The Hidden Dangers of Self-Help

Wanting to better yourself as a person is a noble and admirable endeavor. As humans, we have the power to think critically about our actions and our behaviors. More importantly, we have the power to change them. This insight and desire for change is a core tenant of what we call “the human experience”, but it’s also a core part of our suffering. As someone who is actively working to overcome my own faults, I want to take the time to look into the idea of “self-help” and how it can actually be damaging when applied in the wrong ways.

The process of self-help involves three steps:

  1. Identifying discomfort or displeasure with your current state of being
  2. Recognizing the source of the problem
  3. Finding and pursuing a resolution to the problem

As with most things, these are easier said than done. Even just recognizing a problem can be a difficult task. Sometimes the problem is obvious (“I’m overweight”, “I want to stop smoking”, “my arm is broken”), but sometimes the problem is ambiguous. Maybe you’ve noticed that you have less energy than you normally do, or that you’ve uncharacteristically snapped at someone. These types of problems are less direct, more ambiguous, and much harder to diagnose.

This is where self-help can become problematic. As humans, we only really know what we have experienced ourselves. We can use empathy and compassion to try to understand other perspectives, but these assumptions are almost always contorted to fit our understanding of the world. Just look at the state of our belief systems: if someone disagrees with our religious or political beliefs, we tend to categorize them as stupid or uncivilized. We simply can’t imagine another state of being without a strong imagination and extensive critical thought.

What does this have to do with self-help? Well, how do you diagnose and treat a problem when the problem is you? How does a surgeon perform a transplant on herself, or a psychiatrist treat his own depression? It’s possible, but unimaginably difficult. In most cases, we end up splitting ourselves into two completely different people: our real self (the “problem”), and our ideal self (the “cure”). The real self is a constant source of disgust and displeasure, while the ideal self is an idol to be obtained through effort and determination. After enough time in our pursuit, we forget that the idol was just an idea, a construct we created to guide us along our path to improvement. We become less satisfied with our real selves and increasingly devoted to the idol, slowly losing our grip on reality in the process. Consider the sheer number of disorders we classify ourselves with because of this dichotomy, from relatively harmless conditions like social anxiety to debilitating disorders like anorexia and drug addiction.

I should add that this “split personality” isn’t the only cause of these disorders. They are a combination of genetics,  personality, experience, mood, and countless other factors. But the more time we spend digging this pit, the harder it is to climb back out.

Going forward, I think the best way for us to approach the idea of self-help is not as a solution, but as a starting point. Some problems require outside assistance, but you can still kick off the process by meditating on your experiences, researching symptoms, and reading other people’s perspectives. For those of us in the U.S., self-help is an attractive alternative to professional help thanks to skyrocketing healthcare costs. At the same time, nothing is more important to your well-being than your well-being, and if you have the means, spending the extra money for professional counseling can make a world of difference.

If you feel like you need help and aren’t sure how to get it, visit MentalHealth.gov. They provide free resources including 24/7 access to counselors, information on local mental health resources, answers about insurance, and tips for family members and friends. If this is an emergency, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or chat with a counselor online at http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/GetHelp/LifelineChat.aspx.

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