Self-help as psychological healthism

Photo: Paul Ruscha/© Ed Ruscha/Courtesy of Ed Ruscha and Gagosian Gallery (“Me”, 2001)
Photo: Paul Ruscha/© Ed Ruscha/Courtesy of Ed Ruscha and Gagosian Gallery (“Me”, 2001)

[W]e are in a new era of mass self-help, wherein the laboratory and the writer work together to teach us how to change ourselves, rather than our world. (Boris Kachka)

I’m interested in self-help for the same reasons I’m interested in healthism. “Self-help is the psychiatric equivalent of healthism,” I once wrote. Healthism is an anxious preoccupation with one’s physical health, encouraged by those who profit financially from inducing anxiety. Self-help is an anxious preoccupation with one’s psychological self, encouraged by an abundance of self-help literature, personal seminars, and tell-all TV shows. (More fundamentally, of course, the proliferation of self-help advice is the result of a profound twentieth century change in how we understand ourselves, which is the subject of this blog.)

Both healthism and self-help assume that individuals are ultimately responsible for their problems, whether medical or psychological. Personal responsibility relieves society of the expense and inconvenience of creating healthier, more equitable lives for its members. Robert Crawford pointed this out in 1980. That early glimmer of a potential trend has done nothing but escalate.

Your Erroneous Zones meets social construction

I’ve been interested in self-help for a long time. I once wrote a book on anxiety that was intended to be an anti-self-help book – a response to Wayne Dyer’s Your Erroneous Zones. It was about how to avoid becoming a victim of all the self-help advice that began to appear in the 1970s.

I had never tried to write a popular book before. When I started, I really had no idea what I would come up with. While doing research on anxiety, I discovered social construction. Judging by the fact that my anxiety book didn’t sell, perhaps the mass public wasn’t ready for a critique of self-help based on the ideas of Berger and Luckmann.

But maybe that time has come. In the back of my mind, as I write these introductory posts, I wonder if I’ll discover some useful ideas that would be welcomed. Times have changed. Not completely, of course. Kenneth Gergen tells a story of how two students in his honors seminar on constructionist readings tried to get his class cancelled because it was “immoral and nihilistic.” Obviously these ideas don’t suit everyone’s taste. They have, however, continued to be highly compatible with mine.

What’s really wrong with self-help — and psychology?

Since we live in a culture that values self-actualization, self-improvement, and maximized happiness, it’s understandable that we seek advice on how to conform to these pervasive expectations. But in our historical journey to the ideal psychological self, what have we lost?

To my mind, what’s wrong with self-help (and with most of Western psychology) is that its focus on the individual displaces the importance of the social communities in which we live. Not only does a focus on the interior life of the individual ignore the impact of socioeconomic circumstances on our lives. There is a deeper, more fundamental level of loss, as Nikolas Rose writes:

[W]hatever might be gained by stressing the autonomy and rights to self-actualization of each and every one of us, something is lost: the ways of relating to ourselves and others that were encompassed in such terms as dependency, mutuality, fraternity, self-sacrifice, commitment to others. There is a sense of the ethical paucity of the contemporary obligation to fulfil ourselves though [sic] the mundane achievements of our everyday lives, and to evaluate all aspects of our lives in terms of the extent to which they do or do not contribute to such an inexorable trajectory of self-improvement and personal happiness through career enhancement and lifestyle maximization. And there is the sense of the poverty of the therapeutic ethic that seems the inevitable counterpart of these valorizations and obligations.

Things might have happened differently. This is where we have arrived, however. Rose again:

[T]hese three inextricably linked injunctions – to self-actualization, to commitment to the mundane, to ceaseless confession and solicitude – mark out only one of an infinite variety of ways in which human beings can individually and collectively shape themselves and their forms of life. How, then, have they come to define the horizon of thinkability for so many? And what are the costs of living our lives under such descriptions of who we are, who we could or should be?

How did this happen? That’s what I want to explore historically. Why did this happen? That’s a much more difficult question, and the explanations – including those of philosophers, sociologists, and anthropologists — will differ. Ultimately, however, that’s what I’d really like to know.

Related posts:
What is healthism? (part one)
On healthism, the social determinants of health, conformity, & embracing the abnormal: (3) Connections
Something I wrote a long time ago

Image source: New York Magazine


Boris Kachka, The Power of Positive Publishing: How self-help ate America, New York Magazine, January 6, 2013

Robert Crawford, Healthism and the medicalization of everyday life, International Journal of Health Services, 1980, 10 (3), pp 365 -388

Wayne Dyer, Your Erroneous Zones: Step-by-Step Advice for Escaping the Trap of Negative Thinking and Taking Control of Your Life

Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge

Kenneth Gergen, An Invitation to Social Construction

Nikolas Rose, Governing the Soul: The Shaping of the Private Self


Sorry, comments are closed for this post.