Since this article was published, we’ve discussed its finer points on The Jordan Harbinger Show. (There’s even a video and worksheet!) Check it out here: TJHS 160: Deep Dive | Why Does Self-Help Make You Feel Terrible?
Once upon a time, in the not-too-distant past, self-help was a niche — a corner of the bookstore you’d occasionally explore, a list of obscure blogs you’d visit now and again.
If you stumbled across a bit of wisdom, you were probably trying to. And because you were trying to, you were probably open to it. You were asking. You were seeking.
Now, not so much.
That corner of the bookstore has taken over Amazon. Those obscure blogs have exploded into tens of thousands of podcasts, shows and apps. The self-help industry is now worth around $10B dollars, and is projected to grow to over $13B by 2022.
Self-help has become big business.
And because it’s big business, it’s no longer just a part of our lives. It is our lives. We’re drinking from the Firehose of Self-Improvement all the time, whether we’re reading a business book, watching a Red Bull commercial or sitting through a pre-roll ad.
We are self-help junkies, all of us, whether we want to be or not.
Which explains why I’ve been getting the same email lately.
The email, sent to me from listeners all over the world, basically goes like this:
I want self-help.
I need self-help.
But self-help is making me miserable.
And it’s usually followed by “IS THIS JUST ME? HELP!”
Which, you know, is ironic, since any answer I give will just be another piece of self-help.
But I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately.
I’ve been thinking about why self-help — the field that’s supposed to be making us happier, more productive, more fulfilled — is often making us unhappy, less productive, less fulfilled.
What is it about getting better that usually ends up making us feel worse?
Does self-development always involve some pain and discomfort, or is there something strange going on with self-help these days?
Why does self-help make us feel so bad?
For starters, let’s look at the term “self-help.” I know this is just semantics on some level, but it’s an interesting term. Self + help. Built into the very premise are a few assumptions:
- You have a self
- That self needs help
- That self can be helped
- Self-help is the thing that will help that self
In other words, if there weren’t a self in need of help — and if self-help weren’t the thing that could provide that help — the genre wouldn’t exist at all.
Baked into the idea of self-help is that you are broken.
That you are flawed, incomplete, and — most importantly — in need of a solution.
Which isn’t necessarily false. After all, I host a show that’s all about becoming better and learning from other people’s success. I’m straight-up obsessed with getting better. If I didn’t think growth were a huge part of our purpose, I wouldn’t be part of this world.
So I’m not saying we should stop improving.
I’m just saying it’s interesting.
It’s interesting that the category of self-help is loaded with implications that we don’t even consciously recognize.
Let’s unpack a few of these implications, so we can start to understand how self-help works on our minds.
Self-help is designed to expose your flaws.
If you didn’t feel a lack — if you didn’t feel “less than” in some crucial way — you probably wouldn’t feel the need to seek out self-help.
Most self-help practitioners understand this, and so they prime you — just like advertisers do — to receive their message.
They expose a problem — by asking why you’re not getting enough done, making you feel bad about being single, reminding you you’re overweight, pointing out that you’re unhappy, and so on — and then, conveniently, feed you the answer. Or rather, their answer.
Here, write this down. Oh, you need a pen? I’ll sell you this one I just happen to have…
As a recent Atlantic article about the burgeoning “wellness” industry put it, “The implicit allure of such [wellness] products was that we were not okay, or at least could be better.”
This is not a new technique, of course. It’s what marketers have been doing for decades. And it’s not inherently corrupt, although it is often quite manipulative.
The problem is that it’s in the interest of self-help experts to magnify your “problems.”
Self-help is designed to sell you something.
Once the need is established, then comes the solution. That is, the product.
And because the product is spiritual, physical, psychological, and existential betterment — as opposed to, say, the toothpaste four out of five dentists recommend — self-help vendors have to create the need by exposing something about who you are. Once they expose something personal and deficient in you, then they can sell you something to address it.
It’s important to remember that self-help solutions always benefit the person offering it.
They might also benefit you — the person accepting it — which is how it should be.
But it always benefits the person offering it.
It’s as if someone broke down your front door, told you it’s broken, then sold you a new door and an alarm system while they’re at it. I mean, if you don’t want this to happen again…
Even this article is designed to “sell” you something.
What I’m selling you is my belief. I want you to see what I see, which is that most self-help is selling you something in order to profit.
The thing is, most self-help experts don’t tell you what they’re selling. But I want you to know. I’m not immune from this fact, but I do want us to be on the same page, to both be entering this unspoken agreement with the same understanding of our dynamic.
Maybe you find that admission refreshing. Or maybe you find it intriguing enough to listen to the show, where you’ll get some of the best self-development insights in the world, and you’ll also contribute to my advertising revenue.
So yes, I am selling you an idea, and you are paying me with your attention. And for that, I hope, we both benefit.
But don’t you feel better listening to me with all of that out in the open, instead of me trying to hide the ball by diverting your attention to some deficit you have (real or imagined)?
Self-help is often designed to make you compete with other people.
In a lot of modern self-help, you’ll notice that it’s not enough to be the best version of yourself. You also have to be better than everybody else.
Not just faster than you used to be, but faster than the guy next to you.
Not just the happiest version of who you are, but happier than the people around you.
Not just more self-aware than before, but the most self-aware person in your relationships.
Self-help has gone from being about betterment to better-THAN-ment.
It’s almost as if these experts are saying: If you’re not getting better in a better way than all the other people trying to get better, then are you really getting better?
Which is an unhealthy way of looking at self-help. And, in my opinion, a really boring one.
This might just be the reason we continue to struggle with progress, happiness and self-sufficiency, even as we commit harder and harder to self-development.
This comparative strain of self-help also has ties to advertising, which knows how powerful comparison is to sell people products. You’re more likely to buy that Porsche if you see your neighbor driving one, just like you’re more likely to buy a book on sleep hacking if you see a rival colleague reading it at work. Keeping Up with the Joneses is real, and it applies to self-help ideas as much as it does to consumer products.
What this comparative/competitive approach to self-help creates is a form of envy, and envy can be a powerful motivator. Want to sell a book about weight loss? Make the reader envy those fit people. Want to push a podcast about lifehacking? Make the reader envy all those uber-productive people.
Of course, there’s a healthy competition that drives us to grow as human beings, and we all need a benchmark to compare ourselves to.
But the subtle competition built into self-help is usually quite toxic, and all the more so because it’s so subtle.
When benchmarking ourselves against other people becomes more important than benchmarking ourselves against ourselves, that toxicity spills over into our relationships, making us view the world through the hypercompetitive lens of self-better-than-ment.
And how can we get better if we’re so focused on appearing better?
A lot of self-help is just motivation in disguise.
Self-help is about long-term and (hopefully) lasting transformation. Motivation is one aspect of self-help, but it’s concerned with the more immediate question of how to get sh*t done.
Case in point: the “motivation porn” or “rise and grind” video.
You know the one. A guy with a gravelly voice says vaguely inspiring things over b-roll of people running trails and scaling cliffs and doing other superhuman stuff to the sound of swelling music, all designed to simultaneously make you feel lazy and get you pumped.
Videos like these are not designed to make you better, but to make you feel something — either that getting better is possible in the future, or that you might take a step in the right direction.
And honestly, I get it. There’s a real need for this. It’s never been harder to focus, create strong habits, and stay connected to our purpose. Of course we want to stay motivated. The motivational video exists to help keep you in that space.
Which, again, is not inherently terrible. If it helps you, great. If it gets your ass in the chair or on the treadmill when it would otherwise have stayed in bed, more power to you.
But let’s not mistake motivation porn with meaningful self-help.
And let’s not assume that we need motivation porn to be motivated, any more than we need actual porn to be turned on. At the end of the day, it’s a simulation — not necessarily an evil one; that’s up to you to decide — but a simulation nonetheless.
Motivational videos, or “hustle porn,” do not answer the more fundamental questions of self-development. They might push you a little harder, but it will often come at a cost to your psyche.
These forms of lifestyle fetishization are like the nitrous oxide boost in Fast and the Furious. They might make you go a little faster for a short amount of time, but they won’t make you a better person, they won’t give your life more meaning, and they will eventually ruin your engine.
That’s exactly what led Alexis Ohanian, the founder of Reddit, to call out hustle porn as one of the most toxic trends today.
“This idea,” he said, “that unless you are suffering, grinding, working every hour of every day, you’re not working hard enough” is having a severe impact on our mental-emotional health.
And he’s dead right.
So the question becomes this.
If self-help is strategically designed to make you feel bad, is it possible to consume self-help and not be miserable?
In short, absolutely.
But to work on ourselves without thinking less of ourselves, we need a new set of principles and mindsets to navigate self-help in a healthy way.
Starting with a critical mindset shift, which is to…
Know that you will never be perfect/finished/complete.
As we’ve seen, a lot of self-help is predicated on the idea that you’re not quite complete. As long as that sense of incompleteness exists, you’ll continue to seek out solutions to fill it.
But the notion of perfection — of being finished, complete, or otherwise “fixed” — is a myth.
It’s a myth spun up by the human mind, which has evolved to obsess primarily about what it doesn’t have. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t hoard grain for the winter, look out for predators, or venture out on spaceships to discover new worlds. That obsession with lack then gets reinforced by our culture — including our self-help experts — to sell you ideas and products to fill the gap.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to grow, of course. It just means that we need to understand that self-actualization is a lifelong and open-ended process, which means there’s no real finish line.
And because there’s no finish line, we’ll always be primed to find new ways to become happier, stronger, and more productive, even when we’re doing well.
To be part of that process without driving yourself insane, you have to accept that that feeling of lack will always remain, and that self-help experts will always be ready to exploit it.
The only way to protect yourself against that exploitation is to know that you don’t need to be 110% superhuman, that this mythical state of ultimate superhumanness is a fiction, and that no self-help expert can ever resolve that tension — even (and especially!) when they promise they can.
Make it your own.
Whenever I talk to someone who follows a certain self-help expert or program religiously, I know something’s off. Either they’ve overinvested in the expert or curriculum, or that person or curriculum has encouraged an unhealthy dependence.
The best self-help is liberating, not constrictive.
It should give you tools, principles and mindsets that make your life easier, lighter, and more fulfilling. It shouldn’t give you tasks, obligations and concerns that make your life more challenging, more onerous or frustrating.
Most importantly, it shouldn’t make you a disciple. It should make you a leader — a leader of your own life, empowered by the material.
If you ever find that a brand of self-help requires an unusual amount of devotion or maintenance, check in with yourself. Ask yourself why the program has demanded that energy. Have you failed to make it your own? Or does the program encourage your dependence, perhaps to keep the cycle of demand intact?
Remember that you’re in the driver’s seat.
As I encourage our listeners to do on the show, take what works for you and leave the rest. Make it your own and apply it in your own way. Ultimately, that application of self-help will create a bigger impact than becoming a slave to any particular regime.
Look for the product.
Earlier, we saw how all self-help is designed to sell you something. It might be an idea, a system, a philosophy, a supplement, a piece of equipment, a feeling, an app, a relationship or an experience. It’s important to identify that product — especially when that product is subtle.
When you know what’s being sold to you, you can consciously choose whether to accept the terms of the deal on offer. You can also see the agenda of the person selling it to you. Are they selling you something to make money? To forge a relationship? To share their experience? To learn what works for other people? There are plenty of motivations for pushing self-help, and they all shed light on the nature of the person pushing it.
As I mentioned, there’s nothing inherently wrong in selling. After all, it wouldn’t be self-help if it didn’t offer something that would help. It’s only when the product is obscured that we need to be concerned.
But there is one self-help “product” that is more problematic than others. Which brings us to the next principle.
Focus on action rather than feelings.
A lot of self-help is designed to make you feel certain things. To feel empowered. To feel motivated. To feel inspired. To feel hopeful. To feel vulnerable.
All of which are wonderful (and crucial) experiences to have.
But when a self-help product only gives you a feeling, then you can be sure something’s missing.
Either the product in question doesn’t have much substance (which is very common), or you haven’t found a way to translate the feeling into a set of actionable principles (which, again, is often up to us).
The motivation porn video is the perfect example. These videos are all feeling, no insight. They don’t give you principles to cultivate that motivation for yourself or a set of habits to translate that motivation into action. They just make you feel the feels, which our minds confuse for actual progress. But if you look closely, there’s no progress at all — only the illusion of progress, masquerading as the feeling.
So when you consume self-help, notice which emotional experiences come up. Take stock of how the product in question is stirring up different feelings in you, and why. Is the product offering you a new way of behaving, thinking or seeing that happens to give rise to those feelings? Or is it purely designed to make you feel those feelings for their own sake?
Feelings can be addictive. When we experience them, we’ll often seek them out again and again, especially if we have trouble finding them elsewhere. If we feel hopeless, we’ll consume self-help designed to give us comfort. If we feel shut down, we’ll consume self-help designed to make us vulnerable.
But just because you feel hopeful doesn’t mean you’ve cultivated hope. Just because you feel vulnerable doesn’t mean you’ve opened up.
At the end of the day, those are just feelings.
And what we really want is action. Which brings us to the final principle.
Come back to basics.
At the end of the day, self-help is only valuable if it does a handful of simple, concrete, timeless things.
Self-help should make us happier, more fulfilled, more connected people, not more anxious, more unhappy, more frustrated people.
Self-help should give us new tools and ways of viewing the world, not easy solutions or temporary feelings.
Self-help should create habits and mindsets that we can make our own, not obligations and requirements that keep us tethered to an expert or program.
Self-help should bring us into a deeper relationship with ourselves, not force us to compare ourselves to other people.
Because ultimately, self-help should — as the name suggests! — help us help ourselves, but never at our own expense.
[Featured image by Francesco Cioce]