Personal Development

The Problem with “Self-Help”

For years, I’ve been obsessed with self-help books and podcasts. Nothing has made me feel more alive and human than diving deeply into content that I believed would lead to me to achieving the peak of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: self-actualization. As a perfectionist, it gave me some type of weird, crazy adrenaline rush to think about all the ways that I could improve myself and finally… be perfect.

Until now.

Today I write this post because I realized that this is, well… problematic.

Now, before you stop reading: I’m not against personal development or dreaming big or building healthier habits or genuinely trying to be a better person. We all have room for growth, and we’re all entitled to work towards making positive changes to our lives. The epiphany I had is this: What is truly motivating your interest in self-help?

This past week, I’ve been doing some introspecting and self-reflecting and just plain old thinking about this question. Here are a few things that led me to it:

“Yeah, No. Not Happening

The first wave of this feeling hit me as I stumbled across a review of Karen Karbo’s book, Yeah, No. Not Happening: How I Found Happiness Swearing Off Self-Improvement and Saying F*ck It all – and How You Can Too“. Unsurprisingly, as an author of a personal development blog and a self-help content junkie, this title grabbed my attention real quick. I’ll admit, I haven’t read the book, but even just reading the description challenged me to re-consider my mindset and perspectives on “self-help”.

From GoodReads:

"Karen Karbo has had enough. She’s taking a stand against the cultural and societal pressures, marketing, and media influences that push us to spend endless time, energy and money trying to “fix” ourselves—a race that has no finish line and only further increases our send of self-dissatisfaction and loathing. “Yeah, no, not happening,” is her battle cry."

BOOM. Adding this book to my list, ASAP. It’s no secret that modern society, businesses and advertising have unfortunately driven us to strive for perfection – in every sense of the word. Perfect appearance, body, social media presence, grades, job, career, house, car… etc. There are other ways to approach enacting change in your life, which I will detail more below.

The takeaway: If achieving perfection is your motivation for seeking self-help or personal development in your life… might be time to reflect and re-consider your mindset.

You’re Doing New Year’s Resolutions Wrong. Here’s How to Fix It.

This is episode #312 of Dan Harris’s podcast “Ten Percent Happier” with guest Dr. Laurie Santos. If you’re not familiar, Dr. Santos is a Yale professor of psychology who has recently become known for her class on the science of happiness and well-being (which is now also available for free on Coursera).

Anyway, I had yet another epiphany listening to this podcast episode, especially with Karen Karbo’s ideas about how we think about “self-help” fresh in my mind. What I love about Dr. Santos’s philosophy is that she believes goals, intentions and New Year’s Resolutions don’t always work or stick because they need to come from a place of self-compassion, not shame. As Dan Harris puts it:

"As we’ve been saying throughout our series, the research shows that self-compassion is much better fuel for habit change than our usual mode of shame. I have been referring to it as a kind of uber-habit, out of which all other habits can flow."

To reiterate, because I want to emphasize this, “self-help” materials and personal development content isn’t inherently bad, and wanting to improve qualities about yourself or striving to be a better person are perfectly fine and normal goals to have.

However, it is important consider where your desire to improve is coming from. Personally, what I realized this week is that my obsession with self-help was rooted in insecurity, grew from a place of self-doubt, was driven by a need for perfection, and manifested itself in the form of crippling anxiety about every freaking action I took.

I realized this because I noticed how I blamed and shamed myself every time I didn’t do what I said I would, and felt overwhelming guilt every time I didn’t check off all my to do list items. I hated myself when I spent another week not practicing crocheting when I knew I should in order to get better at it. While it felt good and boosted my confidence when I did follow through with something, and it felt like a step in the right direction, the negative self-talk in my head when I didn’t took me a hundred steps back.

The takeaway: If negative self-talk, shame, and guilt are driving forces in your path to self improvement, please take some time to pause and re-consider how you can kill those voices in your head, and instead use self-compassion to navigate achieving your goals and building a healthier lifestyle.

In short, I underwent a period of self-reflection this week as I contemplated the ways in which “self-help” can perpetuate behaviors and feelings of negative self-talk, shame and guilt if you’re not careful. Be kind to yourself as you work towards positive behavior change or achieving your goals.

You are not a robot, programmed to do X thing at X time every single day until the algorithm tells you not to. You might make mistakes, you might slip up sometimes, you might face circumstances out of your control that serve as barriers to achieving your goal.

Remember to use self-compassion as your motivation to improve – not self-help, and certainly not self-hatred.

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