What’s So Dumb About Helping Yourself?

Three events converged to make me cry:

One, it's revealed that David Foster Wallace — one of the most gifted writers of our age — spent a great deal of time reading barely-competently-written vague hand-wavey dreck, because it was the only way he could learn about self-help techniques for his mental illness.

Two, I recommended one of my favorite books, a rare and meaningful work of modern spirituality, and I had to offer a ton of disclaimers first about how it looks like, and is sometimes put in the same section as, the "self help" books.  I felt like I was telling my coworkers, "Look, there's this awesome and artistic movie, but you'll have to go into the porn store to get it."  Except that overall I find the porn section less insulting to my intelligence than the self-help section.

And Three, I had to witness a genius friend of mine, someone with a self-acquired at least graduate-level knowledge of chemistry and psychology (and tons of other stuff), purchasing books that aren't as well-written as tenth-grade textbooks, and which advertise things on their covers like, "NO scary big words!"  Why?  Because Friend has an anxiety disorder, and I dare you to find a college-level book on the subject of treating your own anxiety.

It is, I realize now, a not-so-subtle form of discrimination against the mentally ill*:  As a society, we assume (and commercially enforce) the idea that people with mental problems are "feebs", that they must be broken or stupid and need to be talked to like (and can be taken advantage of like) children, with InfomercialSpeak, bad grammar, imprecise metaphors, and repetition. 

But there are two ways in which this is massively wrong:

  • It takes a great deal of maturity, strength and intelligence to not only recognize your own mental miswirings, but to seek to repair them yourself.  This is not like fixing your own car; by definition the work involves facing down your worst fears, making a commitment to monitoring your own thoughts and actions and being responsible for them.  Know many stupid people that are up for that?  Me neither.
  • A very high percentage of the wildly intelligent people I know (and I'm fortunate to know many) struggle with anxiety, depression, or other mental disorders.  I think this makes perfect sense for two reasons:  One, high-performance equipment requires more precise tuning and care.  Formula One racecars require more time in the shop than family minivans, duh; and similarly with minds.  Secondly, more intelligent people notice more, and are more sensitive to cognitive dissonance and stress.  Stupid people don't have nightmares about what Wal-Mart means for our children's future, for example; so naturally, more intelligent people are under more stress.

And speaking of intelligence, it doesn't take a PhD to see the truth in those two bullet-points, so I refuse to grant that the collective speaking-writing-and-publishing world doesn't know them.  Rather, I strongly suspect that that world, in concert with the rest of our society, is judging the mentally ill by their presentation of the materials designed to help them help themselves.  The rigorous information is kept in scholarly works which don't ever insinuate that the person reading them might need to apply their knowledge inside their own skull.   (If you've ever read books intended for therapeutic professionals, which I have, you'll also know that the mainstream-accepted of those are so careful about keeping the line between Sufferer and Fixer solid that it's almost humorous — and also useless, because most of the techniques one would apply to others "as a doctor" aren't very useful when dealing with yourself.  Ninety percent of the work of a therapist is getting people to recognize their own problem, to develop the courage and ability to face it and fix it.  This idea that psychology is when someone with a perfect brain and a magic wrench descends from Heaven and fixes your inner mind is stupid, and whoever started it needs to be smacked.  …I know some psychologists, if you can't tell.  ;)

…and the information intended for use by the people who are sufferers almost** universally assumes that they're not intelligent, that they won't recognize or demand rigor, that what they need is fluffy Oprah-approved hand-waving and a nice pastel cover and nice easy seventh-grade reading levels.

Well fuck you, writers and publishers and advice-givers.  You don't deserve to read the napkin-scribbles of most  "sufferers" I know, and your high-horse "normalcy" is just a statistical indicator of your mid-grade intelligence.  So there.



*there's a finer line that can/should be recognized here, even if it can't be precisely drawn, between anxiety/depression spectrum mental illnesses and deep psychoses.  The line is definitely fuzzy, which is why I don't want to draw it (DFW wasn't psychotic per se, but it killed him; others who we would say are incurably schizoid or bipolar have gone on to master and manage their own illnesses), but obviously the mentally-ill to whom I'm referring in this post are those for whom self-help books are a reasonable and possible route of treatment.  …Or would be, if they didn't suck.

**as usual, I include the "almost" in the interest of logical accuracy, since there's an exception to every rule…but for the record, if there's a self-help book for mental illness sufferers that assumes its readers are intelligent, well-read people, I've never found it.

About puredoxyk

Word addict, kungfu/taiji nut, and life-partner to polyphasic sleep. Rabid fan of as many hobbies as the world will let me pry into its piddly fourth dimension (it helps to have knocked out the wall).
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8 Responses to What’s So Dumb About Helping Yourself?

  1. Name says:

    Absolutely great post yet again from the women I most respect Miss Puredoxyk. I do agree with you here. So  I tend to steer clear of the self-help stuff for exactly these reasons. A lot of literature is like this, really . . . Very insulting, pretty useless, just makes me one more depressed.
    It  really does make sense that for problems like anxiety and depression self-help is a reasonable fruitful pursuit but maybe not for situations where the individual isn't even capable of recognizing their problems in an objective light.
    This post does seem to raise some interesting philosophical questions but it's always been like that for psychology. I'm sure you know what I mean ;)
    Thanks for challenging traditional beliefs.

  2. John says:

    A well-written, well-thought-out piece. I've struggled with some difficulties myself and had arrived at the same conclusions, though your refinements are much more elegant. I, too, am interested in the book you recommended.

  3. Keri says:

    Exactly! My mum was telling me about the terrible, self-help books she read at one point:

    "Just talk to people at the checkout:
    "Lovely day isn't it?"
    "Yes! Perfect for tennis."
    "Wow! I like tennis too!
    And before you know it, you'll be playing tennis together.."

    PS: What was this book that you reccomended?

  4. Joseph Dowdy says:

    I just love what you wrote: Stupid people don't have nightmares about what Wal-Mart means for our children's future, for example
    That's a LOLer.
    I certainly do understand what you are talking about here, but I don't agree with the idea that self-help authors are in it for themselves or are out to just make money. There certainly is NO DOUBT that there are certain ones who see it as an ego thing to tell people how to live their lives and to look good in front of hundreds and to make lost of money in the process–what a great gig to be a rich guru, right? But there are those of who have had our own struggles and our own ideas on how to make a profound sense of the world and hopefully, because people like me are also writers, can put together some ideas in such a way that it benefits someone else.
    Saying that self-help authors are just out to make a buck is like saying that there are no plastic surgeons who really care about how their patients feel about themselves and their self-image. It's a bit of sticky wicket if you make it sound like that. It's like saying that all people who collect garbage are then saints. No, there is always a mix of good and bad everywhere you go.
    By the way, purdoxyk, if you're reading this, please allow me to invite you to be a judge for Dan Poynter's Global eBook Awards. I'm sure you'd make a great judge in whatever category of ebook you prefer. Just go to the site, check out what we are doing and if you are interested, please drop me a YES at submissions at awardsforebooks dot com.

  5. Jerry says:

    I've never met one single genius  who was "normal". Furthermore, the inverse is true: oftentimes, people who aren't "normal" turn out to be geniuses. 
    Some of history's most celebrated geniuses have turned out to be mentally ill.
    Cite:  http://tinyurl.com/2fdhsp2

  6. Jadelyn says:

    I had the fortune to take a class, last spring, at my local community college.  It was a psychology class, and I don't even remember what its title was now, but the point of it was to fuse academic learning and rigor with self-application.  Our final was a 12-pg minimum self-analysis, following a set of guidelines, that incorporated the academic knowledge we'd gained over the semester and applied them to our own minds.  It was kind of a how-to-apply-the-science-of-happiness class. 

    I'd never taken anything like it, nor come across anything like it in my epic thirst for self-improvement materials (I suffer from anxiety and depression, and yep, I've been trying to find ways to work on fixing my own brain, for years now).  I remember thinking what a weird, but insanely (if you'll pardon the pun) useful combination it was. 

    All of this is basically to say, YES.  And I love the way you lay it out so concisely.  This is a Problem, and an unnecessary one at that.  Thank you.

  7. Luca says:

    Hello there,
    keep in mind that publishers of self-help books are in it to make a profit, meaning that they want to sell as many books as possible to as many people as possible. Hence the tendency to write for the lowest common denominator among the population.
    They do not actually want to help you.
    I had tons of problems and consequently read tons of books in order to help myself. Took me years to realize that when you are weak people will most probably take advantage of you to turn a profit, as opposed to making a real effort to help you out.
    And if you add the strong desire to remain politically correct and take no controversy risk, it's not actually surprising that we get the type of literature you mention.

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