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March 25, 2020

Responsible (and irresponsible!) Self-help During the Coronavirus Outbreak

In 2009, my sister died at a self-help retreat. The leader claimed he was an authority in many things, such as leading sweat lodges. He lied. My sister and two other participants died of heat stroke. 

I have since learned that this is a terribly common practice of guru-types: assuming authority on subjects they have no right to claim. 

This coronavirus outbreak is no different. I’ve seen posts from gurus questioning whether the virus is as serious as the actual experts assure us it is. I’ve seen posts about how our obsessive attention on the virus is spreading it, thanks to the “principles” of the Law of Attraction. I’ve seen gurus share information about how to boost immunity in the face of Covid-19. But not one of these gurus is an epidemiologist or immunologist or medical professional of any sort. I even saw one of them (and yes, it was the guy who killed my sister) post a video from a man who is, again, not an epidemiologist, claiming that this is a hoax perpetuated by the “Deep State.” 

After my sister died and we learned how widespread this kind of irresponsibility is in the self-help world, my family founded a non-profit organization, SEEK Safely, to educate and empower consumers of self-help. The kind of thing I see right now with these irresponsible self-help teachers is exactly why we created this organization. Seeing our reason for existing playing out in front of me could be gratifying, but instead I find it incredibly frustrating.

Here’s the thing. Especially in times of uncertainty, people look to teachers they respect and admire for guidance. So when these teachers are spreading false or dubious information that they have no right to even be talking about, it’s a real problem that can cause actual harm to actual people. 

Of course, we’re all talking about coronavirus right now. It is natural, and even appropriate, that self-help teachers will comment. That’s fine. But they need to acknowledge the limitations of their expertise. 

What can a responsible guru do?

A responsible guru can discuss strategies for maintaining calm during this crisis. One of my favorite mediation teachers on Instagram, @rorykinsellameditation, has been doing this really well. He had one post about limiting how much news he is taking in about the epidemic, which is a totally reasonable strategy for managing anxiety about it. 

A responsible guru can talk about what she is doing to practice self-care: things like exercise, meditation, and eating well, in spite of this huge disruption in our normal routines.

A responsible guru can share tips for working from home and maintaining focus. Many self-help professionals are entrepreneurs who work from home all the time, so they may have some good ideas to offer.

A responsible guru can shine a light on positive things coming out of this experience, to spread hope. Amid all of the stories about this virus, including ones that put humans in a pretty bad light (I’m looking at you, hand sanitizer hoarders), there are many stories of neighbours helping one another, people taking action to support especially vulnerable populations, or the creative ways in which parents are entertaining and educating their kids at home. We need these positive stories, along with factual information about what is going on.

There is a role for self-help to play in this pandemic. People need reassurance, encouragement, hope. But it’s vital that self-help professionals not assume roles they are not qualified to fill.  

Get your news and medical advice from reputable sources. Practice social distancing. Wash your hands. Take care of yourself. And self-help professionals: please, stay in your lane.

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