Tag Archives: the problem with self-help

The Pitfalls of Self-Help

Despite the occasional lighthearted derision that accompanies the self-help genre, the fact remains that self-help books, programs, and seminars dominate a sizable chunk of exactly the sort of alternative many people turn to in hope of gaining a base level of understanding concerning some matter that they feel is eluding them, and the lack of which they feel is causing them either personal or professional setbacks.

Some self-help deals with finances, with promising titles like Get Rich Now!–Here’s How!, or All the Money-Making Habits of Successful People Whose Success You Can Copy, Too! [Disclaimer:  No intentional real titles of self-help materials will be used in this post, so as not to distract from the larger point being made by anyone’s need to defend personal loyalties and heroes.]  While most competent financial self-help material will include helpful tips on money management and fiscal responsibility (i.e. set up emergency savings, spend within your means, fully research any potential investment opportunities before committing, etc.), it is a statistical guarantee that they will not live up to the grander claims their marketing implicitly (and often explicitly) makes–such as making anyone actually rich through their work (other then the financial self-help gurus selling the product, of course).  The sheer disparity in the number of people who turn to this sort of self-help, and the low (and I do mean, low) number of actual millionaires it has produced through decades worth of publications and lectures should serve to indicate that many of the promises being made in this genre are (if you pardon the pun) bankrupt, at best.

A much larger sector of the self-help industry deal with matters of self-improvement.  Happiness, depression, anxiety, confidence, dating, attractiveness, sex (oh, especially sex!), or any combination of perceived personality flaws and life dissatisfactions; all of which are the bread and butter for most self-appointed self-help experts.  The titles in this category of self-help always give the impression that all of the personal hangups you’re experiencing, and that are keeping you from being the sort of person you wish to be, do in fact have a ready-made remedy, and are only a few pages (and supplementary seminars, lecture events, and oh-so-many dollars) away.  These would be titles like Finding Happiness, or Rules for Life, or How to be Confident, and Maybe Even Get Laid! [Reminder Disclaimer: All titles are meant as fictional, and all resemblances to real self-help work are purely coincidental.]

Like the financial self-help mentioned above, self-improvement self-help also often comes with some sound advice about presenting yourself in the best light possible; i.e. being assertive with others about your needs and wants, being honest with yourself about your real needs and wants, and possibly even something about the benefit of practicing good hygiene for even measure.  The part that they won’t advertise to you (at least not upfront, before you pay for the material being sold) is the reality that the only way–yes, the only way!–to overcome any personal flaw is to get up and force yourself to do things differently than you have been up to this point.

No book can or will teach you how to get the nerve to ask someone out on a date, or how to mimic what people are attracted to.  The only way for you to learn that is by trying, failing, and learning from previous mistakes through repeated exposure.  Same with gaining overall confidence.  Reading about what body language, habits, or tricks confident people exhibit will do nothing to make you confident–exposing yourself to emotionally vulnerable situations, repeatedly and consistently, until they stop feeling like vulnerable situations is how you’ll become confident in whatever you are pursuing.  Because your confidence in a situation is directly correlated with your comfort to said situation, and the only way to increase comfort (and by extension, confidence) is through familiarity.

If you’re thinking, “Hold on, I’ve actually read some self-help that said that exact thing…”, you’re right.  The problem is that it’s a sound piece of advice that takes no more than one whole paragraph to give.  However, there is no marketability in doing that alone, because it reveals the charade of the structure before the charlatan has had the chance to seduce you into his or her enterprise.  Just telling people it’s up to you to go out and practice the skills you wish to have until you’re a pro, and that no one can do it for you, either directly or by proxy of a formula or a life guide, takes away the bottom line that stuffs the pockets of these individuals who have shamelessly turned the self-doubt and insecurities of others into their professions.  Whether it serves to help any of these lost people to overcome their setbacks in the long run, or not, is irrelevant to them.

There is an obvious irony in the term self-help that many have pointed out at one time or another, but the main issue with self-help isn’t that people are looking to someone else for guidance or means by which to understand aspects in their lives (or about themselves) that they are dissatisfied with.  There is no shame in needing help, and it is unquestionably brave to ask for help when you know you are opening yourself up for judgment, and scrutiny, and possible criticism.  The problem is that quite often turning to self-help gurus becomes a substitute for actually taking the necessary actions to resolve whatever is really causing you grief.

Buying and reading the books, going to the lectures, fretting over memorizing the techniques, participating in the forums, sharing the quotes, the memes, the events on social media, they all give the illusion that you are advancing forward towards some kind of personal progress through whatever system of method is being sold to you, but in reality it is more of a self-sustained loop meant to keep alive the career of these very same gurus that–if they wanted to–could condense the relevant bit of their “self-help” into one paragraph, and step aside to let you truly learn and grow as best as you ever will be able to on your own.  But they won’t do that–they can’t do that.

There will always be one more book you have to read.  One more lecture you have to watch.  One more nuance they have to extrapolate on, over and over again.  And they do this because they know that the vulnerable individuals who are most likely to seek out their material will have the sort of insecurities that will make them indefinitely dependent on the personality they come to trust for guidance, rather than cut the tether to be self-sufficient with whatever insight they think they’ve gained.  For these self-help gurus to exploit this vulnerability to sustain their lucrative careers of preaching banal life advice and inflated self-importance, is anything but helpful–it is parasitic.


Dale Carnegie Was Wrong

If you’ve ever taken a Communications or Business class, or sat in on any sort of marketing/networking seminar, there is a very good chance that Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People was listed among the recommended readings on the syllabus.

In the book, Carnegie sets out to give a list of very basic advice on how to successfully interact with people, and increase your own potential by doing so.  The advice given seems very reasonable in a broad sense, and can be summed up in terms of being genuine and polite towards others, approaching everyone with a positive attitude, and reaping the personal satisfaction and interpersonal accolades that come from it.  All this is well and good, and I’ll be the first to tell people that if you wish for others to like you, not behaving like a complete dick towards them will go a long way in accomplishing this goal.  Moreover, if Carnegie’s book(s) help anyone achieve a mental state that makes them feel more empowered and confident in how s/he communicates and carries her/himself (not to mention, increases the person’s overall happiness), I have no qualms with that aspect of his method.

However, all that being said, it would be dishonest if I did not mention how there is something that always irked me about Carnegie’s writing, in particular this one book.  I think my problems with the self-help author are best summarized at the very beginning of Chapter One of Part Three titled, “You Can’t Win An Argument.”  In it, Carnegie tells the story of an event that occurred when an acquaintance he was having a conversation with mistakes an obvious quotation from Hamlet as being from the Bible.  Carnegie, aware of the error, corrects the man, and looks to his accompanying friend (an expert on the subject) to back him up in the correction.  Surprisingly, the friend sides with the gentleman who is in error, later telling Carnegie he did so because to correct the man would not accomplish anything positive.  Carnegie happily agrees with this reasoning, and advises readers to take it to heart that you should not correct such obvious mistakes made by others on account that it would make you argumentative, and being argumentative will not make people like you.  Presumably, the proper thing to do when confronted with such a situation is to be accommodating and refrain from saying anything that is not agreeable.

I take issue with this line of thinking.  Not because I see a great merit in being argumentative with people, but because I see something disturbingly manipulative in this tactic of communication, which I believe to be a problem at the core of much of the self-help market.  Carnegie asks us what good there is to stand firm and prove to the mistaken man that he is wrong, pointing to the desire to be held in high-esteem as the main priority.  But why should being liked be of a greater priority in this situation than being honest?  If it’s because it will be personally beneficial for you to always be seen in agreeable terms by those around you in case you need to call on them for favors down the road, then you are not looking to make real friends or honestly communicate with people at all; your purported interests lie in simply using people for your personal interests.  Because if this is not the case, and the stated goal is to form genuine relationships with people, then you should (as politely and lovingly as you can) seek to uphold a standard of honesty with those around you.  This includes being honest when you know that an acquaintance has made a minor mistake, such as mistaking the source of a quote.

I have made silly mistakes and the occasional faux pas on many occasions (and will undoubtedly make many more to come).  Sometimes, those around me correct said mistakes; other times, no correction is made and my ignorance remains unchecked until I happen to come across the truth of the matter first-hand.  Every time it happens, I felt like an idiot, and, yes, slightly resentful that my ignorance was in full view to the public.  But you know what definitely never happened again?  A repetition of that same display of ignorance on my part, on that same subject I was previously so wrong about.

I believe this is something Carnegie fails to address in his work.  And the reason this is a problem is that books like How to Win Friends & Influence People present themselves as being based on the principle that the fundamental way to succeed in getting what you want from others is to first be mindful of the wants and desires of other people.  In terms of building empathy, this is a principle I can truly get behind.  What I can’t get behind is the idea that pandering to the ignorance of those we wish to like us is something an honest person should strive for.  What I outright reject is the idea that communication skills ought to be built on chess-level moves of strategy and tactic, wherein the goal is to say just the right buzzwords to manipulate a desired outcome.

And no, despite what some self-appointed “straight-talkers” with a public platform wish to promote, standing up for what is true should not require you to disregard sensitivity towards others’ dignities and give you a license to be a total asshole in how you communicate with people under the guise of honesty.  To be honest is to simply be sincere with what you know to be true, and I believe making friends on the basis of such sincerity is a better approach, then looking to avoid making enemies by kissing the ass of anyone who might seem influential enough to give you a leg up in life simply for being their Yes-Man.