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Society, Politics & Law

Time to turn a critical eye on the self-help industry?

Updated Thursday 7th March 2013

Meg Barker looks a little deeper at what can be done to alleviate human suffering.

A cartoon depicts the either/or of self-help Creative commons image Icon Catherine Pain under Creative-Commons license I gave a talk recently at the University of East Anglia on the history of self help books. I wanted to understand far more about why they came to be the way they are. I also managed to chart one potential future trajectory of self-help, building on this criticism. For this I particularly considered the writing of Oliver Burkeman: one of my favourite discoveries over the last couple of months thanks to his entertaining and radically different approach. I'll outline some of his ideas here so that you can see what an alternative to conventional self-help might look like. You can view the presentation I gave here.

Self-help history: empowerment or victimisation

Examining the history of self-help we can see that books in this genre have tended to be of two types. The first type – empowerment self-help – emerged in America after the great depression and drew on the New Thought movement which believed in the power of positive thinking. Such books held out the promise that by imagining good things and striking the right attitude people could bring what they wanted to themselves: wealth, friends, success, etc. The second type of self-help became popular in the late sixties and seventies. Know as victimisation self-help, books in this category tend to blame the wider world for any problems that individuals have. Akin to the twelve step programmes for addiction, these books are concerned with reassuring readers that their difficulties are not their fault but down to something beyond their control like having toxic parents or a disorder or disease of some kind. Power is located outside the individual. 

In the 1980s and 1990s there was a backlash against victimisation self-help and a return to an extreme form of empowerment self-help which argued that any problems were down to the individual and could be fixed by positive thinking. For example, a quote in the bestseller The Secret by the author's fellow self-help writer, Bob Proctor, says: “Why do you think that 1 percent of the population earns around 96 percent of all the money that’s being earned? Do you think that’s an accident? It’s designed that way. They understand something. They understand The Secret, and now you are being introduced to The Secret.” The Secret in question is the New Thought law of attraction, that successful people bring positive things to themselves merely by thinking about them.

Both these forms of self-help are problematic, and together they set up a false binary around human struggles, which is similar to the either/or view of mental health which I've discussed elsewhere. It seems that we have to believe either that we are personally responsible for all our problems but that we can fix them by changing ourselves, or that the world is responsible for all our problems but that we are powerless then to do anything about them. If we buy into the empowerment way of seeing things then it easily slips into victim blame, whereby we regard everyone, including ourselves, as to blame for any problems in life. If we buy into the victimisation way of seeing things then we have to believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with us and give up any sense that we could do anything about our difficulties.

A third way? Oliver Burkeman

In recent years it seems that a few authors have been looking for a kind of third way of doing self-help: a way that involves breaking out of this problematic binary. What I have called anti-self-help self-help starts from a criticism of the assumptions of the self-help movement in general. It asks questions about whether it is actually good to strive for the things that self-help suggests that we strive for: happiness, wealth, success, a romantic relationship, etc. Are these good things to have and, even if they are, is striving for them the best way of going about it? Anti-self-help self-help locates any problems that we have in the wider society that surrounds us, the messages we receive from it, and how we relate to these, rather than seeing us as isolated individuals responsible for everything that happens to us. But, at the same time, it sees us as actively engaged with this wider world and able to engage with it in different ways, rather than as powerless. 

A great example of such anti-self-help self-help is the writing of Oliver Burkeman. Like his Guardian newspaper column, This Column Will Change Your Life, his first book Help! presented an analysis of existing self-help books, attempting to pull out actually useful suggestions from the overwhelming mass of contradictory messages that he found. His second book, The Antidote, builds on the criticisms of self-help that he came to when writing Help! and suggests a radically different approach. 

Positive thinking, argues Burkeman, actually makes us suffer. The empowerment self-help movement has got it completely wrong. What he offers in its place refuses the disempowering position of victimisation self-help, but instead embraces the potentials of what he calls a 'negative path'. This draws on a cluster of approaches taken from philosophies from Buddhism to Eckhart Tolle, the Stoics of Ancient Greece to the Mexican Day of the Dead. What these have in common is that they all do the opposite of 'positive thinking', instead turning to face the difficult stuff of life.

Thus Burkeman argues for the benefits of meditating on the inevitable fact of our own mortality. He critically evaluates the way in which we tend to react to 'bad things' in our day-to-day life, and considers alternatives where we recognise our own role in categorising what is good and bad and trying to get all of the former and none of the latter. He explores meditation and building the capacity to be with difficult feelings, turning towards the things that scare us rather than away from them. He considers the power of just getting on with tasks we are avoiding, rather than assuming that we have to 'find our passion' or 'get motivated' before we can do anything. He explores the value in considering the worst that could happen (and whether what is happening is 'just bad' or 'absolutely terrible') as well as asking yourself whether you have a problem right now, in the present moment. He questions who this self is that we are trying to improve through self-help, and wonders whether it might be more useful to reflect on whether such a thing really exists in any meaningful sense, rather than assuming that it does and engaging in a futile quest to make it better.

I loved The Antidote because it resonates so well with the answers (and – perhaps more usefully – questions) that I have come to through my own journey through the ways in which psychology, psychotherapy, philosophy, and sociology have understood human suffering and what can be done about it. Like my work, the book is particularly rooted in Buddhist philosophy and it is very nice to see that engaged with so thoughtfully, rather than just being offered as another set of techniques to make people happier.

The anti-self-help self-help manifesto

Where to from here? I would like to see many more anti-self-help self-help books which start from a critical stance towards the self-help industry and offer something more valuable to people who want to think about how they are living and how they might do it differently. Such work would, I think, share some of the following things in common:

  • A critical stance towards conventional self-help
  • A critical stance towards normative taken-for-granted ideas about what makes a good person and a successful life, and whether happiness and wealth are the best things to be striving for
  • An informed understanding of the problems with telling people that they are flawed in some way and need to change by striving after something different
  • Drawing on research evidence from psychology and sociology, as well as philosophical understandings from across the globe (not just the 'west'), in order to suggest what might be helpful to people
  • Locating people's problems in the inter-relation between them and the world around them rather than entirely internally or entirely external – regarding people as biopsychosocial beings rather than focusing on one of those aspects (bio, psycho, social) to the exclusion of the others
  • Suggesting ways forward which involve engaging with the world differently, and recognising how difficult this can be and arguing for wider social change, rather than putting all responsibility on the individual
  • An ethical commitment to putting something different 'out there' even though the publishing industry conservatively continues to try to publish the same kinds of messages as before

I'd be very interested to hear from others who are trying to write blogs, books, articles, etc. in this vein, and to continue to discuss whether a 'negative path' or 'anti-self-help' does present a valuable third way.

Find out more

There is more about self-help with useful links to other work on rewritingtherules.

This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it. Find out more about the blog and the team.
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Please note: The opinions expressed in Society Matters posts are those of the individual authors, and do not represent the views of The Open University.


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