June 19, 2019

Self-Help is Killing Us—Literally.

I’ve noticed a shift in the mood these last few years—not just my own mood, more like the collective mood. All of us.

Political unrest, climate change, financial uncertainty…big (and real) problems are weighing us down. We are constantly surrounded by depressing and disturbing news stories. If I pay too much attention, it feels almost destructive, but ignoring it feels irresponsible. As a result, I have felt more stressed and anxious in recent years. It seems I’m not alone.

I have also noticed more focus on #selfcare, #selflove, and simplifying our lives—trends like mindfulness, meditation, hygge, or Marie Kondo’s Konmari decluttering method. It also seems like there are more people selling books and doing speaking tours about their entrepreneurial success or life-changing experiences.

It’s not a coincidence that we see an increase in both of these things simultaneously. It’s natural to look for ways to protect ourselves from the distress that seems to be everywhere. Where there is financial uncertainty, there are also messages about building financial freedom or creating a successful business based on our own passions. It all becomes very attractive. When we feel overwhelmed, focusing on our emotional health makes sense.

Our hunger for a break from this uncertainty has built a demand for “professionals” and products to help us overcome it.

Many of the responses to our increased anxiety are harmless, and maybe even healthy. Meditation is scientifically proven to have benefits. Many people feel less stressed after decluttering (my morning routine is definitely simpler now that I have about 1/3 of the clothing choices I used to have). And hygge—the Danish practice of curating a relaxed, cozy atmosphere to enjoy time with our loved onescan’t hurt.

What’s the Problem?

Traditional self-help has quickly adapted to become more individualized and accessible through social media and the internet. Those tools have also made it easier for non-traditional self-help influencers to get in front of a large audience—self-help books, online coaches, motivational speakers, wellness products. We’re spending billions of dollars on this stuff. The worry is that this increased demand creates opportunities for the scammy operators in the self-help arena.

When my sister died at a self-help event, I gained an education in sniffing out dangerous self-help. As I scroll through my Instagram feed of minimalist wardrobe inspirations and life simplifying quotes, I see a lot of red flags: “life coaches” who don’t seem to have any sort of qualifications beyond their own interesting story; “meditation guides” that are appropriating cultural touchstones and religious practices with a superficial understanding of those traditions; wellness products that make wild claims with little scientific evidence to back them up. These are just a few examples.

What’s the harm? It might be as small as wasting $20 on a book or app that doesn’t deliver on its promises. It could be bigger, like wasting thousands on a seminar that doesn’t deliver on its promises. Or like getting bad advice from an unqualified life coach that encourages us to make damaging decisions. Or like getting hurt at a self-help event that didn’t have proper risk management despite its dangerous physical challenges. Or something like death. And this happens, more frequently than people may realize.

In 2009, three peopleincluding my sister, Kirbydied at an event led by rising self-help superstar James Ray. In 2016, at least 30 people were badly burned doing a fire walk at a Tony Robbins event (and Robbins has recently been accused of sexual impropriety with both employees and customers). The trial of the leader of the motivational group NXIVM is now underway. He’s accused of branding and even sexually abusing his followers. These are the worst-case scenarios, the stories that make the news.

But many consumers who have wasted money or been emotionally harmed are ashamed to speak about their experiences. A lot of the damage from irresponsible leaders goes unpublished.

What Do we Do?

Protect ourselves. Protecting ourselves when considering self-help resources isn’t complicated. It’s a matter of being aware of the possible dangers and taking a proactive approach. With just a bit of knowledge, I have developed a healthy skepticism that helps me see beyond the hype.

I ask these questions.

Is the book, teacher, or program making over-the-top promises that seem to good to be true?

Do they rely on testimonials rather than data to establish their credibility?

What credentials does the guru have to teach the techniques they use?

Is there a constant “up-sell”—a push to get me to buy more stuff, move to the next level?

Does this program encourage people to cut ties with their existing support system?

If it’s an in-person event that will include physical challenges, are there safety measures in place in case something goes wrong?

Perhaps most importantly, I follow my gut. If something doesn’t feel right, I listen to thatthose feelings are powerful.

Being proactive is empowering when I’m feeling overwhelmed by the uncertainty and problems facing our world today. It helps me feel more in control. I share what I’ve learned since my sister’s death because I want to help other people like her. She was a seeker. She just wanted to be the best version of herself she could be.

It’s admirable when people take action to improve themselves and their circumstances, as she did. It’s a sign of strength, not weakness, but openness to change makes us vulnerable to abuse, which is why we must be careful. The tools we use to help us be “our best selves,” even in stressful times, should empower us further, not kill us.


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