The self-help industry: Where’s the catch?

I work with people and their voices. If you have the feeling that because of your voice, you don’t come across as who you really are, it is nice to know that it is possible to do something about it. Then we can work together on vocal techniques, clarity, effectiveness, authenticity, nerves and a lot of other things. If this then contributes to you getting your point across in a meeting or becoming a confident public speaker: mission accomplished. You have improved yourself, and you are one step closer to ‘the best version of yourself’.

And yet… continuously working on ourselves, the eternal striving for self-improvement… must we embrace this new reality without criticism, or is there more to it? Anyone who wants to – ánd is able to afford it – can endlessly participate in a whirlwind of therapies, courses, coaches, healings, self-help books, retreats, wellness, influencers and life hacks to become a better / healthier / more productive / effective person. The self-help industry is a fast-growing global billion-dollar industry. But does it actually make us better / healthier / more productive / more effective?

Criticism of this new reality is growing. Because if self-improvement is the rule to live by, this means society will be less accepting to failure, being unhealthy and ugly, deviating from the norm. Guides and therapies to help people get rid of stress, fears, gloominess and depression, encouragement to live a good and healthy life, work out, laugh more and think positive, can actually turn out to be a stressful endeavor: here’s yet another thing you should improve. For some people, the cure is worse than the disease and causes even more misery.

In this article I would like to offer some perspective on the complex subject of self-help, and explain why sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t a good idea to seek here for salvation. I am convinced that the inclination for self-improvement is usually ambiguous, and always occurs somewhere on two different spectrums:
1. Your motivation for development: the intrinsic desire for growth and having the feeling of not being good enough
2. Your values orientation: the prevailing values within society and your own, personal values

Self-improvement: where's the catch?

The intrinsic desire for growth

The Self-Determination Theory (SDT) of Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan describes the ‘inherent inclination to growth’ that is critical to a person’s psychological health and well-being. The intrinsic desire for growth – according to the theory – is universal, innate, psychic in nature and includes the need for skill, autonomy and connection. This intrinsic tendency to development also plays a large role in many other personality theories, such as the need for self-actualization from Abraham Maslov’s Theory Z and the so-called ‘third factor’, the development potential, from Kazimierz Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration.

Intrinsic growth and development are, from this point of view, positive traits which ensure that people all over the world enjoy learning new skills, solving problems, improving themselves and their living environment. In this respect, I think there is also a similarity with the personal trait from the Big Five that determines whether you are receptive to new ideas and experiences, Openness to Experience: People with a high degree of Openness seek out more different experiences, feel comfortable with the unknown and pay more attention to their inner feelings. They are very curious and often like to be surprised. People with a low degree of Openness prefer routines, people and ideas already known to them.

Since not everyone has the same degree of Openness, I expect that not everyone will have the same degree of intrinsic desire for growth. Where one person blissfully enjoys routines and performing similar tasks every day, that exact same life can be boring, demotivating and meaningless for another. And vice versa: a life continuously filled with new experiences, impressions and learning processes is a prerequisite for some, but can be very restless and stressful for others. 

The feeling of not being good enough

Now unfortunately, in the process of self-improvement, there is always a catch. Try to be completely honest with yourself: Why do you actually want to do that course or read that self-help book? Is it purely out of curiosity for new knowledge or a new experience – an intrinsic developmental need arising from a growth desire? Or are you trying to fix something about yourself that you are not satisfied with, because you think you are not good enough as you are – a developmental need arising from a lack of wholeness? In the latter case, self-improvement is mainly a coping strategy to avoid uncomfortable feelings of not being good enough. Your motivation may well be rooted in both sheer curiosity ánd a tendency to undo a sense of incompleteness. Perhaps one slightly more than the other, and that can also differ per situation.

The feeling of ‘not being good enough’ is one of the most common, negative beliefs people can have about themselves. Usually you don’t recognize such a negative core belief, because you don’t literally think this thought about yourself all the time. Therefore it can be easily overlooked. But in your behavior and incentives towards life, such a belief below the surface can indeed play a role, or even be all-important. The belief that you are not good enough can – without you realizing it – cause fear of failure, the urge to control, extreme perfectionism, burnout, lack of self-confidence, working too hard, not wanting to take up space, not being able to say ‘no’ and having the feeling that you always should be doing something useful. So consequently, this negative belief can be at the core of your constant need for self-improvement.

The moment you no longer have this belief about yourself, when you feel that you are really good enough as you are, that you are essentially whole and do not need to be fixed, you will probably have less need for certain self-improvement practices.

Prevailing values within society

Another thing that plays a role in the need for self-improvement is the image of what that higher or better self should look like, the ideal that you strive for. Where does this ideal come from, on what values is it based? The criticism of self-improvement often stems from an ideal image, forced upon us by consumer society and advertising in particular: Slim, toned bodies with snow-white, straight teeth. Moreover, these bodies are also rich, successful and popular, taking vitamin preparations, eating avocados, drinking green smoothies and having their negative thoughts under control. Self-improvement is sold in this scenario as the key to a healthy and ‘happy’ life. But above all, it is a perverse incentive to comply with societal norms and purchase countless products and experiences to achieve this imposed ideal. Consequently, I can totally imagine that pursuing the values and incentives for self-improvement present in society can makes you feel quite miserable and anxious.

Your own, personal values

OK, so if you feel that you are good enough as you are, and you don’t allow the consumer society ideal to drive you nuts, all that self-improvement stuff might be nonsense. But what if you are someone who scores high on self-actualization, development potential or openness to experience? Working on yourself can be very rewarding in these cases, and contribute to a valuable and meaningful life according to your own values – regardless of what society expects of you. Identify what your personal values are, and what you specifically want to develop in those areas. Maybe you don’t find it all that important to work hard, be rich, slim, or successful. But then, what ís important to you? Autonomy, passion, playfulness, loyalty, or something else? Knowing this will allow you to make growth and development choices based on desires that are truly yours, and not imposed by your environment.

Conclusion

This means that whether or not the quest for self-improvement will make you a happier person, really depends on your personal traits and incentives. Take mindfulness, for example. By some embraced as the new panacea for everything, others think it is woolly or talk with disdain about the ‘lifestyle hype’, which is said to be mostly superficial and complacent. But mindfulness is not intrinsically good or bad. The question you have to ask is: Why does someone practice mindfulness? To control thoughts and emotions, to become more effective, more productive and more resistant to stress – in other words – to be able to keep up with the never-ending rat race of neoliberal capitalism and to comply to societal norms? Or to slow down, to become more aware of one’s own feelings and needs, to accept oneself – in other words – to emphatically step óut of the neoliberal rat race to find out what your life is really about? All around me I see that both is happening: with mindfulness you can turn either one way or the other.

Self-improvement based on an intrinsic desire for growth within your own personal values, contributes to a valuable and meaningful life. It can even be a lot of fun – although it certainly isn’t always an easy path. But to go the extra mile is often what makes it worthwhile.

However, if your need for self-improvement stems from the idea that you are not good enough and if the image of your ‘ideal self’ is influenced by consumer society and advertising, there is a chance that self-improvement will only make you unhappier. If this is the case, do yourself a favor and take a break from your rigid life and all those self-help books and courses. First, do what you really feel like doing, such as devouring ice cream and binging a series on Netflix. Ideally, you are able to do this with a healthy dose of self-compassion and without feeling guilty. While you’re taking on a loving attitude towards yourself, is it easier to accept that apparently this is what you need right now.

As a voice coach, I sometimes encounter similar cases. I meet lovely, talented people who are working so hard on improving themselves in all kinds of different ways that they fail to achieve their objectives. So it can happen that during a voice coaching program, at some point, I decide to not offer voice exercises any more if this doesn’t contribute to someone’s sense of well-being. In those cases, the focus in the training shifts from behavioral change to self-acceptance and self-compassion. During that process, you may find out that it is actually not a problem if you speak very quickly, or that it is okay if you do not express so many emotions through your voice. When you can be comfortable with your own voice, and at the same time comfortable with the fact that society may have a different standard, I believe you have successfully completed the voice coaching course. Sometimes, what you need is the exact opposite of what you think you are looking for.

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