is self-help bad?
individualism vs collectivism once again
by Henri Matisse
Yesterday I listened to the Maintenance Phase podcast on Rachel Hollis. She’s a self-help guru popular with red state women who wrote the book Girl, Wash Your Face and was recently cancelled for a tone-deaf TikTok in which she sort of compared herself to, uh, Harriet Tubman. I’m going to skip over Hollis’ “controversies” because I’m more interested in the podcast’s critique of her self-help advice, which in my opinion largely is a critique of rampant individualism.
This is true of not just Rachel Hollis but of basically every successful self-help author: the former Marine types like David Goggins, paternalistic Jung-inspired types like Jordan Peterson, spiritual types like Eckhart Tolle, charismatic guru types like Tony Robinson, fitness influencers like the dude who founded 75 Hard. All of their advice relies on the premise of individualism: YOU CAN TAKE CONTROL OF YOUR OWN DESTINY. IF YOU DON’T GO OUT AND DO IT, YOU DON’T WANT IT BAD ENOUGH. And it’s really seductive, because who doesn’t want to believe their fate is in their own hands? The flip side to that is the criticism that propels Maintenance Phase and much of the left culturally these days: that we are interdependent, not independent, and it’s foolish to pretend otherwise. It’s dumb to shame people for being fat when most people are statistically completely unable to lose weight. It’s dumb for privileged influencers from upper middle class households to preach self-reliance when they were handed every reasonable advantage at birth. Self-reliance is a lie, the reasoning goes, and moreover it’s an insidious lie that harms people.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the past couple years thinking about individualism and how to advocate for it in way that isn’t rah-rah Ayn Rand. Personally, when I say I write self-help—that I actually love self-help—I’m saying a number of things: that I believe people can change, though I acknowledge that it’s statistically unlikely. That I can’t help but be sympathetic to the meritocratic immigrant self-starter story because my parents lived it—they were born in Northern China in the wake of the Great Leap Forward, started their careers in Shenzhen during the tech boom of the 1990s as China changed around them at a dizzying pace, had me and moved to Canada when I was 3. That I spent my formative young adult years in San Francisco watching people around me do impossible things and was left with complicated feelings about technology and autonomy and extreme outcomes. That I understand the criticism that mindfulness is just a way of helping individuals psychologically cope with broken systems in a broken world, but also: it worked for me. I was unhappy and now I am happy, and when something like that happens to you you will spend the rest of your life screaming it from rooftops. I’m not defeatist, and I’m not pessimistic, and I automatically resist any worldview that goes, the world is fucked and we are fucked along with it.
I think we should encourage people to do difficult and unlikely things. I understand that this often comes with the side effect of shaming people who aren’t able to do difficult and unlikely things, which is most people most of the time. I agree that that sucks, and can be quote-unquote problematic. I do resonate with Aubrey Gordon said about the emotional shallowness of a lot of self-help, the way the authors often have a total lack of empathy for people who have might have completely different backgrounds and problems and perspectives, people who can’t just “pull themselves together.” I’m also very interested in the idea they expressed that most self-help tells you how to be a better person, but better on the axes of being more productive or more happy (like, a better girlboss), not actually a good person. I would like to see more writing on how to be a good person that is not rationalist-adjacent thinking, that talks about “goodness” in terms of beauty and emotions.
After the publication of her first book, Rachel Hollis took a bunch of money to speak at MLM conferences. I am obsessed with documentaries about Lularoe and the like because they remind me how thin the line can be between a business and a “business,” how grit can look so much like delusion but sometimes delusion is just delusion. If you think you can start SpaceX and you’re Elon Musk, you’re just ambitious. If you’re not Elon Musk but you desperately believe you can introspect your way into being Elon Musk, it looks a little grimmer.
The essential dilemma of self-help is how do we encourage healthy self-awareness? How do we make people feel good about trying to defy the odds while also acknowledging that change is hard and most people stay the same? Aubrey Gordon said something at the end of the podcast about how the common “you can do it all and have it all” self-help rhetoric passes less today than it would have, say, 15 years ago, because we’re more critical about the contradictions inherent in saying something like, I love my body but I also want to lose weight. But I still think contradiction is necessary, that all of us are holding ideas that conflict with each other and that’s just the fucking human condition. We try to have keep the stability and the excitement, to love ourselves and change ourselves, to be spiritually connected while maintaining ambition in the world, and we always fall short. We find guidance cathartic, we want to map out a way of being that works. I don’t think the life I’m trying to live is about, like, being politically consistent all the time in all of my actions and thoughts. I think it’s more about trying to find some semblance of coherence in all of the chaos: believing in individualism but also understanding that we are necessarily interdependent, affected by the systems and institutions that we live in. Still believing that a single person can perform a miracle that affects all the generations to come. Self-help books, however crude in their messaging and ideology—however inconsistently effective—have gotten me through periods of my life when I was lost and looking for hope, looking for reassurance, thinking that the center could not hold.
This is a dazzling post (as usual) —cascading levels of insight upon insight. Yes: self-help books are often crude and sometimes life-saving. (Case in point: Alcoholics Anonymous.) This is what I appreciate most about your writing: your willingness to dance on the edge of paradox. Thought experiment: Substitute "self-help" for "self-care" and see what you get. Many blessings to you!
Take Janet: Janet wants to lose weight. Janet probably could if: (a) her husband Steve wasn't also fat, or at least he wanted to lose weight with her; (b) she recognized that her job and/or kids exhausted her, but had a growth mindset and realized she probably had some habits or ways of responding contributing to that exhaustion and she could change that; (c) she made more money, thus opening more options toward eating conveniently that wasn't total garbage; (d) etc.
We're all imperfect introspecters. So, when someone says that either they, or people in general, can't change, I just think: BS... we're just really bad at understanding ourselves. We don't properly *try*; almost nobody really *tries*. The weight loss one is particularly maddening and intriguing. With the right personal resources, it should be a piece of cake, just eat a *little* less, eat more regularly, do that for a long time; yet we know it's not, and one must wonder: why? And this applies too to other self-improvement endeavors: why can't a father lashing out at his kids just stop? Again, due to many complex reasons--but that doesn't make them intractable. For example, one I've seen and done myself is stubbornness--and if we're ashamed of some behavior, defensive mechanisms kick in to change our perception so we don't believe we're doing something wrong.
I will never accept "people can't change"; I will only accept "people are complicated".