Self-help Books Offer Radical Teachings but Ultimately Will Make You Crazy

Self-help book authors seek to assist people to execute mundane tasks successfully, but in so doing lead them to erase their engagement with the world as it is

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
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A customer browses while shopping for books at the Strand Bookstore in New York, November 2020
A customer browses while shopping for books at the Strand Bookstore in New York, November 2020Credit: Mary Altaffer,AP
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

For years, whenever I passed by the new titles shelves in bookstores, I peeked at the self-help books among them. There was something off-putting even about the jackets of these books – they look like they’ve been designed like packaging for hair dye. Even before you open them, they sort of give you the smile of a traveling salesman: glistening in its whiteness and totally sterile. Still, I would leaf through them a little, on the way to other books, and occasionally a paragraph would catch my eye. Afterward the paragraph would resonate in my head, and quite often I found myself helped by it at a moment of crisis or difficulty.

The point is that there are things that no one teaches you – about relationships with people, about money, about life in general. These are things that aren’t part of the curriculum at school, and that don’t necessarily get talked about on television, things that even some psychologists prefer not to give advice about. It’s into this niche where self-help books fit themselves.

Thus it happens that in certain situations, a mature adult finds himself or herself facing a sentence in enlarged Ariel font, formulated by an American spiritual adviser with a name that sounds like a breakfast-cereal brand, and asking: “How come no one ever told me that?”

Effective self-help books try to broaden the niche: namely, by raising doubts about the way in which certain basic things in life should be done. At their best, these guides will make readers feel that they actually don’t know how to do anything. Voracious readers of self-help books are liable to become convinced that they don’t know how to raise children, don’t know how to have sex, don’t know how to eat and don’t know how to tidy up their home. Everything has to be learned from scratch.

There’s nothing new in this. Self-help books, in a format quite similar to those of the present day, have been published since the 19th century. A book titled “The Self-Help Compulsion: Searching for Advice in Modern Literature,” published earlier this year, describes the history of this unappreciated genre. Its author, Beth Blum, who teaches modern and contemporary literature at Harvard University, traces the evolution of self-help books up to the present day, and the responses to them. She shows that almost from the start, such literature was pilloried by respected writers and later by psychoanalysts and existentialist philosophers. They were branded “cheap psychology,” a collection of superficial, saccharine clichés that couldn’t help but be correct. Esteemed authors wrote parodies of self-help books and designed their works to differentiate them from the reviled “applied literature.”

Thus, while these manuals offered a positive psychology and sought to show that there is always hope, that life has meaning and that everything is made of love, the modernist philosophers and writers entrenched themselves in the horror of existence. The philosophy of pessimism, the absence of meaning, alienation and existential feelings such as anxiety (Heidegger) and nausea (Sartre) – all were articulated in response to positive psychology in its various versions.

The thing is that the image of cheap psychology is apt only in some cases. Readers of self-help books sometimes discover that the advice they contain is not especially banal or intuitive. Sometimes the advice almost sounds deranged.

A case in point is Byron Katie’s 2005 book “I Need Your Love – Is That True?” It aims to train readers to liberate themselves from being dependent on the love of other people. One chapter tries to help parents overcome anxiety at the possible death of their children. Katie suggests that readers think of three ways in which their life will improve if their children die, like: “I’d have the first shower” in the morning. This is actually a contemporary variation on an ancient technique of Stoic philosophy, which recommends imagining that your children have died in order to develop mental resilience in case such a disaster actually befalls you.

In other cases, the messages in self-help books are almost nihilistic. Guides for overcoming guilt feelings explain that readers must accustom themselves to the fact that the world is chaotic and therefore they must shake off the belief in a just world. In this way they will be freed from feeling bad about the failures and tragedies of others.

Even more widespread in self-help literature is the idea that objective reality does not exist, but rather reality exists only in our thoughts. “It’s all in the head,” the authors explain. The way to succeed in life is to imagine reality in a way that will make it possible for us to overcome mental blocks and be happy. There is no point in trying to understand what’s going on in the heads of those close to us, but rather we should simply construct the picture of reality we require.

Functioning is everything

Amusingly, in recent years postmodernist philosophy has been crowned as the cause of all social and political evils. Thought leaders from the right, and sometimes also from the left, rail against the claim that “there is no reality” and that “it’s all narratives,” which they maintain has been disseminated by radical circles in academia. The paradox is that the most effective denial of the existence of objective reality is being circulated precisely in those mainstream books of positive thinking that are aimed at mass consumption by the middle class – books whose authors probably never took a course on Foucault.

It’s very likely that denying objective reality is helpful. Self-help methods would not be so popular if they didn’t offer some highly effective psychological techniques. Moreover, in many senses the techniques are actually radical. Readers of self-help books will discover that conventional concepts – for example, that good and evil exist in the world, that reality exists and that love is important – are tossed in the garbage. Like skilled lawyers, self-help books deconstruct the picture of reality in a way that will serve our mental wellbeing. Everything is permissible if it will help bring about liberation from guilt, envy and anger.

But what is the nature of this liberation? It’s liberation from the hope of liberation, or even for a transformation of reality. What’s tragic in the world of self-help is that all this radical doubt is intended, ultimately, to acclimate the reader to life in the world as it is and to allow him to function in the most effective way. So, while being caught in a traffic jam on the way to work, or running the dishwasher, millions of ostensibly normative men and women are training themselves to think that the external world doesn’t exist. Our streets are filled with nihilists and solipsists.

In conventional terms, this is a quite insane perception of reality – but it turns out that there’s nothing crazier than the mainstream. In any event, the goal of this take on reality is not to shake the foundations of society or to create newfangled art. The goal is to successfully navigate the encounter with the boss, or get through a holiday dinner without quarreling with your parents. Sometimes you have to go crazy in order to persuade yourself that everything is all right.

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