01/11/2010 09:30 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Self-help Safety and Skepticism: A Double Standard Gone Too Far

There Is More To Talk About

Recently, more scandalous details were "leaked" about the investigation into three deaths and twenty injuries due to a Sweat Lodge at a James Ray "self-help" retreat. Credible media such as the Associated Press have responded to the new information with growing criticism of the self-help industry. A large focus is on the danger of spiritual-gurus and extreme self-help practices. Feeling a great sadness at this misrepresentation of the self-help industry, I have spent some timing digesting the criticism and seeking its merit. In the same sea of thought I was then hit by another wave, a PBS documentary called "This Emotional Life" which reviews the science and study of emotion. The episode I saw in this very well done documentary was about happiness, and particular attention and skepticism was directed to the world of self-help. It's a great show and I do recommend people watch it, but I also recommend people watch carefully.

Looking For Proof

A perfect example of the very clear bias of the show took place in an interview with a PhD psychologist who has dedicated his career to studying the effects of the self-help industry on healing and recovery in the modern era. His first statement (which was very considerate to record and show) was that clear and consistent evidence shows that at least 70% of people today who are healing from one emotional challenge or another are doing so successfully and with the aid of the self-help industry only. The interview then very quickly focused on the following statement that about 90% of the self-help industry is not scientifically based. It also went on to praise the AA movement as an exception and an example of what is evidence driven. They failed to note that AA is not evidence based - the evidence is anecdotal. We have evidence because it works, but it was not created on ideas that were scientifically discovered. It's a spiritual movement plain and simple. It also involves a lot of the very basic self-help principles that are criticized elsewhere - positive self-talk, group think, self-lead groups, peer pressure, placebo, affirmations and so on. Apparently, if self-help uses ideas or techniques that are thousands of years old, that doesn't qualify as evidence or credible. This can become a kind of witch hunt and scientific superstition that says if it hasn't been measured or if it can't measured it shouldn't or can't be real. That is simply illogical.

There is a Cost to the Cost

TV and print journalists also love to point out that spirituality and self-help are an $11 billion dollar a year industry - as if people shouldn't pay for books, CDs, yoga classes, stress-management courses and so on. The truth is we pay a small handful of professional athletes at least that much money each year, to do little more than play a sport and endorse products that rarely have anything to do with health or wellbeing. This is an odd double standard. Doctors, athletes, lawyers, musicians and film stars are allowed to make hundreds of thousands or even millions a year, but an author, a motivational speaker or a spiritual leader should not (?). The claim is that it corrupts their work. While is can be true of spiritual teachers, it is absolutely true of all the other categories of people listed. Have you heard of the Lehman Brothers? When a self-help teacher is involved with deaths, injuries or scandals, a huge portion of our media and society are quick to turn to judgment and blame, as if the entire self-help community is the same - there is nothing mature or reasonable about that kind of stereotyping.

A Double Standard: Defining Credibility, A Medical Example

Just to go one more step on the topic of double standards, I am reminded of an article written back in 2005 by Jessica Fraser, she succinctly summarized a shocking set of statistics that have only gotten worse:

"According to the study led by Null, which involved a painstaking review of thousands of medical records, the United States spends $282 billion annually on deaths due to medical mistakes, or iatrogenic deaths. And that's a conservative estimate; only a fraction of medical errors are reported, according to the study. Actual medical mistakes are likely to be 20 times higher than the reported number because doctors fear retaliation for those mistakes." (Fraser 2005)

There is also easy to access evidence that more than 100, 000 Americans die every year from properly prescribed drugs. Now, where is the outrage about that? Shouldn't we be more upset when a properly trained medical professional kills people? It doesn't bother us that Medscape reports that 30% of medical interns are clinically depressed, or that physicians are twice as likely to kill themselves as the average person, or that drug use among doctors is no less than the general population (or more) and that divorce rates among physicians have been reported to be 10% to 20% higher than those in the general population.

Credibility and Accountability

As an author, speaker and self-titled spiritual teacher, I absolutely feel that the aspersions and cynicism about self-help are unfair and reactionary. In the very same breath, I do absolutely agree that the concerns about self-help raise important and valid points that are essential in every field of endeavor. I do expect myself and my collogues to meet a high standard of ethics, training, accountability, humility, integrity, and professional association and conduct. I think that healers and spiritual teachers should hold themselves to higher standards than other fields because they are unregulated and because they are guiding people's lives and impacting their health.

But we cannot let the error of few color our view of the many. Consumers need to be wiser, teachers need to show credibility and media needs to recognize that they are very often the first to put self-help teachers on the pedestals which mislead people in the first place. I love Oprah and Ellen and I can only hope to be a guest one day - but my credibility and value comes from who I am, how I live and the rigor of my journey, training and association. My merit is not measured by the fame I achieve, it is in my ability to help and be trusted. That is something I have to work at everyday.