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Commitments : People Who Read Too Much : Have all those pop psychology books of the last decade really been of much help? Or have they led us down the path to isolation and misery?

June 26, 1995|JEANNE WRIGHT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Remember back in the 1980s and early '90s when we were bombarded with self-help books that warned about men who hate women, women who love too much, and toxic parents who ruined our lives?

We were told to love ourselves first, to refuse to sacrifice our independence, and to count on only ourselves for love and affirmation. Anyone who did anything nice for someone was labeled co-dependent.

In short, the message was me, me me.

So, did all that advice make men and women happier?

"No. What we ended up with is therapists teaching each other and their patients how not to be in a relationship," says Los Angeles therapist Marion Solomon.

Those messages turned us into a "self-oriented society who thinks that 'loving ourselves' is the prescription for psychological and emotional health," she says.

The pursuit of autonomy and independence led people to "dedicate their lives to what I want, what I need, what I deserve. We have moved from the culture of narcissism to the age of isolation," says Solomon, who has written her own self-help book, "Lean on Me: The Power of Positive Dependency in Intimate Relationships" (Simon & Schuster, 1994).

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Solomon's harsh criticism of the co-dependency message represents a new willingness among some in the mental health profession to trash a few of the pop psychology theories on love and relationships that flourished during the past decade.

"In all honesty, I think so much of [the self-help movement] is just a sham," says Suzanna Walters, assistant professor of sociology at Georgetown University. "I think a lot of these people are real operators who are trying to distill complex ideas into little droplets of five steps to this and 12 steps to that."

Controversy over everything from the disintegration of family relationships and values to the debate over recovered memories of abuse has led some professionals to take a sharp look at their roles as therapists, their techniques, their profitable self-help books and the messages they have delivered to the public.

"They are making a bundle off of it. It's a huge industry. There is no more lucrative market in publishing now than the self-help market," says Walters, who has written "Lives Together, Worlds Apart: Mothers and Daughters in Popular Culture" (UC Press, 1992) and "Material Girls: Making Sense of Feminist Cultural Theory" (UC Press, 1995).

Illinois therapist Michele Weiner-Davis has taken psychology-bashing to new heights with her provocatively titled book, "Fire Your Shrink" (Simon & Schuster, 1995).

Weiner-Davis admits her book doesn't really encourage people to follow the title's advice. Her point is that people don't need grueling long-term therapy to find solutions. "Psycho-archeology expeditions" into your childhood will not solve today's grown-up problems, she says.

"For so long, self-help readers or clients of therapy have been governed by such pathological concepts as co-dependency and all sorts of addictions and diagnosis.

"Look at the titles: 'Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them'; 'Women Who Love Too Much'; 'Toxic Parents'. . . .

"Those are so dangerous and so hurtful because the vulnerable general public reads these books and they diagnose themselves and end up feeling worse."

There's now a slight trend toward books that "tend to normalize people's experiences," says Weiner-Davis, who also wrote "Divorce Busting" (Summit Books, 1992).

For example, John Gray's book "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus: A Practical Guide for Improving Communication & Getting What You Want In Your Relationship" (HarperCollins, 1993) became so popular "because we are not saying men are these social dwarfs because they can't communicate and women are off the deep end with talking all the time," Weiner-Davis says. "Instead, the book explains to people that this is how it is and helps them find peace in relationships that way."

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But if advice and techniques go in and out of style like fashion, what should people believe?

Such uncertainty has split the mental health community as dueling therapists engage in a fierce battle of words.

"To say that the ideas that came out in the '80s were wrong and to discount the importance of those ideas is not a good thing," argues Melody Beattie, author of "Co-dependent No More" (Harper, 1987)

Bristling over criticism, Beattie says her book "absolutely" had a positive impact on people. "I believe the ideas of co-dependency came as a gift to set us free from certain ideas at a certain time of our life.

"When I wrote about those ideas they were ideas that were changing my life. At the time, I was isolated, not knowing how to own my power . . . my own soul, my own emotions. Basically, wishing, for the most part, that I was dead," she says.

Los Angeles therapist Susan Forward, co-author of "Men Who Hate Women and Women Who Love Them" (Bantam, 1986), also takes offense at criticism from some of her colleagues.

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