October 1, 2021

How the Self-Help industry can overpromise—Leaving us feeling Worse.


Some modern gurus would have us believe that when we are born, we are like pure, clean, fresh water: untainted, open, loving, peaceful.

It is only our early experiences that colour our water.

And so, they tell us we must work hard (through meditation or practicing gratitude or buying whatever miracle potion they are selling) to cleanse ourselves of the devilish colour the world has seeped into us.

And then after years of work, if we don’t get “better” or “enlightened,” it is our fault, and we just “haven’t tried hard enough” or “worked hard enough” or “built enough insight.” And so the cycle continues, and we pay more money and spend more time trying to fix ourselves—this time fueled by shame and fear. We are striving, and pushing, and abandoning ourselves over and over and over again. The story we are sold is that if we just do as they say, we, too, can have all that they (appear to) have.

After being one of these people myself and jamming meditation down the throat of whomever would listen to me, I now know this approach is both cruel and downright wrong. We are not all the same, and yes, meditation (and other personal development activities) is likely to be helpful to many of us, but we cannot be sure exactly what kind of effect it will have, and we certainly can’t promise any kind of ideal outcome or arrival destination.

What if we are each born into this world with our very own colour, coded into our very cells? Of course, our colour changes as we encounter and learn certain things in our lives. However, at the end of the day, we all bring our own unique colour to any kind of personal development work we do. So if we are all starting from a different place, of course the results of any kind of development will also be different. Comparison is futile; we are simply not comparing apples with apples. In fact, we may not even be comparing fruit with fruit.

For example, if I was represented by the yellow glass of water and you the blue glass of water (the combination of my genetics and early experiences made me yellow and you blue) and we added the same amount of the same red dye (representing “the miracle cure,” say, 20 minutes a day of meditation) to our respective glasses, would we turn the same colour? Of course not! I would be orange and you would be purple. Both beautiful colours but different, even though we added the same dose of the “miracle cure.”

So when any teacher or guide or coach or guru tells you that if you do “x,” you will categorically get “y,” and that if you don’t get “y,” it is your fault—run a mile! We each need to find our own recipe for thriving, considering all the causes and conditions that have come together to make us the unique and wonderful colours we are.

When it comes to the possibility that we are all in fact clear water, as is the case with most things, there is a kernel of truth in this. We all have pure, clear, clean, open water in us; in fact, it is our life essence.

Some people might call it soul, others awareness, others God; I simply call it love or connection. We all have this in us, and we also all have our own unique colouring, given to us by our genetics, our heritage, and our early experiences.

And yes, we can work with the colouring and we can manage it (why else go to therapy or journal or meditate or build insight in any way?) and maybe even change it a bit, but we must stop striving to be fixed and instead learn to live with our colours, and in doing that, we might taste the pure water of our essence anyway.

And to those of us who are teachers or guides, we must stop promising outcomes and instead encourage curiosity, compassion, and bravery on the journey. We must remember to shift from “fault” to “responsibility” and empower others to manage their own development—and ultimately, health. This is the gift of awareness—the gift of seeing clearly the truth of reality and then responding to this with wisdom and kindness.



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