For better or worse, the self help industry is market-driven rather than peer-reviewed. It’s not scientific. And because of this, the onus is on the reader to sift through the material, deliberate over what’s credible and what’s not, and then find a way to apply it to their own lives in a useful way.
That is not easy.
Clinical psychology doesn’t exact have a stellar track record of personal change either, but at least when you lay down on the sofa, you know you’re dealing with a qualified expert who is telling you what to do based on 100+ years of research.
With self help, god knows where half of these people come from. You have to wear your skepticism as a parachute and be ruthless in what you allow into your daily life.
1. Self Help Reinforces Perceptions of Inferiority and Shame
Two types of people get hooked on self help material: those who feel something is fundamentally wrong with them and they are willing to try anything to make it better, and those people who think they’re already generally a good person, but they have some problems and blind spots and want to become great people.
Call these the “Bad-to-OK” people and the “OK-to-Great” people. Bad-to-OK people are in it because they believe that they’re fundamentally flawed and want to fix themselves. OK-to-Great people are in it because they think they are OK, but they want to become great.
Generally speaking, the OK-to-Great people do just that — they go from having an average and “OK” life and turn it into something really unique and great over the course of years.
The Bad-to-OK people improve little, if at all, even after years of “effort”. In some cases, they may even get worse.
Bad-to-OK people consistently fail because they possess a fundamental worldview that interprets everything they do, including self help, to support their inferiority or lack of worthiness.
For example, an OK-to-Great person may read a book on becoming happy and think, “Oh, cool, there are a bunch of things in here that I’m not doing. I should try them out.”
A Bad-to-OK person will read the same book and say, “Wow, look at all of this stuff I’m not doing. I’m an even bigger loser than I initially thought.”
In other cases, Bad-to-OK people may improve the superficial circumstances of their lives — how much money they’re making, what kind of car they drive — but they will continue to have the miserable feeling of not being good enough.
The fundamental difference is that Bad-to-OK lack self-acceptance that most people have. An OK-to-Great person will look at the string of bad choices and mistakes throughout their life and decide that they should make better choices and learn how to be a better person. A Bad-to-OK person will assume every choice they make is bad because they are a fundamentally flawed person and that the only way they can make good choices is by doing exactly what someone else says, word-for-word.
(There’s a sick tangent here regarding religion, the oldest and most popular version of self help. Most religions, especially conservative sects, shame people from a very young age into feeling unworthy, and then providing the beliefs and choices for them to surrender their autonomy over to.)
The irony here is that the pre-requisite for self help to be effective is the one crucial thing that self help cannot actually help: accept yourself as a good person who makes mistakes.
Sure, sit with your Chi, be still in the “now”, say your affirmations and journal until you’re blue in the face, but Bad-to-OK people will continue to perceive themselves as “Bad” and never reach the “OK” they’re desperately looking for. Because this inadequacy is their worldview, everything they do will only reinforce it further. At best, all they can hope for is to cover it up or suppress it.
2. Self Help Is Often Yet Another Form of Avoidance
George Carlin once joked that self help was a paradox because if someone was actually capable of helping themselves then they wouldn’t need to read a book on helping themselves.
People consciously perceive their problems in all sorts of unique and creative ways: I don’t know when to kiss her; my family and I always fight; I feel tired and lazy all the time; I can’t stop eating sweets; my dog hates me; my ex-girlfriend burnt my house down; and on and on.
These all feel like “real” problems. But in almost every situation, the root of the problem is actually some deep form of anxiety/neuroticism or an unconscious feeling of shame or unworthiness (aka, low self-esteem).
We already saw how self help usually proves ineffectual in dealing with the shame. Unfortunately, it often fails in handling the anxiety/neuroticism as well.
When someone with an inordinate amount of anxiety comes to self help material, two things usually happen, and neither of them fix the problem.
a) They simply replace one neuroticism with another, slightly healthier, neuroticism — think someone who goes from being an alcoholic and unable to hold a job to meditating and doing yoga five hours a day and still unable to hold a job.
b) Or they use the self help material as another form of avoidance. Dating advice is a classic example here — I don’t know how to ask out the person I like on a date, so I’ll read four books about it and feel like I did something. Suddenly reading the books feels far more important than actually asking the person out.
This is also commonly known as analysis paralysis.
There are only two ways I know of that uproot irrational anxieties and neuroticism. The first one is to actually go out and expose yourself to what you’re afraid of (not easy, and not fun).
The second one is to dig into your unconscious until you find some sort of correlative trauma or shame and integrate it (also not easy, and also not fun).
The problem with both of these methods is that they require months, if not years, to create major changes.
Years ago, I suffered from an inordinate amount of social anxiety in situations where I didn’t know someone already (also known as “Approach Anxiety”). I tried all of the new agey, hippy dippy stuff — the breathing exercises, the visualizations, the affirmations, the tapping, blah, blah, blah — and none of it worked. What worked was years of going out and talking to strangers, supplemented with some therapy to get a handle on some of the awful social experiences I had growing up, accepting them and then integrating them.
Not exactly marketable to people looking for the magic pill … which brings us to the next problem.
3. Self Help Marketing Creates Unrealistic Expectations
Although theoretically I have no issue with the profit-motive in the self help industry, in practice it causes problems.
With the profit-motive, the incentive is not on creating real change but creating the perception of real change.
This can be done with placebos, teaching clients to suppress certain negative feelings or to pump their temporary emotional states. It can be done by gratifying anxious people with more information and neurotics with relaxation techniques. These are all short-term solutions that create the sensation of accomplishment and improvement, but almost always dissipate within a few days or weeks.
I’m sorry, but you’re not going to get over a lifetime of feeling inadequate or shame in a single weekend. You just aren’t. What will happen is you’ll feel better about that inadequacy and shame for a while until it comes back.
(Note: I should state that I believe most self help companies and writers do have good intentions. My feeling is that they do this unconsciously because they measure their success in immediate earnings and not by following up with clients months or years later. Therefore, over time their teachings morph and cater to this standard of success.)
And then, of course, there’s the marketing. Not much needs to be said here. But in case you didn’t know, you can make millions, lose 50 pounds, have a perfect relationship and be happy 24/7 if you just sign up for this quick and easy program, for three installments of $79.95, money back guaranteed. But act now! Only 3 spots left!
To be honest, this doesn’t bother me a whole lot anymore. In fact, I’ve admittedly dabbled in it myself.
It’s market capitalism, in all of its best and its worst. And I do believe that over time, the market will become sophisticated enough to see through crap like this.
What does bother me though is that in the self help market, you have a market of not just uninformed customers, but a market of customers who genuinely have negative self-perceptions and low self-esteem, therefore they always assume it’s their fault that they didn’t get the results they wanted. This goes a little bit beyond simple ignorance and rubs up against the unethical at times.
4. Self Help is (Usually) Not Scientifically Validated
Here are the self help practices which have been shown in scientific studies to have some validity: meditation or mindfulness, keeping a journal, stating what you’re grateful for each day, being charitable and giving to others.
Here’s what the science is hit and miss on (it usually depends on how or why it is used): Neuro-Linguistic Programming, affirmations, hypnotherapy, getting in touch with your inner child.
Here’s what is complete bullshit: Feng shui, manifestations, tarot cards, telekinesis, psychics, crystals, power animals, tapping, the law of attraction, anything supernatural or woo woo.
The fact is that the majority of self help information out there is either under-informed or complete bunk.
Fortunately, in the past decade, many academics such as Brene Brown and Dan Gilbert are getting into the mix by writing self help books based on scientific studies, rather than the usual trope of “I was cleaning out my closet when God spoke to me and I suddenly became enlightened and here’s my completely arbitrary and half-baked book on what you should and should not do with your life.”
5. Self Help is a Contradiction
The contradiction of self help is that the first and most fundamental step to growth is to admit that you’re OK as you are and you don’t necessarily need anyone else’s help. It’s the prime belief. And by it’s very definition, it’s something that can’t be given to you by someone else.
The irony is that once you do accept that you don’t need someone else’s help or advice to become a good person, it’s only then that their advice truly becomes useful to you.
So in a way, self help is most useful for people who don’t actually need self help. It’s for the OK-to-Great people, not the Bad-to-OK people, although those are most of the people who get caught in its net.
Self improvement is quite literal in its meaning — it’s used to enhance oneself, not to replace it. If you’re looking to replace who you are with something else, then you will never succeed, and you’re more likely to get sucked up into the nonsense and pseudo-science and suppress your feelings of inadequacy rather than deal with them head-on.
In other cases, self help allows people to transfer and project their feelings of inadequacy onto others, or live vicariously through a “guru” or someone else’s success. Again: it’s the perception of progress and not progress itself.
So what’s the point of all of this?
It’s this: figure it out yourself. That may sound like an obvious cop-out, but seriously, why would anyone else have the answers to your life but you?
You can take their experiences and ideas into consideration, but ultimately it’s their application to your life that matters.
None of this was supposed to be easy. Anyone who tells you it is is probably marketing something.
Be skeptical. Be selfish. And be ruthless. This is your life we’re talking about. Nobody else can be happy for you. If you find yourself having that expectation, well, then there’s your problem. And no one can help you except yourself.
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