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Whose Self Does Self-Help Help?

The self-help movement has come quite a way since Samuel Smiles (actual name) published Self-Help in 1859. Considering the opening sentence invokes God and the help He offers, the tone for a metaphysical entity assisting you in your quest for [fill in the blank] was set. In many ways that idea hasn’t changed, even if the magic words have become ‘universal energy,’ ‘spirit’ or the like.

Alas, this is not to debate the merits of self-help, however unstable a surface some of this ilk build their foundation upon. Besides, modern purveyors of self-helping are of a much different breed, super-sized Dale Carnegies. No longer are they winning friends; their main goal seems to be to win the spotlight for themselves. Friends are not what they’re looking for. Fans are.

There are two main examples sparking this question. The first: As a longtime bio writer for musicians and artists, the best piece of advice I’ve ever received is to open a biography with the artist’s mission, not their accolades. This immediately causes the person reading it to connect emotionally, instead of boasting about mainstream media exposure or the number of people who’ve attended their workshops, seminars and concerts.

I understand the latter—as someone who has worked for myself for a decade, part of my career depends on marketing. We shouldn’t begrudge awards or accomplishments. The issue at hand is: Why lead with them? When I visit the self-help speaker’s sites—often couched with the phrases ‘motivational’ and ‘life coach’—I’m immediately told about the news outlets they’ve been covered by, the celebrities singing their praises and how hiring them (or attending a lecture) will change your life.

Come on. Only one person can change your life, and you know who that is.

To reiterate, this is not to claim these people are not important or potentially helpful. The lofty and unrealistic claims about their universal abilities coupled with the fact that Oprah or Tony Robbins said a good word about them is disingenuous. There’s little difference between this form of self-helping and fad dieting: both fill you for a little while, until you need a stronger fix, which you inevitably seek elsewhere. 

This is partly due to those impossible promises. A personal example: as a yoga instructor, I’m aware that my class is not for everyone. In fact, my style is specific for people who like an athletic flow that’s physically dynamic and evolving week-to-week. The people who regularly attend like to not know what they’re stepping into and enjoy creativity in their exercise.

Is yoga for everyone? Some form of it could be, which is why the fact that so many styles of yoga exists is a boon. Is my class the right one for someone just out of back surgery? No. Would someone who wants to partake in a routine, regimented form, such as Ashtanga like my class? Maybe, though not as a long-term commitment. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I would never say that my class is for everyone. It’s not true. 

The one-size-fits-all mentality of stadium self-help lectures, rows of self-help literature and online counseling removes humanity from the equation, when it is our human side that needs personal contact in order to grow.

That’s the incredible thing about words—they reveal what they are. It is in the second point that we discover whose self self-help helps. This can be found in the testimonials, another major weapon in the marketing guru’s arsenal. You’ll never find a bad word or gripe, of course. Sometimes you’ll even find reposts of personal emails or texts not necessarily for sharing. Reading an intimate and honest expression of someone’s revelation as an advertising technique is troublesome. The focus is not the revelation, but the person taking credit for such.

While I’m not one to fantasize about the good ol’ days of whenever, there’s something from both the yoga and Sufi traditions that stands the test of time: the way to self-realization—we can call it self-helping—is through an intense study under one teacher for some period of time. That is truly a way to change one’s life. Skype calls are simply not going to do that.

Not that there’s anything wrong with online tutorials. We just need the people behind them to be more honest about the services they’re offering—to be honest about what they actually can offer, and not promise things they can’t. (For example, stop using divine anything in your verbiage. If that was the case, your role is actually meaningless.) We all have something to offer, and we can all help others along their path if the connection is right. Once you stop guaranteeing the world to your clients, perhaps you can offer a little bit of humanity to your friends. 

Image: Bevan Goldswain/


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