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What We Really Talk about When We Talk about Self-Help

On the politics of self-improvement.

Key points

  • Theories of self-help always rest on specific conceptions of selfhood, as well as on notions of agency and personal responsibility.
  • If we believe in our unlimited capacity to help ourselves, we may blame those who do not manage to do so successfully.
  • Self-help is a telling barometer for wider cultural beliefs, anxieties, and aspirations, as well as our conceptions of the good life.

Our appetite for self-help has never been greater: The self-help market is valued at $11 billion worldwide and is forecast to grow rapidly over the next few decades. We consume self-help literature voraciously, ever hungry for the latest guidance. The personal-development sector, too, is booming. We spend large sums on therapists, life coaches, and wellness experts, while our employers invest heavily in developing our soft skills. But a rapidly growing number of people see the cultural imperative of constantly having to improve ourselves critically.

The self-help industry is based on the assumption that we have many serious and debilitating shortcomings that need fixing. It hooks into our dissatisfaction with who and what we are, often promising unrealistic quick-fix cures for our deeper existential ailments. The self-improvement diktat, moreover, implies that we alone are responsible for our own happiness, that it is our personal responsibility, and indeed obligation, constantly to work on our character, interpersonal skills, health, and the adequate management of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Many self-help regimes do not acknowledge the structural and political causes of some of our predicaments, nor the differences in our ability to self-improve that may be related to our upbringing, life experiences, and character traits.

The very idea of self-help implies that the self can be helped and that it is in all our powers to do so. Many self-help regimes assume that we have infinite agency to shape our own fate, and that we must be lacking in willpower if we don’t succeed in doing so. The perhaps most extreme form of that kind of thinking is at work in texts like The Secret (2006), which suggest that everything that happens to us is our own doing, because our thoughts are “magnetic” and attract matching psycho-spiritual energies to us. If we fail to think happy thoughts, the “law of attraction” ensures that bad stuff will happen to us. According to that logic, assaults, illnesses, accidents, and even genocide are ultimately all the victim’s fault.

When we talk about self-help we can therefore not just discuss whether specific psycho-technologies are effective or not. Self-help is also a political topic with wide-ranging ethical implications. Self-help regimes always rest on very specific concepts of the self, as well as on assumptions about agency, personal responsibility, and our wider place in the systems of which we are a part. These assumptions are rarely made explicit, but substantially shape the suggested improvement regimes. To what extent are we able to shape ourselves and our lives? If we believe in the infinite possibility to transform ourselves, we may blame or look down on those who do not manage to take positive action. If we believe that our potential is predetermined, we may feel helpless and depressed.

Do we conceive of ourselves as solitary, autonomous agents, out there to secure personal advantages in hostile territories? Or do we think of ourselves as relational and interdependent, embedded parts of a much larger whole? Do we believe in fixed qualities and potentials, or in more fluid and context-dependent notions of selfhood? These conceptions change throughout history and across cultures. The Stoic philosopher Seneca, for example, writes: “Our relations with one another are like a stone arch, which would collapse if the stones did not mutually support each other, and which is upheld in this very way.”

His concept of our relational nature and communal purpose could not differ more starkly from Jordan B. Peterson’s. In 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (2018), Peterson recommends that we copy the ways of the “top-lobster.” For it is “winner-take-all in the lobster world, just as it is in human societies, where the top 1 percent have as much loot as the bottom 50 percent.” The posturing of the strutting shellfish intimidates the less confident members of the species, so that its chances of securing prey, territory, and sexual partners are greatly enhanced.

What is more, philosophies of self-improvement are always bound up with broader beliefs about ethics, our purpose, and what constitutes a good life. It is for that reason that self-help is a deeply revealing cultural practice, a telling barometer for our values, aspirations, and anxieties. What, for example, does our current obsession with minimalism, tidying, and digital detoxing tell us? Why is there an upsurge in the literature on learning from animals, plants, and ecosystems? And why is Stoic thought enjoying a renaissance? I discuss these and many other past and current self-help trends in The Art of Self-Improvement: Ten Timeless Truths.

At the most fundamental level, our desire to improve ourselves, and the belief that this is possible, is an act of rebellion against the idea of determinism. Engaging in the act of self-improvement is our — however flawed — effort to take control of our lives. It is an attempt to defy whatever forces we may blame for our perceived insufficiencies: nature or nurture, genes or the environment, God, karma, fate, or the constellation of the planets. Our belief in the improvability of the self can therefore be seen as a powerful act of defiance, a (perhaps) hubristic assertion of agency and control in a world where it is all too easy to feel powerless and adrift.

More from Anna Katharina Schaffner Ph.D.
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