The self-help hoax: Why you remain stuck

Man looking confused

“Difficulties are meant to rouse, not discourage. The human spirit is to grow strong by conflict” 
– William Channing

Do you often find yourself buying yet another self-help book that you hope will finally be the book that will give you that Aha! moment in trying to improve this one thing that you have been struggling with? Or do you sign up for yet another online course that promises to deliver results? Or have you just given up on trying to “fix” things?

The self-help industry has exploded over recent years, particularly following the pandemic. According to Zipdo, the self-help industry in the US alone is currently sitting at around $11 billion dollars. Let me remind you that is the US alone! So, why do we tend to fall prey to these promise-books or promise-courses, yet… they don’t seem to “work”?

The illusion of change

People tend to fall prey to self-help books/courses/interventions because of theillusion of change they provide. In other words, people get hooked on the perceived change, not the actual change. Any immediate technique or tool provides temporary relief — think about implementing muscle relaxation techniques when feeling stressed or learning how to regulate intense emotional experiences using meditation. The immediate relief makes you believe that you are succeeding at creating change. Unfortunately, these illusionary changes only last for a limited period of time because they are aimed at the symptom level. They work until.. well… they don’t. You cannot work on deep-rooted psychological issues by focusing on symptom-level stuff. Long-term, deeply engrained psychological issues cannot be “fixed” or “worked through” by only applying a few practical methods consistently for a week, two weeks, or even a month.

The starry-eye effect

In addition to the illusion of change, the self-help industry also creates the illusion of utopia, certainty, and controlUtopia in the sense that if you take action and apply these “science-based methods”, you will eliminate suffering from your life and you will never have to deal with constant negative emotional experiences or incur additional psychological wounds. Certainty in that if you follow the steps laid out you will reach your destination — an illusionary promise of results (e.g., you will be in control of your emotions, you will be rid of anxiety, you will stop procrastinating, you will erase all your limiting beliefs, you will learn how to set boundaries, and basically just poop rainbows). This false certainty then cultivates a fear of uncertainty and a need for control. If anything goes awry again or you fall back to old patterns — which you will, it is called life — then you will revert back to that shame spiral as it must be your fault that you have lost control over your life again.

Woo-woo in disguise

A lot of the self-help industry is driven by personal experience rather than actual science. I mean, you don’t have to look very far to find them — that person online who had some magical experience doing something and it worked so marvellously well for them that they decided to formulate it into a sellable solution; assuming it will work for everyone who struggles with the same problem. However, self-help that is based on some woo-woo crystal energy, feng shui, tapping ritual, or psychic experience is just not going to get you where you want to be (sorry if you’ve already bought all those pretty candles and expensive earth crystals). These methods fail to address the deep-level issues that people often grapple with such as feelings of shame and inferiority, unresolved trauma, a disconnection from the self, existential anxiety, and/or maladaptive neuroticism.

In fact, unsubstantiated self-help advice or protocols can actually worsen underlying psychological issues. For example, a person struggling with feelings of shame may end up feeling even more shameful when a protocol or program does not work for them. They may feel embarrassed for not “getting it right”, thereby, further solidifying the deep-rooted shame that they carry. Not realising that the advice given was just not for them. Similarly, a person who is highly neurotic and conscientious who decides to embark on a self-help journey may implement a host of self-improvement practices such as meditation practice in the morning, journaling at night, and a gratitude moment at midday — which may all seem lovely and Insta-worthy — but for a highly neurotic, conscientious person, the doing part is actually the problem. They tend to escape from themselves through constant action. What tends to work best for these personality types is getting them to do less instead of more, as it generates the discomfort that is needed for deep-level change. When a person has become so disconnected from their true self, they often implement self-improvement techniques as a means to escape the existential anxiety generated by an abandonment of the self.

Don’t get me wrong, self-help protocols rooted in science do have their placeand can be very helpful. However, they are often used and most effective when applied as tools to improve, not discover or heal, the self. Self-help only works when you know and trust yourself; hence self-help. Moreover, just because research has provided evidence on the effectiveness of a specific protocol (e.g., meditation, mindfulness, hypnotherapy, etc.) does not guarantee that it will work for everyone. When you outsource aspects of your self to someone else, you not only erode your self-trust, but you also leave the responsibility to the other person to know what you need, want, and desire. Think about it, how can you ever trust that someone else knows more about your sense of being than yourself? (*Madness me thinks*). Not knowing who you are, and not being comfortable with who you are, means that no amount of externally imposed self-help will ever remedy that. Unfortunately, it is exactly people who have lost touch with their true sense of self, that are left vulnerable to these empty promises.

Cultivate unrealistic expectations

Generally, embarking on a self-improvement journey, whether it is how to break a bad habit, how to have a better relationship, how to be a better leader, how to get unstuck, or how to move forward from past trauma, entails gathering some information. However, people often get stuck here, in the obsessive, information-gathering phase, where they get obsessed with finding out as much as they can about the “thing”. For example, understanding their trauma and how to “reparent” themselves, their attachment styles and what it means, or how to better emotionally regulate themselves. However, just because you understand how something works, does not make you skilled at the thing. Just because you know what your attachment style is, does not make you skilled at working through it. Just because you know more about emotional intelligence, does not make you emotionally intelligent. You actually need to put the insight into practice to hone the skill. That’s where people often get stuck, because they jump from one self-help technique to the next, expecting that the next “science-based thing” will finally work for them. Hoping that by just implementing the surface-level behaviour (or just reading about it *rolls eyes*), they will eliminate deep-rooted psychological issues. Unfortunately, there is no shortcut to the healing of the psyche.

Diagnostic debauchery

As much as the internet has allowed us to gain immediate access to information, and insights into the brains of professionals across the globe, it has also opened up a pandora’s box of misinformation. Nowadays any dimwit on the internet can post information on “psychological methods” that are not even in their realm of professional expertise. Probably more frightening is when people misconstrue actual diagnostic criteria, causing others to misdiagnose themselves. A great example is the explosion of information on ADHD and its associated “symptoms”, whereby people use their own proclaimed “ADHD symptoms” as diagnostic criteria; advocating to others that “if you have these symptoms it means that you may have ADD or ADHD too”. Several of the so-called ADHD symptoms are more indicative of poor digital wellbeing, unaddressed anxiety, or repressed trauma, more so than actual ADHD. To this extent, as it relates to accurate clinical diagnoses, the self-help industry is not helping much.

An erosion of self-trust

Arguably, one of the biggest harms associated with the self-help industry is that it is damaging people’s self-trust. We build self-trust by providing our brains with the evidence that we can rely on ourselves to see difficult things through. When you face difficulties head-on, regardless of whether you chose these difficulties or whether life sent them your way, you teach yourself that you see difficult things through. Conversely, when you rely on external factors to tell you what you need to do, you never learn how to trust yourself to make decisions for yourself… fail…deal with the consequences, and come out the other end. You assume that by others showing you the way that this will help you avoid making mistakes (i.e., you want to avoid any consequences or having to “pay the school fees”). Unfortunately, by outsourcing your decisions, you never allow yourself to make mistakes and prove to yourself that you can overcome the consequences of your own decisions! As such, you start to fear any discomfort and difficulties. You teach your brain that you cannot handle difficult things and that discomfort is something to be avoided at all costs. All this will eat away at your self-trust, and over time, a lack of self-trust will leave you feeling indecisive, anxious, fearful, dependent, unfulfilled, and controlling.

Fear of uncertainty

As humans, we’ve always struggled with uncertainty. However, in today’s world, we tend to really struggle with uncertainty. This is largely because we are provided with so much perceived certainty on a daily basis. For example, you can check the weather when you like to have ‘certainty’ of what to wear. You can quickly Google a “how to” on literally anything, instead of taking the risk of figuring it out yourself. As such, we’ve become so scared of making mistakes. We look at the ‘perfect’ attempts of others, and fear not having the exact outcome. We want to be certain that things will work as we expect them to work. However, when things don’t meet our expectations, we feel frazzled, anxious, upset, and overwhelmed. Unfortunately, uncertainty is the only certainty in life.

The more you embrace uncertainty, the less you will fear it and the more competent you will become in dealing with it. As the age-old saying by Friedrich Nietzsche goes, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”. As cliché as that may sound, it still holds true. When you choose the road less travelled (i.e., the difficult, thorny one), you not only build personal strength and resilience, but you also introduce excitement, opportunity, and zest into your life. Easy gives comfort, but the only benefit from comfort zones is, well, comfort. Growth only happens outside of that comfort zone (I know you don’t want to hear that). When you keep choosing easy over hard, your life will feel mundane, boring, and unfulfilling. Isn’t it ironic how the thing that we think will make us happy(i.e., an easy life), actually brings us more unhappiness, sadness, and discontentment with life. The meaningful things in life (i.e., personal growth, relationships, meaningful work, success), will invariably require you to navigate through discomfort.

The best self-help advice I can give is to learn more about who you are and build up that self-trust. Know what your values are, what your personality makeup looks like, what interests you, how you show up in the world, … essentially, what blows your hair back. Stop outsourcing your sense of self to some dimwit info, start exploring, and start choosing the discomfort you keep avoiding, for therein lies your happiness, growth, and fulfilment.

Until next week! Now go and help your self.

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