Q&A: Jessica Lamb-Shapiro, the Self-Help Guru for Skeptics

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Photo: Jason Frank Rothenberg

The road into the self-help world can be a scary one, with countless books promising to help you manifest your best self, lose seven pounds in seven hours, meet your man, or make a million dollars. The practice has become so diluted that all a person has to do is buy a self-help book to feel better — never mind actually read it.  So how can an industry based on human failure actually help us improve? 

Jessica Lamb-Shapiro sets out to answer this question in her debut memoir, Promise Land: My Journey Through America’s Self-Help Cultureby exploring first-person experiments with mantras, seminars, and book after book after book. Eventually, she finds that (unsurprisingly) the tomes that promise to solve all the problems don’t really work.

But her book isn’t a skeptic’s takedown or pseudo-intellectual judgment of those of us who do believe. Instead, Lamb-Shapiro (herself the daughter of a prolific self-help author) tempers her skepticism with a fundamental belief that people need some form of hope — even if we’d like our goals to magically come true in 21 days or fewer. And while she might have set out to understand our culture’s addiction with (and constant failures with) improvement in an intellectual, historical, or philosophical framework, Lamb-Shapiro stumbles upon a way that we can actually get some help. As she puts it: “People need a mental Sharpie where they can ignore what’s annoying and just take what’s useful.” Lamb-Shapiro spoke to the Cut about the pitfalls (and merits) of self-help literature — and why some of the best books aren’t even in the genre.

Are there any new self-help trends to focus on for 2014?

In my research, I found that nothing much changes. Especially if you’re looking at self-help over a massive period of time, thousands of years. People pretty much have the same concerns. People are always going to want to lose weight, they’re always going to want to be in love, and have partners, and get married. They’re always going to want to be richer.  

How many self-help books do you think you’ve read over your lifetime?

Oh man, maybe 200? About 200 to 300. The thing is, self-help books are not necessarily hard to read, or take a long time to read. A lot of them don’t have all that many words in them. And they’re extremely repetitive, and they’ve got really big fonts.

Your father is a self-help author, but what was the moment you became personally fascinated in the genre?

My father is a child psychologist and has been writing self-help books since before I was born. I grew up in a house that was filled with anatomically correct dolls and cooperative games, and I actually thought this was normal until I met other children and they didn’t have those things! I never really thought about it, because it was just the air you breathe. Actually, I found it extremely uninteresting. But in 2004, or 2003, my dad heard about this conference that was taught by the Chicken Soup for the Soul guy, Mark Victor Hansen, and I tagged along because I thought it would be interesting and funny, but it ended up being really emotional. People were crying. They were so into it. I was really kind of fascinated by whatever sort of voodoo was happening in the room. These people were just completely riveted, and it seemed to be speaking to them on such a personal, emotional level. I just couldn’t figure out what was going on.

What are your personal feelings on the self-help industry?

I’m a lot more sympathetic to self-help and people’s need for it. I think it really serves a purpose in the culture. That said, I don’t really think it works most of the time. You know, that’s kind of the fate of being an American is that you’re never satisfied. It becomes this never-ending pursuit of improvement. There never really seems to be a point where people [think], You know what, I’m done. I’m good.

But is that a dangerous thing? The need to improve and keeping working on yourself?

It becomes almost this kind of addicting, self-perpetuating cycle where you never stop buying self-help books, you never stop trying to improve. But honestly, I think it appeals to really deep core emotions and values that we all have. You can’t become inundated with this ideology — I know I did. I’m somewhat critical, but I believe in it too. People who’ve never even read a self-help book should be surprised to know how much they’re engaging with self-help culture — people use the phrases all the time without even realizing it. I think that that’s why a lot of people are skeptical about it, because it does seem to kind of feed itself.

Well, it seems like something to be skeptical of, the genre whose success rests on people failing.

Well, it’s packaged in a way that makes a lot of really smart, educated people not want to read self-help books. But some of it can be helpful, even if they can’t always accept what might be helpful. For example, an ex-boyfriend of mine was a smoker and really wanted to quit smoking, and a friend told me the book that got her to finally quit. I knew he would never read a self-help book. So I literally went through the book with a Sharpie, crossed out every sentence that I thought might be annoying to him, and left just the sentences that would be helpful. It didn’t even work, but it made me think: People need a mental Sharpie where they can ignore what’s annoying and just take what’s useful. And then self-help books could actually be worth something to them.

But not everyone is doing that. So what are people getting out of it?

People want to be hopeful. Even if you’re the rare or exceptional person who has not had a difficult life, you’re going to know somebody who has died. You’re going to have some difficulties, and not everybody has a therapist, or a family that supports them, or any support system at all.  And then here are these books that are cheap, they’re easily accessible, and they make you feel better. 

You might feel better, but it more than likely doesn’t last. Why doesn’t the term help have more longevity?

The idea is great: Why not be able to change things? I don’t want people to be hopeless and not have comfort, but it doesn’t necessarily change the situation. Especially if the advice is crazy, which some of the advice is. Another problem is that self-help books are really general, because they’re trying to address a huge segment of the population. People actually are quite different, and their situations are different, and their resources are different. Their psychology is different, and a self-help book that might be helpful to you might be really detrimental to me. I think in the best-case situation it can be sort of innocuous. But sometimes I think that some of the information could actually be harmful.

I agree, there are some words that are just thrown around so frequently and with so little understanding, they become a catch-all diagnosis.

There are so many words that have just become completely meaningless because they’re said so much. I just don’t even know what they mean anymore. Like intention or the law of attraction — not real law or personal power, that was another one that really irritated me, it was like, what are you talking about? Like, what kind of power is not personal? Ironically, some of the ones that annoyed me the most were the ones that had the most relevance to me. I get a little bit defensive. 

You write about struggling to cope with your mother's suicide. Did you use self-help books?

I actually didn’t read them to help cope with that, but I’m not that much of an idiot that I didn’t kind of realize that oh, right, this is relevant to me. In that way, that’s what’s kind of great about self-help books — especially if you’re in a position like I was, where nobody talked about my mother’s death, so there was such a deficit of information — they can have information in them, especially the good ones. That information actually is power and it is comfort.

What was something that you cherry-picked that helped you?

I [was] convinced for about ten years that I was going to randomly kill myself. And it wasn’t something I thought about a lot, but it was kind of just this thing that was like, there in my mind, as a possibility, which is just not a great thing to have hanging over your head. When I read the book, and I saw that, like, 90 percent of women whose mothers killed themselves think the same thing will happen to them. It’s called the parental trigger. Literally, once I read that statistic about 90 percent of women whose mothers committed suicide [thinking] it will happen to them, the fear just went away. I was just like, oh, okay, I’m fine! So in that way, information is really amazing.

So how do you use all that information?

Well, lower your expectations, which is to say: The book is not going to solve all your problems. Also, I think a lot of people have a really passive relationship to self-help. Take the information and do something with it. But at the same time, you can’t assume that you’ve been behaving one way all your life, and then you’re going to behave a completely different way for the rest of your life. And that’s just not realistic. Really good books incorporate the idea of failure.

So what book should I pick up?

I think there are a lot of amazing life lessons, and anything you would want in a self-help book, you can find in that, although it’s not actually a self-help book. Some of the ones I like are Ben Franklin’s autobiography, the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson — “Self-Reliance” is a great essay. Also, William James was somebody who wrote a lot about self-improvement and was an extremely curious intellectual. He approaches everything with this insatiable curiosity, and is like, “I’m going to find out what this is.” And so in a weird way, his writings, especially the Varieties of Religious Experience, have become my favorite self-help books ever.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Related: The Self in Self-Help; The Power of Positive Publishing; The Self-Help Issue