By Heather Cherry—

The self-help industry has shown massive growth in the last several decades. Self-help leaders are coming up with pragmatic solutions to almost every problem we face—whether it is relationships, workplace, health, and so on. If followed earnestly, self-help can warrant some positive changes, possibly altering your life from the inside-out—but like any generalized advice, there are many variables.

Change is not easy. It is downright challenging and ever-evolving. Not to mention, change takes an incredible commitment of your time, energy, and effort. Generalized advice is dangerous, in and of itself. Self-help leaders are often associated with toxic positivity—the belief that no matter how dire or difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset.

Take Rachel Hollis, for example. A fresh voice in the self-help community who inspired the masses with her relatable ideas. As she rose to stardom, she often faced backlash for toxic positivity for her claims that “you are only responsible for your happiness”. Recently, she faced even more backlash for failing to recognize her privilege, with her out of touch Instagram post. A jarring betrayal on many counts, but even more upsetting for those that followed her marriage advice and family-focused content, which contradicted her real-life marital split.

The most notable leader in self-help, Tony Robbins, faced backlash for criticizing abuse victims and subjecting his followers to unorthodox and potentially dangerous techniques—preying on the vulnerable and punishing the rest. Tony’s real-life scenarios drastically contradicted his teachings and the way he was perceived.

When self-help leaders are out of touch, their messages can be unrealistic and misleading. Oftentimes they portray that if you did this one thing, then success is imminent. And because of this, their fans may idolize them based on a false narrative of success that doesn’t resemble the messy reality of most people’s lives.

Be weary of leaders who think they have all the answers, or offer some secret ground-breaking formula no one has ever heard before. Here’s how to spot fraudulent advice and what to do when self-help doesn’t help.

Reject Unrealistic Advice

Comparing yourself against a self-help leader’s version of perfection is unhealthy (and unrealistic). Social comparison affects the judgments that people make about themselves, but also their behavior—influencing your self-belief, confidence, motivation, and attitude; negative feelings may emerge as a result.

If what you’re learning makes you feel inferior or shameful, take a step back and examine the advice at hand. Is it realistic and relevant to your current obligations? For example, many self-help leaders suggest waking up early, claiming early risers are more productive. But if you are a new parent tending to an infant, that is probably not feasible. Only striving for unrealistic expectations will inflict shame and guilt.

Instead, think about how you can adapt their advice to fit your needs. Could you wake up 15 minutes earlier to meditate or journal your goals? Perfection doesn’t exist. Focus on a respectful admiration as a way to motivate yourself and emulate their success.

Follow Your Intuition When Looking at Self-Help

Self-help often suggests fast and easy change—claims cloaked in scientific language and commentary. Self-help leaders may rely on positivity to inspire their audience. However, too often, it can fall into the toxic positivity territory, and in some cases, delusion.

Toxic positivity doesn’t work because it tells people the emotions they are feeling are wrong, and it causes guilt. It may actually cause harm to people going through a difficult time. This is because rather than being able to share authentic human emotions and gain unconditional support, people find their feelings dismissed, ignored, or outright invalidated.

This type of thinking contributes to an absolute mentality, distorting assumptions that things must either be all good or all bad. This can also lead to unhealthy attachments to a specific outcome. An attachment outcome makes us believe we need (or depend) on something arbitrary to happen (e.g. If I buy a new car, I am successful)—helping to identify who you are as a person.

It’s beneficial to have desires—they spark ambition and can motivate us—but self-help ideas (like positive thinking), if not kept in check, can quickly lead to self-judgement, unrealistic expectations, guilt, and shame. When faced with uncertainty or a problem, follow your intuition and reach for a variety of coping mechanisms to manage the situation.

Self-Improvement Is A Business

Self-help tends to cater to the un-fixable. Self-help leaders are business people—with books, keynotes, and massive consulting practices to peddle. In fact, the self-help industry rakes in $11 billion a year and is projected to grow to $13 billion by 2022. This business has been built by prying on your emotions and suggesting you need to “fix” yourself, which can quickly lead to overconsumption—not to mention making you feel less-than.

Remember that with the profit motive, the incentive for self-help may not be about enacting actual change, but more so the perception of change. Accept self-help advice with skepticism, allowing it to inspire you to address something you’ve been avoiding. But don’t let it become your one and only avenue for advice.

Self-Help Advice Can Be Conflicting

Self-help encourages us to “think positive thoughts” or repeat a mantra in times of distress. While this advice is warranted and even helpful to some, it can be limiting. This type of thinking can lead to a policing of our thoughts—instilling a rigidity in your pursuit of eliminating negative ideas.

It might also make us believe that if we do one thing, another thing will happen. For example, if you think positive thoughts, nothing terrible will happen. This wasn’t the case for James Arthur Ray who became a self-help superstar by convincing people his words would lead them to spiritual and financial wealth. He was convicted in 2011 for the death of three individuals at a spiritual retreat sweat lodge meant to help participants break through whatever was holding them back.

Empowerment is refreshing, but self-help can sometimes fall into the category of “thought purity.” Leaders in today’s industry often say phrases like:

  • You were made for more!
  • Visualize it, and you can make it happen.
  • Wash your face.
  • Believe in yourself! You have to grind!
  • Lean in.
  • Manifest your dreams!

Give your thoughts less power by allowing them to remain in the background of your awareness—versus being the focal point.

Self-help is not a one-size-fits-all solution to every problem. Your self-help advice may be fraudulent if the person isn’t qualified to give you advice; the advice isn’t tailored to you; the person talks but doesn’t listen; the advice is focused on the end result, not the process; the advice is emotionally charged; the advice agitates your instincts. In addition, if the advice fails to address obstacles beyond your control, it’s an incomplete solution. Refocus yourself onto things that are more aligned with your journey, not your destination.

Heather Cherry is a Marketing Copywriter. Her specialty is authentic storytelling. She self-published, Market Your A$$ Off. She holds a master’s degree in Professional Writing from Chatham University.

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