Self-Help for the Self-Help Skeptic
Jun 20, 2018
The Self-Help industry is enormous. Some estimate this industry at over US$10 billion in the US alone. Life coaching takes about a billion of this. We are also inundated by self-help books, online courses, and seminars by self-help practitioners.
What makes the entire Self-Help industry possible is a set of beliefs about human nature that we accept as common sense in the affluent West.
Independent Individualism and Market Metaphors
“Have it your way,” and “think different,” “because you’re worth it!” We don’t need advertisers to tell us we live in a world where individualism is the assumption with personal independence the goal.
We approach our situations as if we are anonymous suppliers or consumers in a free market. As we rationally pursue our self-interests, we narrow our sense of fairness to a self-focused caveat emptor (buyer beware!). From our work relationships to online-dating, we apply these mindsets to more of our situations as if they’re the only sensible ways open to us.
Independent individualism has become so pervasive and unquestioned in the West that it eclipses any other approach. We are quick to dismiss any alternative ways and label them irrational.
We relentlessly pursue our self-interests as rational consumers, yet how often do we find lasting happiness or deep satisfaction?
Three Common Sense Assumptions About Human Nature
There are three common sense assumptions about human nature that support the Self-Help industry in the affluent West.
- You are an independent individual, with a unique personality and talents that come entirely from within you.
- We understand and judge one another’s decisions and actions in terms of our rational pursuit of personal goals.
- We believe we can each do better in our lives by independently pursuing our personal development.
These common sense assumptions of independent individualism justify each other and explain our world. We believe these things as if they are biological certainties, not cultural assumptions.
Western Culture De-emphasizes Collaboration
As independent individuals, we hardly ever notice that we are embedded as part of the world and not just acting on it. How we belong to our relationships and culture informs our education, integration, and acclimatization into a way of being in the world.
As we adopt our Western cultural perspective of independent individuals, we gloss over the collaborative processes that give shape to our thoughts and bestow meaning on our actions. Language is both the foundation for and greatest achievement of collaboration.
Without language – that mutually constructed set of symbols and concepts we employ to communicate our thoughts – what can we make of the contents of our perceptions? What can we give significance to in our situations, or even think about?
Everything we become is a result of previous and ongoing collaborations. If we can accept that even our thoughts are the result of subtle and substantial collaborations, we might see our Western common sense as cultural rather than biological.
Three Alternative Assumptions about Human Nature
Here are three alternative assumptions we could make about human nature:
- You and I are not static or consistent across situations.
- You and I can’t understand ourselves by looking exclusively within.
- We’re not independent of one another or separate from the world.
These assumptions are interconnected and suggest a compelling alternative to believing we are independent individuals.
The first assumption might protect us from the Fundamental Attribution Error. We fall prey to this bias whenever we automatically judge a person’s character from their behavior in a situation. This first assumption invites us to consider that subtle and often hidden situational factors can have more influence on a person’s behavior than their personal characters.
The second assumption invites us to elevate the importance of relationships and cultural belonging in understanding our authentic selves. Forget about excavating your fully-formed authentic self lying buried within you!
The third assumption invites us to consider open collaboration as a potential default approach to our lives. Sometimes we face threatening or adversarial situations. Protecting our self-interests and applying our market metaphors, we approach these situations as guarded negotiators or skeptical participants. But do we need to apply such approaches to as many of our situations as we do?
Challenging Common Sense
If we did challenge our common sense assumptions of independent individualism by trying out these alternative assumptions, we might see the humor in shelves full of self-help books inviting us to look exclusively inward. We might suspect that personality tests are a comical waste of everyone’s time, even though US employers and individuals are spending over US$2 billion on them each year. We might question just how often and how deeply we need to apply market metaphors to understand our situations.
In short, we may come to question the extent and dominance of our self-focus. We may even shift our understanding of what self-knowledge is and what authenticity means. After all, our old unquestioned assumptions can act as barriers in our pursuits of more meaningful and satisfying lives.
About the Author:
James is a leadership coach, a training facilitator, and author. He helps leaders collaborate and team members participate.
Visit www.leadteamculture.com/books/ to download your free preview of his book “An Unselfish Perspective”
About the Image:
Licensed Adobe Stock image #124874280 recalls the 1964 painting “The Son of Man” by René Magritte. “Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us.” – René Magritte.
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