“People are suffering and dying under the torture of the fantasy self they’re failing to become.”

Ten. Billion. Dollars. A year.

That’s how much the self-help industry makes. That is actually more than make up.

A lover of books, I stopped looking at the best-sellers sections of book shops because they inevitably contain self-help books, about how to optimise this and maximise that. I spoke about books I regretted reading and definitely anything like self-help is in that category.

A reflection of our time for sure, with their “aspirational narcissism” and “predatory optimism”:

Where success can be measured with increasing accuracy, so, too, can failure. On the other side of self-improvement, Cederström and Spicer have discovered, is a sense not simply of inadequacy but of fraudulence. In December, with the end of their project approaching, Spicer reflects that he has spent the year focussing on himself to the exclusion of everything, and everyone, else in his life. His wife is due to give birth to their second child in a few days; their relationship is not at its best. And yet, he writes, “I could not think of another year I spent more of my time doing things that were not me at all.” He doesn’t feel like a better version of himself. He doesn’t even feel like himself. He has been like a man possessed: “If it wasn’t me, who was it then?”

The New Yorker article itself is a bit self-helpy, ironically, but has a few gems and a review of the literature, if it may be called that.

I think that for many people, improving yourself is happiness: seeing progress, seeing results of your work and what you have become as a consequence. So in theory we shouldn’t deride self help.

I don’t know what bothers me the most about it: the feeling of constantly being sold to? The relentless inward focus when a lot of these problems are better solved with the help of those closest to you? The idea of a cheap shortcut to “radical change”? All of the above and many more. In my view, self-help is definitely not the best way to improve yourself.

I also think that the generation below us aren’t going to go for it anymore. They prefer “not giving a fk” to getting rich and thin or dying trying. Of course, this won’t reduce the amount of money spent on the genre as it is highly adaptive in telling people what they want to hear.

39 thoughts on ““People are suffering and dying under the torture of the fantasy self they’re failing to become.””

  1. This post is so cleverly written and says so much in so few words, absolutely amazing! Thanks so much for writing it and I’ve shared it! I wish pieces like this gained traction more than some of the questionable pieces of ‘writing’ getting around these days! Maybe when people are done seeking self-help and validation they’ll come back to Earth and appreciate good writing and a great opinion and have a robust discussion about topics that matter! We can only dream!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I was an avid consumer of those self help books. Why do we need more self help books if the ones already written work?

    I have found that we have no clue about happiness. Most self help books compare happiness to achievement or success. All that is impermanent and can be lost also.

    Also I have found that books, reading or thinking solves very little.

    Like meditation/Mindfulness, it is not an intellectual property. You can read a 100 books on it, takes a 100 classes and it will not change your condition.

    It is an action skill, you have to practice, to do, to sit quietly with your own mind.

    Mindfulness or meditation comes close to the perfect self help skill, in. my opinion

    Liked by 4 people

    1. And here is where you are wrong again. It used to be all about mindset and paradigm shifts or whatever. Then now it’s all about take action and do things to change your life.

      Its experimentation, theoretical and applied. What is undeniable is reality. Some of us are just losers and bench warmers for someone else, period.

      The sooner you come to terms with that reality and stay a big fish in a small pond, the better.

      Just like religion has an infinite market claiming we are all sinners, self help aims to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. Its snake oil.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I had to really reflect on this, as I read a ton of books about human development and personal growth for work. I characterize these as self-help and maybe I shouldn’t (ie, Eckhart Tolle). I guess from what I see at work I am thrilled when someone does something, ANYTHING, to try to change, my reaction is to praise and encourage. The bar is generally very low.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. I think that the sentiment that makes people reach for a self-help book is probably mostly positive: they are trying to grow. A solid portion is looking for a quick shortcut, but all the same, it is better to reach than to lose faith. So I like the people, but not the product.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Its mental masturbation and failure to understand basic Math. The normal distribution doesn’t change because you all of a sudden want to be a try hard and embellished storytelling sells content.


  4. Well, well, the “self-help” genre does include those Dale Carnegie and Napoleon Hill lookalikes, and I agree with your opinion of them. They also feature in the book trade. “Here is my book on how I became an Amazon bestseller and sold a million copies. Buy it, and you can do the same!” They all have identical content, and, basically, don’t work.
    If you want to make a fortune, tell people that by reading your book they can make a fortune.
    However, “self-help” also has a genuine, entirely different meaning. I am currently working on “Depression: A user’s guide,” which is a course of psychotherapy. My aim is to have people use it to change their lives. I have a book like that, “Anger and Anxiety: Be in charge of your emotions and control phobias” that has helped thousands of people, and still going.
    In every field, there are genuinely helpful books that teach you to play a sport, learn a craft, develop a new set of skills and understanding.
    Just because some people play on the greed of others doesn’t mean you should dismiss the approach of helping others via writing.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. I agree with you – and it is a rare occasion to find a really thoughtful book that teaches you directly. More often than not these lessons are best communicated through stories and metaphors – I am coming to realise of late.


  5. I believe self help has been around since the industrial revolution. Just a little after our American Civil War these pamphlets about “better lives.” Started. Appearing. Mostly churchy do gooders but really drilled on women and why other women do things better. So. A kind of phantom inadequacy. I learned self help is more of a denial personally. I can read how great life would be without, alcohol, women, or clowns. I can kind of revel in the almost of it. I can start or send for the clowns-stop-chasing-me starter kit. I can spend all this money to feel better that I still have this problem. Maybe. Self help is a mental STD.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I’m sure when Picasso created the Guernica people asked him the same thing. We know enough about each other to know I’m not the type do nothing. In person. I’m the same. Ha. Its why I’m lower class.

        I understand the reality that one person doing something is never enough. What American citizens take for granted is the idea of democracy and representation in Washington. It is not those that said its someone else’s problem that get represented. My president is the representation of the Alpha American male. The same one that put me down my whole life. He is calling and promoting a whiteness that I also had to see my whole life. He calls it envy but a lot of us never even had an opportunity. We live in the bad dream while supporting their American one. Not to say the Dream itself is wrong I just wanted to share what it costs. There’s continuity there between my Native America and Africa. As long as its present it will not be hate speech in what I draw. Much different than my president’s remarks toward Africa. Which in Washington still bears a team called the Redskins. Skins, being what were traded first by Indians to the British and later by Pioneers to the US Army as trophies of progress clearing the land of its Native inhabitants.

        One person. Cannot fix everything but its not pride that moved me. I wanted to show that we have lots of healthier roads to express our disapproval of actions. Especially to younger people. I grew up on the streets. Beautybeyondbones had an anti-abortion post where I spilled my guts. Anyways. In a shelter you shared. On the street you shared. If there was a fight it was over when it was done. There were no guns or knives we barely had clothes. No matter how mad though. You shared. Here. When sharing of any sort comes up its immediately called socialism. All these labels and circular arguments are now called journalism. It only took one year because citizens are complacent. Like. Zimbardo’s Lucifer Effect.


      1. If I had to choose life over an idea I would probably choose life. It’s the most functional of choices. Except pooping. I can do without it but we must and it’s a normal dirty thought. Sometimes rude in context.


      2. I think this blog is suicide watch for the writer. She writes to seek validation from the crowd much the same way of the items she demonizes. She’s an intellectual hater disguising herself in pedagogy. None of these new age ideas are new at all.


      3. Oh you’re referring to the Jim Jones cult followers. Clever if it meant something here. You picked my comment on a blog I read. So. This could be personal. If it is, I’m sorry. I’m just like you, a little bitter and might want some validation for just showing up. Somewhere.

        I am mature enough to understand that if I have nothing to offer the conversation I stay silent. I go read books. I don’t go down the rabbit hole. I don’t take others with me.

        Trolls were protectors of bridges. Once you asked their name they gave you a choice between gold or a riddle. So. I choose riddle.

        Or contribute to the conversation. I’m sure you have something to say than a baseless argument.

        You are refuting self help just as we all were. You made some good points then you made it about you. You’re not that interesting. I’d like to talk about self help and what more you may like to say about it.

        Otherwise. I had a great conversation.


  6. You have many abstract theories and judgments, experimentation.

    No experimentation, actually sitting your ass down and focus on your breath. Sitting quietly as your flaws surface and your vulnerability grows.

    Quit comparing, happiness is not linked to achievement or being the biggest fish in the pond. I may gain more enjoyment from playing the piano that Mozart but I have none of his talent or skill.

    What’s your solution?

    You seem to be against everything


  7. Self helps books are neither good or bad I believe. They create resaults in doers , as long as the person has a just cause. so many blame self help books for not improving their jobs,this is because the issue isnt the person but rather that they dont infact enjoy the job. Most people working these days hate their jobs and seek a “magic pill” which self help is not, it is merely a tool for the doers. But on that not, great post, very thought prevoking!


  8. Dr. Martina, I agree! I am an advocate for self-improvement, but I find the market of self-help to be pretty disgusting. And you’re right, these books often tell people what they want to hear or give arbitrary rules rather than negotiating with the idea that we are all individuals and we can’t all find success in the same ways.

    Liked by 1 person

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