Finding your redemptive self to become a workshop guru: Only in America?

Acceptance and commitment therapy’s Kelly Wilson and power poseur Amy Cuddy: What do they have in common?

We start with a splendid discussion of personal narratives by  David McAdams. Buy his book,  here The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By – Revised and Expanded Edition. I get no reward for this recommendation, except a better informed readership for my blogs.

strvie and succeedAmerican Identity: The Redemptive Self

Here is a personal story—a biographical script of sorts—that many very productive and caring American adults see as their own: In the beginning, I learn that I am blessed, even as others suffer.  When I am still very young, I come to believe in a set of simple core values to guide me through a dangerous life terrain. As I move forward in life, many bad things come my way—sin, sickness, abuse, addiction, injustice, poverty, stagnation. But bad things often lead to good outcomes—my suffering is redeemed. Redemption comes to me in the form of atonement, recovery, emancipation, enlightenment, upward social mobility, and/or the actualization of my good inner self. As the plot unfolds, I continue to grow and progress. I bear fruit; I give back; I offer a unique contribution.  I will make a happy ending, even in a threatening world.

struggle upwardMcAdams associates this with self-help [and workshop] gurus:

My Good Inner Self and the Power of Moral Clarity

From self-help gurus to scientific researchers, American experts on psychological development have long worked within the same narrative tradition that has given us the redemptive self. From the inspirational tracts put out by pop psychologists to the latest scientific theorizing about mother-infant attachment, American experts maintain that the first goal of healthy psychological development is to establish a good and coherent sense of self in a threatening environment. This achievement typically depends on a trusting relationship with an “attachment figure,” a “mirroring object,” or some other caring person who protects the infant from danger and nurtures the realization of the infant’s good inner potential.

And of course, Oprah:

sink of swimPerhaps the most influential spokesperson for redemption in America for the past decade or so has been Oprah Winfrey. Through her television show, magazine, and philanthropy, Oprah urges people to take charge of their lives, to overcome their obstacles, to pursue their dreams, and to think about ways to give back to society. Encouraging adults to tell and revise their own stories, Oprah tells and sells her own. Born dirt poor in Kosciusko, Mississippi, the African-American heroine survives sexual abuse as a child to become first a radio reporter, then a news anchor, a talk-show host, movie-maker, publishing czar, and finally an international celebrity and philanthropist. Like many highly generative American adults, Oprah believes she has been chosen to make a difference in the world. She urges people to resist societal norms and obey their good, inner selves. Her redemptive life journey uses the languages of recovery and upward mobility. In a recent interview, Oprah says: “I grew up a little Negro child who felt so unloved and so isolated—the emotion I felt most as a child was loneliness—and now the exact opposite has occurred for me in adulthood.” As evidenced in her own recovery from sexual abuse, Oprah argues that people can survive traumatic experiences and come out even stronger. “Your holiest moments, most sacred moments, are often the ones that are the most painful.”

And most saleable? McAdams throws in a decidedly un-American wrinkle:

For all its psychological and moral appeal, the redemptive self may reflect important shortcomings and blind spots in Americans’ understandings of themselves and the world. Is it not arrogant, for example, to imagine one’s life as the full manifestation of an inner destiny? And is it not presumptuous to expect deliverance from all suffering? Might it be an affront to those who have suffered the greatest calamities and heartaches to expect, even to suggest, that things will work out nice and happy in the end? While redemptive life narratives affirm hope and human progress, we must also face up to the potential dark side of American redemption.

Who sells their products with this kind of life story?

I wish I had the benefit of McAdams’ account when I wrote Must Healers Have Confronted and Overcome Personal Problems to be Credible?

I instead relied on Carl Jung’s writing for the concept of the wounded healer.

The theme of a wounded healer is an entrenched cultural narrative. Whether accurate or oversimplified, embellished or simply apocryphal, a wounded healer story is expected of proponents of new self-help strategies or therapies and the story becomes a personalized expression of the power of their ideas to heal. Authors of self-help books or proponents of new therapies should prepare themselves with a compelling wounded healer story. Sooner or later, they will be asked by journalists or talk show hosts, “And how did you come up with this idea…?”

I found Marty Seligman’s account of redemption contrived and unconvincing. Really, do you think this an account of real-time events?

Martin Seligman the originator of Positive Psychology and author of numerous books on how to be happy describes a conversion experience, an “epiphany, nothing less.” when he responded with crankiness to five-year-old daughter Nikki’s glee. She confronted him, reminding him that from three to five years old she had been a whiner. Reaching her fifth birthday she had become determined not to be a whiner anymore, and if she could change, he similarly could stop being a grouch. “I learned something about Nikki, something about raising kids, something about myself, and a great deal about my profession.”

doubting ThomasAnd so was Stephen Hayes’ account. Skeptically, I would like to see the times and dates for what he says. A doubting Thomas, I want to stick my fingers into his medical records. Or, is it not the kind of story? Is it like me asking how, exactly, Pepsi is the one and better than Coke?

“Before he was an accomplished psychologist, Steven Hayes was a mental patient.” Thus starts a Time magazine story about Hayes, a name associated with development of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, what he declares to be at the forefront of what he terms the “third wave” of behavior therapy. Hayes gives a story of how during a faculty meeting when he was an assistant professor, he became overwhelmed by what he thought was a heart attack. His heart raced and he could not speak. It was the first of a series of panic attacks. He does not give the details of his being hospitalized or explain why someone would be hospitalized for panic disorder, but he claims that the conventional cognitive behavioral techniques he had been applying with his patients actually made his symptoms worse. In a video presentation of his alternative approach to treating panic disorder, Hayes claims the authority of being someone who is a sufferer of panic attacks in recovery.

But the idea of a wounded healer or redemptive self has now been in circulation for a while. I am sure that a lot of advice has been given how to develop a more effective, coherent story that sells a person as an advice guru. Mike Miller reported on Facebook:

I’ve read stories of people who were on some show — I think it was American Idol — they said that the producers kept telling them they needed to have a story of abuse, or poverty, or *something* horrible or they would lose. The producers pushed and pushed for such stories while the singer-participants just kept saying “nothing really bad has ever happened to me!”

Kelly wilsonApparently Kelly Wilson was following the lead of his mentor Steven Hayes. He was asked ‘What’s something people might not know about you that, if they knew, would surprise them?’ in an interview in the British Psychological Association Psychologist. In response, he provided an account of how he went from a drug addict to a founder and promoter of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy:

I came to psychology late. I was 30-years-old when I started college. I dropped out of school when I was 16. And between the ages of 16 and the age of 30, I was a drug addict and an alcoholic. Chronically unemployed and unemployable – a serial felon. Terribly, terribly depressed – suicidally depressed pretty much all the time, except for little glorious windows in time when I’d get just the right combination of drugs and I’d be able to feel like I could stay in my own skin for a minute. But mostly it was just hard and destructive to me and to a lot of other people. In 1985, at the age of 30, after many years of overdoses and car accidents and violence, illness, and just wanting to die, I was admitted into a locked psychiatric ward. I joke with people sometimes – although it’s true – that I got my start in psychology in a psychiatric hospital.

Again, enter doubting Thomas  who wants to put a finger in his bleeding wounds. Medical and criminal records, please.

Kelly, too much information. We were expecting evidence about the efficacy of the ACT you are selling.

imagesAnd, now, Amy Cuddy.

Your body language may shape who you are

16:06 When I was 19, I was in a really bad car accident. I was thrown out of a car, rolled several times. I was thrown from the car. And I woke up in a head injury rehab ward, and I had been withdrawn from college,and I learned that my IQ had dropped by two standard deviations, which was very traumatic. I knew my IQ because I had identified with being smart, and I had been called gifted as a child. So I’m taken out of college, I keep trying to go back. They say, “You’re not going to finish college. Just, you know, there are other things for you to do, but that’s not going to work out for you.”

16:43 So I really struggled with this, and I have to say, having your identity taken from you, your core identity, and for me it was being smart, having that taken from you, there’s nothing that leaves you feeling more powerless than that. So I felt entirely powerless. I worked and worked, and I got lucky, and worked, and got lucky, and worked.

17:02Eventually I graduated from college. It took me four years longer than my peers, and I convinced someone, my angel advisor, Susan Fiske, to take me on, and so I ended up at Princeton, and I was like, I am not supposed to be here. I am an impostor. And the night before my first-year talk, and the first-year talk at Princeton is a 20-minute talk to 20 people. That’s it. I was so afraid of being found out the next daythat I called her and said, “I’m quitting.” She was like, “You are not quitting, because I took a gamble on you, and you’re staying. You’re going to stay, and this is what you’re going to do. You are going to fake it. You’re going to do every talk that you ever get asked to do. You’re just going to do it and do it and do it, even if you’re terrified and just paralyzed and having an out-of-body experience, until you have this moment where you say, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m doing it. Like, I have become this. I am actually doing this.'” So that’s what I did. Five years in grad school, a few years, you know, I’m at Northwestern, I moved to Harvard, I’m at Harvard, I’m not really thinking about it anymore, but for a long time I had been thinking,”Not supposed to be here.”

A commentator on Facebook weighed in:

I…suspect that some non-US people have so strong emotional reactions to Cuddy because she seems so incredibly US-American, including the way she looks, her self-help style of work and her biography (heck, her Wiki page even tells she used to be a roller skating waitress). Again, this is not supposed to be a value judgment, just the context in which this whole debate is happening.

Amy Cuddy is telling us the sory of her redemption in a context where she is  promoting the strong science she found in her study of effects of a 2 minute-behavioral intervention with 26 women and 16 men.

Do we suspend belief and accept the redemptive narratives of Kelly Wilson and Amy Cuddy? Or do we instead get the message the translating  science into practice is not what workshops and Ted Talks are about? Are we simply experiencing serious genre confusion?

Be careful about expressing your opinions aloud. Amy Cuddy invokes Susan Fiske as her power mentor and advisor who conferred power posing on Amy, encouraging  her to “Fake it.” And we know what Susan Fiske does about critics of her students. She musters the full resources of the Association for Psychological Science to embarrass and silence them.

Postscript. “The trailer of the “The Jerk” is a great commentary on redemptive narratives.

Navin R. Johnson aka “The Jerk”: “Huh? I am *not* a bum. I’m a jerk. I once had wealth, power, and the love of a beautiful woman. Now I only have two things: my friends, and… uh… my thermos. Huh? My story? Okay. It was never easy for me. I was born a poor black child. I remember the days, sittin’ on the porch with my family, singin’ and dancin’ down in Mississippi…”