The self-help industry is booming. But in an industry which promises physical, emotional, and medical improvement, the problems which arise from their oily and glossed claims are manifold. For one, it makes unsubstantiated claims, and because these claims seem to counter-act realistic negative ones—and are often presented by smiling and seemingly attractive and successful people– people are expected to believe that they are true. The claims, however, are little more than well marketed astrology.

For instance, let us consider the notion of “manifesting”. This is a pop-cultural term made famous by the lululemon generation and regularly used in corporate satellites of giant yoga/yoga accessory and apparel conglomerates. It asserts that “if you will something, it will happen.” Let us take a moment really to analyze this claim and how utterly inflated it is. Not only does the claim assert that one has god-like powers in a “multiple-agent world”, but there is countless evidence against the notion that one’s will, simply by intending towards an object, will receive that object. If the notion, perhaps, were that by visualizing one’s object in a clear and distinct way the steps necessary to achieve that object might also attain clarity, and so long as one has the discipline, means, lucks, and time to achieve this object, it might actually happen–then this claim might be helpful in this sense. As it is, however, it seeks to take the unempowered and leave them unempowered for the economic benefit of those–you guessed it–who are selling the vacuous and conveniently unverifiable method to empowerment. Because, of course, if one does not manifest one’s desires, it is one’s fault. This is the same sort of reasoning defined by actual empirical psychologists as victim-blaming.

This actually leads to a parallel and potentially larger internal problem. If the premise behind a “self-help” ideology is that one can improve one’s life just by following “these X number of easy steps,” then is not the implicit suggestion of “self-help” manuals that one is suffering, possibly psychologically or economically, because of one’s own potentially uncontrollable circumstances? For instance, if a person suffering from clinical depression or from bipolar disorder decides to follow the three easy steps to living one’s best life, is not the suggestion that one’s psychological disorders simply come from an inability to grasp one’s personal situation correctly? What about with a victim of trauma?

Let’s consider an economic issue of this: if a wealthy entrepreneur with a safety net provided by his or her wealthy parents gives advice to an individual who has been systemically handicapped by a lack of institutional and economic benefits, is this economically deprived person to blame for his or her impecunious situation, and will attempting to solve it in the same way that a safety-netted “have” does work for him or her? The perspective from the top seems almost Brahmanistic.

The next problem is the nature of licensure for “self-help” professionals. Like in fields like “motivational speakers”, there clearly is no internship, residency, and set of examinations set by a professional board–and then maintained by a governing body. No, any person with adequate means to finance a book, or start a Youtube channel, etc…can consider himself or herself qualified to speak to the issues of human psychological development and health, ostensibly because such a person manifested these opportunities.

Finally, the biggest problem–and the ones above are colossal–is one of ethics and the nature of the profession. How much and how capable is a “self-help” person of actually resolving one’s issues? And really, how much do they care whether they do or not? Without a governing body issuing and withdrawing licenses based on coherent, effective, and safe practices, a “self-styled-self-help-guru” (notice how they appropriate other “mystical”, unknown, cultures in order to increase their appearance of new and or different knowledge), these people can make any claim they want, regardless of how unfounded, unhelpful, and potentially dangerous it may be for you. Aristotle is useful to consider here, he mentions that every art has a particular end which it engenders, causes, or produces:

“Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and choice, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim. But a certain difference is found among ends; some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them. Where there are ends apart from the actions, it is the nature of the products to be better than the activities. Now, as there are many actions, arts, and sciences, their ends also are many; the end of the medical art is health, that of shipbuilding a vessel, that of strategy victory, that of economics wealth. But where such arts fall under a single capacity–as bridle-making and the other arts concerned with the equipment of horses fall under the art of riding, and this and every military action under strategy, in the same way other arts fall under yet others–in all of these the ends of the master arts are to be preferred to all the subordinate ends; for it is for the sake of the former that the latter are pursued. It makes no difference whether the activities themselves are the ends of the actions, or something else apart from the activities, as in the case of the sciences just mentioned.” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1094a1-17, Ross tr., Barnes ed.)

What end, then, does self-help produce, then, and to what art does it belong: the medical art which produces health, or the economic art which produces wealth for the producer? And really, is that even yet correct?– For Aristotle mentions the difference between master arts and subordinate ones, but Plato goes further and distinguishes between arts in fact and “cookery” or spurious arts which do not create real products at all, but rather disguise things and themselves for what they are.

“Socrates: Well then, Gorgias, the activity as a whole, it seems to me, is not an art, but the occupation of a shrewd and enterprising spirit, and of one naturally skilled in dealings with men, and in sum and substance I call it ‘flattery.; Now it seems to me that there are many other parts of this activity, one of which is cookery. This is considered an art, but in my judgment is no art, only a routine and a knack. And rhetoric I call another part of this general activity, beautification, and sophistic–four parts with four distinct objects.” (Plato, Gorgias, 463a-b, Edith Hamilton tr.)

So, just as rhetoric is the “semblance of a part of politics”–which means it looks as politics does without engaging in the same activity or netting the same results–so does “self-help” advice mimic or resemble the actual work of the medical profession while actually netting the effect of the economic one for its author.

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One thought on “On the Problem of Self-Help Books and Professionals

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