Insight Isn’t Enough

by F.

Sally Satel has a piece in The New York Times today about the uselessness of insight for psychological change:

It is time to retire the myth that insight is a prerequisite for change. For the patients in our clinic, change without hard-won insight is the rule. And who has time to wait? Not Natalie. This past month she and I worked on getting an abusive, shiftless boyfriend out of her apartment; finding tutoring for her son; and building a new social network to replace the drug users that she used to hang out with.

At this stage in her treatment, awareness of what she needs to do will get Natalie further than insight. Less chaos in her life means less anxiety and that means less risk of relapse.

Down the road she may ask, “Why did I use drugs?” But in the meantime, what’s important for Natalie and her son is that she is determined to stop.

Frederic C. Bartlett, a British psychologist, coined the term “effort at meaning” to describe the human impulse to make sense of feelings and circumstances. Self-explorers be warned: it is an effort often fraught with distortion and even hazard, when it prevents one from making the changes that need to be made in the present.

This is certainly consistent with my experience. It’s high time to put what might be called “the introspective fallacy” to pasture: our ability to diagnose and repair our minds through introspection is limited to non-existant. Consciousness is highly overrated, after all. Barnacles don’t have bad days.

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