How Self-Help Doesn't Help
Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze
By Svend Brinkmann
Polity, 138pp, £12.99
Svend Brinkmann is the self-help guru who paradoxically presents himself as the antidote to self-help culture. In this provocative and entertaining book he urges us to liberate ourselves from the edicts of the self-help industry, with their phoney promises of happiness and self-realisation. We should resist their mantra of “self-development”, and their exhortations to be forever positive and optimistic. He calls upon us to stand firm against pointless, perpetual incommands to be “true to oneself”.
Brinkmann instead asks us to be happy with staying still and living with oneself, with saying “no” sometimes instead of “yes” all the time. Perfect happiness is an impossible goal. There is nothing wrong with being unhappy or being doubtful. His most abiding message is to resist the temptation to “look inside oneself”, and instead to suppress one’s feelings when they are infantile and destructive, and to look outside oneself. It’s usually people who give in to their base emotions, and those in possession of certainty, who have caused the most misery in the history of humanity.
Brinkmann introduces his own “seven- step guide to happiness”, a somewhat ironic and indeed risky approach, considering that he seeks to debunk therapy programmes. His steps are: 1. Cut out the navel gazing; 2. Focus on the negative in your life; 3. Put on the No hat; 4. Suppress your feelings; 5. Sack your coach; 6. Read a novel — not a self-help book or biography; 7. Dwell on the past. He urges the reader to look outwards, to be open to other people, cultures and nature. “You need to accept that the self does not hold the key to how to live your life. The self is merely an idea, a construct, a by-product of cultural history.” The much-vaunted journey of “self-discovery” is a dangerous one, as you may not like what you find — or you may not find anything at all.
With an eye for paradox, he talks about positivity as a negative thing, and attacks the prevailing notion that it’s good and healthy to “say yes” all the time. He exhorts the reader to eliminate the tyranny of the positive by accentuating the negative. It will make you better prepared to stand firm, where you are.
First, the “say yes” dictate paradoxically annuls personal agency. Second, not everything is possible if you merely “put your mind to it”. The notion that you can change things merely through positive thinking will only lead to ultimate feelings of failure.
The self-help industry has been marked by two paradoxes over the past decades. First, it celebrates the individual, freedom of choice and self-realisation, yet simultaneously it helps to create people who are increasingly addicted to self-help (does anyone know someone who has only bought a single self-help book?). The second paradox is that the self-help industry has flourished precisely because self-help books don’t work. The first author to create a successful self-help book would instantly finish off the genre. Self-help programmes merely create dependent users, who much like addicts are forever after their next fix — the next mythical, miracle dose that will give them final bliss.
Brinkmann is openly in debt to the Stoics, and the book contains an appendix on Stoicism. Yet there are more recent thinkers than the Ancient Greeks who came to identical conclusions. Schopenhauer wrote that life was essentially unhappy and the best way of dealing with it was to minimise displeasure and pain. In his footsteps came Nietzsche, who said that life was not about accepting life’s inherent sufferings, but facing and overcoming them. (Nietzsche also thought “the self” was a myth and that life’s calling wasn’t being “true to oneself” but “conducting a war against oneself, that is to say self-controlled outwitting.”) And it was Freud who wrote in Civilisation and its Discontents that peaceful societies were erected upon the very premise that people don’t give into their emotions. Without repression or control of our emotion we might think nothing of killing our neighbour. Still, Brinkmann does openly point the finger of blame at Rousseau, whose Confessions initiated the cult of “being true to oneself” — that the key to life is to be yourself and listen to your “inner voice”.
Brinkmann’s “just say no” message is a refreshing one, and one that might have caused more controversy — especially among mental health charity firms and the pharmaceutical industry, who are all too keen to promote the idea that there is something wrong with being unhappy or sometimes distressed by life. But Stand Firm was a roaring success upon its first publication in Denmark three years ago. Perhaps its success represents a backlash against the self-help and therapeutic consensus that has held sway over the years. Or perhaps it merely represents a return to the status quo ante, a need to “stand firm” in our hyperconnected society where there is a sense of information overload.
This book is indeed timely, considering that so many feel overwhelmed by an ever-accelerating globe, in which our modern maladies are sleep deprivation, digital addiction and “FOMO” (fear of missing out). Our culture has also witnessed increased stress, fatigue and depression levels. Brinkmann’s message — to stand still — encourages the reader to “take back control” (to coin a phrase) not only from the self-help ethos, but in everyday life from personal coaches. By standing still and saying no we return dignity to ourselves. Instead of trying to be authentic at any cost, a rational adult should strive for dignity, which assumes the ability to control our emotions.