March 22, 2021

Self-Help & Narcissism: Are we really “Good Enough” or falling for a Fantasy?

People with narcissistic personality disorder show a grandiose sense of self-importance (delusions of grandeur).

Often they are consumed by fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.

We’ve all heard self-affirmations such as:

I am worthy.

I am deserving.

I am enough.

I am powerful.

Which begs the question: how much of the self-help industry’s hyperbole is founded on promoting unlimited success, beauty, delusional empowerment, ideal relationships, excessive self-love, and entitlement?

In other words, how much of the self-help industry is founded on promoting narcissism? The answer is all of it. Therefore, we must be discerning.

We all have narcissistic traits. Linked to the healthy development of the ego in forming our identities, it’s part of our innate human psychology and helps us to assimilate our reality and find our place in the world. But there is a difference between healthy narcissism and unhealthy narcissism.

On the healthy side, narcissism manifests as genuine self-love, confidence, and the celebration of our achievements where credit is due. For example, if you trained hard for a marathon, and won that marathon, then the odd celebratory selfie would constitute healthy narcissism.

In contrast, on the unhealthy side, narcissism manifests as self-obsession, delusions of grandeur, entitlement, a need for constant validation, and the lauding of our achievements where credit is not due. Unhealthy narcissism is essentially an overinflated sense of self, our importance, and a pathological obsession with our self-image.

Know the difference—and don’t get sucked into the latter through self-help modalities that promote unlimited success, delusional empowerment, excessive self-love, and delusions of grandeur. Indeed, not all self-help modalities are created equal: most are not scientifically validated and are either placebo at best or complete bunk at worst.

The self-help practices which have been shown in scientific studies to have some validity are meditation or mindfulness, keeping a journal, gratitude, altruism, and eleemosynary acts.

Those self-help modalities where the science is questionable include Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), affirmations, hypnotherapy, and inner child work.

Finally, those self-help modalities which are mostly bullsh*t—and often unethically—are manifestations, tarot cards, telekinesis, psychics, crystals, power animals, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), the law of attraction, and anything else supernatural.

The self-help modalities that are grounded in science are pragmatic and realistic and have an ethical foundation that essentially promotes two key things: authenticity and the importance of values.

When we are true to ourselves and live in alignment with our values, in the present, and with realistic expectations, then all the other stuff sold to us by the self-help industry simply takes care of itself. Rather than being preoccupied with an idealized self through delusions of grandeur, we find ourselves intrinsically motivated, balanced, present, and genuinely empowered.

When I first posted a blog on social media, I received a high number of likes. I was curious as to how many people saw the image of the cat and the lion as the kind of empowering image we habitually see on self-help pages and liked it based on that. I then wondered how many people actually bothered to read the text and realise that the image is being used ironically.

We live in a fast-food, quick-fix, shallow-minded culture epitomised by the meme or, by extension, the alluring image, such as the cat and the lion. But my intended meaning behind the image of the cat dreaming of becoming a lion is that it is precisely this notion of delusional empowerment that keeps the self-industry booming.

A cat is a cat. A lion is a lion.

If you are a cat dreaming of becoming a lion, then you have fallen prey to delusional empowerment: the cat in the image is fantasising about an idealised vision of the self that is rooted in delusions of grandeur.

Moreover, if we believe the self-affirmations that we are enough, then we wouldn’t dream of becoming a lion in the first place. We would feel empowered enough by being a cat—by being true to ourselves.

Why do people fall for the lure of self-help?

One reason is that many are a victim of the bandwagon effect: a phenomenon whereby the rate of uptake of beliefs, ideas, fads, and trends increases with respect to the proportion of others who have already done so. As more people come to believe in something, others also hop on the bandwagon regardless of the underlying evidence.

How many people do you know who practice self-help and fill their social media pages with posts about their empowered state, positive mindset, and self-absorbed achievements, often with a meme or selfie to boot?

I know dozens of people: they are clones of each other, and yet the allure of such positive, empowered fantasies attracts others and, before you know it, they have hopped onto the bandwagon themselves.

But the truth is, the more people who follow the herd of the self-help obsessed masses, the more misaligned they are to their inner truth (authenticity) and values—they are less a lion than a sheep.

The most inauthentic people are those who fall prey to bandwagonism; the most disempowered people are those who seek empowerment through quick fixes; and likewise, the people most lacking in self-worth are the ones who desperately seek self-love.

The self-help industry knows this, and it thrives on exploiting our fears and desires, capitalising on a mindset of lack so that we convince ourselves we need to have more and be more.

Not only does this reveal an inherent contradiction with self-help platitudes such as I am enough, but it forces us into a mindset of perpetual growth and a concomitant obsession with our future or idealised self, rather allowing us to feel empowered as we are, here and now, in the present.

A preoccupation with our idealised self is, of course, a hallmark of narcissism. So, the lesson is:

Stop dreaming of becoming a lion and, instead, simply be the best cat you can be. ~ Michael Farrell



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