Psychologist warns: Finally stop the self-optimization craze

Svend Brinmann / Pfeif on it - an end to the self-optimization craze!

The Danish psychologist Svend Brinkmann accounts for "positive thinking", "self-optimization" and "coaching". In contrast, he sets human dignity, self-discipline and steadfastness.

He asks to let “look inside yourself” because there is nothing to be found there. Instead of "thinking positively", a form for Brinkmann to deny reality, you should focus on the negative in your life and thus create a foundation to deal with the problems that are part of life. Instead of smiling and saying yes to everything, you should learn to put the no hat on. Instead of "authentically" expressing your feelings about what would keep you in an infantile state, you should learn how to suppress your feelings like an adult.

Novels instead of self-help books

You don't need a coach who manipulates you for "self-optimization", you should fire him, says Brinkmann. Instead of wasting your time on self-help books, read novels. These showed life from different perspectives, and that there was not only one reality, and that the complexity of life included chaos and chance. Instead of believing in a history-free here and now and constantly looking innovatively into “the future”, you should focus on the past.

Brinkmann writes, we constantly looked inside ourselves and found nothing there, then we ran the risk of losing our feet. Or we would find total nonsense, especially when it comes to knowledge that other people could objectively judge. Guts that the "search for the inner self" propagates as the only source of knowledge are not reasonable.

The idea of ​​self-realization also favors the market's need for servile and flexible workers. To resist this internalized exploitation would be to come to terms with yourself as you are.

Orientation to traditions would seem conservative, but in a present that propagates senseless flexibility until death, it suddenly turned out to be progress: "Recognizing the paradoxical character of the present (...) can lead to a complete reorientation."

In contrast to the “find your self” of the self-optimization business, the Danish researcher explains: the fact that you are yourself has no value. On the other hand, maturity means enduring discomfort and getting used to things that do not “feel right” inside.

Instead of imagining the supposedly awakening potential of the "future" through navel viewing, it is a matter of appreciating what already exists. Instead of affirming every change, it is a matter of awareness of what there is to lose.

Brinkmann refers to the Stoics and calls to avoid becoming slaves to our physical needs. According to these ancient philosophers, willpower can be trained as well as muscle strength. Self-discipline was a key virtue for her. The psychologist encourages you to do meaningful things that you don't feel like doing: apologize, even if it's embarrassing, for example.

Focus on the negative

Brinkmann develops the counterpoint to the philosophy of "positive thinking" and recommends concentrating on the negative. So the Stoics had deliberately thought of death in order to love life.

The author recognizes a "tyranny of the positive" that goes so far as to tell seriously ill people that they should learn from the disease. But that would be the greatest insult you could do to a person in need.

On the other hand, the focus on the negative would hold us where we are in life. There is a right to think that something is only bad.

Scientists today even speak of "positivity fascism", a mind control by reducing human complexity to positive aspects. Thinking positively would mean forgetting real power asymmetries between the boss and the employee, for example.

In the positivity constraint, only the best is considered good enough and can supposedly be achieved. This puts the blame on the victim who does not have “positive illusions” - that is, imagined ideas of a self that appears better than it is. As a result, people feel guilty for not being consistently successful. In short: "Think positive" in the sense of self-optimization makes you sick.

The constant search for an imagined "true self" denies the context like social factors. No matter whether rich and poor, whether dictatorship or democracy, it is always the person to blame who did not think positively enough.

It was right to complain. Life is never okay, it's hard. The hardness of life is not the core of the problem, but that the ideology of "positive thinking" compels us to pretend that it is not.

On the other hand, if you focus on the negative, you can handle life better because you accept reality as it is. This would not result in everlasting bliss, but human dignity.

There is not a solution for every problem

Brinkmann also rejects the suggestion of "positive thinking" that there is a solution for every problem, provided that one thinks positively. We could not solve some problems, but we could recognize them without the bliss ideology. Accepting the negative means dignity and a sense of reality. Nagging could raise awareness of the good things in existence.

Live with death

He presents the technique of the stoics of negative visualization. So Seneca would have imagined that death could come at any time. This awareness of human mortality strengthens family ties and makes mistakes easier to accept. Memento mori my "consider that you will die."

Living with death helps to value life. According to Socrates, philosophy means learning to die well. He suggests imagining losing a loved one.

Say no

Saying no more often leads to independence, the author explains. Control of emotions meant sticking to duties and responsibilities. On the other hand, if you put on the "yes hat", want to be considered active all the time and are afraid of missing something, you will quickly miss your inner peace.

Ethics of doubt

In contrast to "positive thinking" and "belief in yourself", Brinkmann represents an ethic of doubt. We do not know whether it is right to say yes. So doubt is the better option. We know what we have, not what we get. In “positive thinking”, however, doubt and thus criticism would be eliminated.

Doubts about false security are ethically valuable, certainty is dogmatic, doubts about the behavior of others and lead to a better understanding of the world.

Whoever doubts would be on solid ground. Saying yes, on the other hand, would prevent you from implementing projects. Political crimes were not committed by those who doubted, but by those who believed they knew the truth.


Precisely because there is no security in a constantly changing world, we should be reliable. The difficult art of saying no leads to no offensive or degrading suggestions being accepted. He suggests saying no five times a day. This begins with the sentence: “I have to think about it again.” Dignity takes precedence over authenticity.


Negativity is not bad, but deeply human. Guilt and shame are important to bear responsibility for our actions. Shame means seeing others. Humanity is related to morality, and that would be conveyed through shame. Through shame we could see ourselves through the eyes of others.

Without perceiving ourselves from the outside, we would have neither independent thinking nor consciousness. Growing up means not giving your emotions free rein. Neuroses, i.e. exaggerated feelings, are no longer the central psychopathological problem.

In emotional capitalism, economy and feelings are interwoven, feelings are commercialized and marketed.

Self-esteem is not a value

In contrast to the inner view praised for self-optimization, Brinkmann shows external rituals. Every society needs it to civilize itself. Putting on masks is the essence of civility.

Inner feelings, however, came and went. We could not trust them, and they have no foundation to stand on. The cult of authenticity boils down to the infantilization of adult people. Adults excellently control emotions.

The feeling inside is also not necessarily "right", feelings could be wrong, feelings could be illegitimate, especially envy, anger or contempt. In contrast to the high self-esteem praised in "Finding Yourself", this is not a positive thing at all - the biggest problems were connected with a high self-esteem, which led to psychopathological and immoral behavior.

People who let their anger run wild became angrier. Pushing away negative feelings leads to the fact that those affected remember less of the unpleasant episodes. Life is too short to deal with anger. Humor helps against anger and is a good reaction to insults.

Fire the coach

According to Brinkmann, in the “Optimize Yourself” religion, the coach takes on the role of the priest, and the separation between inner self and outer reality corresponds to the monotheistic separation between inner core and outer appearance - self-actualization takes the place of grace and redemption. And, it could be added, positive illusions replace the kingdom of heaven.

Outward criticism, for example of social conditions, becomes self-criticism. Coaching is a medicine that makes you sick. Be nothing inside, the coach cannot give anything back.

In self-optimization, humans are never enough. Self-actualization is considered the meaning of human existence, and to pursue this is like a psychopathological personality disorder. Other people would only become tools for their own success.

Then there would be no more understanding that there are things that are important but not fun. Coaching breaks friendships and more commercial personal relationships. A friend is an intrinsic value, not a resource. He concludes: Make friends and fire up your coach, go to nature or the museum with friends.

Novels as an experience

Self-help literature was part of the problem, but novels showed the chaos and diversity of human relationships and how little control we had over our lives, how it was interwoven with social and cultural processes.

NLP, self-management etc., however, pretended to people to solve problems of the present within themselves that were of a social nature. Self-help books didn't work. However, novels showed several perspectives on many worlds. He particularly emphasizes Charles Dickens and Cormac McCarthy, among the philosophers he recommends Nietzsche for challenges in life. Reading Charles Dickens would make you a better person than coaching guides.

According to Brinkmann, there is no such thing as a “hidden self” waiting to be realized. Accordingly, the "self-actualizers" run after a mirage. The self did not exist before it was created, and techniques shaped subjectivity.

According to Oscar Wilde, the secret is in the visible, not the invisible. There was nothing inside. Novels taught us to find a hold precisely because they help us to find a perspective outside of ourselves and not within.

The author asks rhetorically: Would Nietzsche seek out a coach? Hardly, he replies.

Past and identity

In contrast to the absolute nature of the "here and now" in our accelerated culture, Brinkmann advises: "Remember the past." He contradicts the mantra of the "self-actualizer", according to which the old pattern does not offer new solutions.

The opposite is the case: only those who know their past can build a stable identity - both individuals and societies. Here Brinkmann's approach corresponds to what every historian knows about the value of his profession: people make mistakes in the past even today, there is no “here and now” without a past, and those who forget history lose the future.

According to Brinkmann, we should replace progress with repetition and reflect on the past. The essential things in the history of ideas are repetitions not new creations, which is already in the concept of the Renaissance, which brought Europe into the modern by orienting itself on the ancient world.

Today, it could be said, the philosophy, humanism and science of the Greeks would be of great importance: Socrates, Diogenes, Plato or especially Epicurus and their teachings on the art of the good life.

Brinkmann explains, contrary to the zeitgeist: “Only in the past centuries have we started to understand the new and the future as quality in itself. In fact, much was better in the old days. ”He is right.

You can only think outside the box if you know that it is a plate and how it is made, according to the author. In doing so, he connects to the findings of creativity research: creativity means bending, breaking and reshaping something that already exists. But you have to know what is available.

Self-discovery coaches are generally historically ignorant people who hide traditions and cultural developments, social relationships, ritual behaviors, symbolic worlds and the social-psychological framework in which their customers operate. This makes them just as unsuitable for holding on as for promoting creativity - because creativity arises from the steadfastness that was there before.

Life as a whole

For morality and ethics, life as a whole is a prerequisite and not a search for an imaginary inner self, according to the author. Whoever does not build a connection between yesterday and today would not give others reason to trust him.

We would only have a coherent identity if we viewed our life as a narrative entity from birth to death. That is why it is about self-permanence with reference to the past instead of self-development, which is directed towards the future. According to Brinkmann, the feeling of guilt and promise are closely related. Who we are is not attached to an inner self, but is determined by our obligations and promises to others.

Living traditions and the past of the culture in which a person is embedded are the cornerstones for leading a meaningful life, could be said with Brinkmann.

A relief

"Pfeif Drauf" is the long overdue antithesis to the ubiquitous self-optimization mania. Have you already tortured yourself to "self-development" through the bloated nothing of the "positive thinking guides" from Erhard F. Freitag via Rüdiger Dahlke to Veit Lindau? Have you wondered why you only encountered yawning emptiness in your "inner search for yourself"? Did you notice that others turned away from them because of their anti-social behavior? That instead of "finding yourself" you wandered lost in the world? Then "Pfeif Drauf" should be a stroke of liberation with real opportunities to lead a meaningful life in relation to other people. Sven Brinkmann: Pfeid on it. An end to the self-optimization craze. Knaur 2018.

Author and source information

Video: How to Resist the Self-Help Craze. Good Morning Britain (May 2021).