The Problem with the Self-help Industry

                      Self-help books sometimes don't help. 

                      Self-help books sometimes don't help. 

“If you want the habit of gratitude to grace your life, it is essential that you, like Tom Chappell, develop the belief that you are here on earth to fulfill some purpose that only you can offer to the world. You are amazingly rare, totally nonreplicable individual with talents and gifts that the world anxiously needs. The more that you experience the truth of your uniqueness and beauty, the more you will feel gratitude for your particular gifts and the more you will be able to deliver those gifts.”

                                Attitudes of Gratitude: How to Give and Receive Joy Every Day of Your Life

                                                                                                                  --M.J. Ryan p. 81-82

When I read this I had to pause and think about what it meant and if it was actually true for me.

There is a basic problem with the advice doled out by most authors of self-help books. It's the notion that in order to be happy or to help yourself you have to believe that you are special. Do I really need to be “amazingly rare, totally nonreplicable with talents and gifts the world anxiously needs?” Am I unique? Am I beautiful?

I would like to believe that, but is that really true? Isn't the belief that I'm special or that I need to be special the problem? No one else on the entire planet could possibly do whatever it is I'm supposed to be doing if I weren't so busy reading self-help books? I would feel better if I just cleaned up behind myself rather than nurturing the narcissistic fantasy that I'm special and, as such, someone else will clean up after me.

Will reading a self-help book miraculously transform me into the Golden Child? What happens when one discovers they are not unique? Life has a way of pulling your “Special Card.”

Humpty Dumpty was special. Where did he sit? On a wall above others. What kind of fall did he have? A great fall. He didn't roll off a curb. Who tried to put him back together again? All the of  King's horses and all of the King's men. He had status. What happened? They could not put him together again. What's the moral of this story? Special people can't be put back together.

Improving yourself does not require you to be special. Self-improvement rarely comes down to talent. Many people have talent and never accomplish much. What's most important is that we get started, that we practice, and work hard at the changes we seek. The keys are to remain calmly persistent and actively engaged in the execution of your plan. There are no special skills or unique talents required. Just real commitment.


Resistance is Fertile


It's easy to pathologize what we consider bad behavior, but it's important to recognize unhappiness and our resistance to it. People who are abused, disrespected, or ignored take on behaviors that, on the one hand, can be viewed as pathologies and, on the other hand, serve as small acts of self-preservation. Drug use, lying, stealing, and irritability are all coping skills that enable one to resist or continue living when they may very well feel like giving up.

This may be a somewhat difficult idea to wrap one's mind around because of our tendency to place the locus of the problem within the other person rather than recognize that we play a part, especially in intimate relationships. It becomes harder to see that your partner's behavior may be in direct response to your treatment of them; your partner may act the way they do because of something you are doing, rather than tell you, they may act in ways that not only communicate their unhappiness but also carve out for them some way to resist and survive.

Before you go away mad, consider the opportunity this view offers. What if you could have a conversation with your partner about their unhappiness? Well, if you consider their behavior as negative and blame them the conversation will probably shut down before it begins. On the other hand, with the ability to discuss their behavior and take some responsibility for your part you could gain some valuable insight into how to increase not only their happiness but also your own. Their behavior is actually a strength: they are trying to survive in the relationship.

Nagging is not just nagging. Dishonesty is not just dishonesty. Irritability is not just irritability. Nagging, dishonesty, and irritability are all forms of protest, resistance and self-preservation. Rather than stepping stones on the path to divorce these behaviors can represent opportunities to communicate constructively, increase happiness, and create a more intimate relationship.

Empathy can enable you to adopt a new perspective because it will allow you to imagine the suffering of others. Their suffering is not an isolated occurrence but one that is directly related to your own suffering and how you treat them.