The Dark Side of Self-Help

When you think of the word “self-help”, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Maybe it’s a new diet fad, a motivational podcast or TedTalk, a workout routine, or a bunch of best-selling books that went viral on TikTok. 

Regardless of whatever your answer is, the popularity of all of the above speaks volumes about the recent self-improvement craze that’s been happening around world. And while it’s certainly all well and good that we as a society have such a strong desire to better ourselves, make no mistake — there’s a dark side to self-help, too!

Easy to miss and even easier to fall into, the self-help industry is also riddled with toxic positivity, phony gurus, and empty affirmations. So if you’ve been thinking of getting into some self-improvement lately, watch this video before you do to avoid these potential problems:

The Psychological Impact of Self-Help

The famous saying “too much of a good thing can be a bad thing” applies to self-help, too. In fact, best selling author Mark Manson, who wrote the #1 New York Times bestseller “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck”, says that there are only two types of people who get hooked on self-help: the “bad-to-ok” and “ok-to-great.” 

As the names imply, bad-to-ok people seek self-help because they feel that something is fundamentally wrong with them. Ok-to-great people, on the other hand, are generally adequate, have good emotional adjustment and mental health, and want to use self-help to maximise all of these things and go from good to great.

The problem is, most of the self-help material out there is aimed more so for the bad-to-ok people than the ok-to-great, but it’s the former that ends up gaining more from it. Why? Because of the psychological impact of self-help on our self-esteem!

Bad-to-ok people are made to constantly feel inadequate, so their already-low self-esteem starts dwindling. In the words of Mark Manson himself, “The irony here is that the pre-requisite for self-help to be effective is the one crucial thing that self-help cannot actually help: accept yourself as a good person who makes mistakes.”

The Questionable Ethics of The Industry

One reason why some people remain skeptical of self-help is because they believe that the industry mantra is “A patient healed is a customer lost” — and they’re not entirely wrong to think that. 

Self-help marketing has been criticized in the past because it creates unrealistic expectations just to sell products that aren’t even scientifically validated. Some so-called “wellness experts” and “self-help gurus” don’t even practice what they preach, much less care enough if it’s been proven to be true or not. 

The profit motive, however, shouldn’t be so surprising given that the industry has now become worth billions of dollars. It made a total revenue of $17.29 billion dollars in the last year alone, according to recent statistics reported by John LaRosa, president of Marketdata Statistics.

Why? Because according to entrepreneur, psychologist, and hit author M.J. De Marco, the incentive is not on creating real change but the illusion of it; a concept he calls “action faking.” See, the lure of self-development, De Marco explains, is that it gets you hooked on the feeling of accomplishing something and making you motivated to do more. 

But after a certain point, you’ll just end up relapsing and feeling frustrated with yourself again because there’s always a new standard to reach, something you’re doing wrong, or one way you’re not enough. At the end of the day, the more unhappy and discontented you are with your life, the more the self-help industry stands to profit from you. 

How to Avoid the Downsides of Self-Help

Just to make it clear, we’re aware that criticisms aren’t true of the entire self-help industry. In fact, self-help can benefit us greatly, if we only know how to apply its teachings properly. According to an article published by the non-profit mental health informational blog Healthy Place, psychological self-help as taught by legitimate sources can be incredibly beneficial. “The potential of mental health self-help materials to make a positive difference in the lives of those suffering from mental illness is real,” writes mental health journallist Samantha Gluck. “The challenge comes in choosing material that’s authoritative, clearly written, and presented in a style that motivates you to do the work required to get better.”

Similarly, a study by psychologist Joanne Wood and her colleagues found that common self-help mantras (such as “I am a beautiful person” and “I am capable of anything”) only help people who already have high self-esteem and may make things worse for people with low self-esteem. The researchers believe this is because such unreasonably positive blanket statements may only remind them that they aren’t measuring up to standards they have for themselves. Hence, they suggest using more specific and realistic positive statements like “I am good at…” to avoid exacerbating any feelings of inferiority. 

Self-help author and speaker Robert Ringer also said that those who stand to gain the most from self-help are those who are ready to apply it in their lives long-term, not those looking for a shortcut to motivation and happiness. He explains that we can never make any lasting or meaningful change in our lives as long as we hold on to the misguided belief that there’s something about us that needs to be fixed or that there’s a certain answer we’re looking for. We need to understand that no one else can do the work for healing and self-improvement for us and just listen to the quiet voice inside that says “this works for me, this is good for me.”

In the words of former first lady of the United States Rosalynn Carter, “Once you accept the fact that you’re not perfect, then you develop some confidence.” That’s why self-acceptance matters so much more than anything any book, podcast, or seminar can ever teach you; it’s the key to unlocking  all the benefits self-help can give you.


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