Popularised in the 1970s by such giants as Tony Robbins and Louise Hay and fed by a continuous stream of new releases, the self-help movement has become a booming industry serviced by a plethora of teachers, authors, coaches, therapists, gurus and self-appointed visionaries specialising in everything from NLP and healing to the Law of Attraction.
While the ideas within these schools of thought may be useful to some, the overall value of self-help remains worryingly unproven. As it spreads like wildfire thanks to the internet and its YouTube channels, this movement is now starting to present a hugely over-simplified set of ideas and assumptions about life that risk creating more problems than they solve, including increased anxiety, decreased self-esteem and a deep dissatisfaction with life.
Let’s explore why.
For many seeking a quick fix to their life situation and its challenges, a set of self-help rules appear to be the perfect solution. These rules are invariably masterminded by a guru who appears to walk-the-walk and talk-the-talk and who presents themselves as ‘the expert’.
These gurus offer a formulaic set of ideas that seem to solve life’s problems - albeit at a price. This is very appealing when you know deep down your life needs to change or if you are emotionally troubled. And even if you just like the idea of self-improvement and fulfilling your potential, it is easy to get caught up in the razzmatazz and high energy of many of the self-help guru’s marketing.
However, problems invariably arise after the self-help programme has ended, when all the buzz and hype has died down, and people have to go back and apply the ‘wonder formula’ to their own specific life circumstances. In their ‘go for it’ approach, few gurus give thought how to apply their formula to other people’s lives. The approach works if you have the time, resources and support structures to be able to hone your life, finances and working environment around it. But most people don’t, and in trying to fulfil their potential, they forget that it is not just information and inspiration they need, but some long-term effort, dedication and resilience too, to convert goals into reality and dreams into destiny. A quick fix it is not.
Add to that the different mental make-up we all have as a result of our upbringing and life experiences and the formula starts to fall apart. No doubt, these formulae work for the guru with their specific beliefs, attitudes and approach to life but for others, with completely different unconscious thought patterns, it often does not. It sounds easy to ‘put it out to the Universe’ and expect it to happen or, ‘keep our thoughts in a high vibration’ and we will attract our desires to us. But, if we have unconscious limiting beliefs that don’t trust Life/the Universe or a subconscious mind-set that we don’t deserve to have what we desire, we will get nowhere.
Unfortunately, the result of much of the self-help advice is that many give up on or are forced to abandon their goals and desires, and return to the reality of their life with its problems and issues. For some, they are a little wiser, but for others they are left with a sense of bitterness, hopelessness and despair - emotions that often resurface at yet another self-help workshop some time later, with similarly unsatisfactory results.
So what exactly are some of the key self-help concepts that it may be best to ignore?
Follow your dreams
The self-help industry tells us that in order to be happy in life, we must follow our dreams. To this effect, we should set goals clarifying what we want to achieve, and then visualise them, affirming all the time that these goals have already manifested, thereby attracting them into our lives. The theory is through a series of practical, logical, and experiential steps, anyone can realise a dream.
Sounds interesting. But among those who follow this advice, many risk their incomes, or struggle to generate business from a small venture aligned with their ‘calling’. For unless they choose their dreams carefully, this idealistic form of goal-setting therefore tends to leave people short, and deprived of the fulfilment they hoped for in their pursuit of happiness.
The belief that our greatest goals and intentions can work out through the sheer power of intention can also trigger intense feelings of shame at disappointing outcomes. Add such feelings into the mix of our stressful lives, and our sense of worth can quickly erode. And while it may indeed be helpful to heed an inner sense of direction, following a dream suggests making grand gestures, such as setting up a business (that may ultimately prove unviable) or giving up the day job.
In truth, happiness may flow from smaller ventures, such as taking time off, doing some part-time work, exploring a passion or talent, volunteering, trying out a hobby, setting up a charity, or offering a service. Let's remember: just because it’s a dream doesn’t mean it will pay the bills.
Make life happen and say ‘yes’ to life
As we set about realising our intentions, we are told to take massive action, make life happen and become a ‘yes’ person; someone who always embraces whatever opportunity comes along. With determined action and a ‘yes’, positive results are guaranteed, for then the Universe supports us and gives us what we want in return. The ‘make life happen’ approach is also seen as the road to inner satisfaction - the theory being that by working hard and accepting everything that comes our way, we squeeze the most juice out of life.
So much for theory. In fact, the pressure continuously to take massive action and keep saying ‘yes’ is known to leave people depleted and overwhelmed. They may have given of themselves at a cost: a certain balance in their lives may be lost, or time for themselves and their families sacrificed - most importantly, their sense of self-worth may start to erode. For if we really value our time, our energy, our relationships and our health, ‘no’ is a word we simply must embrace.
Call it common sense, intuition or inner guidance, we all have the power to discriminate between situations when we should indeed work really hard and other times when it is actually in our very best interests to refuse. It’s this capacity for discrimination, rather than an automatic ‘yes’, that brings rewards.
Focus on what you want, not on what you don’t want
According to the laws of self-help, we must avoid thinking about our problems or focusing on them in any way. Since we create our difficulties through our own thought processes and subconscious beliefs, to place our attention on a problem is to energise it, thus increasing its disruptive power.
What are we advised to do instead? Keep our focus fixed on our intended destination, be it business success, new markets to open up or an increase in profits. And stay happy, as happiness has a healing effect on all our problems and so the more we can laugh at them, the better.
While there's much to be said for taking responsibility for our problems on one hand, and seeing beyond them on the other, ignoring problems altogether rarely resolves anything - as with many business-related issues, for instance, which may call for immediate action. And all the happiness in the world is unlikely to heal a business heading towards bankruptcy. Moreover, the notion that we have created our own problems as a result of our thinking - while empowering and in most cases true - can make us feel guilty about the smallest set-back if this subtle message is crudely delivered.
So blaming ourselves is of no value. Turning inwards is a better answer, as our better judgment can offer us viable solutions - if we are willing to listen.
The current business buzzword in self-help is mindfulness. A practice which has its roots in Buddhist meditation, true mindfulness is an experience of deep stillness cultivated slowly over time by spending sustained periods in mental silence.
By contrast, current mindfulness practitioners teach us just to bring our awareness into the present moment, by noticing our breath, our thoughts or our feelings. The aim is to keep our focus solely on what we are currently doing and experiencing. To support this phenomenon, a host of Mindfulness Apps and Bells have now emerged, with the declared intention of bringing us all back to the present moment.
While there is some value in disrupting a long train of unconscious thought, these methods do little to bring about any real mental silence unless the user is able to stop, quiet the mind and enter into a state that allows true mindfulness to arise.
In truth, there is no shortcut to mindfulness: it takes time, effort, awareness, perseverance and preferably a teacher with a long-established meditative practice, for this is a mental state that is “caught”, not “taught”. In the absence of an experienced guide, there is only limited value in trying to capture fleeting moments of mindfulness.
Once again, if we are able to turn inwards and practise mental quietude, our intuitive wisdom, inspiration and our own authentic expression naturally arise within us to guide us through life. Properly developed, these inner powers offer us a practical, step-by-step route to the dreams that we are here to fulfil, the things that we should say ‘yes’ to, and the answers to our questions and problems. It's by strengthening our ability to tune into our own inner wisdom that we stand the greatest chance of finding long-term happiness, developing emotional stability and creating a sense of personal fulfilment.
Meanwhile, let's remain open to the possibility that the self-help industry, with its estimated yearly turnover of $25 billion worldwide, and its multitude of advice, help and solutions to all of life's dissatisfactions, may serve those who sell it much more than those who buy it.