Book titles can get my attention, so, ok, this one got my attention. In fact, I bought a copy. Although irreverent and even funny, it turns out the book has substance. As the book’s subtitle announces, it provides practical advice for managing all of life’s impossible problems. A tall order, although advice can be cheap. The first two chapters of the book – F*ck Self-Improvement and F*ck Self-Esteem – have been interesting and even choice-theoryesque, but my jury is still out on the book’s overall value. While I am still weighing the book’s advice, I can certainly agree that life has impossible problems and that help is needed in learning to manage them.
It seems like more than ever people are suffering from the effects of anxiety, fear, and anger. Glasser used to say that a person couldn’t be seriously unhappy for more than six weeks without beginning to experience psychological, and even physical, symptoms. To combat these symptoms, which often involve various forms of chronic pain, Americans have turned to drugs, both legal and illegal, to numb the discomfort. The numbers bear this out. Although making up less than 5% of the world’s population, Americans use 80% of its opioids. One hundred and twenty nine Americans (over 47,000 annually) die every day from drug overdoses, about 60% of them linked to opioids. For the first time since 1986, suicides are on the rise as well. Sally Curtin, a statistician with the National Center for Health Statistics, notes that “While other causes of death are on the decline, suicide just keeps climbing – and it’s doing so for every age group under 75. (A heartbreaking statistic from her data reveals that the age group with the sharpest increase is for girls between the ages of 10-14.) So, yes, there are a lot of people searching for advice and direction on how to manage life’s problems.
As I read the chapter entitled F*ck Self-Improvement, I came upon a statement, really just a phrase, that jumped out at me. The author was talking about how to help another person change an addictive behavior. “If you’re trying to get help for someone who doesn’t yet want it,” the authors begin, “keep in mind that such help seldom is effective, because it doesn’t work when someone is attending treatment for you rather than for themselves. Instead of taking responsibility for another person’s recovery, give them tools for auditing themselves, and challenge them to use those tools to decide for themselves whether they need sobriety and help.”
” . . . give them tools for auditing themselves.”
That phrase, “give them tools for auditing themselves,” zapped the creative center in my brain and I instantly thought about what our students, from Kindergarten through 12th grade, need from us – tools for auditing themselves. Children need coaching and mentoring on how to be aware of their thinking and their feeling, and even their physiology, and then on how to behave more effectively. This is one of choice theory’s core elements. People, whether in elementary school at the beginning of their life or in a retirement center much later in life, can learn to insightfully self-evaluate and make a new choice, a better choice. This is why Dr. Glasser saw mental health being a public health issue. People can learn to monitor and take care of their own psychological health.
At the heart of public health is the element of education, the element of teaching people a healthier way. This is why the presence of choice theory concepts in schools can be so powerful. The cycle of externally controlling students, with its emphasis on rewards and punishments, must be broken. Rewards and punishments may produce a semblance of compliance, but it is also producing an adult population incapable of managing themselves and dealing with life’s problems. Rather than being controlled through threats, sanctions, and punishments, students need to be given the tools to audit themselves. There is no greater gift than the gift of self-control and self-management.
Self-improvement has become an industry taking in more than 11 billion dollars a year. People may say they don’t want to be addicted to pills or behaviors that numb and distract, but they seem to want them more than they want to deal with pain and frustration. There are ways to manage psychological and physical symptoms, though. If you made it to adulthood without yet learning the tools to “audit yourself,” there are helpful resources. One approach I am appreciating more and more is one espoused by Dr. David Hanscom. His book, Back in Control: A Spine Surgeon’s Road Map Out of Chronic Pain, is an inspiring, detailed, and step-by-step guide to managing the stresses of life and decreasing the pain, often without surgery. (Find out more about this road map at drdavidhanscom.com.) As I discussed with Glasser before he passed away, I am now in talks with Dave about how to get self-management tools into schools. It is best to begin the quest for self-management early.
While mentoring students toward self-management is a caring, skilled, and delicate process it isn’t rocket surgery. Well, actually, rocket surgery is easier. Much easier. Working with a rocket is about understanding laws related to physics, engineering, and electrical circuitry, and applying them accurately. Working with a child to help him understand his own thinking, feeling, and behaving, and further to help him know when he needs to adjust a thought or a behavior, is a much more challenging task. But as parents and educators that is our wonderful challenge. Each of us is on a spiritual journey, and learning to manage life is an essential part of that journey.