I’ve been down the rabbit hole.
Self-help, self-improvement and self-development. There’s something about someone preaching ‘It’s never too late to start’, for example, or ‘5 ways I’ve increased my productivity’ or ’10 ways to earn a passive income’ or even ‘How to become a better leader’ that really gives off the same vibe as your own great curiosity forcing you to follow the white rabbit with his pocket watch jumping just ahead.
It’s been said before, but it’s worth saying again, that so much of the habits of the self-dev world seem to be secularised versions of existing spiritual practice. Intentionality, breathing exercises, meditating throughout the day, gratitude, positive affirmations, putting what you want out into “the universe”. Spirituality and religion more specifically are the original self-help guides, so to answer the question, there’s no doubt that self-help is filling the void of spirituality in imperfect ways, so I don’t even think that’s the interesting question. To question the answer, it’s more important to ask why is self-help filling the void of spirituality, what does it mean, and what is the good and bad of it.
Let’s work backwards, here. What is good and bad about the self-development genre?
I think self-dev as a genre is fantastic at making people realise their own value, their own presence and how they can use their own energies and talents for their own purposes. In a capitalist society, we are slaves to corporate structures, to the 9-to-5, giving our all to faceless businesses with managers who inherit and replicate all the problems they themselves suffer with. We’re slaves to buying and chasing things we can live happily without. If spirituality means to be concerned with the human spirit rather than material things, any self-help that prioritises innate human value is an antidote.
Lots of people who feel disillusioned by the world of work, especially when they’ve spent their whole lives wanting a job, or working, need to come to the realisation that they do have value and they do matter outside work. Self-dev opens people up to the possibility of other kinds of life and lifestyle by lifting the lid on the reality of people as cogs in the machine of capitalism, being reduced down to a few functions that exploit us to the benefit of someone who already has everything. More often, in the self-dev space, that’s learning about some of those capitalist structures in order to get the most out of them, and doing more to feel more human than machine.
Self-dev ideology forces people to admit their own faculties and capabilities and act on them. Self-dev makes room for feeling and thinking, for goal-making, finding space for bigger thoughts about what’s possible in a day, a week, a month, a year, five years, ten years. Often, it presents its own template goals to try on: meditation, a morning routine, an evening routine, a food plan, an exercise regime, a process by which decisions are automated etc. It offers ways to have some tangible representation of personal achievement. It offers ableist principles by which to live and work efficiently.
In some ways, I think self-help as it applies to a certain demographic is really about empowering a group who are born with power. People are given a chance to recognise the tools they have at their disposal, and are given a prescription as to how to use them. That’s not a bad thing, is it?
So, what is bad about self-development?
I think a one-size-fits-all blueprint of success is where self-help can fall down. I think because self-dev products generally replicate the same ideas and principles over and over, and one prescription can’t work for everyone, people feel disillusioned and wearied by the whole space. (And there is something weird about self-help/self-development gurus in general, and those gurus selling self-help/self-development products as their main source of income, compared to someone in another “specialised” field. A self-dev business person is a suspicious entity, perhaps because of the people who characterise that space.) Efficiency, which feels to me like one the main principles of self-dev, isn’t the most rewarding way to live, either. It’s an incredibly exclusive way to live in any case.
Existing spiritual practices, at least in my own understanding of them, recognise how different people can be successful in many or multiple ways, depending on their own status or position in life. This could be in learning and sharing knowledge and wisdom, in giving charity, in practising forgiveness, in building good habits, in striving to do good even after doing bad, in treating your body well, in fulfilling your own responsibilities, in being honest in your work and dealings with people, in reflection and gratitude, in not exploiting the power and money you’ve got for selfish purposes, and so forth.
Recognising your own capabilities is one thing, but turning that both inward and outward in order to actually improve the world and one’s feeling about it is something that self-help is only more recently understanding. There’s something about feeling content and peaceful in oneself that allows space to discern, to productively help others and change things for the better. Self-help based on capitalist ideas of “success” can be the antithesis to this contentment, and therefore reinforce existing damaging behaviours and structures.
There’s an interesting movement with self-dev being linked to “passing it forward”, to kindness, to helping other people. Self-dev gurus themselves perhaps are examples of this in sharing their own knowledge and stories, and coaching and mentoring. The tools of self-help are slowly but surely being turned outward; there is now another more flexible prescription on offer, one that shares tools with a more clear purpose. It’s not just about empowerment now, it’s about knowing what to do with that power. And sometimes it gets a bit absurd. You only have to think about the non-parody–but surely they’re fake?!–posts on LinkedIn about someone deciding to be a decent person for once and celebrating themselves for it. With an insecure ego and without spirituality or belief in an all-seeing, all-knowing higher power, I understand why people want social media witnesses.
What does it mean if self-help is filling the void of spirituality?
What I think is frustrating about this trajectory and this space, and why I’m writing this post at all, is that self-dev ignores decades (centuries, millennia) of spiritual literature that has already linked these things together. This is a problem of the erasure of let’s call it ‘non-white’ practice, and an uncomfortable co-opting of ideas and principles by white men (usually) in a way that dilutes the thing and turns existing spiritual practice into yet another product to be sold. The Nap Ministry is an example of an organisation that leads on work in rest and resistance, led by and speaking to Black people. As is so often the case with so much culture and work led by Black people, it has proliferated copycats who now co-opt the message, dilute it, and do it a disservice. It’s frustrating because there is much more to existing practices that’s divorced from them now because the self-dev and wellness versions make them more compact, insipid, dry, and so–like rusk–open to absorbing and attaching to things that negatively subvert the practice itself and fail to recognise wider contexts.
I think what grates about self-dev is that it hasn’t yet recognised its own place of privilege. It speaks in a way that fails to recognise not all people have the same quantity or access to the resource that power. In many versions of itself, it’s ableist, sexist, racist, not to say that spirituality isn’t. It doesn’t understand that gaining power is only really valuable to the world if you learn how to give it away, when you learn how to pass the microphone, give away the money, and platform. At least from what I’ve seen, there isn’t enough critical sociocultural awareness in the self-dev/self-help space. There is plenty of self-awareness, but will self-dev reach any kind of sociocultural awareness when it can be so self-satisfied with any good it does in the world? The most pervasive privilege is the sort that doesn’t see itself.
Earth needs all sorts, but individualism to the extreme that we see in self-help, and in societies led by Western colonial thought, is deeply ironic. It is colonial, dependent on truncating systems and lifestyles practiced by others (not very self-reliant or independent at all, then). The individualist asks “What can I extract from this? What can I get out of meditating? What can I get out of rest? What can I get out of intentionality? What can I get from passing it forward?” It’s not just a question of is it worthwhile, what I’m seeing is something that breaks the thing apart and doesn’t put them together again. It’s Humpty-Dumptying. It’s like individualists are opening a share bag of crisps, then separating the crisps out into smaller portions they sell separately for ten times the price, for convenience, with a new name. That’s what’s happening with these ideas. Also it makes me laugh that the every single one of the king’s horses tried to put Humpty together again, as if they could. I think they queued up in pairs.
Why is self-help filling the void of spirituality?
As self-help extracts more and more from spiritual-based practice, I think people are drawn to it because we’re tired of not meeting inherited standards of success, including those imposed by some spiritual practice. Self-help is an avenue to set one’s own goals and strive to achieve, which is what all “purpose” is (a striving to achieve something). But I think self-help needs to change its coloniser-style priorities of “getting” and “productivity” to something else, to giving, to disinheriting the cycles that keep people without purpose and power. Gratitude teaches us to recognise what we have, but I think so much that is bad in the self-help world is self-help gurus who don’t recognise what someone has or hasn’t, why they have it or not, and how they themselves are working to reinforce what is keeping others from having what they have.
My opinion is that spirituality is the more reflective, imaginative and creative counterpart to self-help and self-development literature. They both have the baggage of human misrepresentations and exploitation. Both are ways in which people can find empowerment in a world that encourages purposelessness and powerlessness when the end-all be-all is “What’s best for me”. In either case, it’s worth remembering–and I say this to myself most of all–there are other people on the planet and it’s not functional to always be thinking about yourself to the detriment of others, to be thinking of yourself alone at all, to live only by routine. People want to be better, they want to achieve things and be successful in their own eyes and the eyes of others, and self-dev options address this, but individual success is a lie and I want to see more reflective versions of self-help in the secular space that talks about how to care about the world and its people, and talks about decision- and habit-making in a healthy way that considers the people in our lives, our neighbours, our colleagues. Self-dev thought illuminates my own spirituality, so it’s a selfish ask, really.
Even if it makes me cringe sometimes to perceive people’s realisations: “Oh, being nice is good”, “Cooking from scratch can save money”, “No wonder so many of them are dangerous, did you know ‘in real life, psychopaths are more likely to be in the police force’. Of course they’re attracted to jobs where they have power over others. You know what, maybe people who want “power” shouldn’t have it??” or whatever – that’s my own ego problem. Everyone has to go through important realisations about life at their own pace and not everyone feels overwhelming shame or fear or embarrassment about sharing. I am glad.
An analogy I always go back to from a friend, the first time someone reads Twilight perhaps it is the best and most exciting book about vampires they’ve ever known, even if it isn’t to me anymore. All this to say, help, improvement and development are not just about the self, and maybe caring about people as people, including oneself, is spiritual by default…