On New Year’s Eve, I was contacted by a local radio station to do an interview on how to prepare for the new year. I didn’t get back to them soon enough, so they found someone else. Later that day, on my way to the grocery store, I happened to hear the interview with the life coach they interviewed instead, and while I was sorry to miss the interview opportunity, I realized I wasn’t quite the kind of voice they wanted to hear anyway. I know that I wouldn’t have been able to give the kinds of pithy, coach-y answers they were looking for. They wanted to hear about things like intentions or resolutions for the new year, gratitude journals, vision boards or tips for setting achievable goals.
These can all be good and helpful things, and I might have talked about them myself if I’d done the interview ten years ago, but none of them feel like they’re good enough for us anymore, especially when we’re in the middle of a pandemic and white supremacy is threatening to destroy democracy in the U.S..
- Because so much of our narrative around New Year’s resolutions (and all of the trendy alternatives) are rooted in the “you are the master of your own domain” narrative that assumes we can control our own destiny – a belief that’s primarily rooted in privilege. If the pandemic has shown us anything, it has shown us how little control we have over the outcome of our year. And then (especially for those living at the margins of the dominant culture) there are all of those other things that get in the way, like systemic oppression, discrimination, abuse of power, lack of health care, poverty, etc. Yes, we have to take responsibility for our own choices and behaviour, and our plans and intentions can be valuable, but we also have to be honest about the ways in which we are part of a system that privileges some and oppresses others.
- Because sometimes our “good intentions” can have harmful impact on other people, and to focus solely on individual intentions is to potentially overlook our commitment to the collective. This is another lesson of the pandemic – to make choices rooted in your individual rights and needs may have a devastating impact on people around you.
- Because when we focus too much on plans and resolutions and fail to talk about how we’ll grow our resilience and adapt to change, we can set ourselves up for disappointment and distress when disruption comes.
- Because many of us are just trying to survive right now, and too much talk about vision and hopes and resolutions and planning can be shaming to those who can barely get out of bed because of depression, who can barely pay the bills because the pandemic has taken away their income, who have difficulty planning because they’re neurodivergent, or who are deep in grief because the pandemic has taken away someone they love.
- Because if you believe you can “manifest good things”, it’s a good sign you’ve been the beneficiary of privilege and don’t know what it’s like to be denied those good things because of your skin colour, race, sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, religion, socio-economic status, etc.
None of these things are related solely to New Year’s Eve – they’re present in all of the self-help industry and much of the coaching world. They are concepts that have been sold to us by those who know how to leverage our insecurities, our longing, our weakness, our self-doubt, and our shame. They exist because capitalism functions best when people are convinced they need more trinkets, more validation, more courses, more gurus, and more self-improvement to convince themselves of their own worthiness.
I think it’s time for the self-help industry to grow up. I think (to quote the Bible) it’s time to “put away childish things” and evolve into something that offers more meaning, more grit, and more contribution to the good of the collective.
The self-help industry is like the teenager of the personal/collective development family – it’s focused mostly on its own interests, it prefers shiny and pretty to gritty and robust, it tends to see the world (and all the people around it) as a vehicle to get its own needs met, it doesn’t like to clean up its own mess, it’s easily influenced by attractive and charismatic influencers, and it isn’t grounded or mature enough yet to withstand the manipulative forces of those spouting propaganda and conspiracy theories.
(I love teenagers, by the way, and mostly really enjoyed raising three of them. They have plenty of positive traits beyond what I mentioned above. But the fact is, nobody’s brain has fully developed in the teen years and they’re meant to continue evolving.)
What might it look like if the self-help industry grew up?
- We would talk less about self-care and more about community-care. We would recognize that we are interdependent and that we have much more capacity for growth and healing when we do it together. Our bookstores would have “community-help” sections that would grow past the size of the “self-help” section.
- Those with mental illness and those who are neurodivergent would be more fully integrated into our communities and wouldn’t be shamed for the ways they function differently. We would value their unique insights and we would recognize that when their needs are met and their voices are heard, it’s good for the collective and not just the individual.
- We’d elevate the voices of those saying challenging and meaningful things rather than those who have the shiniest social media presence who promote aspirational but empty ideas. There would be space for those pushed to the margins by the dominant culture to be heard.
- We would talk just as much about grief and trauma as we do about joy and desire. We would recognize that our lives are richer and fuller when we allow ourselves the full breadth of human experience and we’d let go of harmful ideas about how “positive thoughts attract positive things”.
- We would learn to be in messy conversations with each other. We’d learn the transformational potential of conflict and we’d resist the urge to run away from it. We would listen to each other even when that meant we’d need to be confronted with our own mistakes and biases.
- We’d quit trying to reach some unattainable standard of perfection and we’d give ourselves more grace for the ways we fumble and the times we need rest. We’d stop buying magazines or signing up for classes or watching movies that make us feel unworthy.
- We’d wrestle with our own biases, our privilege, and our access to power and we wouldn’t assume that what we have access to is what we’ve “earned”. We wouldn’t let our fragility get in the way of our growth and contribution to the evolution of the collective.
- We wouldn’t need to talk as much about worthiness anymore because we would have silenced the voices of those making money from our unworthiness. Our communities would evolve to value all kinds of contributions, so we wouldn’t have as much need to measure ourselves on arbitrary yard sticks of productivity or value.
- We’d see that much of what we’ve been taught is spiritual bypassing that’s about avoiding the messiness in life and trying to transcend the pain. We’d recognize the harm done by that kind of belief system to ourselves and to the people whose pain we’ve ignored or shamed because of it.
- We’d stop buying so many things in our efforts to fill the void. Instead, we’d spend time in nature, we’d rest, and we’d spend more time with people who challenge and nurture us. We’d learn from the natural world and we’d live in ways that are less destructive to the environment.
- We would see that we are imbedded in systems and that personal growth is only part of what is necessary for our culture (and ourselves) to evolve. We’d recognize the need to invest in systemic change and to challenge systemic imbalances, and we’d give ourselves grace when our behaviour and choices are deeply rooted in the social conditioning we’ve received from the systems we’re part of.
Several years ago, a friend shared a graphic he’d made about his life. It was a timeline that showed the kinds of books he’d read at various stages of his life. It was particularly focused on the evolution of his spiritual life, moving from those ideas that he was fed by his family and community in his childhood, through his questioning and awakening phase, to a much more open-minded, complex, and non-dual spirituality. I appreciate what his timeline reflected – that there is a time and a place for every stage of growth and that what we explored in our younger years provided the platform for what we are ready to explore in our later years.
There’s a good chance, if you’re reading this post, that you’ve gone through a phase in your life when self-help books were valuable in helping you begin your self-discovery, healing, and personal growth work. That is certainly true for me and for most of the people I know.
But I encourage you to consider that there is a limit to how far those ideas can take you, and if you cling to them, your growth may become stunted. It would be like a toddler who refused to give up pablum for solid food. That toddler’s bones and muscles wouldn’t grow strong enough to carry them into adulthood.
It may be time to put away childish things and to look beyond the self-help industry for your next level of growth and healing.
It feels a little disingenuous to promote something at the bottom of a post in which I critique the way the self-help industry makes money, so you can feel free to ignore this next bit. However, if you’re looking for a way to go deeper in 2021, to move beyond the messages you’ve been fed by the self-help industry, you might want to sign up for 52 Weeks of Holding Space. It will challenge and stretch you while also reminding you that you are enough.