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The Self in Self-Help

We have no idea what a self is. So how can we fix it?


Alex Prager  

In The Age of Anxiety, W.H. Auden observed that we human beings never become something without pretending to be it first. The corollary is more prosaic but, regrettably, at least as true: We humans never become most of the things we pretend we will someday be. Nevertheless, last Monday, you and I and several billion other incorrigible optimists raised our glasses and toasted all the ways we will be different in 2013.

It’s easy to understand why we want to be different. We are twenty pounds overweight; we are $20,000 in debt; we can’t believe we slept with that guy; we can’t believe we didn’t. What’s harder to understand is why transforming ourselves is so difficult. Changing other people is notoriously hard; the prevailing wisdom on that one is Don’t hold your breath. But it’s not obvious why changing oneself should present any difficulty at all. And yet, demonstrably, it does.

The noted self-help guru Saint Augustine identified this problem back in the fourth century A.D. In his Confessions, he records an observation: “The mind gives an order to the body and is at once obeyed, but when it gives an order to itself, it is resisted.” I cannot improve upon Augustine’s insight, but I can update his examples. Say you want to be skinny. You’ve signed on with Weight Watchers, taken up Zumba, read everything from Michael Pollan to French Women Don’t Get Fat, and scrupulously recorded your every workout, footstep, and calorie on your iPhone. So whence the impulsive Oreo binge? Or say you are a self-identified co-dependent. You know your Melody ­Beattie, listen to your therapist, and tell yourself every morning, quite firmly, just what you will and will not do that night. So what are you doing back in bed with that man? Or say you are a professional writer who values being conscientious, respects her editors, and passionately believes that good writing requires time. So—well, let’s drop the pretense. Why am I sitting here typing this at 4 a.m., two days past deadline?

I don’t know, but misery loves company, and such acts of auto-insubordination happen all the time. They go some way toward explaining the popularity of the self-help movement, since clearly we need help, but they also reveal a fundamental paradox at its heart. How can I want to achieve a goal so badly that I will expend considerable time, energy, and money trying to reach it while simultaneously needing to be coaxed, bribed, tricked, and punished into a compliance that is inconsistent at best?

This is where the cheerfully practical and accessible domain of self-help bumps up against one of the thorniest problems in all of science and philosophy. In the 1,600 years since Augustine left behind selfhood for sainthood, we’ve made very little empirical progress toward understanding our own inner workings. We have, however, developed an $11 billion industry dedicated to telling us how to improve our lives. Put those two facts together and you get a vexing question: Can self-help work if we have no idea how a self works?

I know people who wouldn’t so much as walk through the self-help section of a bookstore without The Paris Review under one arm and a puzzled oh-I-thought-the-bathroom-was-over-here look on their face. I understand where they’re coming from, since some of the genre’s most persistent pitfalls—charlatanism, cheerleading, bad science, silver bullets, New Age hoo-ha—are my own personal peanut allergies: deadly even in tiny ­doses. And yet I don’t share the contempt for self-help, not least because I have sought succor there myself. The first time was for writer’s block—which is, I realize, a rarefied little issue, sort of the artisanal pickle of personal problems. (I got over it: QED.) The second time was for its very nasty older brother, depression—of which more anon. In both cases, I ventured into the self-help section for the usual reason: the help. Last month, though, I went back to investigate the other half of the equation: the self.

If, like me, you have read your way through sober Stephen R. Covey (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) and godly Norman Vincent Peale (The Power of Positive Thinking), through exuberant Tony Robbins (Unleash the Power Within) and ridiculous Rhonda Byrne (The Secret), through John Gray who Is From Mars and Timothy Ferriss who has a four-hour everything and Deepak Chopra who at this point really is one with the universe (65 books and counting)—anyway, 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.

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