I’m not a big shopper, except when it comes to books, and when I travel I really like browsing through local bookstores. I’ll often buy a book, and this might seem strange, but I remember where I bought which book and what the bookstore was like. Like my used copy of The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (I loved that) that I bought in a tiny store with a wonderful ambience in Greenwich Village in New York. This was right after enjoying some divine cupcakes at The Magnolia Bakery. Or Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter (I haven’t read that yet) that I bought in the combined coffee/bookshop on campus at the University of Keele. Needless to say, the shop smelled wonderful. A couple of months ago I was in Stockholm and bought a copy of Psychobabble: Exploding the Myths of the Self-Help Generation by Dr Stephen Briers, which I’m reading at the moment and really enjoying. (This visit unfortunately included neither coffee nor cupcakes.)
I was interested in this book because through my research I have spent a lot of time contemplating what exactly it is about contemporary society that tends to make people feel overwhelmed. Because that is what many people seem to be – overwhelmed. There is something about life today that seems to make people feel generally less secure than they did in previous times. It is not necessarily more dangerous today than before, and if I’m not mistaken, research has in fact shown that it isn’t, but people are more aware of the risks, partly due to the incredibly fast and efficient global sharing of news and information (and disasters) through media and technology. Then there is of course the insecurity of working in financially precarious times, but there is something else as well.
It’s as if with the makeover culture, the TV shows dedicated to self-improvement (some of which is quite extreme), and all the advice that is not only available to us but that we are constantly bombarded with on how to get better at various things, we are being told that there is still so much room for (needed) improvement. The message we’re getting is that we just aren’t good enough the way we are. If we just lost a bit of weight, managed to give up sugar altogether (which I admit is something I’m seriously contemplating but don’t think I’ll ever manage to do, and this is making me feel slightly guilty), became stronger, fitter, more positive, more patient, and more assertive, we would be happy because we would have finally reached our full potential. Not to mention all the instructions on how to dress, behave, network, and organize ourselves at work in order to have that rocket career. But that’s the thing. With all the help and encouragement out there on how to change our lives and live to our full potential, we are also being told that we really have a long way to go. As we are being fed unrealistic expectations, this full potential becomes something that continues to be just out of reach, or rather light years away, in other words simply unachievable.
Have you been to the self-help section in your local bookstore lately? If you have, you will have noticed that it is packed, with self-help books that is. Researchers often use the term ‘therapy culture’ to describe the reality in which we live. But as Christopher Lasch, author of a book called The Culture of Narcissism puts it, this therapy culture promotes a type of cultural hypochondria. Crisis becomes personal and permanent and people dig deeper and deeper to find their core authentic self in order to deal with the ambiguity and ambivalence of contemporary life.
The reason I like the book I’m reading right now so much, is that Briers goes through the main self-help myths, debunking them one at a time. With every chapter that I read, I feel increasingly relieved to be getting confirmation that I can ignore these social pressures to change my behavior while trying to achieve unrealistic and impossible goals. Although all self-help isn’t bad – there are good and insightful books out there – Briers still maintains that on a whole, self-help hasn’t helped. We’re not any better than before, we’re just unhappier with ourselves.
The people who really need help, don’t need self-help, they need professional help, and I sincerely hope they have access to what they need. For the rest of us, instead of asking ourselves why self-help doesn’t help, we should consider that maybe, just maybe, we don’t need help. Maybe we’re fine the way we are, all different, imperfect, and quirky in our own way. Maybe we just need to accept that and get on with it. Life, that is.