Why Self-Help Almost Never Is

4 years ago

Here’s the thing about self-help:  If you’re reading a book or an article about how to fix your current miserable existence, or listening to a self-described “expert” tell you and hordes of others how to fix it, it’s not even close to being self-help.

It’s not that these folks don’t want to help you.  They do!  They really, really do!  The goal is to help you to let go and try their tactics on your own. (But not to such a degree that you won’t be buying their next book or watching their next program.)

They want you to spread the good news–it works!  Buy their book!  Watch their program!  You can do this!  But remember: you couldn’t have done it without them!

The self-help industry is based on one simple concept:  In order to overcome whatever it is that’s dragging you down you need to feel good about yourself.  In a nutshell.  But how many ways can it be said?  Just for fun, I went to Amazon and typed in Self-Help books.  There were 194,648 for sale there.  And that’s just the English versions.

Then there are diet books.  There were 80,690 of those.  I didn’t separate the numbers of books telling us we can eat anything and still lose weight, but there were many more than I thought possible.  (I’m pushing for a category all by itself called, “Scams and Shams and Just Plain Silly”.)

As Matthew Gilbert  wrote in his Boston Globe piece, “Self-Help Books and the Promise of Change”,

“The healing begins and often ends with a visit to the bookstore or a download. ‘What a lot of people want when they go to self-help books is to just feel better,’ says Jessica Lamb-Shapiro, author of a just-released look at self-help culture “Promise Land.” ‘And it doesn’t take that much to feel better. You feel better buying the book.’”

I admit that I’m a perpetual mess, physically, psychologically, socially, educationally, maternally, relationshiplly (not a real word and misspelled besides), and maybe even philosophically, but I feel good about myself knowing I never for one minute thought I could fix those things by accepting a complete stranger’s pop notion of what was wrong with me.

But a while back, on Maria Popova’s brilliant website, Brain Pickings, I read about a self-help book which, if I were into those things, I might actually read.  It’s Alan Watts’ “The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message For An Age Of Anxiety”.  It was published first in 1951, when, contrary to current popular opinion, we were a country full of anxious people.

Watts’ main message is that in order to be happy we have to learn to accept insecurity. [Aside: tell that to a jobless/homeless person--you have nothing to be insecure about but insecurity itself]  But this is what struck me:

I can only think seriously of trying to live up to an ideal, to improve myself, if I am split in two pieces. There must be a good “I” who is going to improve the bad “me.” “I,” who has the best intentions, will go to work on wayward “me,” and the tussle between the two will very much stress the difference between them. Consequently “I” will feel more separate than ever, and so merely increase the lonely and cut-off feelings which make “me” behave so badly.

I love that!  In the end, it’s a battle between me and myself.  The message, as I’m reading it, is for everyone else to butt out.  Even Alan Watts.

(Before you all come after me about the usefulness of therapy, let me be clear:  Reading a book or watching a TV show isn’t therapy.  Therapy requires a give and take, a mutual trust, an assurance that someone is actually listening to you.  Therapy may move you along toward helping yourself but it never was and never will be “self-help”)



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