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What We Really Talk about When We Talk about Self-Help


Sep. 8, 2021 Psychology Today

Our appetite for self-help has never been greater: The self-help market is valued at $11 billion worldwide and is forecast to grow rapidly over the next few decades. We consume self-help literature voraciously, ever hungry for the latest guidance. The personal-development sector, too, is booming. We spend large sums on therapists, life coaches, and wellness experts, while our employers invest heavily in developing our soft skills. But a rapidly growing number of people see the cultural imperative of constantly having to improve ourselves critically. 

The self-help industry is based on the assumption that we have many serious and debilitating shortcomings that need fixing. It hooks into our dissatisfaction with who and what we are, often promising unrealistic quick-fix cures for our deeper existential ailments. The self-improvement diktat, moreover, implies that we alone are responsible for our own happiness, that it is our personal responsibility, and indeed obligation, constantly to work on our character, interpersonal skills, health, and the adequate management of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Many self-help regimes do not acknowledge the structural and political causes of some of our predicaments, nor the differences in our ability to self-improve that may be related to our upbringing, life experiences, and character traits.

The very idea of self-help implies that the self can be helped and that it is in all our powers to do so. Many self-help regimes assume that we have infinite agency to shape our own fate, and that we must be lacking in willpower if we don’t succeed in doing so. The perhaps most extreme form of that kind of thinking is at work in texts like The Secret (2006), which suggest that everything that happens to us is our own doing, because our thoughts are “magnetic” and attract matching psycho-spiritual energies to us. If we fail to think happy thoughts, the “law of attraction” ensures that bad stuff will happen to us. According to that logic, assaults, illnesses, accidents, and even genocide are ultimately all the victim’s fault.

When we talk about self-help we can therefore not just discuss whether specific psycho-technologies are effective or not. Self-help is also a political topic with wide-ranging ethical implications. Self-help regimes always rest on very specific concepts of the self, as well as on assumptions about agency, personal responsibility, and our wider place in the systems of which we are a part. These assumptions are rarely made explicit, but substantially shape the suggested improvement regimes. To what extent are we able to shape ourselves and our lives? If we believe in the infinite possibility to transform ourselves, we may blame or look down on those who do not manage to take positive action. If we believe that our potential is predetermined, we may feel helpless and depressed.

Do we conceive of ourselves as solitary, autonomous agents, out there to secure personal advantages in hostile territories? Or do we think of ourselves as relational and interdependent, embedded parts of a much larger whole? Do we believe in fixed qualities and potentials, or in more fluid and context-dependent notions of selfhood? These conceptions change throughout history and across cultures. The Stoic philosopher Seneca, for example, writes: “Our relations with one another are like a stone arch, which would collapse if the stones did not mutually support each other, and which is upheld in this very way.”

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