The Slippery Slope of Self-Help

“There’s nothing as unstoppable as a freight train full of fuck-yeah.” – Jen Sincero, You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life

I recently finished reading, “You are a Badass,” from which the obnoxious quote above was taken, breezing through the chapters with great interest and disdain alike. My therapist, whom I’ve been seeing for the past few months for depression and anxiety, recommended it, but not without hesitation. She inferred that – and I’m paraphrasing here – it stinks of classist, affluent thinking and delusions of grandeur at various points but nevertheless advised me to take from it the things I find useful and leave everything else behind.

As someone who generally carries a skeptical view of the world and also happens to suffer from cyclical bouts of depression, I have found myself in the odd position of partaking in some aspects of self-helpery – as psychotherapy, yoga and meditation fall within that realm – while at the very same time, rolling my eyes at the sight of gurus popping up everywhere (especially in social media) with promises of 100% non-refundable mind-liberation strategies that absolutely guarantee happiness (but more often than not, require you to cough up some serious cash first).

The self-help industry generates billions of dollars each year. From yogis to life coaches and financial advisors to motivational speakers, people who sell positivity and self-improvement strategies are making a killing. (It’s both hilarious and absurd that it was one of the few industries to thrive during the Great Recession.) But what exactly is drawing humans en masse to the world of self-help?

I’d argue that since time immemorial, people have been on a mission to understand the human condition, exploring the things not readily understood and attempting to explain that which goes beyond our mortal comprehension – death, dreams, the meaning of life itself. From philosophers to scientists to spiritual leaders, I suspect that there is a commonality among them that drives the search for understanding our existence as a species. This pursuit seems almost universal, which is a rare thing to say about anything describing the human species as a whole.

Some experts believe that as the economics of a society improves and the basic needs of its citizens are met, happiness and fulfillment become the next frontier in the search for life’s meaning. It was probably less prudent to think of happiness as your ultimate goal in life when merely struggling to survive was your everyday reality. And yet if you peruse the self-help section of any moderately-sized bookstore today, you might be convinced that you are far from living your best life. Happiness is the trendiest good on the market and everyone wants a piece so why not buy The Secret for $13.78 and find out how you can tap into your unlimited potential to “achieve health, wealth, and happiness” as the book promotes. God forbid you let people in on this “secret” for free!

Perhaps this is the apotheosis of our capitalist democracy, where rugged individualism meets the get money mentality, and success is ultimately defined by the ability to “do what you love” and make money while doing it. And perhaps, that is also why so many of us are depressed and riddled with anxiety to begin with. When your life’s worth is defined solely by personal achievement (and money), it would seem logical that not reaching certain marks, whether set by yourself or by society, can cause you to doubt your value and self-worth.

But the idea that all we need to do to become our best selves is to delve within and generate our own joy by following steps A, B and C seems a bit ridiculous considering the fact that we must live and operate in a system that is far too often unfriendly to women, people of color and the poor. This isn’t to poo poo on meditation, in which you quite literally try to delve into yourself to create some distance between you and your thoughts in order to prevent the overwhelming barrage of anxiety-inducing scenarios you’ve concocted in your mind within the span of 5 mins. Nor is it to discount the many ways in which self-reflection and mindfulness can be useful in preventing the downward spiral of self-destructive thoughts that can too often lead to self-destructive behavior. No, my beef with self-helpery is its emphasis on the self.

In a collectivist society, such emphasis on the self might provide balance to a culture centered around the community rather than the individual. But in a world that has become increasingly obsessed with selfies and hero stories, it seems as if we’re all compelled to create our own narratives of individual exceptionalism. Branding is no longer just reserved for the corporate overlords; we too, can wield influence over people if we produce just the right combination of inspiration and storytelling to gain just the right amount of followers on [insert social media platform of choice]. And in some twisted way, it all makes sense. Corporations are people, people are corporationsit’s all just a confusing game of “let’s guess who the skinjobs are!” It seemed only a matter of time before people turned into entities that sold self-improvement as a product you can buy for only $765 a weekend.

Maybe it’s time to admit that these strategies for self-help that we’ve desperately bought into are merely a cry for stronger communities, where we all don’t feel like crabs trying to knock each other down in a barrel to get to the top (which was always a strange analogy to me because I assumed the crabs at the top would be the first to get thrown into a pot of boiling water, so maybe I need to think on that one a little more); and that a society that values profit, competition and individual exceptionalism over collective well-being can only lead to dissatisfied, unfulfilled people reaching into their pockets to pay other people to help them help themselves.

And therein lies the greatest paradox of self-help. As the late, great George Carlin said, “If you’re reading it in a book, folks, it ain’t self-help. It’s help.” This is not a critique of those – and I include myself in this category – who actively seek the help of others to navigate a system that produced the conditions we are seeking help for in the first place. I merely want to ask the question, how did we get here and how do we move forward?

I sincerely doubt the answer lies in a book outlining how you can be a badass or in a (roughly) $500 weekend course on finding your spirit animal. But as my therapist said, take what you find useful and leave the rest behind. I think it’s safe to say, all of it is going in that portion of my brain labeled “garbage.” I say, let’s do better, humanity.

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