I fell for self-help so you don’t have to

I fell for self-help so you don’t have to

opinion 6 minute read
Image © The Pattern Library

I hate to admit it, but during my late teenage years and the beginning of my adult life, I massively fell for self-help blogs. I was unhappy, didn’t particularly like myself and had no idea where I would end up one day so I started spending hours on the internet looking for “answers”. (Yeah, this probably sounds familiar.) I was never particularly interested in conventional luxuries - think fancy hotels, designer shit, glitter and cupcakes - but for a while I believed that this is what I needed to be into in order to be happy, while at the same time rejecting any concepts of a traditional career. Falling for self-help that seemed so progressive at the time and believing that “thoughts become things” has helped me make an effort to actively improve myself and try out different things. But seeing through the bullshit has taught me so much more.

In times like these, where most things are technically possible, who doesn’t like to hear that yes, you can indeed become whoever you want, you just need to want it badly enough and think about it hard enough and love yourself? Write yourself a $10 million check and carry it around with you? (Just imagine all the talentless actors driving around the Hollywood hills every single day and writing checks to themselves before moving back in with their parents and finally signing that McDonalds contract.)

Manifesting the pyramid scheme

Let’s be real, have you ever noticed that all those inspirational gurus who manifested their dreams and made it are rarely ever doing anything of substance? Their entire business model, if you want to call it that, revolves around giving advice on how to make it, without ever having really achieved anything themselves, except for making a semi-business out of a fabricated rags to riches story and perfectly curated Instagram life. Yet, the fantasy of making money while doing fuck all and being happy, positive and beautiful, is way too tempting.

Needless to say, all the blogs and courses and “life advice” spawn yet another generation of similarly privileged (because let’s face it, those courses and ebooks are ridiculously overpriced and never come without “quit your dayjob”) wannabe gurus who try their best to spread the same gospel. A very damaging pyramid scheme with little to no productive outcome. Whether it’s positivity gurus, probloggers or self-proclaimed marketing and branding specialists, the irony is glaring: for-profit webinars teaching how to do for-profit webinars about for-profit webinars and ebooks about how to write ebooks about writing ebooks. Replace “branding” with “eating bacon” and the acquired skills would be the same - they’d only sound less fashionable and probably wouldn’t convince most parents to keep funding a second gap year.

“I took that business course and made 10k in my first month… shilling that business course!”

Sure, the success stories may sound convincing at first and hey, it’s all quantified so it must be legit, right? But once you dig deeper, it almost becomes impossible not to notice the blatant logic flaws: “Thousands of people have used my advice to… start their own advice blog!” or “I took that business course and made 10k in my first month… shilling that business course!”.

Empowering my arse

It makes me happy to see more and more young people, especially women, start their own businesses and reject traditional stereotypes - and even angrier to see the number of self-proclaimed gurus and teachers taking advantage of young people in alternative cultures and their desires to become entrepreneurs. There are plenty of perfectly sane reasons why this is a great time to start your own business and why changing your life for the better is possible. But unfortunately, the do what you love self-help narrative has warped this into a bizarre spiritual concept and replaced all hands-on hard work by “manifesting”, “meditating” and blunt consumerism. All under the guise of “empowering women”. Here’s the thing:

Telling women to meditate, “be grateful,” sit up straight and get good sleep […] might make us feel better – but it won’t make the world better. You can’t self-help away deeply-ingrained structural discrimination.

Jessica Valenti: The female confidence gap is a sham (The Guardian)

There is literally nothing empowering about this. Most self-help philosophies marketed towards women keep rehashing the same old gender stereotypes (Look pretty! Wear high heels!) and delusional The Secret-esque concepts like the “law of attraction”: if you think positive, you will attract positive things. The gist of this isn’t even that awful but this new spiritual spin on it is: Your life is shit because your thoughts are shit. You still don’t live that loft and can’t afford to drink green smoothies all day? You feel bad and don’t know why? Well, you obviously didn’t think positively enough. You are simply not enough. Instead of actually helping women internalise their accomplishments, which is a huge issue (see: impostor syndrome), once again they are the problem and the ones to blame. In short: it’s a huge victim-blaming mess.

The universe won’t do shit

The more time I spent aspiring to “live in the present moment” and reading inspirational success stories, the more I realised that nothing really added up. Yeah, there was always the occasional talk about some unspecified hard(ish) work. But even when it wasn’t some guru’s 598285th rehashed story about “How I quit my dayjob to do what I love” but anecdotes of actual, real people who inarguably achieved actual, real things with actual, real skills, it was usually quickly brushed off as “They just believed in it and worked hard and the universe rewarded them.” The universe? Really? What is that even?

But sadly, I know there are people sitting in their bedrooms waiting for the universe to finally bless them with the opportunities they deserve for carefully illustrating their dreams in their Moleskine scrapbook “bible” every night. It sucks people in because people just love get-rich-quick schemes. They always have and they probably always will, no matter how implausible they sound. It’s like diet pills - we all know that it probably won’t work but we still can’t help thinking, what if this time, it’s completely different? Maybe this is it.

Eventually, the new agey gibberish became impossible to ignore. I might have been easily deceived with more or less plausible sounding explanations of the human psyche, but I simply refused to believe that “the universe” was “taking care of me” or that the constellation of the planets caused bad things happening to me. And wasn’t there this thing about everything that happened to me being a result of my thoughts? Then how is it possible that some random ass planet can make my life misterable all the time? Why were none of those super amazing success stories adding up? And why did I still feel like shit? It was painful. I imagine that this is how a Scientologist must feel after crossing the bridge and finding out that they now indeed have to belive in that Xenu stuff. Or a neo nazi realising that their main ideology is based on the idea that the Germans descended from Atlantis survivors. (I didn’t make this up!)

Time for a reality check

Most of the self-help industry is a fraud and it needs to stop. It needs to stop promoting get-rich-quick and pyramid schemes as an alternative to real and honest skills. It needs to stop subtly telling women that they’re not enough. It needs to stop taking advantage of insecure young people and stop selling a misleading, dumbed-down version of how to get by in this world. I needs to check its fucking privilege, stop invalidating mental illness and stop flat-out lying to people.

Manifesting will never replace hard work. We get told to “follow our dreams” because “everything is possible” by people who claim to have done exactly that but have nothing to show for it. We’re presented with one size fits all advice and childish fantasies of what it means to be “successful”. And we buy it because we just want it so badly.

I might be cynical, but I am in no way against positive thinking. In fact, focusing on the positive has taught me one of the most important lessons so far: no matter how hard and annoying it is, I just have to take responsibility for my life and fucking deal with it. Yes, I can take all the glitter bubble baths I want and the world still won’t be perfect, but I can improve my life. I just have to do the exact opposite of what every self-help philosophy was telling me to do: get my shit together and step the fuck out into the real world.

Ines Montani
About the author

Ines Montani

I'm a software developer working on Artificial Intelligence and Natural Language Processing technologies, and the co-founder and CEO of Explosion, makers of the popular NLP library spaCy and Prodigy, a modern annotation tool for machine learning. Read more →