the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Two Incompatible Self-Help Techniques

I’ve been spending some time this weekend trying to think my way out of some life issues.  I feel lucky to be in this blogging community, because so many of you are clearly fucked up as well, that I never feel ashamed about being honest with you about my own foibles, especially when it comes to my relationship with Sophia.

Recently, I have noticed several of you trying to improve your lives through some sort of self-help regimen.   I tend to see two distinct self-help techniques being used, and I’m having difficulty deciding which is the true path, if any.  These techniques both revolve around interpretations and re-interpretations of self — and how we see our own strengths and weaknesses.

Self-Help Technique #1)   I Will Myself to Perfection

This technique spits on  the concept of weakness.  Man was made to improve himself.  Each of us is our own master.  It is up to the individual to rise above the masses of sheep, Ayn Rand style.  You see this attitude in many of the exercise bloggers lately, especially in their hard-nose attitudes toward the overweight.  These individuals hate victim mentality.  Hard work is advocated, focusing on self-improvement.  The overweight are overweight because they are lazy and eat crap.  Those who live under the poverty line could rise about it — if only all they re-interpreted their self-image.  Personal achievement equals  hard work, and those who don’t reach a certain level in success — in romance, work, blogging, etc — didn’t have the right stuff.  The way to success is to turn the body and mind into a well-oiled machine.  All distractions must be eliminated.  Life must be organized, with five year plans, segmented into fifteen minute “progress” periods on the iphone.

This technique is attractive to me.  I am typically hard on myself, blaming my own weak brain for messing things up.  I admire a technique that is a bootcamp of the self, where your inner voice is a Sergeant (or Jillian Michaels) barking directions at you.  If you can’t take the heat, you don’t deserve the goods.  To succeed, I need to “reframe” my mind into a stronger way of thinking, seeing myself as soldier of success.  There is no excuse for not writing three novels a year.  I need to get off Twitter.  Procrastination is for weaklings.  Clearly my marriage is not working.  It is a time-sink.  Stop what isn’t working, and bite the bullet like a man.  The only one I need to please in life — is myself.  My voice is the ONLY voice.  When I quit blogging, I will take it down with me.

Self-Help Technique #2)  I Am Weak and Need Help

This technique grows out of the 12-step programs. Until recently, I knew very little about 12-step programs other than what I saw on TV.  But now that I have a few friends who are making use of these support groups, I thought I would do some research on how they work.   The history of organizations such as AA is fascinating.  Although these programs are not “religious” in dogma, a relationship with a higher being is part of the recovery equation.  This is not a technique where you push yourself to be perfect.  Quite the opposite.  You are acknowledging that you are have a problem which you cannot solve on your own.  You are accepting your weakness, and publicly admit it, going outside of yourself for support.  An addict will always be an addict, even years after his last drink or cigarette, because the weakness is a given, and the individual must always be vigilant.

This technique is attractive to me — even outside the context of a 12-Step Program.  It is a more gentle approach to self-therapy.  The individual can be kinder to oneself in accepting one’s failings.  I didn’t write three novels a year because I just didn’t.  I was weak.  I am never going to change unless I accept this, and look for help.  I will always have a tendency to procrastinate.  Rather than try to eliminate it unsuccessfully, I should accept it, and look for ways to control it, perhaps by sharing stories with others with the same concerns.

Technique #1 — De-focus from others and train your mind and body like an Olympic athlete.  It is up to you to make things happen.

Technique #2 — Stop fooling yourself that you are strong and see yourself for who you really are — weak.  Connect yourself to a higher power and others to help you from falling.

Any of this make sense?


  1. Becky

    I’m not fucked up, but my family is. Maybe you should talk to them.

  2. Babybloomr

    And I’m all about Technique #2.
    The thought of trying to do it all by myself all the time through sheer force of will just makes me… kinda tired. I’m more of a power-through-community/kum-by-ya girl.
    Interesting post. Which way are YOU leaning?

  3. Neil

    Becky, so how did you survive untouched?

  4. gorillabuns

    dearheart, don’t you know we are ALL fucked up? Just some choose not to acknowledge this fact and some do.

  5. Katebits

    You should choose the one that you think has the greatest longterm chance of success for you. I admire the first approach, but I know that even if I managed to pull it off for years, eventually there would be a crash. I would eventually crash and then binge on my bad behavior from before. For me, admitting weakness sounds like a more realistic method of assuring longterm success. But that’s just me.

  6. Lojo

    How about Technique 1.5: you admit your faults. You look for a higher power and seek help from others, but you make concrete goals and plans to get out of your situation. Timeline for the book, goals. You don’t shoot yourself if you don’t meet your goals, but you do have a poster of Jillian in your living room with a speech bubble that says, “You Can’t Handle the Truth!”

  7. Rougeneck

    I don’t think that the paths are mutually exclusive. As a newly single gal, there is so much I do on my own – and do proudly. But there are times when I would fall if I didn’t have someone to catch me. You don’t need to choose. You can have it both ways. Also? I totally agree with Gorillabuns – we are all fucked up.

  8. Bill

    I subscribe to technique #3: Ignore the problem and hope it goes away.

  9. Kerry

    How about this:

    Pick one problem. Forget the others–just pick one. Work on solving it.

    When that one’s done, pick another.

    I think a big part of your deal is that you’re looking at all of the problems at once, and they’re overwhelming you to the point of paralysis. Then you are paralyzed, and spend the entire day on Twitter beating the crap out of yourself. Go to bed, wake up, repeat.

    The only time I’ve ever well and truly solved a life problem is when I focused on that and forgot all the other things I was doing wrong. In fact, now that I think about it, every time I’ve failed, it’s because I was trying to solve too many problems at once.

  10. Juli Ryan

    It’s #2. You aren’t weak, and your Higher Power doesn’t need to be God. Have you ever read The Artist’s Way It’s a good self-help book for writers and creatives.

  11. abdpbt

    You have a misunderstanding of how twelve step programs work. There is little tolerance for a victim mentality in a twelve step program that is working effectively.

  12. Neil

    Thanks, ABDPBT. I really just read a website and a book, so I am far from an expert, and it was difficult to understand the role of this higher power. So, these reflections are more short-hand of what my thought process was at the moment about the fundamental core of these two techniques, seeing one as focusing more on personal strength and the other on accepting weakness. But I could be wrong. Would love to learn more.

  13. V-Grrrl @ Compost Studios

    I’m with Kerry. Pick one issue, set a concrete goal, and work on it, but be kind to yourself. Accept that you will sometimes fail but seek to fail less, do better, not be perfect.

  14. Joe Crawford

    There is nothing mutually exclusive about the two techniques.

    I have met gung-ho 12-steppers who are all about hard work on themselves.

    Though I will say, if your plan is #1 — I caution you that making fun of the fat, poor, or unsuccessful is bad manners. Perhaps there is a way to focus on efficiency and not blame everyone else for their lack of focus.

  15. sweetsalty kate

    I have a strip of leather you can bite down on if you need to. It’s kind of kinky.

  16. rahree

    i think everyone tries #1 before #2. exercising control will always (with me, if with no one else) win out over acknowledging my weakness. Not to say the weakness isn’t there…but that it’s easier for me to make an effort than to let the universe’s will wash over me.

    why is that?

  17. Heidi

    I am usually a technique #1 kinda gal, but a ways back I went to counseling and i gotta say, it really helped. Course the counselor was a good one and combined your technique #1 and technique #2 which seems to work for me. Good luck, the first step is recognition.

  18. Otir

    As a European, and even worse, as a Frenchwoman, I have always quite fascinated by the attraction American culture has towards manicheism, strict categories, black and white thinking, and no search for nuance, for the grey in the between, for the fluctuations in the process, for the infinite possibilities, and the mental construction that it takes to attempt to envision them all until one can design something acceptable.

    As a Jew, I find it interesting that you would be attracted to any of those two antinomic techniques, although as suspect greatly that you wrote a very witty – as usual – pamphlet to ridicule them in the same movement, for their lack of thinking, debatting, arguing, refuting, debuking, quoting, dissecting and self-criticizing to finally deciding that all is a feather…

  19. Otir

    Bleh… I keep forgetting there is no preview of what you type. Two typos that make a text difficult to read, that’s why I don’t like commenting anymore… double-bleh…

    *I have always been fascinated

    * althoug I suspect


  20. Philly Jewish Amy

    The whole thing stinks of all that LA touchy feely crap.

    When you coming back to NYC?

  21. sweetsalty kate

    You know I offer you my leather strip because that’s how I cope. Unthinkingly, pretty much. Kinda frozen with my jaw clenched shut. And so I don’t have much to offer, other than nodding at what many others said. Didn’t mean to be flip, sweet Neil.

  22. Mamie

    I love that in your desire to find your approach you actually read up on 12 stepping. And I thought I would mention that it seems like the way we find balance these days is by throwing oursleves whole heartedly into one program or another. It is not that something is wrong with either approach but it just reads to me as if they are a see saw….. And how can that be balanced?

    I wonder, do you ever ask for what you want? Just say it out loud, put it out there and go from there?

  23. Philly Jewish Amy

    personally any method that required me to either see myself as a victim of weakness or set perfection as a goal would do NOTHING for me.

  24. Alison

    I don’t want to have anything to do with either model. Maybe that’s why I seem to be pedaling and not going anywhere? Meh. Whatever. I’m still not interested in either one.

  25. headbang8

    I’m with Rahree. Everybody tries #1 before they admit that they need #2.

    America is all about #1. Guess what? It doesn’t work. You can fake it for a while, but the cracks start to appear.

    The idea that YOU are in control of absolutely everything about yourself sounds positive and optimistic. You can change anything in your own character, through your own effort. You don’t have to accept the cards you’ve been dealt. You can be anyone you want to be if you work at it hard enough. It’s the American way.

    But you soon discover it’s an unbearable burden. It leads to a life full of harshness, and bitterness about one’s own failings or misfortune. We sneer at our weaknesses and at weakness in others. And we tend to resent those who might need help. (Health care debate, anyone?)

    You know what? If you do it properly, #2 is harder.

    ADBPT is right. 12-step programmes don’t focus on vicimhood, if they’re done well. But these programmes don’t play blame-the-victim, either, like so many religions and self-help regimes do. That doesn’t mean they make a fetish out of powerlessness.

    Full disclosure: I’ve been part of the Al-Anon program for a while (that’s for people who are relatives and friends of alcoholics—my family tree is riddled with them). Having experienced it on three continents now, I can see a number of different ways people use the concept of a “higher power”. I’m an atheist, and the idea is still useful.

  26. Neil

    Headbang — interesting. so what does this “higher power” mean?

  27. angelynn

    If you can figure it out, please let me know. I’m 49 days sober today and have turned to AA for support. I still have a lot to learn and a lot that I need to accomplish, but what I’ve gotten so far is the importance of community and support.

    Being around others who share your struggles and who support your efforts is key. It’s just a part of the program, but knowing that there are others out there who identify with what you’re going through keeps you from feeling alone.

    You’ll find what works. Asking here was a great way to start. You have all of our support. If you need someone to lean on, I’m here.

  28. Neil

    Thanks, Angelynn, although I’m not sure they have created a 12 Step program for whatever ails me yet. I don’t really have an addictive personality. At least I don’t think so. Perhaps more obsessive compulsive.

  29. Di

    You’re brilliant, aren’t you. Just brilliant. Loved this.

  30. Danny

    The first one sounds like the technique the Nazis used. Just awful. I question the way you are using the words “weak” and “weakness” in these interpretations. But I am all for the acknowledgement in the second one that we have a problem that we can’t solve on our own. I think that’s the only first step that works. I like the Higher Power stuff but worry about the way you give “others” the same parallel weight in your final summation, “Connect yourself to a higher power and others to help you from falling.” I’d also look at your use of the word “falling” there.

  31. Noel

    No comment on #1 vs. #2 – you’ve set up a false paradigm.

    As you go to sleep every night, ask yourself what you’ve done that day to achieve your goal.

    The answer may be “nothing” – don’t beat yourself up if it is. But too many nights of “nothing” in a row will propel you to take action.

    Do not blame others. Do not blame yourself. You do not have time for blame.

    If your wife is unwilling to work on improving your marriage, give her an ultimatum: Work on it, or lose it. Takes two to tango.

    Don’t concern yourself with being a nice guy unless “be nicer” is your goal. I don’t think it is.

    This is going to take a lot of energy. Make sure you’re energized enough by eating right, exercising and limiting the amount of time you’re sedentary (at the computer, watching TV).

    Laugh at yourself and the position you’re in: I know you can do this, because you’ve frequently done it on this blog.

    If you share enough of your journey here, we blog commenters could serve as your Jillian Michaels. But it’s not necessary to be so public.

  32. Finn

    Technique #1 is good for things that are well within your control, but not all things are. Enter technique #2.

    And I love what Noel said.

  33. Heather

    What if you don’t want either technique? I vote for a third option—Screw it! 🙂

  34. Angella

    I think it depends on the problem as to which technique is used.

    Great comparison, Neil. You made me think.

  35. Denise

    I’m constantly convincing myself that I just need to refocus, I feel #1 is the suck it up path, I can do it on my own. But your perspective made me realize that maybe support is the way to go. Why do we feel the need to do things on our own, when there is a plethora of resources to help?

  36. Joe Crawford

    Worthwhile google for you to consider higher power atheist.

    I have met recovering people whose higher powers were different things: the recovery group, art, mother nature.

    The language is often something like “god as we understood god” — or “higher power as we understood it” — additionally there is often language in the words read every week about the group being a spiritual BUT NOT a religious group.

    I think at this point for you it would be useful to reacquaint yourself with how spirituality and religiosity do and don’t intersect FOR YOU.

  37. maggie, dammit

    Oh LORD I don’t know what to say. Did you think I would have something insightful or witty or deep to add? I love that you think so highly of me. 😉

    I sure don’t see anything weak about #2. I don’t know if your use of the word weak was deliberate or casual, but I’d re-think it if I were you because, ironically, it’s a pretty powerful word. I’m with Anna, there is nothing weak about 12-step. Jesus, it’s the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life. Weak, I think, is doing nothing.

    I also think there is no #1 or #2. There’s more like numbers 1-2938457495874, and each of us has to take a deep breath and figure out what works for us.

  38. Lotta

    “I feel lucky to be in this blogging community, because so many of you are clearly fucked up as well” If I was going to a blogging event this would be emblazoned on the front of my teeshirt.

    As a blogger stuck in the angsty self improvement zone lately I argue that they are not incompatible – but stages of each other.

    While you are going to do your best to develop an iron will, when you stumble, which you will, you will remember that ultimately we are all weak. Forgive yourself. And then try to bend spoon with your mind again. Repeat.

    It’s when you think that one or the other approaches is wrong or right that you get stuck not improving yourself at’tall.

  39. Deb on the Rocks

    Have you seen Tracey Clark’s “I am enough” project? Go! It speaks against the idea that we must constantly view ourselves as self-help projects. It’s a third piece to your delicious (but hopefully low-carb) pie.

  40. Slow Panic

    I’m always going to lean towards the #2 option.

    Of course option #3 — sit in front of the TV with a pint of ice cream or liquor (or both) is more my style.

  41. Joe Crawford

    “Deb on the Rocks”: interestingly, “I am enough” is an affirmation I have come across in 12-step. It’s also one I included in this.

  42. tony

    two words have worked for me but everyone is different and have different goals in life. “Surrender” as it relates to ego. and “Yes” even when no is what you want to say.

  43. headbang8

    “Higher power”? I can’t speak with the authority of an expert, Neil. This is just my personal understanding.

    Issues of power and control plague many who struggle with addictions and other dysfunctional behaviour.

    I once heard it said that “alcohol makes a man feel mighty”. True.

    You have more confidence. For a few brief moments, life doesn’t seem to push you around. The normal rules of the world don’t apply.

    Pretty much all addictions try to keep life at bay in this fashion, and give you a sense that you control your little patch of the world. Workaholism is a classic: I’ve had a number of workaholic bosses, and they felt that 24/7 slavery was the only way to “stay on top of everything”, to stay in control. It was not successful. It was a neurosis.

    The “higher power” in twelve step programmes, for me, simply acts as an acknowledgement that I can’t control everything. That stuff in my sphere of influence which goes wrong, and which affects me or others, is not always my fault. And if it actually IS my fault…well, hey, everyone has faults.

    If I’m stopped at an intersection, right now, the red light is my higher power. No amount of railing against fate will change it. And no amount of planning or personal discipline will help me avoid every red light.

    I once asked the blogger Mongoliangirl her take on a higher power. her reply: “I believe that the tree gives me shade”.

    The universe is a jolly good “higher power”, for my purposes. The universe is waaaay bigger than me, for sure. I can fight it–and sometimes I must. But sometimes I need to go with the flow.

    There are some things you can’t control, Neil. Forgive me if I point out that Sophia’s feelings are among them.

    Does writing help you make order and sense of emotions which rise up in your heart? Does writing give you a sense of control, perhaps? Does blogging make a man feel mighty?

    In many ways that’s good–just like a glass of wine with dinner helps you feel good. But if you become a wholesale writeaholic, it can numb your feelings, rather than enhance them.

    Maggie Dammit has an amazing piece on her blog about this. Click on her link to “What it’s like now”.


  44. Gwen

    I’m not really on board with an either/or proposition, Neil, but maybe that’s because I’m mostly okay with being completely fucked up (there’s been talk lately about how all the best people are broken, which perhaps misses the point that EVERYONE is broken).

    For you, it seems to be the deciding that’s the hard part. Decision carries with it a kind of finality, doesn’t it? Because decision implies that you can’t go backwards and do it again. And maybe you can’t. Each day is its own kind of finality. But that’s not all bad. Because each day is also its own gleaming piece of possibility. How can anyone see all the ways life is going to go?

    I don’t believe in right answers. I believe, instead, in choosing.

  45. Chris

    I have one foot in each technique. These comments are all great. Maggie’s point that there are infinite ways to handle things is true. I prefer a book with detailed instructions for my issues. I’m still looking for it. I too take comfort in the fact that we’re all wrecked in one way or another. Thank god for duct tape.

  46. Meredith

    Try an existential approach. Only you can give meaning to your life. If you are unhappy with something in your life or about who you are, you will change it simply because you need to. No Herculean strength or admission to weakness involved. You will simply switch gears and try something else.

    You are getting a payoff, somehow, for the life you lead. When there stops being a payoff, you will change directions. Payoffs can be everything from pity to glory (externally), and self-satisfaction or self-loathing (internally).

    You’re driving the bus, Neil. As Ty Webb said, “stop thinking, let things happen, and be the ball.”

  47. Joe Crawford

    Meredith wrote “If you are unhappy with something in your life or about who you are, you will change it simply because you need to.”

    And yet, proactively making that change often takes longer than you would think. We stay in unhappy scenarios out of loyalty, inertia, fear, doubt.

    I wish it were not so, but change requires effort.

  48. Meredith


    Those are the payoffs I’m talking about. The familiarity of loyalty, inertia, fear, and doubt, the stagnancy, all could be a payoff. It’s not worth rocking the boat, even though your intellect might tell you otherwise.

    Self-help “techniques” for the average neurotic person (vs severely disturbed or psychotic) serve merely to confuse. Be true to yourself and all will unfold as it should.

  49. michael5000

    The two are not mutually exclusive. Use ’em both to your own advantage, and don’t forget to enjoy the ride.

  50. Cheryl

    Been in/out of the rooms of Al-Anon since I was a teenager (alcoholic dad, boyfriends, brother, etc.)… I am seemingly uniquely qualified to love addicts/alcoholics. So I’m a big proponent of working/living a 12-Step life style.

    It’s definitely not about being a victim (personal responsibility is a BIG part of the 12 Step dealio, yo), nor is it all about some “religious” experience, (although, I find people who claim to work a program but don’t have a G-d or Higher Power in their lives to be full of shit about their recovery generally), and it’s definitely NOT about Jesus (if it was, I’d never have gone back after my first meeting since I am not a Christian and do not identify at all w/ Christians)…

    Anyway, I digress.

    I like the idea that we can set goals for our lives, make plans, have desires, wishes, dreams, etc. and then ASK the Universe (G-d, Higher Power, Spirit, Self, whatever floats your boat) to help REMOVE ALL of the OBSTACLES that get in the way of us having those dreams, desires, love, success, hope, joy and/or healing come true.

    Great post as always Neil. Le sigh. I’m becoming quite the fan grrl I think.

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