Why Self-Help is like diets and why they are all Bull…t!
There is a problem with self-help books. I’m not the first to make this allegation, in fact head over to YouTube and you’ll find a raft of videos damning the shamanesque industry that preys on the weak and vulnerable. There are those who point to the cult that grows around the gurus like Tony Robbins, Jordan Peterson, Stephen Covey and all the others including Mark Manson who I would argue is a little different. The industry does make billions for all involved but we should not focus on that, billions are made in many other industries that are even less beneficial. No, the problem with the self-help industry has been hiding in plain sight since forever.
Ever been on a diet? How did it go? Let me guess, you lost some weight, bought a bunch of new clothes then put it all back on. Most do after 2 years. So, why do most of us ultimately fail? All diets profess to do something revolutionary yet once you look into them, they all do the same thing; they reduce your calorie intake and make you obsessed about food. Counting calories, planning meals, avoiding specific foods, especially the guilty pleasures that make life yummier, they all make you obsess about the one thing you are trying to change. Now, I’m not a dietician but anyone could tell you that getting a junkie to go cold turkey while being forced to watch Trainspotting all day is going to be tough. For all but the posterboys and Instagram influencers, diets ultimately just make you feel like a failure.
So, that’s the analogy over, how many of you have tried self-improvement programmes? How’s it going, has it reduced your anxiety, calmed your anger or given up tweeting at 4am? Self-help gurus begin by showing you how far you have to go, they personify success and control. They work 28-hour days, run 10 miles a day and meditate for hours, they are the perfect beings and they make us feel even worse. But, they give us hope because once upon a time they were just like us and for a few dollars we can buy their books to become just like them. You just need to focus on yourself and your failings and you will succeed.
Just like your diet.
So, in order to improve yourself, you have to focus on all the stuff you do wrong. Then, you fix them by working really hard and then you have to project your new found skills on the world and expect to become a better person. And, before long you punch someone in the car park, cry in front of your boss and tweet about it at 3.55am. Why? Because just like with the food in diets, the more you focus on yourself, the more it becomes an obsession and the more you realise that the world around you is not playing the same game. You try, you really do but eventually you fail and you feel that failure hard. This can reinforce deep-seated feelings that have always made you feel bad about yourself and remind you that you are a failure. Because the get-out clause on any self-help method is that you didn’t work hard enough, so you got what you deserve.
But it’s not you…
On this I take a few leaves from the stoics’ handbook, how you deal with your environment will maximise positive emotions and reduce negative feelings. But, it’s a pretty heavy load to bear and the dissonance between your good stoic behaviour and everyone else being an asshole can get tiring. After a while it can bring lapses like a KFC bucket and a six-pack!
Just like a belief in cosmic mutuality and karma, after a few bad experiences you start to feel that either you have done some huge wrong or that the universe hates you. That is too much for anyone to bear. Knowing that the universe does not recognise your existence or that you can still get run over by a bus even while carrying a dear old lady’s shopping for her could be devastating.
No, what is needed is a way of losing weight while not thinking about food, you’ll find most naturally skinny people do simply that. They are too busy doing other stuff to bother with eating, they are more aware of when they are full and do not crave the bloated feeling of reaching the bottom of the ice cream pale. They eat what they need, when they need, if they need. They have external stimuli that take precedence over food.
So, what do most confident, balanced, well-adjusted people do? Well, they don’t continually think about how well they are doing. They don’t second-guess everything they do. They focus on the external stimuli; they focus on the job in hand. And when things go wrong, they do not jump out of the office block window, they look at what went wrong, what their part in it was and how it can be fixed.
Note: People who appear to be doing this while blaming all around them for messing up are not, in fact disinterested with how they are performing. They are, in fact, deeply rooted in how others perceive them. They bully and cajole in order to distract from how they feel about themselves. And, they can often be those who are too obsessed with themselves. Maybe due to some self-improvement regime.
Your relationship with your environment and yourself is complicated and complex. Feeling like everything that happens around you is causally and effectually related to you is not just a heavy burden but unrealistic too. Reacquainting yourself with those around you and the events that unfold in the arena of life is not going to be achieved by putting yet more emphasis on your performance.
After years of work on this subject I have found how to convey this ‘philosophy’ (and yes these are air-quotes) to others. I have been beta-testing on many of my clients, associates and friends and they have found it effective and rewarding. It is not beardy-old man on a mountain philosophy yet some is based on some old Greek philosophy, it is not spiritualist but it is humanist, it is based on science but it has been tried in the real world.
It is a pragmatic, effective approach to getting your head out of your arse and living a better life.