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Self Help

An overview of the history of the self-help industry, why it is considered problematic, and what alternatives have been put forward which critically engage with the assumptions of self-help and the happiness industry.

Meg John Barker

on 24 July 2014

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Transcript of Self Help

Anti self-help books
Barker, M. (2012). Rewriting the rules: An integrative guide to love, sex and relationships. London: Routledge.
Burkeman, O. (2012). The antidote. London: Canongate.
Burkeman, O. (2011). Help. London: Canongate.

On self-help
Cherry, S. (2012). How to stop reading self-help books. Available from: www.createspace.com/3854469
Dolby, S. K. (2008). Self help books: Why Americans keep reading them. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Kaminer, W. (1992). I’m dysfunctional, you’re dysfunctional: the recovery movement and other self-help fashions. New York: Addison-Wesley.
McGee, M. (2005). Self-help, Inc. Makeover culture in American life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Pearsall, P. (2005). The last self-help book you’ll ever need: repress the anger, think negatively, be a good blamer & throttle your inner child. New York: Basic Books.
Peele, N. V. (1995 [1989]). Diseasing of America: how we allowed recovery zealots and the treatment industry to convince us we are out of control. San Franscisco: Jossey-Bass.
Salerno, S. (2005). SHAM: Self-help and actualization movement. London: Nicholas Brealey.
Simmonds, W. (1992). Women and self-help culture: reading between the lines. New Jersey: Rutgers.
Tiede, T. (2001). Self-help nation: the long overdue, entirely justified, delightfully hostile guide to the snake oil peddlers who are sapping our nation’s souls. New York: Atlantic.

On happiness:
Ahmed, S. (2010). The promise of happiness. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Magid, B. (2008). Ending the pursuit of happiness. Boston, MA: Wisdom publications.

Rubin, G, (2011). The happiness project: Or, why I spent a year trying to sing in the morning, clean my closets, fight right, read Aristotle, and generally have more fun. London: Harpercollins.
Van Deurzen, E. (2008). Psychotherapy and the quest for happiness. London: Sage.

Relationship self-help
Boynton, P. (2003). Abiding by The Rules: Instructing women in relationships. Feminism and Psychology, 13(2). 237-245.
Potts, A. (1998), The Science/Fiction of Sex: John Gray’s Mars and Venus in the Bedroom. Sexualities, 1 (2): 153-173.
Weatherall, A. (2002). Gender, Language and Discourse. London: Routledge.
Crawford, M. (2004). Mars and Venus collide: A discursive analysis of marital self-help psychology. Feminism and Psychology, 14(1) 63-79.

History of Self Help
What's Wrong
with Self Help?

Anti-Self-Help Self-Help
Rewriting the Rules
Example: Relationship & Sex Self-Help
Example: Oliver Burkeman & Mindfulness
Perpetuates self-monitoring culture
Experience of self-help
What do we mean by self-help?
Who uses self-help and why?
Have you engaged with it? What books or other advice / self-improvement products?
Thoughts: What's useful / problematic about self-help?
Is self help necessary in any form?
What alternatives are there?
Can 'anti-self-help self-help' escape the problems of self-help?
What kind of sex / relationships advice / self-help would you like to see? Can it be inclusive? Can it recognise the role of the social?
1710 Cotton Mather - Essays to do Good - within social role
1757 Benjamin Franklin - The Way to Wealth - possible to change social role
1859 Samuel Smiles (Scotland) - 'self-help' used to mean personal development
Early C20th shift from focus on hard work to positive thinking (New Thought)
1940s - How to Win Friends and Influence People - first to combine advice and anecdote - smile, use people's names
1950s - The Power of Positive Thinking - stories of people who achieved great things (survivor bias common)
1960s - I’m OK, You’re OK - victimisation theme - blaming problems on others
1980s/90s onwards - Empowerment movement - backlash - you are responsible for your own problems / bad behaviours
Taken to extremes - Robbins etc. - merely thinking positively brings positive things to you (victim blame)
The Secret: “Why do you think that 1 % of the population earns around 96 % of all the money that’s being earned? Do you think that’s an accident? It’s designed that way. They understand something. They understand The Secret, and now you are being introduced to The Secret.”
1975-2000 - doubling of self-help industry (% of book sales)
45,000 titles, $12 billion industry: gurus, speakers, spin-offs
Increasing promises in decreasing time frame
Promotes normativity
Don't work - people buy more
Internalises problems - blames the individual - requires people to change
No awareness of social context or complex biopsychosocial interaction
Commercialism - based on convincing people they are lacking and offering fixes (which don't fix or create new lacks so have to buy more)
Foucauldian panopticon - encourages people to monitor selves, compare against (idealised) others, focus inwards, ignore social ills and other's suffering - self-help perpetuates this
Singular/static understanding of the self
Books often take for granted that the best way to be is the one that is currently socially normative e.g. 'successful' at work, rich, married with children, happy, etc.
Little critical engagement with whether such aims are worth striving for or whether striving for them will be effective.
Perpetuate normative ideas of what it is to be a successful self: excludes those who do not fit this, increases anxiety in those who are trying to fit.
One norm rather than diversity of possibilities
Each chapter
What are the rules?
Why question the rules?
What alternatives are there?
What might it be like without rules? (embracing uncertainty)
Turning outwards to societal 'rules' rather than inwards. Critical engagement & self-care.
Awareness of sociocultural context of suffering (differing levels/types of distress across time/culture/group)
Biopsychosocial - not internalising/victimation binary
Critical of existing self-help & wider social context (neoliberal, consumer capitalist, panopticon)
Encouraging critical engagement
Drawing on philosophy (e.g. de Botton - various philosophers, Burkeman - Ancient Greek & Buddhist)
Aware of paradox that striving for happiness/success often achieves the opposite
Burkeman's alternatives to positive thinking
Stoic pause: The cause of suffering is our judgement about things not the things themselves
Meditation: Practice letting thoughts and emotions come and go rather than attaching to the storyline
Question goal setting: Creates a gap between where you are and where you want to be
Be present: 'Do you have a problem right now?' - Ekhart Tolle - living in past/future creates problems
No need to 'get motivated' or 'find your passion' before you can get it on and act – Shoma Morita
Distinguish between bad outcomes and terrible ones: 'What's the worst that could happen?' – Albert Ellis
Be open to vulnerability rather than defending yourself
Question rigid, static, fixed self: Takes off the pressure
Embrace uncertainty rather than striving after safety and security
Memento mori: Consider death every day
Buddhist Mindfulness
Captures much of this - psychosocial noticing - how social operates through us
Sit comfortably & quiet, shut your eyes, relax any tension
Focus on the natural breath for 5 minutes
Be aware of everything that comes & goes - sensations, thoughts, feelings
Bring your attention back to the breath like an anchor
The Rules & The Game - getting what you want from the 'opposite sex' requires figuring them out and playing them
Mars/Venus thinking - men and women are naturally different and relationship problems are located in gender difference
Mars & Venus in the bedroom (Potts, 1998)
What is being done?
How it is being done?
Contradictions and inconsistencies
Full transcript