So much self-help advice is just fluff. You know the stuff. The advice you see over and over again, but still have no idea how it applies to your life.
It’s overly general, reading like a horoscope with no actionable insights. The tips are often downright wrong, with zero science behind them. Even worse, they carry problematic implications. They can cause very real damage and wasted effort.
“Don’t care what other people think.”
I have yet to hear one nice person say that phrase. It’s usually used to justify the terrible behavior.
Think about what that implies: no interest in anyone else’s feedback, no concern for how your actions might impact their life. It also assumes the world is safe for everyone regardless of their identity. Not caring about other people’s thoughts can mutate into remarkably crass behavior.
I understand the intent. I’m an introvert. Self-consciousness and social anxiety are a scourge for people like me. The better way of thinking about this issue is to avoid being over-concerned. The distinction in verbiage matters: the way we talk to ourselves has huge implications for how we live and feel.
I’ve found that a small splash of insecurity can be good and healthy. It keeps me from acting like a fool.
The “Power of Pussy” and power manipulation
A friend gave me this super frustrating book, The Power of Pussy. In essence, it was about how women should use sex as a bargaining chip to lord power over men.
Ironically, it had crazy misogynistic undertones and was full of sweeping generalizations: Men don’t commit and women commit too soon; Men like having sex, and women like romance. It’s not that every page of the book was 100% false. I just squirm in my seat when people start prescribing hard-fast dating rules to another person’s life.
It echoed this common adversarial view of relationships between men and women and suggested men prey on emotions so women should prey on sex as a preemptive strike.
Tread very carefully when someone starts telling you to manipulate power dynamics in relationships, be it via sex, money, the pacing of your love life. It’s a very embittered way of approaching life.
Mantras that solve everything
We tend to have toxic internal narratives, repeating our biggest or most embarrassing mistakes.
Tony Robbins famously gives mantras you should repeat when you are feeling down.
All I need is within me now.
All the joy I need is within me now.
All the love I need is within me now.
They sound nice, poetic, and run headfirst into actual facts. Someone with low self-esteem can’t usually be improved by mantras for more than a few minutes. I love you, Tony. But that’s pseudoscience.
One proven solution: intercept self-talk and simply develop an awareness of it. Mindfulness gives you higher “visibility” of your inner dialogue, allowing you to identify the negativity. Inner demons don’t like being seen. It causes them to retreat into the shadows. Practicing meditation is a good first step.
Mantras are a manufactured representation of the self, a superficial layer over the actual problem.
The positivity trap
One of my favorite idioms of all time is, “Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?”
It is morbid humor, with the speaker completely clueless that Mrs. Lincoln’s husband has just been shot. Yet it speaks directly to the ham-handedness of toxic positivity that slathers the self-help industry.
“Just cheer up.”
“Always remember the good things.”
It’s the relationship equivalent of telling your wife to “Stop being so upset and calm down.”
Dr. Daniel Wegner, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia said “If you’re really under stress, putting yourself in a good mood by thinking positive thoughts becomes not only difficult — in fact, it backfires, and you get the opposite of what you want.”
One proven alternative is to enlist support and talk to people who are understanding, a therapist, friend, or family. Even better, go to a place where people are having fun. That tends to lift your mood.
I don’t care what Elon Musk said
The moment someone achieves CEO status of a major company, people treat everything they say as if it came from a holy figure. Their actions are no longer questioned. Their words are gospel and everything that leaves their lips is a decree from the heavens.
I’m sorry to be the one to break this bad news, but they might not know what the hell they are doing either. Being accomplished and rising through the ranks of a company doesn’t give someone all of the answers.
Sure, billionaires are often extremely talented, but they often got quite lucky, came from immense privilege, and had lots of resources available, giving them connections, and the backup to fail forty-three times.
Want to know why I’m so cynical of self-help? Because I earn much of my livelihood writing in this space. Being immersed in this world, seeing behind the curtain, only further showed me that so many people are just making stuff up.
I’ve developed a wet-blanket approach to self-help advice: I want to see an academic study that demonstrated this works. Without one, I assign curiosity for further inspection, but not credibility.
Please be careful, people. Terrible advice can go viral and lead many people down bad paths. Consider the source and view it through the prism of your own life. These fortune cookie-esque tips aren’t one-size-fits-all.
To end on a good note, the fact that you are reading self-help says good things about you. Your heart is in the right place. Keep going.
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