Stephen Ginn on self help: friend or foe?

There was a page advert in the Metro this week for a three days seminar with TV hypnotist Paul McKenna and pals which promised to “Change your life in three days.”

“In just 3 days, you will learn quick and lasting techniques to change your life, allowing you to:

  • Let go of your old emotional baggage
  • Have supreme self-confidence
  • Move past the obstacles to change
  • Supercharge your creativity
  • Deal with the past, once and for all
  • Become the person you’ve always wanted to be”

If these claims could be substantiated, then this is pretty impressive work.  As someone who tries to address at least some of these problems with my patients on a daily basis, for me changing someone’s life permanently in three days would be nothing short of a miracle. 

Is the self help industry really helping people or merely offering over simplified solutions to complicated personal and social problems?

The wise woman in the cave has been providing guidance since the beginning of time, but the pioneer of the modern self help movement was Dale Carnegie who published his book “How to win friends and influence people” in 1936.  It sold 15 million copies and continues to sell in an updated version today; the industry it spawned is estimated to be worth $11bn. 

These riches are not surprising; in a world where dissatisfaction is rife and those without personal contentment or possessions are failures, the best self-help materials appear to make the keys to a successful life appear within reach and the world deliciously simple. 

“Self-help” and the reward it promises therefore represent an undoubtedly attractive proposition.

Closer scrutiny reveals a more mixed picture.  In order to promote their product, the marketing for self help materials must necessarily engender or at least encourage personal deficit within potential clients which their product then promises to satisfy.  Not only is this (like most advertising) socially corrosive, but represents a circular proposition. 

Furthermore the self help industry is the product of, but also fans the flames of, the West’s culture of individualism.  In this way it works so as to discourage people from acting as part of collective movements to solve their problems but to see them as individually based. 

Attention and scrutiny is thereby attracted away from gross social inequalities and the myth promoted that health and wealth are largely self generated.  Self help can also be considered as colluding in a cultural trap whereby people are in endless cycles of self-invention and overwork as they struggle to stay ahead of the rapidly restructuring economic order. 

The initial and perhaps laudible aim that one should reach one’s full potential has then been replaced by a continuing demand that maximize oneself as ‘human capital’.  The tacit assumption that people need help, until proven otherwise, is also troubling and can only exacerbate our burgeoning culture of victimisation.

In terms of content self-help can be seen as equally wanting and has a tendency to present ancient clichés as revolutionary new strategies.  On dispassionate reading, the majority of the wisdom self help books provide is actually repackaged common sense and platitudes. 

This repackaging is necessary as any author is unable to lay claim to ideas that might be considered common property and with ownership in mind therefore seeks sophistication via the appearance of scientific method and intellectual rigor.  Anthony Robbins has, for instance, called one of his most successful books “Unlimited power: the new science of personal relations.” 

As well as the message, the medium is also vital as with relatively little insight to impart, theatrics will help (just like a brightly coloured sugar pill acts as a placebo). 

Consider that if your friend tells you something, you might not listen.  However if you’ve paid £400 for the advice, then the situation is quite different, and thus large expensive personal development seminars are widespread.  Anthony Robbins is famed for using firewalking demonstrations to illustrate that the main quality shared by those who achieve greatness is the ability to take action.

When the dust settles, my concern about self help overlaps with my concerns about the worst excesses of psychology and psychiatry practice.  It promises to do much more than it can ultimately deliver, the financial motivation behind it is rarely scrutinized and its individualistic focus draws attention from socially based solutions that might ultimately provide more permanent succour.  I would however concede that it is far preferable that people spend their money on McKenna’s show than on, say, a three day booze and drug fuelled bender – an altogether more dysfunctional coping strategy.

Stephen Ginn is a psychiatrist in training working in London. He writes the blog Frontier Psychiatrist.