January 27, 2021

When Self-Help Culture becomes a Capitalist Trap.


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I sometimes think about how I could hire a different coach for every one of these “holes” I apparently have within myself.

The “too emotional” hole. The “too anxious” hole.  The “single again” hole. “Not confident enough.” “Insecure.” The list could go on.

I do believe there are a lot of people genuinely wanting to do good out there. But I’ve also witnessed first-hand the gaslighting, manipulation, and shaming tactics hidden under the guise of wanting to do good.

There’s been an epidemic of self-help in our culture for a while now, and it needs to stop.

This last fall, I went through a breakup. I spent the months following the breakup feeling like I was at fault. For everything. I hired a coach (who was actually quite wonderful and told me to stop thinking everything was my fault). But then, I spiraled—wondering if this was some pattern I was constantly repeating. I almost got sucked into a different coaching program that played on my low mental state to make me believe this was the only thing that would save me.

There might be some truth in this. We all have things to work on. But to make me feel like I was a problem, holding myself back from happiness? It was just another capitalist way to get me to spend more money until I was finally “fixed.”

New Yorker article explains it perfectly:

“’In a consumerist society, we are not meant to buy one pair of jeans and then be satisfied,’ Cederström and Spicer write, and the same, they think, is true of self-improvement. We are being sold on the need to upgrade all parts of ourselves, all at once, including parts that we did not previously know needed upgrading.

There is a great deal of money to be made by those who diagnose and treat our fears of inadequacy; Cederström and Spicer estimate that the self-improvement industry takes in ten billion dollars a year.”

It’s important to reflect on our mistakes and think about where we could do better next time, yes. But if we get stuck in this constant cycle of feeling like we’re messed up and need saving, we’re never going to make peace with ourselves and where we’re at (and we’ll likely spend a ton of money in the process).

I think of NXIVM. The self-help program turned sex cult. I see those people, and I am afraid that it could have been me. That there’s something so appealing about the idea of complete self-mastery that you’d be willing to abandon yourself, your family, your values in the pursuit of it. I’d like to think I’m “stronger” than that—but I can see how easily it happens.

I’m not perfect. I never will be. Maybe I’m single right now, maybe I’m a bit too emotional, maybe I’m a bit awkward, and I don’t always say the right things, but that’s what makes me me. The real issues? The stuff that keeps me lying awake at night. The unhealthy coping mechanisms. The negative self-talk. There are real, educated people out there who are qualified to help me through it.

Of course, it’s not black and white. But when we spend our entire day thinking about what needs fixing, we miss out on the beauty and the joy that is all around us.

A friend of mine said this, which really struck me:

“I’ve been focusing on all the things that are not working, trying to fix all that—and I have been doing a great job at it. But instead of being creative all day long, which seems to smooth out those wrinkles, I’m focusing only on the wrinkles. I should fill my day with just being creative and then the negative little bits will fall to the side.”

Life is right out there, and it’s messy, and it’s real, and it’s raw, and you do not need another self-help coach to remind you of that.

Whenever I begin to feel down about myself and question who I am and what I’m doing, I go deep into the arts. I watch a musician I love singing a stripped version of a song, and I’m taken out of myself for a moment. Or I put on a comedy. A standup show that reminds me that we’re all just hilariously, awkwardly human.

And I think the biggest thing of all is to be of service.

If we stopped focusing so much on how to improve ourselves, maybe we could help improve the lives of others. Yes—we need to get ourselves to a place where we are mentally stable. But at a certain point, isn’t it all too much? When there are people suffering for even just food and shelter, couldn’t we dedicate a little bit of our time and energy to helping them?

My goal for 2021 is to stop focusing so much on how I can be “the best me.” And instead, focus on finding contentment. From there, share my skills, energy, and resources with others who may not be so privileged to even be writing an article about this.


Relephant: Self-Help is Killing Us—Literally.


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