“To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves--there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.” ~ Joan Didion
Catching up with my friend Nicole for coffee recently, she shared one of those subtle groundbreaking realisations that until someone else points it out to you, you never see.
Simply, it was this:
Most self-help content starts from the assumption that you are broken.
Read that again and then say it louder for those in the back.
A collective glass shattering rang through my brain, as I quickly scanned through my memories of the self-help content I’d devoured in recent months. From books to articles, social media posts, and TikTok videos. My friend was right; it all began from the stance that the individual reading the content is ‘broken’ on some level.
Which I know might make sense, because why would you seek out self-help content if you weren’t feeling low or struggling in some area, right?
The trouble is that self-help isn’t (often) based on science or psychological merit. It’s market-driven. It’s an industry - an outrageously profitable one at that - that can only thrive by taking its cue from the perspective that we are all broken in some way. It needs to convince us we need it.
And a key way it does this is to create the narrative arc that looks a little like this:
You are broken.
I was broken too.
I did this thing.
I’m no longer broken.
You can also do this thing.
Then you will no longer be broken.
Mark Manson, who you may have heard of and also hold a love/hate relationship with as I do, does have some really clear thoughts on this. He says that self-help caters to people who sit in one of two camps:
“Two types of people get hooked on self-help material: those who feel something is fundamentally wrong with them and they are willing to try anything to make it better, and those people who think they’re already generally a good person, but they have some problems and blind spots and want to become great people.”
He calls these ‘Bad-to-Okay’ people and ‘Okay-to-Great’ people.
‘Okay-to-Great’ people will generally devour what they need to from self-help, and over time make the transition they’ve been seeking (going from feeling okay about themselves to feeling great about themselves). I believe it’s these people who then continue to perpetuate self-help, completing their online meditation teacher courses, mindfulness workshops, and healing circle initiations so that they can take the helm and write books basically regurgitating the very same messages and ‘help’ they’ve previously taken on board. Their success is all the credentials they need, after all.
It’s the ‘Bad-to-Okay’ people who really struggle, as Manson describes:
“The Bad-to-OK people improve little, if at all, even after years of “effort”. In some cases, they may even get worse. Bad-to-OK people consistently fail because they possess a fundamental worldview that interprets everything they do, including self-help, to support their inferiority or lack of worthiness.”
These people might be living with deeper unresolved trauma, mental health conditions, unique neurodiversity, or be people who’ve had more complex, nuanced life experiences (like, they’re not middle-class, highly educated white people).
Typical self-help doesn’t work in these cases because it comes down to very little other than meditate, visualise, believe you will be better. That’s on the slightly better end of the scale, the worse end being, as Manson details, “all the woo woo stuff”. When it doesn’t work for certain individuals, the message is clear - “you didn’t do it right” or “your intentions weren’t right” or “you didn’t really want to change enough”.
The ways we make sense of our lives is unique to each of us. I find most self-help also assumes a certain narrative of the reader - usually based on market research of who is most likely to be reading it (middle-class, highly educated, white people). I can poke fun here a little because I am middle-class, highly educated and white - I’ve grown up bombarded with the messaging that my narrative is more important than most other people’s - that my life and experiences are more meaningful, and my voice must be heard. And if I can’t find the meaning, then there’s a self-help book out there by a middle-class, highly-educated white person that speaks directly to my experiences. Lucky me.
I personally don’t buy into the idea that every single thing we experience has to have meaning, or has a hidden message or lesson for us to take away. Some things just happen to us, they’re meaningless, and that’s okay. I don’t mean this in an existential ‘there’s no point to anything’ perspective. I do believe some things are meaningful and can teach us a helluva lot - but a great many things … don’t. It’s freeing and empowering to be able to decipher which is which for your own life.
Even the things that do teach us different lessons or that we sketch out meaning from, don’t have to be labelled or shared. We can experience what we experience and not have it define us externally.
I’m reminded of a writing newsletter I signed up for, that promised prompts to encourage essay writing. I’m a fan of personal essays and opinion pieces, and I like to be challenged around how I approach the subject matter that interests me.
The prompts from this particular writing extraordinaire all centred around trauma writing - inviting receivers of the prompts to excavate deep, personal experiences - usually those formed around trauma.
I was quickly bombarded, not only with these prompts, but with invitations to join a writing group, a write-your-own-book course, and a self-publishing course (all for a not-so-significant fee I might add). The key messaging being: ‘your experiences are important, your trauma is a lesson others need to hear, write a book about it and heal’.
The writer of these newsletters and courses also offered a mentorship program where they would help you write your book about your trauma, supporting you as you worked through this process. I looked into their background to see what qualifications they brought to the table to be able to offer this in a responsible way. Reader, they had none.
There’s a shaky subcategory of self-help writing opening up, where people - predominantly women - are encouraged to take their deepest traumatic experiences, transmuting them onto paper, offering these painful experiences as a path of healing not only for themselves but for others.
My friend Emily touched on this recently in a review for a memoir, where she shared that she used to work as an editor for an author-mentoring service that catered to these types of books. Across a two year period, she edited no less than twenty-one books:
“These memoirs were confessional and conversational, deeply personal, sometimes spiritual, and often enmeshed with the tenets of self-help books: here is what happened to me, here are the lessons I learnt which helped me heal, and here I’m going to share them with you. They were linear, chronological, and charted the major turning points in their lives and journeys. The motivation for many of these women was to tell their story, and to heal.”
If you select any such memoir from the shelves of your local bookstore, they will (mostly) follow the same set order. The trauma written about is tidied up to suit a narrative structure that meets our expectations. We don’t like when things stray too far from this.
This is not to undermine trauma, of any kind, or dismiss writing about it. Social media movements actively encourage us to get involved with sharing our trauma (and I’m using the term trauma quite loosely here, our stress, burnout, general ((normal)) anxieties about life seem to be falling under this broad umbrella) but I often find myself asking, to what end, purpose, and to whose benefit?
We live in a world that constantly tells us everything about us is content - up for grabs. It didn’t start with social media. In my lifetime, it started with reality television, but it probably didn’t start there either. Wherever it did start, it has only gotten worse with the prolific increase of social media outlets, usage and monetisation of content on these platforms.
Connecting with people who have been through similar experiences as us is beneficial, there’s plenty of research (crucially that who we share these stories with matters) that shows the real power of social connections to help us overcome struggles and move past trauma.
I’m just not convinced the ways we’re currently told to do so (via social media for one, or a published book that in all likelihood will not. For these things to be a success, nothing relies on the actual content - everything relies on marketing. Whether the product is a book or a person (perhaps both), marketing makes all the difference.
What happens when these outlets don’t offer the return on benefits (connection, support, healing) we’re promised?
This is not to say that I don’t believe in the power of writing (or any form of creative expression) for healing. There’s something vital and empowering in putting down into words ‘this is what happened’ and ‘this is how it felt’. But we also have to remember the role of unreliable narrators and our own memories are the very worst - or should I say best - at this.
I’ll honestly say I’ve written an essay or two, a short story here or there, where I’ve taken a lovely damp cloth to certain memories or people and rubbed them out. Because I can. And it feels great.
Writer’s prerogative, yes, but also narrative arcing (once more). Narrative psychology is an emerging field exploring this and it definitely has its pros and cons. I’ve written about this a little before so I won’t tangent here.
I can’t help but wonder if the reverse is also true though, where a writer might inject some sense of vulnerability, failure or hurt, to build the necessary narrative arc we need to buy what they’re telling us. I’m reminded of David Whyte’s Three Marriages, which I read recently, that starts with him apparently hiding in a kitchen, ten minutes before he is supposed to give some big speech to some big audience, that he hasn’t written or thought about.
We feel Whyte’s discomfort! His imposter syndrome palpable and written out very clearly for us on the page and it just so happens - in the nick of time - his brilliant brain delivers the key message he can impart for his speech. The very same message that we are now going to read a little over 300 pages about.
(I mean no disrespect here, Whyte’s message is good but we didn’t need the introductory drama to get there).
To draw us full circle in my merry tangent, here’s the real kicker to this piece; I don’t think I’m broken.
have my quirks and I’m not everybody’s cup of tea. I have bad days and there are things I’m working on but mostly, hand to heart, I can say - I like who I am, and I really like who I’m becoming.
As I write that, I’m plagued by memories of being taunted with the whole “she loves herself’ demeaning narrative. I’ve previously wondered why that would be a bad thing, but here’s the contradictory life of being female; we have to learn to love ourselves, we can’t automatically love who we are without first sharing the traumatic uphill battle to get there. If there’s a Knight in Shining Armour who helped us along the way, even better.
The more I thought about what my friend Nicole said, the more it clicked that the reason so much self-help grates on me is because it wants me to believe I’m broken and I don’t, and the more I slide this new piece of knowledge into the broader reasoning that self-help is an incredibly profitable industry, the more I came back to a notion I always try to hold onto. It’s a pretty well-known one, bandied around medical circles for some time: Prevention before cure.
We all know that to stay physically healthy, there are key things we need to keep in check before they become an issue. Our diet for one, physical exercise, sleep and visits to doctors for routine checks of our bits and pieces. Dental visits and optical health.
Rarely do we apply this same logic to our emotional and mental health, or our self-help journeys. Most people only seek help from a counsellor or psychologist after a traumatic event, after the relationship starts to fail, after our childhood trauma has caught up on us in a myriad of destructive ways - if we even seek out these professionals at all (enter stage door left: half a dozen self-care books).
A quote from Meg Mason’s incredible book Sorrow and Bliss feels fitting here:
“Everything is redeemable. Even decisions that end up with you unconscious and bleeding in a pedestrian underpass. Although, ideally, you want to figure out the reason you keep burning your own house down.”
I’m an advocate for pouring energy into our self-help and self-knowledge journeys while we feel healthy - not when we’re bordering on ‘broken’ - that’s when we tend to get caught in cycles of self-help content.
Here’s the contradiction of self-help - the clue is in the title - self.
Just because I like who I am now, doesn’t mean I’m not still working on things. It’s because I like myself that I can enter the mental and emotional spaces to explore the bits that still need work. I can take ideas from others, safely knowing I have to make them work for me and if I try something and it doesn’t work, it doesn’t mean I’m broken.
Ultimately, other people’s experiences - no matter how close to our own - and how they handle, process or recover from them, can only offer us insights into how they did it. Application and action are the crucial next steps - and what works for one will definitely not always work for the other.
I find that if we can begin with the idea that no matter what has happened to us we are a good person (and we are working on what we need to), that not everything is defining or meaningful, that it’s okay to be nobody but somebody to a few really good people, then we’re already well on our way to helping ourselves.