The Dark Side of Self-Improvement

Literal perfection from Inspirobot

Self-improvement (or personal development or self-help) seems, on the face of it, like a good thing. Who doesn’t want to be better? We should all be better, right? (This should not be confused with “be best”, something that will never not make me laugh.)

The personal development industry is a $9.9 billion industry predicated on two simple messages: 1. You are not good enough. 2. You should always strive to be better.

Ironically enough, a big movement in the personal development field right now is pretty, rich, thin, white women telling other white women that they’ve always been good enough, and if they just pay $200 for their online course, they too will believe that they’re good enough. Please sign up now. Here is your reminder, the course is closing in 24 hours! Here are testimonials from women who have taken the course and found love/gotten a better job/lost weight/somehow retired at 35 to Corsica and there are only 10 hours left to take advantage of this amazing deal. Still on the fence? Watch a 30 minute live webinar which is basically an infomercial for this course pretending to offer tips on self improvement, with an extra hard pitch in the last 5 minutes. (This is the Marie Forleo method of content marketing that seemingly every pretty white woman selling something on the internet has taken up. Once you see the pattern, you can’t unsee it.)

Anyway. As I see it, there are three main problems with personal development as a thing and as a field.

  1. The messages themselves reinforce toxic messages.
  2. The undergirding idea of personal development is neoliberal AF.
  3. The people we look to for guidance tend to be excellent content marketers and have few qualifications beyond that.

First, the message that we aren’t good enough and that we should always strive to be doing better is incredibly toxic and is capitalism in a nutshell. We aren’t thin enough/rich enough/successful enough/happy enough and we should strive to do better by buying things. That’s really it, in a nutshell. Late stage capitalism requires constant consumption to survive while at the same time creating intense alienation from ourselves, each other, and the natural world. Some would suggest alternative economic models are the solution to this (and a whole host of other problems like climate change). Capitalism, though, takes this problem and manufactures a solution to it–individualize the problem and then sell sell sell to fix it. The problem isn’t that most people are doing jobs that are unfulfilling, unnecessary, and often make the world a worse place and that capitalism is inherently unsustainable. No, the problem is that we just haven’t bought enough stuff with the money we make from these unsatisfying jobs. So, solution one is to have us buy shit. But for those people who have figured out one of the basic problems (and core requirements) of capitalism, that it alienates us from ourselves and each other, capitalism has to adapt. So it sells us on all sorts of individualistic solutions to this alienation–meditation, yoga, retreats, mindfully drinking $10 cold pressed juice in $100 yoga pants. And all of these things cost money–even the things that don’t need to, say, meditation, are sold to us through books and apps and videos and retreats.

The other problem here is that the idea of continual self-improvement mirrors the capitalistic imperative of continual growth. Profits should always increase, even with a finite market (see: the razor companies tapped the men-with-beards market and so created a “problem” (women having hairy pits and legs) and a “solution” (an entire new market for razors)). And we too should continually grow and improve.

This brings us to the next big issue, the neoliberalism of it all. As a reminder, neoliberalism is a political ideology (that is, a way of understanding, organizing, and governing the world) that emphasizes and prizes individualism over collectivism and encourages consumption as a source of identity and the primary way that we engage with society.

Neoliberalism is another way that capitalism deals with critique. The issue isn’t systems of power that privilege a select few while oppressing, marginalizing, and harming everyone else, it’s that we’re just not trying hard enough. This is a neat way to invisiblize systems of power such as capitalism, white supremacy, misogyny, heteronormativity, cisnormativity, and ableism. The problem isn’t a system that privileges straight white cis men, it’s that those who don’t fit in one or more of those categories just aren’t trying hard enough. The wage gap isn’t the result of misogyny and racism, it’s women not being #bossbitches who #askforwhatyoureworth.

The entire field of personal development is predicated on the idea of individual problems with individual solutions. Didn’t get that raise you asked for? Maybe your style needs an overhaul (a literal email I got this morning), rather than our culture being based on employers paying as little as they can get away with and women and racialized people being judged poorly for asking for raises while white men are handsomely rewarded. Can’t find love? The problem is definitely your confidence, and not racism/fatphobia/femmephobia that devalues certain bodies while vaunting others (even within marginalized communities).

Individualizing problems makes it impossible to see systemic forces. And if we can’t see systemic forces, we can’t fight them.

Finally, many of the people we look to for inspiration, advice, and guidance, have no real qualifications. We aren’t going to well-trained therapists who are regulated, receive clinical supervision, and have ethical codes to work through issues, we’re paying some random pretty white lady $200 for some videos and a facebook group. We aren’t paying registered dieticians who have significant education and a lengthy practicum for evidence-based advice on our eating habits, we’re following women with barely concealed eating disorders and calling it healthy. The vast majority of influencers, life coaches, and health coaches, have no qualifications, little-to-no training, no one regulating them, and nowhere to report them if they are doing something unethical (I mean, beyond the shady ethics of being an influencer/life coach to start with).

Rather than personal development/self-help/self-improvement, I want to suggest a new paradigm. One in which we work to heal ourselves of the toxic messages we are taught growing up in this culture. One where “you aren’t good enough” isn’t solved by buying something, but by critically engaging with and then disavowing fatphobia, misogyny, and racism. One where we access trauma-informed, intersectional feminist therapists to help us heal from growing up in rape culture and experiencing micro- and macroaggressions against our marginalized identities, where financially possible. One where we build communities of care that help us do this work and hold us accountable when we harm others. One where we seek out books from legitimate and reputable sources to learn about systems of power, to unlearn the toxic messages they’ve taught us from birth, and to heal from the harm they do. One where we stop buying into a system that harms as and calling it self-help.

2 thoughts on “The Dark Side of Self-Improvement

  1. Yes, Thank you! I used to read so many self help books but got so sick of them because what sounded so great and inspirational was all useless pull yourself up by your own bootstrap bull crap. None of it ever worked for me even a little bit. Even though you’d occasionally find a diamond in the turd, it still wasn’t worth it.

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