is to insist on working with an arm tied behind your back. The task of psychology should not be to increase our knowledge of a scientifically defined mentality. It must be to expose the very process that generates our knowledge of reality in the first place: “by a sufficient radicalization of the problems of psychology we reach the philosophical dimension.” (Gurwitsch)
Gonna take you away
They take you away
And throw away the key
They don’t want you
And they don’t want me
You got a problem
The problem is you
Character, personality, and cosmetic surgery
Negative knowledge: Remembering Alfred Schutz
Healthy lifestyles serve political interests
The politics behind personal responsibility for health
The tyranny of health then and now
“Tyranny of health” on KevinMD
The tyranny of health
J Adrienne Henderson, ”Don’t Worry”: Understanding Anxiety