In this modern era marked by a surge in mental health awareness, social theorists increasingly scrutinize the rise and influence of self-help literature and wellness technologies on individuals and communities. In particular, scholars critical of the social effects of the “psy-disciplines,” or mental health fields, are investigating how these approaches to well-being influence our self-perception and societal roles.
In a new article, Roberto Rodríguez-López from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, explores how self-help, often lauded as a route to personal growth, may also subtly compel individuals to mold themselves into marketable entities to align with societal expectations. Utilizing Foucauldian theory, Rodríguez-López delves into the nexus of neoliberalism, psychology, and technology, suggesting that self-help’s inclination towards “self-governance” offers an illusion of freedom while transferring risk to the individual.
Rodríguez-López’s study raises the question: has neoliberalism, through “psy”-technologies and self-help, transformed individuals into capital that must be optimized and showcased to the highest bidder? From this perspective, self-help is less about healing and more about sculpting oneself into a palatable commodity for societal consumption.
“Self-help is an activity that is assumed to be voluntary and individualistic,” he writes. “However, its concern for self-liberation and self-illumination are the social and political result of a hyperindividualism promoted by psychologisation of the self in everyday life….”
Our reliance on self-help literature and wellness apps like “Calm” and “Noom” has grown significantly, especially within Western neoliberal societies. Rodríguez’s research examines how these technologies and texts shape individuals and how their narratives fit into larger societal structures.
Rodríguez, alongside colleague Efrén Borges Gómez, conducted extensive analyses of popular self-help magazines and best-selling literature, focusing on those designed to shape individuals toward goals of “health or well-being.” He investigates how people define and measure these subjective terms within our social context.
The loss of social ties and the cultural spread of psychology
One significant aspect of Rodríguez’s research is the shift from communal spaces to an inward focus on individual psychology. As he states, our understanding of suffering has become depoliticized and individualized, shifting the responsibility from societal to personal self-management. The onus is on individuals to manage their own ‘growth’ and mitigate risks in an increasingly uncertain world.
Our understanding of suffering in the psychologized world is de-socialized and depoliticized and instead becomes a problem of interiority, a problem of the person’s self and self-management.
“The neoliberal individual must manage their human capital stock in a way that is also now living-focused rather than purely economics-focused. They are responsible for their own ‘growth’ and also for their risks in a new neoliberal social space of heightened insecurities.”
Life’s dissatisfactions are now issues of the individual’s ability to manage their risks in the world and their process of investing in their social capital. For example, when health is discussed in a neoliberal culture, individual behaviors, such as smoking, diet and exercise, meditation, or stress management, are of primary importance, and social determinants of health are minimized or ignored. When social determinants are incorporated into these discussions, they become individualized by surveying the person’s determinants or creating individualized solutions to social problems.
“Individuals must equip themselves with a variety of personal training and tools that tend to shape their chances of resistance or even promotion in the social space.”
Technologies of the Self and Governmentality
Quoting Nikolas Rose, Rodríguez notes that when the research is analyzing technology, it is looking at “an ensemble of arts and skills entailing the linking of thoughts, affects, forces, artifacts, and techniques that do not simply manufacture and manipulate, but which, more fundamentally, order being, frame it, produce it, and make it thinkable as a certain mode of existence that must be addressed in a particular way.” Technology does more than enable individual agency; it shapes the world in which the individual exists.
Technology, infused with psy language, creates the “self-managed” subject. A subject that seeks to control their experience of the world from the inside rather than impose will upon the social sphere. Governing the neoliberal subject, through these technologies “is no longer a disciplinary framework linked to institutions exercising their power vertically, but instead, technologies that often operate by constructing a ‘subjective’ space with specifically self-supplied regulating possibilities.”
While pointing out that many strands of psychology, including critical, indigenous, and liberation psychology, do not share these viewpoints, the writer, using work from Glenn Adams, argues that mainstream psychology is based on “(1) a sense of freedom from constraint that affords an experience of radical abstraction from context; (2) the creation of an entrepreneurial self as project of ongoing development; (3) an imperative for individual growth and personal fulfillment as the key to well-being; and (4) an emphasis on affect regulation as a key to personal success.”
“Neoliberal subjects must consider the constitution of themselves as their own capital. As a result, issues, such as salary, would be valued on an individual’s ability to manage their own ‘human capital’ stock. This is what Foucault termed the ‘entrepreneur of the self.’”
Psy-Technologies and the Self-Help Literature
Rodríguez’s examination extends to self-help literature, a supposedly voluntary, individualistic activity. However, he argues that such literature reflects societal choices that foster a culture of individualism, emphasizing self-management and self-worth.
Rodríguez states, “Instead of viewing individuals as the historical product of intersecting social and cultural processes, the rhetoric of individuality, which is crucial in self-help literature, assumes that the social world is the sum of aggregates of organized and independent individuals.”
Yet, Rodríguez, using the work of Rimke, argues that “a hyper-responsible self, the result of self-help practice, is intrinsically linked to the governmental management of populations, and so to less individual autonomy rather than more.”
Psy-Reflexivity, Confessional Tests, and Behavioral and Emotional Management
Finally, Rodríguez addresses the emotional and behavioral management provided by self-help technologies.
Specific forms of, or language from, areas of psychology, such as positive or neuro-psychology, are usually missing from the literature. Still, the researcher often found “the idea of self as a constant, never-ending project…the emergence of modern confessional technologies… in our case through self-applied tests and the idea of constructing the self on an impoverished social context…Nevertheless, the clearest aspect of our analyses of this literature is the centrality and relevance of emotional self-management.”
“Subjectivity is no longer a terrain for scrutinizing the soul’s multiple hiding places, nor a possibility for constructing suggestive aesthetic fictions, as was common in self-help literature or pre-neoliberal psychological culture…In pre-neoliberal psychological culture and self-help literature, the psy discursive invalidation of the macrostructures of meaning (political, moral, family, or socio-cultural) complemented the discourse of the expansion processes of desire, creativity, and ‘liberation’ of the self …However, the inner being paradoxically now no longer seems a key point of reference. The wellness imperative is, therefore, not so much self-realization as self-limitation through control. And this is where managing emotions plays a central role.”
We no longer look to express our emotions as much as we work to limit them, especially the ones considered “negative” by cultural and social forces. The neoliberal subject’s value is based on their ability to maintain this regulation of emotions as they take on and tend to more and more work that has been de-socialized and depoliticized.
Rodríguez’s research raises critical questions about the intersection of psychology, self-help, and societal norms within neoliberal cultures. He highlights the potential risks in the ongoing shift towards individualizing well-being and mental health, opening a fascinating conversation on the evolving influence of self-help and wellness technologies on our personal and communal lives.
“The neoliberal ideal is a subject that can ‘look after’ themselves, especially insofar as prevention is concerned, without needing to resort to public-state institutions (for health, unemployment, social services and so on).”
While the arena of mental health, self-help, and wellness have historically been seen as objectively separate from political debates, this research points to a historically significant connection between ideals of health and well-being and political and social structures. Specifically, Rodríguez points to mainstream psychology’s tendency towards the individualization of suffering and health being co-constituted within a neoliberal society.
The question central to these debates is whether the expansion of technology designed to create a healthy “self” is innocuous and beneficent or whether it contains within it an ultimately harmful ideology of the self already existing within the culture.
Rodríguez-López, R. Technologies of the self in culture: critical reflections on the self-managed subject. Subjectivity 30, 152–166 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41286-023-00162-x (Link)