If Self-Help Starts Feeling Unhelpful Here's Why

The half-baked hollowness of pop-psych and how to graduate beyond it.

Posted May 24, 2020

You look for a solution to your problems and you find it. Pop-psych, self-help gurus have the answer. 

They once were lost just like you but now they’re found and you can be too. The answer is love, kindness, fearlessness, generosity, mindfulness, no judgment, no negativity, integrity, giving, living in the moment, something final, a formula for living by the one true rule, old rules rebranded, dressed in the latest fashions.

So you pledge to become found the way the gurus did and for a while it seems to work, maybe even for a long while, at least as a new liberating posture, you a crusader for the One True formula. Even if you don’t always walk your talk you preach it and that makes you feel better like you’re on the right side fighting the good fight, part of the solution, not the problem even if you don’t always act like it. 

That may be enough for you. Or maybe eventually it isn’t. You still read your sacred self-help text because your identity got wrapped up in it, like it’s your thing. 

But it starts to feel hollow, even their argument that though it will sometimes feel hollow, you should stick to it anyway. That’s how religions talk too. Stay proud of your faith even when it feels flawed. 

It is flawed. That’s the problem. The problem with all exciting new One-True-Way formulas is that they eventually degenerate into hard practical work and why? 

Because they work against you as often as they work for you. Such moral resolve isn’t the end of your problems, it’s just the beginning if you’re honest with yourself. 

Once you’ve picked your battle you’ve embraced a tangle of sub-battles many of them fought within yourself against other real and good parts of you. 

You can ignore those battles at least for a while but they’ll eat at you. Maybe your zeal fades eventually. Or maybe it lingers as lip-service while you get on with living a typical life, no more exceptional and less practical than what you preach.

Most self-help suggests a simple solution: “Always do X, not Y.” It’s a relief to boil everything down to something so simple but it’s only relief as long as you can ignore the value of doing Y. 

Yes, we have an angel and a devil on our shoulders. Trouble is it’s hard to know which is which. It’s a relief to realize that X was the angel and Y was the devil all along. For example, judgment is the devil, non-judgment is the angel. Such a relief to get that sorted out finally. 

But you didn’t really and here’s why: Every one of those supposed one-wise-fits-all solutions is half the story. To get at the other half, just rephase your sacred pop-psych principle as the self-contradiction it really is:

  • Love is the answer: Hate your hate.
  • Kindness is the answer: Be unkind to your unkindness.
  • Fearlessness is the answer: Fear your fear
  • Generosity is the answer: Make yourself selfless.
  • Mindfulness is the answer: Fill your mind with emptiness.
  • Non-judgment is the answer: You should not be judgmental
  • Non-negativity is the answer: Negativity is a no-no
  • Integrity is the answer: Pretend you can square all your inner circles.
  • Living in the moment is the answer: Commit to spending your future in the moment. 

This isn’t just wordplay. Nor is it a reason to cynically dismiss these truisms as nonsense. Rather it’s recognizing that these truths touted as whole truths are half-truths that only become true when in tension with their other half. It’s recognizing that you haven’t escaped life’s dilemmas after all.

Each “Always do X” has a “Never do X”  embedded within it.

One graduates from pop self-help when one trades in one’s embraced “Always do X, not Y” half-truths for a serenity-prayer treatment of life’s dilemmas. Here’s how that happens.

You got in trouble for a bad judgment. You felt bad about it. Then you heard a guru say judgment is always bad. So you resolve that judgment is bad: No more judgment ever. You keep catching yourself judging. You apologize. Shame on you for your shameful shaming of others with your judgment. 

You resolve to do better and you start to notice that it’s really hard. So you go to your guru who tells you no, judgment is wrong. You shouldn’t judge.

So you try harder still. And still, you don’t succeed. 

Eventually, you come to realize that “Don’t judge” is a half-truth pretending to be a whole one. Being non-judgmental isn’t the answer; it’s the question: What to judge? What not to judge? You notice the pattern. For example, to be non-judgmental, you pledged to become tolerant. You promised yourself that you wouldn’t tolerate your intolerance any more: Be intolerant of intolerance. 

That’s not an “Always do X, not Y” answer; it’s a “when to do X, not Y?” question you’ll be living with all life long. That’s how you harvest real wisdom from pop-psych self-help. Your newfound wisdom is the wisdom to want to keep learning the differences between when to be tolerant and intolerant; when to judge and not judge: 

Grant me the tolerance to not judge what I shouldn’t try to change, the intolerance to judge what I should try to change and the wisdom to keep learning life-long the difference. 

Wisdom isn’t a formula. Rather, it’s wedding life’s inescapable tensions as inescapably your own. 

Here's a four-minute video on how love isn't the answer but the question:

Here's a video that puts this graduated wisdom in evolutionary perspective: