if you, too, have reckoned with the size and scope of the self-help movement, you probably share my initial intuition about what it has to say about the self: lots. It turns out, though, that all that surface noise is deceptive. Underneath what appears to be umptebajillion ideas about who we are and how we work, the self-help movement has a startling paucity of theories about the self. To be precise: It has one.
Let us call it the master theory of self-help. It goes like this: Somewhere below or above or beyond the part of you that is struggling with weight loss or procrastination or whatever your particular problem might be, there is another part of you that is immune to that problem and capable of solving it for the rest of you. In other words, this master theory is fundamentally dualist. It posits, at a minimum, two selves: one that needs a kick in the ass and one that is capable of kicking.
This model of selfhood is intuitively appealing, not least because it describes an all-too-familiar experience. As I began by saying, all of us struggle to keep faith with our plans and goals, and all of us can envision better selves more readily than we can be them. Indeed, the reason we go to the self-help section in the first place is that some part of us wants to do something that some other part resists.
That's Kathryn Schulz in New York Magazine in one of the articles I've been catching up on from the holiday break. It's a thought-provoking read.
Schulz questions whether this idea of two selves, the metaphor at the heart of the self-help industry, is inherently flawed. Could that explain why the self-help industry continues to fail to solve so many of our problems, thus perpetuating its own existence?
My personal survey of recent popular self-help books seems to indicate that the current predominant model of self is that we are fundamentally defective or prone to self-destructive behavior in ways we cannot overcome, and so the best way to help ourselves is to hack our environment. In essence, we must trick ourselves.
Take for example the Paleo diet, which says we can eat as much as we want, as long as its the right types of food. Or the book Nudge, which says we can get users to make better choices by making the default choices ones that are better for them. Or the book The Power of Habit, which says we are caught in almost subconscious habit loops that we can simply reprogram. Or the book What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage, which recommends training your husband like you would an circus animal.
On the one hand, this conception of the self removes some self-loathing as it is predicated on the belief that we are inherently defective in certain ways. On the other hand, thinking of ourselves as being unaware of our own self-destructive behavior and having to trick ourselves into breaking these dangerous loops is a fairly grim view of human nature.
Perhaps we can take solace in simply being smart enough to be aware of what we still don't understand. It may not make us skinnier or more productive, but consciousness of the limitations of our current understanding of self gives us some hope that we might someday decipher it.