Cats and Theories
a blog by coticheque
a blog by coticheque

Resisting the self-improvement craze

This week I finished the book by a Danish author Svend Brinkmann titled ‘Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze’. And even though I disagree with the author on some fundamental points and pretty much on all the advise he gives and solutions he proposes (Brinkmann is good at diagnostics, but not at the remedies), the book still raises many important themes – ‘the problematic aspects of Zeitgeist’, so to say.

As the phenomenon of self-help has been annoying me for quite some time, below are some of my thoughts and observations, as well as a few useful take-aways from the Brinkmann’s book, and… some unavoidable critique of it.

The book essentially tackles the modern-day obsession with self-help, personal development, coaching and self-improvement – often directionless and absurd. People embarking on meaningless challenges, such as running 40-km-long marathons, waking up at 5am, or reading 100 fiction books per year. How did we arrive at this bizarre point, where these activities are considered as something contributing to self-improvement?

A slogan from the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline – says: ‘Do more, feel better, live longer’. These are the key goals in an accelerating culture, and psychoactive drugs help us achieve them: to do more (irrespective of what it might be?); feel better (no matter what triggered your emotions?); and live longer (irrespective of the quality of the extra years of life?). In an accelerating culture, we are supposed to do more, do it better and do it for longer, with scant regard for the content or the meaning of what we’re doing.

Again – this absurdity is best highlighted in the modern-day obsession with running marathons. A meaningless activity done for the sake of doing it, but with a little regard to its purpose or reason. Or – numerous coaches telling you to exercise 6 days per week, and stick to a religious discipline of going to the gym, for the sake of… perhaps prolonging your life by a couple of years that you could fill with… even more time in the gym?

Our secular age is shot through with fundamental existential uncertainty and angst, and this makes it difficult to stand firm. The upshot of this is that most of us are easy marks for all sorts of guidance, therapy, coaching, mindfulness, positive psychology and general self-development. In spheres like diet, health and exercise, a veritable religion has emerged that constantly churns out new edicts to follow and regimes to live by. One moment what you should eat is determined by your blood type, the next by the diet of your Paleolithic ancestors. It seems that we – and I’m not afraid to count myself among the collective ‘we’ – lack purpose and direction, and run around looking for the latest recipe for happiness, progress and success.

How relatable. In the past years it was keto-diet and intermittent fasting that promised to bring their followers health, happiness and success. Or, another currently trending recipe for success (especially prominent on TikTok these days) – waking up at 5am and doing meditations. What for? As Nietzsche said, it’s all nothing but a multiplication of zero by zero.

Some (fewer and fewer) are addicted to cigarettes and alcohol, but a growing majority of people seem to be dependent on advice from lifestyle mentors, self-developers and health gurus.’

Being prone to the self-help craze definitely originates from the fundamental uncertainty of our age – the feeling of being lost, disoriented in the complex world, where conventional dogmas are no longer considered unquestionable. In such a hopeless state, any guru who has enough confidence in what he’s saying, seems like a prophet who holds the magic key to unlock all secret knowledge about the meaning of life and the path to success.

Of course, it’s not a particularly new phenomenon, and it’s not merely limited to life-style and health. For instance, uncertainty is similarly prominent in the area of psychology. More and more people subscribe to various theories trending in pop-psychology (in the past it was interpreting everything from the Freudian perspective, these days – explaining flaws in interpersonal relationships from the standpoint of abuse). Just because these theories have at least some little explanatory power – the first loose explanation still seems more appealing than a total uncertainty.

Anyway, Brinkmann organizes his book into seven chapters, each of them devoted to critique of one aspect of the self-help craze. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

Against the pointless introspection

The first chapter is titled ‘Cut out the naval-gazing’ and it is supposed to criticize the obsession with excessive introspection. I agree with the author only partially. It’s reasonable to criticize pointless introspection, full of statements like ‘all answers already lie within you’, which are absurd indeed.

We have begun to worship the self in a way that seals it off from everything outside us: history, nature, society, and anything else that originates from external sources. In the previous chapter, I called this the religion of the self. If we rule out the validity of external sources, we’re left with only ourselves on which to base the definition of the self.

What I believe Brinkmann is trying to do is to repudiate obsession with the self in a total isolation from the external world. He then constructs a rather unrealistic straw-man as a mix of absurdities – like a manager making business decisions based on his inner voice. The first thought: it’s absurd to think that there are many people in the real world who actually believe that such an isolated introspection can yield any meaningful knowledge about the world. However, we cannot rule out existence of such opinions either: I personally know a few people who are so much into introspection that it borders with a real obsession and absorption in the inner-world. As expected, such intense focus on internal and a total disregard of external doesn’t result in any precious ‘insights’ from within, but mostly just returns the most common and banal thoughts absorbed throughout one’s lifespan and retrieved from the unconsciousness – mistaken for something insightful and revealing.

We should keep in mind though that it’s been already more than 200 years since Kant famously argued that the metaphysics is invalid when not grounded on empirical observations. When human mind is left on its own, it comes up with all sorts of weird concepts detached from reality, such as angels, God or soul. Human cognition devoid of any empirical experience is prone to producing lots of BS. Same with introspection: if your mind is detached from any empirical experience, it’s very likely that while gazing inside yourself, you’ll simply find nothing. Or something bizarre.

Or, let’s put it in the context of a debate about nature vs nurture. What drives our life trajectories: the innate characteristics or life circumstances? I think here we can apply the theory of Gilbert Ryle about categorization mistakes (or fake dichotomies) – that he originally developed for the debate about mind vs body. Nature and nurture are simply things that don’t belong to the same category, therefore it’s pointless to treat them equally. Take for instance a pie: what influences it more – raw ingredients mixed inside a baking form, or the process of baking it in the oven? Essentially, baking something without proper ingredients won’t result in a pie. But similarly, the raw dough not exposed to the proper temperature in the oven for a sufficient amount of time won’t result in something considered a pie either. It’s weird to say that dough and baking are things belonging to the same sphere though. Same with nature and nurture, or – with our ‘inner voice’ and empirical experiences. One cannot exist without another.

On search for the true-self

Unfortunately, Brinkmann doesn’t stop at the repudiation of introspection, but proceeds to criticize pretty much any attempts of self-discovery and searching for one’s ‘true authentic self’. Essentially, this way he repudiates and renders meaningless a significant part of the continental philosophy. And I don’t think it was the actual ambition of the author to mock some of the most prominent philosophers as mindless followers of the self-help cult.

Take for instance Nietzsche and Heidegger. The cornerstone of the philosophy of each is the authentic being, grounded in the true-self. For Heidegger – it was an authentic existence of Dasein, guided by the inner voice of conscience, while for Nietzsche it’s the resolution of distinction between self and the true-self, needed in order to achieve true existence instead of letting one’s life be no more than just another accident. ‘What does your conscience say? – You shall become who you are’.

Indeed, the best advise on finding your true-self I ever heard is given by Nietzsche. Works magically (at least in my case). Here’s a passage from the book of Walter Kaufmann about it:

‘In his ‘Untimely Meditation’ Nietzsche assumes that we must recognize our true-self before we can realize it, although introspection does not reveal it. The most relieving question is ‘What have you really loved till now?’. The answer will show you ‘your true-self which doesn’t lie deeply concealed within you but immeasurably high above you, or at least above what you usually take for your ego’. As we contemplate our self-chosen educators and meditate upon the dearest features of those we have elected from millions past and present to help us shape ourselves – we envisage our true nature which we would realize if we were not too lazy and afraid.

So it’s basically analyzing which people you’ve been unconsciously drawn to throughout your life and whom you chose as examples to follow (for instance, in case of Nietzsche it was Schopenhauer and Wagner). And not only people – but also things and ideas. There must be an explanation why something charms and animates us with no apparent reason. And what else can it be if not one of the manifestations of your true-self?

On the contrary, Brinkmann rejects any idea of existence of the true-self, and instead of searching for it advises readers to… step out of their comfort zone and reject a dessert after dinner. As if the whole phenomenon of conscience and the gut feeling is confused with the syndrome of an irritated stomach!.. Stepping out of the comfort zone – what a banal advise from an author who wrote a book against the self-help craze.

Brinkmann holds the same contempt for any attempts of self-development and self-perfection. Weird. Given that it’s not a merely modern-day phenomenon – most of the great philosophers of the past, from Plato to Nietzsche, agreed that self-perfection was the goal of morality. The problem of the modern age is not a fixation on self-perfection per se, but the struggle with identifying true virtues and directions for such self-perfection.

Against the tyranny of the positive

The second chapter is titled ‘Focus on negative in your life’ and it’s essentially about tyranny of the positive and the modern-day obsession with positive psychology. No objections here. Positive affirmations and visualizations have taken over social media and public sphere all over the places.

Negativity, criticism and suffering shouldn’t be undervalued. In fact, they constitute a bigger chunk of human life. The secret of having a meaningful life is to be mindful of your own death. This is the strongest incentive to actually produce some important stuff before it’s too late. The author quotes Seneca, warning that ‘we shouldn’t just think about death as something in the distant future – everything that can possibly happen at some point, can happen today’.

Same opinion was held by Socrates: ‘Socrates defined philosophy as the art of learning to die well. Contemporary culture encourages us to focus on the positive. Everybody talks about ‘the good life’ – but not about learning to die well.’

That’s very true. Why does the modern-day psychology excessively focuses on libido, but no one talks about mortido? Even Heidegger was saying that the secret of authentic being is grounded in temporality – meaning, you can only get a full grasp of your options when you realize that they’re essentially limited. On one of his lectures, Heidegger was asked how to live a more authentic life. ‘In order to have a better life, we should spend more time on the graveyards’ – was his answer.

Against the calls to ‘step out of the comfort zone’

The third chapter of the book is titled ‘Put on your No hat’ – and it’s supposed to contain arguments against the call to always say yes to new opportunities. The idea of Brinkmann is to cultivate an inner integrity: when one has a specific set of values and a coherent identity, he no longer feels a need to ‘tag along with recent trends’:

‘If you have integrity, you will often have to say no because so much of the accelerating culture deserves to be renounced’.

It does. How would such an integrity be obtainable, if the author repudiates any attempts of searching for the true-self is another question though.

Another advise on how to resist the endless calls to ‘step out of the comfort zone’ is to question the certainty of their utility:

Advocates of the Yes hat often accuse those who don the No hat of a lack of courage, and of rigidity and caution. But you could equally assert that it is philosophy of the Yes hat that clings to certainty. Proponents of the Yes hat are confident they know what’s right. It is necessary, good and right to say yes, as it leads to positivity, development, etc. We know that saying yes is the correct path. Stoic philosophy asserts the opposite: we do not know whether it is right to say yes, and this makes doubt the preferable option.

Indeed, who said that bungee jumping would contribute to your self-development in any meaningful way? And when people talk about ‘stepping out of your comfort zone’, in 99% cases they indeed mean doing some extreme sports or any other essentially meaningless activity that induces an adrenaline spike. Where have people even acquired this weird certainty that taking a ride on a rollercoaster is something you have to do, in order to prove your virtues and show that you’re not a narrow-minded rigid coward?

In this sense, developing a personal integrity would at least allow a person to have a good judgement of what’s important and what’s not. Therefore, obtaining a sense of integrity would deem many meaningless trends as pointless. As Brinkmann formulates it: ‘we should also pose the question: what unnecessary stuff can we cut out?’

Critique of contemporary ‘therapification’ of life

The fourth chapter is essentially about the modern-day obsession with a free expression of emotions. If you’re also annoyed by the constant talks about the ‘emotional intelligence’, you should find this chapter relevant too.

And speaking of emotional intelligence BS, did you know that all the allegedly scientific research findings presented in the infamous book by Daniel Goleman (statements like ‘People with a high EI on average earn 78,42% more money than people with a high IQ but low EI’) are not based on any actual scientific studies? Just saying.

Anyway, emotions are overrated. I like the Brinkmann’s advise on how to deal with negative emotions, suggesting to turn to Markus Aurelius:

Markus Aurelius was preoccupied with the insignificance of things as an antidote to anger. In general, he recommends that you consider the impermanence of all things in order to avoid anger and frustration when those things disappear. If a cup is broken, it may well be a pity – especially if it was valuable – but from the perspective of eternity, where everything is ultimately doomed to perish, it is an extremely small and insignificant matter.

Great advise indeed. Helps magically, not only against anger and frustration, but also anxiety and stress. Constant reminder of the insignificance of things – that’s the best solution how not to feel too stressed about work deadlines.

Coaches as new priests

People praised the most these days are personal development coaches. Just open Instagram to see countless ‘spiritually enlightened’ people who have achieved some mild success and are now ready to share their knowledge with the world. ‘You have to embrace the money energy’, ‘do these breathing exercises to fight your fear of success’, ‘unleash your masculine / feminine energy on the way to prosperity’. This is not some joke – these are all real slogans taken from Instagram posts of one young entrepreneur (and a self-proclaimed self-development guru) from my home town. As Brinkmann says:

‘Coaching is perhaps the most visible manifestation of everything that’s wrong with an accelerating culture. The concept of coaching is based on constant development and change – regardless of direction and content. It’s its own raison d’etre.’

It’s hard to find meaning in our secular age. Of course, people lacking any purpose and direction, would be attracted to seemingly self-confident individuals who claim that they have figured out the recipe for happiness and success:

‘It is claimed that self-realization results in self-sufficient adults, but it actually creates infantile, dependent adults who think that the truth lies within them.

While in reality the truth always lies in the words of self-help gurus – just like a few centuries ago, the truth was the exclusive monopoly of priests. And without a constant exposure to the self-help dogmas through social media – one’s life returns to its usual meaningless state.

I wish that instead of listening to all this BS, people invested time into figuring out their own interests, values, and meanings, and tried to assemble their own mental model of the world – instead of subscribing to someone else’s. The author suggests that instead of reading self-help books, we should read novels. I strongly disagree. Instead of self-help books, we should all read works in fundamental philosophy.

The reason thousands of self-help books are published – is precisely because they have no effect. Or, to persist with the dependency metaphor, as the effects wear off faster and faster, an addict needs more and more drugs. The same is true of self-help literature – as soon as you begin leaving healthily, eating according to your blood type or practicing ‘mindful eating’, you’ll be tempted by something new and seemingly more exciting. There’s always one more book to buy, one more concept to explore, one more course to attend.

Conclusion

A few months ago I was reading a science-fiction book by Margaret Atwood, titled ‘Oryx & Crake’, where the plot line is set in the near future. The main character is a student who writes a dissertation with a title ‘Self-Help Books of the Twentieth Century: Exploiting Hope and Fear’. The chapters include: 

‘Improve Your Self Image’
‘The Twelve-Step Plan for Assisted Suicide’
‘How to Make Friends and Influence People’
‘Flat Abs in Five Weeks’
‘Breeding Nutria For Fun and Profit’
‘Access Your Inner Child’
‘Healing Diverticulitis Through Chanting and Prayer’
‘You Can Have it All’


I bet one day all the modern-day self-improvement activities, whether these are positive affirmations, mindfulness courses, intermittent fasting or running 40-km-marathons would seem as absurd and bizarre as the list of titles above. A curious, yet questioning look by the future generations is the destiny that awaits the weird phenomenon of the self-help culture, and our only task is to resist the craze, until its inherent absurdity is finally exposed as self-evident.

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