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Review of "Self Matters"

By Phillip C. McGraw
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2001
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Sep 26th 2003
Self Matters

Self Matters starts out with McGraw telling a story about himself.  He completed his Ph.D. and started a mental health practice with great success, but even from the time that he was completing his Ph.D., he knew that he was not doing what he really wanted to do.  It took him ten years before he had the courage to give up his private practice and start on the road of becoming the international media star he is now.  Self Matters is his gift to his readers, providing them a way to assess whether they are happy with their lives and encouraging them to be true to themselves. 

In a significant sense, Self Matters contains a trenchant critique of modern society.  McGraw is convinced that many if not most people are not in fact being true to themselves.  In his view, people choose careers or life roles because of what they believe they should do rather than what they really want to do.  This results in their being unhappy with their lives and probably taking out their frustrations on those who are close to them.  McGraw presents a picture of North Americans as inauthentic and alienated from their personal truths.  As he explains, one cannot live a life if one's personal truth is distorted and fictional.  Americans are not living, but he offers a way for them to reconstruct their authentic selves and start living.  Dr Phil will raise the dead, or at least, enable the dead to raise themselves. 

McGraw eschews psychological jargon and buzzwords, and self-effacingly claims he does not understand convoluted theories.  His rhetoric carries the implicit suggestions that he is presenting plain common sense and that alternative views are no more than sophisticated nonsense.  Nevertheless, his approach is very much an expression of modern American individualism, with roots in Romanticism and Existentialism tempered by Pragmatism, emphasizing self-discovery, self-creation, and self-expression.  It stands in contrast with other central Western traditions about how people should go about finding their place in society. 

Naturally this American individualism opposes any claim that society is naturally stratified, either by biology or by God's plan.  Aristotle envisioned a society as composed of people carrying out different essential natural functions, such as being a slave, a mother, a soldier, or a politician.  British Victorians espoused the view that God has planned out society, providing a natural justification for the differences in wealth and power between the aristocracy, merchants, and the workers.  Other traditions believe that there is far more room to maneuver in finding a role in the world.  For example, Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations and creator of the central theories behind modern capitalism, argued that there is very little intrinsic difference between people and they take on their roles through being placed in them.  Thus, in his view, capitalism promoted wealth and efficiency because citizens could take on whatever role would earn them the most money.  It would be surprising to Smith that the United States, the nation most closely associated with the ideology of the free market where people genuinely believe that they can be whatever they want to be so long as they work hard enough, is actually a country full of frustrated and unfulfilled citizens. 

Of course, the notion that most people are miserable is hardly a new one.  Freud, for instance, is famous for his theory that civilization inevitably makes people neurotic because they have to repress their natural drives of Eros and Thanatos, sex and aggression.  McGraw has no time for Freudian pessimism though, since he believes that through the psychologically difficult process of facing ourselves, we can find our true selves and achieve self-fulfillment.  In his daily television show and his best-selling books, he preaches his message to an eager public, making him one of the most influential psychologists in recent history.  It's striking that McGraw actually uses many standard ideas within psychology concerning the learning of self-defeating behavior.  For instance, he talks about the scripts one learns in one's childhood, and how these sabotage one's later attempts to live well. 

Naturally, many academics are suspicious of McGraw, and with good reason.  It is not just his low-brow dismissal of complex theories that is irksome.  There's no particular reason to think that his self-help methods are helpful, since his methods haven't been scientifically studied or proven.  To take a simple example, his advice about self-defeating behavior, stop doing it, seems utterly banal and unhelpful.  Furthermore, one might worry that through his insistence that people are bound to be frustrated with their lives, he is actually creating a sense of frustration and drumming up business for himself rather than helping people face the truth about themselves.  One might also worry that one thing Americans do not need is further self-preoccupation.  McGraw says that people owe it to themselves to examine their personal truths, and if not to themselves, then to those around them.  He even comes out with that worn cliché, you need to help yourself before you can help others, a blatant excuse for selfishness.  That cliché is obviously false except in extreme cases, and while self-improvement always seems like a good idea, people might actually might actually be better off if they were more sensitive to the needs of others rather than examining their own problems. 

It is difficult to assess the truth of the claim that Americans are frustrated with their lives.  But there are some measurable indicators of the general levels of unhappiness, such as the number of people taking anti-depressants, the number of people committing suicide, the levels of relative poverty, crime, child abuse, and divorce.  It's not always clear how to interpret the data, but they do give general support to a grim view.  Despite being the richest country in the world, it is easy to believe that the level of life-satisfaction in the US is not high.  With his picture of an alienated nation, McGraw may have identified an important problem of modern life, and through his prominent position in the public eye, he may be doing more than most to raise awareness about it. 

What's missing from McGraw's approach is a political sensibility.  This does not have to be in terms of party politics, especially since it is far from clear that either Democrats or Republicans have any solutions to the nation's unhappiness.  Rather, the missing ingredient is a sense of responsibility or relation to a larger community, locally, nationally and even internationally.  It is true that self matters, but society matters too, and the endless pursuit of personal truth and personal fulfillment is likely to be self-defeating.  It's a well known phenomenon that self-consciously pursuing pleasure is unlikely to lead to happiness, and simply shaking up one's life ("reconstruct your authentic self") in the hope that it will become more fulfilling is a similar sort of enterprise.  If this large-scale dissatisfaction with life is a particularly American phenomenon, as it seems, then the changes that need to happen are more fundamental to contemporary society.  Reading a self-help book and going through the author's exercises is not a solution, but just a further symptom of a deeper problem.  


© 2003 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.


Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanties Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.