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The Self in Self-Help


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.

Of course, intuitive appeal is a poor indicator of the merits of a model; the geocentric universe is intuitively appealing, too. But even though this master theory of self-help is coarse, misleading, none too useful, and probably just plain wrong, it does capture something crucial about the experience of being human. One of the strange and possibly unique facts about our species is that we really can intervene on ourselves. Get a lab rat addicted to alcohol and you will have yourself an addicted rat. Get a teenager addicted to alcohol and eventually you might find yourself celebrating his 30th year of sobriety. It isn’t consistent, it isn’t predictable, and God knows it isn’t easy—and yet somehow, sometimes, we do manage to change. The self really can help itself. The question is: How?

Master theories—of self-help or anything else—don’t really answer questions like that. Instead, they dictate the shape an answer must take. Consider, for example, the way language works. En­glish is a subject-verb-object language, meaning that the sentences we produce must all conform to that grammatical pattern. Within that constraint, however, the number of sentences we can generate is infinite: “We have not yet begun to fight.” “A screaming came across the sky.” “I’m intercontinental when I eat French toast.” The master rule controls the form, but it’s completely agnostic about the content.

So too with the master theory of self-help: It mandates a conflict between two parts of the self, but beyond that, it makes no particular demands and answers no particular questions. Who is divided against whom, who has the power and who is powerless, how to ensure that the “right” part of yourself winds up in charge: All this is up for grabs. Accordingly, self-help strategies distinguish themselves from one another—and pledge to solve your problems—by carving up the self at different joints: a mind and a brain, a consciousness and an unconscious, an evolved self and a primitive self—you get the picture. Such distinctions inevitably reflect different beliefs about what kind of creatures we are and often reflect different beliefs about our place in the universe. That makes them philosophically interesting—but, alas, it does not make them particularly useful.

To see why not, consider two examples. In self-help programs that draw on religious or spiritual practices, the locus of control is largely externalized; the real power belongs to God (or a supreme being, a universal consciousness—whatever you care to call it). But these programs also posit a part of the self that is receptive to or one with that external force: an internal fragment of the divine that can triumph over human weakness.

This is pretty much the oldest kind of dualism in the book: your sacred soul against your mortal flesh. You can see it at work in 12-step programs, where addicts begin by admitting they are powerless to control their addiction and then make “a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.” But think about that for a moment: How do recovering addicts simultaneously exercise and abdicate their right to make decisions? How do they choose to let a higher power do the choosing—not just once but every time temptation comes along? Twelve-step programs are reputed to be one of the more effective ways to treat addiction, yet how their followers pull off this sleight-of-self remains a mystery.

Now consider what seems, at first, like a completely different model of selfhood. “Everything you and I do, we do either out of our need to avoid pain or our desire to gain pleasure,” Tony Robbins writes in Awaken the Giant Within. Robbins’s vision of the self is Skinnerian rather than spiritual: We are conditioned, like dogs to a whistle or unluckier dogs to a kick, to certain habits of thought and action. How, then, are we supposed to change? “The most effective way,” he tells us, is to “get your brain to associate massive pain to the old belief.

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