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Why Self-Help Is Making You a Slave
Do not make yourself the existential project of your life; that’s a sign of defeat.
“All of you who are in love with hectic work and whatever is fast, new, strange—you find it hard to bear yourselves, your diligence is escape and the will to forget yourself. ”
— Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
We love a ‘Great Man’ story, be it Napoleon’s militaristic pursuits, Churchill’s defeat of the Nazis or Goethe’s universal genius; regardless of the historical context of who these figures were, they are divinised in our culture. In fact, in (post)modernity, the Great Man archetype is so prevalent that what a person did is beside the point, but rather the ‘greatness’ of a man is the end in itself. If, for instance, we ask a layperson about Napoleon, they would know him as a notable historical figure and perhaps a French military commander, but that’s it; they can’t say (nor would care about) what he truly did culturally as the myth around the man supersedes any socio-historical and material realities of his being. Popular culture is fraught with artifacts (e.g. Hollywood, pop fiction, advertising, etc.) of our fetishistic fixation on how a single individual changed the course of history. Accordingly, contemporary figures like business magnates and tech leaders are seen in this light too. I’m vehemently opposed to the Great Man narrative. But the purpose of this polemic isn’t to critique Great Man-‘ism’ but to pose the question, why are we focused so fanatically on the ‘Self’? And subsequently contend that such a focus on the Self, symptomatically manifest primarily in self-help and therapy-mania, is unethical and ultimately makes you a slave.
Modern people are those without a past, facing lost futures (as Byung-Chul Han and Mark Fisher theorised). What does it mean to live in a culture where God is dead? It’s to be humans that find being human impossible as we’re penetrated by the total loss of our socio-symbolic meaning and metaphysical foundations. The past is dead, and we experience it only as a relic to be studied analytically; we’re not a part of history, nor do historical narratives include us transcendentally. God dying is to be haunted by the abyssal reality that we come from nowhere and are not going anywhere. And aptly, with the failures of 20th-century emancipatory movements, the future is divorced from any arcs of history that Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke off. We are plagued by the spirit of a future that never arrived and isn’t arriving. In an ironic twist, secular neoliberalism is doing to us Westerners what colonisers did to the colonial subjects as it’s annihilating our symbolic reality with the nukes of capitalism (both literally and metaphorically), and the only future that awaits us is the meaningless void of being nothing more than agents of capital.
Nihilism is never neutral but a positively charged void that lingers and molests our lives. It’s a wound that oozes pus, reminding us that we’re indeed wounded. Only humans become nihilistic when facing the void, so we can’t be indifferent to it because the problem isn’t the void’s existence but rather that we’re the only beings who know of it and deeply feel its substantial fissure, a wound fundamental to reality itself. So people in such a desolate culture bereft of symbolic structures have no choice but to retreat into themselves and desperately scour for vestiges of meaning in the inner Self, i.e., we commonly hear platitudes like “Be yourself” or “Bring your authentic self to the world.” No wonder then there is a rise in New Age movements in the forms of pseudo-Buddhism, commercial yoga, health and wellness cults etc. Nietzsche already knew that the death of God would make the Self, the physical body, in particular, rise to divine status as our sole horizon of meaning. And as Byung-Chul Han highlighted, God dying engenders the cult of health that compels us to turn ourselves into projects: performance, achievement, self-optimisation, and auto-exploitation are the moral commandments of the health and wellness cultists. But these aren’t existential projects, e.g. being a scientist, writer, activist, etc. Instead, these are completely self-centred mechanised pursuits where one’s trying to achieve an elusive wholeness through self-help, therapy, pseudo-Eastern-spiritualism, etc., ignorant to the fact that there’s no Self without a social and cultural fabric. Existential projects transcend you and become immanent as you engage in them; self-help has neither transcendence nor immanence but rather exists for itself. And the paradox of self-help fanaticism is that the attempt to divinise oneself makes people conformist zombies that do nothing else but “self-help.” Their lives only encompass reading trite self-help books, doing online fitness challenges, attending meditation retreats and business workshops, and, for the New Agers, partaking in quasi-Fascist mysticism. While the Great Man theory has to be challenged, if there’s one thing we can be sure of, it’s that Napoleon, Churchill, and Goethe wouldn’t have spent an iota of their time and energy on self-help. And if they did, their names would be erased from history.
Self-help is ultimately a self-referential masturbatory act where you make yourself the existential project, killing the spirit of creativity and rebellion from your being and gradually engulfing your humanity as you become a bare mechanical project. To reappropriate Slavoj Žižek’s joke on Marx’s famous formula, “Religion is the opium of the people,” in our times, the “opium” isn’t Religion, but opium (i.e., substance abuse and deaths of despair are at record high) and self-help—because it functions like a religion, self-help has an ethical and existential dimension that needs critique. The ideological demands to withdraw into oneself and ignore broader socio-political problems of the day conspicuous in Petersonian cliches like “Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world” are perfectly supplemented by the self-help industries slew of books, podcasts, workshops, etc. that allow to conveniently distract yourself from civic duties and communal responsibilities, etc. while finding the false-satisfaction that you’ve done something worthwhile. The catharsis of self-help is much like Žižek qua Marx’s theorising on consumerism: when buying a commodity like overpriced coffee from Starbucks, we’re usually told that a certain minuscule percentage of the purchase will go to a social or environmental cause, e.g. a non-profit in Africa, an environmental activist group, etc., so consciously or not you feel a sense of gratification for not being a filthy consumer when there are so many problems global problems and perhaps you’d even justify paying an exorbitant amount for mediocre coffee. As Žižek says, “In the old days of pure, simple consumerism, you bought a product, and then you felt bad: ‘My God, I’m just a consumerist, while people are starving in Africa...’ So the idea is that you had to do something to counteract your pure, destructive consumerism. For example, you contribute to charity, etc. What Starbucks enables you is to be a consumerist without any bad conscience because the price for the countermeasure, for fighting consumerism, is already included in the price of a commodity. You pay a little bit more, and you’re not just a consumerist, but you do also your duty towards the environment, the poor, starving people in Africa, and so on.” Engaging in self-help provides a similar relief: humanity may not survive the climate crisis, economic inequality is destroying our social fabric, and there’s a rise of neo-fascism globally, but at least you read self-help books, meditated, called your therapist and did your gratitude journaling. So while the world’s in chaos, you still manage to maintain a semblance of sanity by maintaining a “healthy distance” from the ugliness of human reality by withdrawing into the Self. As the consumerist finds assuage in being told their commodity has an ethical act built into it, the self-helper finds their pseudo-action to psychologically cushion them from the messiness of being human. The self-helper fails to see they find their individuality through a social reality. Superficial lifestyle tweaks don’t allow them to surpass society, culture and the crude physical reality we humans are thrown into. Being human is, above all, to assume the mess of humanity and engage in it fully, similar to Christ on the cross. Or else the self-helper won’t have a Self to help, so for how long can they solipsistically pretend what happens in the external world doesn’t affect them as an individual? Unfortunately, one can live enslaved in such delusion for as long as one likes until it’s too late. And so the self-helper being a bourgeois subject, must be forced into freedom.
A charitable view towards self-help would be that those who engage in it do so to become more competent individuals, which results in a healthier society. Needless to say, there’s a grain of truth in this argument. No decent person wants a society with an unhealthy populace full of depressives and maladaptive losers—and yet paradoxically, the culture that imbued self-helpism is creating a society precisely like that, where a growing number of people are abandoned and disenchanted with their social reality. Yet truth lies not in what you proclaim but in how you act. Observe a self-help fanatic, and what you’ll mostly see is someone who’s a sheep; their life is as bland as they come; what primarily concerns them is personal well-being and happiness (a category for slaves) and, when the veil is lifted, they are driven by the principles Henry Ford laid down for the assembly line: homogeneity, predictability, and consumption. The self-helper is yet another cog in the machine, but they exploit themselves while gleefully serving the ideological edifice of neoliberal capitalism. Because as the phrase attributed to Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek goes, in our epoch, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world (as we see in blockbusters like Oppenheimer, Don’t Look Up or the slew of recent fetishistic apocalyptic films released) than it is to imagine the end of global capitalism. The ideology of the day is that there’s no alternative to our current system. Consequently, the self-helper engages in pseudo-action, attempting to create a sense of impact by obsessing over DEI, corporate volunteering, or sharing a rainbow flag on social media during pride month. But such pseudo-action is worse than doing nothing at all as it creates the false appearance that we’re making a change when in reality, nothing changes. And metaphysically, self-helpers hold quasi-Stoic beliefs that all they can possibly do is control events within their life, exemplified in hackneyed platitudes like “You can’t control things outside of yourself” or “Discipline equals freedom.” Imagine if such a conformist attitude—that engaging in social change is futile—was held by those in the Civil Rights movement, Women’s suffrage and more recently in the woman-led Iranian protests; there would be no social progress and whatever freedoms we’ve gained would be lost. Self-help also makes you stupider because it tricks you into believing you’re getting a worthwhile education (which traditionally would’ve been in the humanities and sciences) while being indoctrinated with nothing more than trite, self-absorbed garbage reiterating the ideologies of the day. If the Napoleonic Great Man figures seduce you, bear in mind that you won’t be able to achieve an ounce of what they did if all your education encompasses is reading self-help and pop psychology books. And in that vein, the self-helper is the perfect puppet for the establishment because they certainly aren’t lazy. In contrast to the indolent loafer, ostensibly, the self-helper looks like an ideal citizen: they work hard, pay taxes, consume abundantly and probably even carry out their familial duties. Their whole life is a project of self-exploitation, leaving no room for thinking and engaging politically. Much like “Soma” in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, self-help is the perfect drug that numbs any discomfort and existential angst from the self-helper. So the establishment doesn’t have to ‘chemically castrate’ them for control; rather, the self-helper enslaves themselves, all the while thinking they’re free.
Immanuel Kant was right in claiming that man is an animal in search of a master. Freedom isn’t inherent to human beings; we aren’t spontaneously free, and the category of a master, someone we seek, remains regardless of cultural context. That is, we only desire formal freedom while, in reality, we want to be told what to do with it. During Sigmund Freud’s day, our superego, the cruel and sadistic master that psychically imposes impossible demands on us that we inevitably fail to meet, was like the Kantian Categorical imperative. But we were meant to fail in living up to the ideals and torture ourselves with guilt. That is, traditionally, in disciplinary society (as Michel Foucault theorised), the imperative was a prohibition, i.e., do NOT fornicate, gay people CANNOT get married, women should NOT be in the workplace, etc. The superego bombarded us to be obedient subjects and follow the so-called ‘universal principles’ manifest philosophically as the Categorial imperative or normatively as cultural and religious norms, customs, unspoken rules etc., and our desires had to be repressed. But in ostensibly free and permissive times, the master hasn’t left us. While the traditional superego told us, “You must NOT”, the postmodern superego of our times tells us “You MUST.” As Žižek theorises, “Enjoy!” IS superego. For those of us in an achievement-society, in contrast to a disciplinary one, the master demands that you must achieve and live your best life at all costs. The sins of our times are not if we commit any moral transgressions but if we don’t affirm our most authentic selves to the world and “shoot for the stars.” Han theorises this phenomenon as the violence of an excess of positivity. But like all superego injunctions, this is an unmeetable demand, and in reality, we can never live our best life because it’s a fantasy we’re chasing. So we see people in existential dread, tired of having to become their best selves leading to depressives with ADHD and burnout syndrome. Self-helpism is a symptom of a society absent of any negativity and the “massification of the positive.” Politically, the excess positivity of self-help leads to apathetic individuals disinterested in engaging in the social sphere except for self-gain (until they burn out). And so, the self-helper is an unethical individual as their solipsism leads to an absence of social engagement and political projects. Yet again, self-help is the perfect ideological supplement for capitalism and the establishment because it doesn’t allow emancipation. If Max Weber wrote his groundbreaking sociological text ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,’ it would be renamed to state ‘The Self-Help Unethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’ in our times.
Stop engaging in self-help; engage in philosophy, literature, poetry, cinema and science instead. This will enable you to get beyond the self-absorbed ‘bare life’ and concern yourself with the Aristotelian ‘good life,’ a life beyond simple accumulation that encompasses being a good citizen. Fight the ideological demands of self-help culture and resist succumbing to becoming a puppet of neoliberal capitalism. Do not make yourself the existential project of your life; that’s a sign of defeat. Instead, commit yourself to a project that transcends your narrow world. Choose the ethic of love over the empty narcissism of self-help.
Thank you to Euwyn Goh for proofreading this piece.