Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze


From ABC: The self-help and self-improvement industry are more popular and widely accepted than ever. However, the moral imperative to constantly think positive and always be responsible for one’s own happiness can be harmful and oppressive.

“In a culture of mandated positivity, if we are unhappy we only have ourselves to blame.

‘People’s problems are explained with reference to the fact that they weren’t positive enough,’ Professor Brinkmann said.

‘It is the individual who is to blame for what happens even when the cause of the problem is social or structural or organisational.'”

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  1. Excellent article. This trend is especially strong on Instagram – with hashtags such as #positivevibesonly and accounts constantly posting dreamy pictures with long inspirational (in theory) commentary about personal achievement and triumph. Every breakfast photo, or beach photo or snap of their child playing is an opportunity to express gratitude and give thanks for their amazing lives, and oh yeah, you can do it too by following a simple recipe… it completely ignores institutional constructs such as gender/wage/ or educational inequality, racism, dis/ability, debtload, personality, goals, desires, likes/dislikes of the individual. It massively reinforces the age-old bootstraps theory. Frankly, it’s puritan in its mindset. We’re every day one step closer to living in the Hunger Games and told were defective (worse: a burden on others) if we aren’t happy about it. Glad to see pushback against this in mainstream press.

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  2. I want to add that there is a bit of a double-edged sword here running between different factions in society overall. So you have the self-helpers and personal responsibility folk saying everything is within your control, and you have the SJWs (a term I despise) saying practically nothing is within your control. It can be very hard to find a balance between these two poles. There can be balance between learning to live within your means, learning what is important, learning to accept what is instead of what you’d like to be – that brings a level of contentment and happiness that is hard to describe. But there is also the reality of injustice and inequality and hardships. I think in mental health, we tend to see trends towards two poles (three poles?) – one is the bioreductionist camp advocating for the mentally disabled and how it’s a medical illness and not their fault, one is the social justice camp arguing that societal pressures reduce a persons ability to cope within the modern world, then there is the positivity camp that says we can tolerate anything if we simply spin in sufficiently in our heads. I have great respect for those like Victor Frankl but sometimes wonder if some of the messages that came out of surviving the nazis didn’t start this positivity BS.

    I haven’t had coffee yet, so hope I’m being sufficiently clear. 🙂

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  3. Positivity is only half of the whole equation, if that. Perhaps there should be a chapter in Anti-Psychiatry 101 about this up and coming anti-self-help movement. My feeling: self-help is a whole section in the book store competing with psychology and psychiatry, etc. It has created an increasing number of self-help junkies. It has also upped the numbers, not only for depression ‘sufferers'[, but for “mental illness” ‘sufferers’ in general. Consuming “self-help” is not always the most “self-helpful” thing to do apparently. I think at the end of all this self-indulgent nonsense, a good belly laugh is called for. Epiphany of that sort resolves everything (nothing, too). A spot on the mountain, after all, provides us with a superior view of the world, and a sense of perspective, too. Anyway, that potential is always there. Of course, the same thing might be said of the beach.

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  4. Oh – this is a good starting point – but – what I’m not hearing here (that seems so obvious to me) is the suppression and oppression of the positive thinking lifestyle.

    Denying the Shadow only makes it stronger – and I think this is more the causes of depression than our constant change and rootlessness. i would hazard that the constant change and rootlessness are symptoms of this lack of integration – the denial of the dark, the bad, the evil, the unwanted sides of ourselves.

    I’ve seen whole discussions here on MIA about how inappropriate it is to express emotion in public. Emotion – sadness, fear, anger – are “inappropriate,” and can lead to sectioning if expressed in public. This is a symptom of denial of the Shadow.

    These sides are most useful when integrated and put to work. So the solution for me is not to deny the search for meaning, but to refocus the lens of our attention to include those parts that we might not like, and which might not be socially acceptable. And they are not the “positive” “happy” parts…

    Brinkmann touches on this in “Focus on the Negative,” but then his shifting his focus to Stoicism is, to me, asking for more pain and suffering. The problem with our society is not that we are ignoring our responsibilities and obligations – but that these have increased in our social structure to a practically unbearable level – so much so, that we get drugged in order to survive our responsibilities and obligations and struggle to “be a decent human being.”

    The self-help movement is an attempt to balance that (even if it swings the pendulum too far in the other direction)

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