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The Emptiness of Self-Help

Updated: Aug 31, 2021

By Jessica L.

In bookstores the display tables are stacked high with an aggressive amount of self-help books. Tidy towers of titles confronting you with their bold statements. Everything illuminated with a positive platitude or very inoffensive graphic design. “How To Win Friends And Influence People”, “The Power of Now”, “The Secret”, and more abstracted or psychologically charged titles to remind us of our inadequacies. Flaws and faults that can be transformed into something more in just 300 pages for $29.99.

Under the umbrella of self-development is an interesting Frankensteinian cocktail of several genres. Philosophy, Psychology and Spirituality converge to bring many variations of self-help literature, bleeding into one another to the point that they become hard to distinguish. In a New Yorker article by Alexandra Schwartz on the promotion of lifestyle habits in personal development books, she writes that “Self-help advice tends to reflect the beliefs and priorities of the era that spawns it.” Illuminating a very important point to consider. In the current era that we are living in, what do we find to be valuable, important and optimal in our lives? How do we as a collective promote those values of the ideal self? If such books are the answers to cultivating a better life, what are the current anxieties that we find ourselves trying so desperately to unburden? And in the end, is that enough to truly satisfy us?

Why Do We Care So Much?

“May you live in interesting times” seems to be the recurring theme of our present era, where it seems as though with every passing year we are becoming more dissatisfied with the state of the world and ourselves. At present we are very much living in the accursed “interesting times” in that news of war, economic insecurity, suffering, and unhappiness seem so incredibly commonplace. Self-development books offer a means of coping with the instability of the world by giving back an element of control to the individual. Consuming self-development content reinforces the notion that things can change IF you put in the effort, reform the bad habits and force yourself to transform into something new or better either through “hard work” or by “letting go”.

From partially reading two self-help books myself, I found that these sentiments offered two perspectives to frame self-development in a manner that contradicts itself. Raising the question of whether to”‘cultivate the self” or “abandon the self” in order to make sense of the world.

Cultivation of The Self

One part of self-development literature is focused on the refinement and cultivation of the individual self. This can be done in several ways, to improve one’s self through refining social status, social skills, career development, adopting different values or developing better/healthier habits. What is reinforced is the notion of the “untapped potential” residing in you, the individual, that is not being fully accessed to your benefit. The problem and the solution resides in you, the text is merely offering the tools or knowledge to access that potential. Said potential once it is harnessed to the fullest will eventually lead you to the successful life you desire.

In Jordan Peterson’s ‘12 Rules for Life’, he offers, as the title suggests, his take on rules that one should adopt to cultivate order in their individual life. Developing a perspective of the world within the binary of Order vs Chaos, his rules are supposed to be the medicine for disorder in one’s life. Peterson’s advice in the book is achievable and so simplistically straight to the point. It is actionable almost immediately, that it literally leaves you with a “no excuses” sense of motivation. In offering this, Peterson’s work is attempting to reinforce a meritocratic notion of the self. That you are only successful if you work hard for that success, or if you don’t put in the effort that you end up getting “ what you deserve”. Allowing the reader to shift focus away from the greater systems of power at work, and instead concentrating all their energy on becoming their desired self.

Or The ABANDONMENT of the Self

The other side of the self-help coin is the perspective that the individual is the issue in the world, therefore the self needs to be abandoned in order to live properly. At the most it attempts to encourage humility within yourself or mindfulness about human life and purpose. Regardless both outcomes function in the hopes that it would inspire more goodwill towards others. It’s philosophy centres on the idea that the problems of the world are the direct result of us becoming too selfish, pushing forward the instruction to “let go” of the negativity you harbour and strive for a higher sense of “Being”. Whether it be through “awakening” of the consciousness or practising forgiveness onto others you will eventually find a higher level of self.

Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth encourages this philosophy as it delves into the idea of the “ego” being the main drive of misery in our world. Tolle suggests that the state of the world is the result of our collective “ego” needing to dominate everything. As a solution he calls for a new “consciousness” to awaken in order to solve our individual and collective problems. Tolle argues for the abandonment of “ego” in individuals, instead actively encouraging a state of “Being” that is formless and beyond the limitations of human pride and identity. What is being encouraged by A New Earth is a world where everyone has tapped into the consciousness that is bigger than their ego, hoping that all the “isms” of the world that divide us will eventually cease to exist because we achieve a higher state of being.

What we are offered are two conflicting philosophies for our selection. For whatever problem seems to plague our lives, we are asked what type of solution we want to adopt. The path of self-cultivation to encourage more direction or the path of self-abandonment for the sake of the world. One has to remember that self-help books are the by-product of capitalism and they in turn support the myth of capitalism’s promises. To be valued as the best, to be rewarded, to have direction into the right kind of life and the belief in meritocracy. In that, self-development philosophy reinforces an idea of the self as dictated by capitalism’s standards of success, wealth and knowledge. But on the other side they are books that offer a blanketed understanding of spirituality, giving vague and positive platitudes to convince the individual that their vices could disappear solely through “reflection” without any responsive action. When the self becomes more “awake”, only then will the problems of the world begin to change. It’s as though the abandonment of the self asks you to dismiss the reality of historically oppressive systems of thought and institutions that remain standing by prioritising one’s self-obliteration. In both instances the “self” becomes the vehicle to distract us from the world.

Spirituality, but Commodify It

When it comes to cultivating virtues, we have most often relied on wisdom from religious and cultural practices. In different ways, religious practices offer a perspective on how to cultivate a spiritual self, one that is wholly separate from the physical world. What has been developed is a body of knowledge that describes such spiritual experiences, sometimes providing actions on how to achieve such a state. This appears as the seemingly universal blueprint for how we experience religion, but when appropriated by self-help platitudes the philosophies behind such practices become diluted or completely abandoned.

Self-development books have found a way to channel the universal ideas of spirituality to create a philosophy that serves capitalism rather than an individual’s faith. Working in a manner that disconnects the practice from it’s deeply cultural and spiritual meaning. In some instances, such books change the language used in spiritual practices to present them in a more consumable light for a secular audience or in other cases philosophies outside of the Euro-centric context are adopted into the Western mainstream culture. Think about Marie Kondo’s ‘Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up’, both the book and the Netflix show. When her KonMari philosophy blew up into the mainstream consciousness we all found ourselves decluttering our lives and actively purging out the things that we found did not “spark joy”. What’s interesting was how her methods and philosophy were adopted so easily into the secular community. People bought her books, watched her show and bought storage supplies to “declutter” their lives, all the while perhaps not realising that her methods were not only for physical/material satisfaction but also part of a bigger spiritual experience. We adopted her practice with such ease, forgetting the importance of the religious Shinto foundation of her methods, because as consumers we had no use for it.

What can be found in self-development books are snippets of New Age Philosophical ideas of spirituality. These being an amalgamation of different spiritual practices that are oftentimes contrasting and distinct from one another. Religious studies researcher Michael York suggests that New Age philosophy “endorses a spiritualised counterpart of capitalism”, where spiritual practice is treated as a commodity within a competitive market. Meaning that mindfulness companies or self-identifying “gurus” are able to sell yoga and meditation techniques without the need to explain the spiritual knowledge behind the practice. It also means that Indigenous spiritual practices, that were once outlawed because of colonisation, are often appropriated now for consumption. Consequently continuing the cycle of exploitation and cultural theft of First Nations People.

Who Do We Give Permission To Teach Us


As a genre self-development has attracted writers of many different occupations, from psychologists, spiritual teachers, influencers and even your average celebrity. The notion is that advice can be given by anyone who has expertise in the field they are in, yet when it comes to personal-development, who do we find ourselves willing to listen to? Who are the people we think are capable of “changing our lives”?

Shonda Rhimes, Lilly Singh and many more public figures have written books that express similar sentiments of personal development. The author’s evident success in their world makes us feel as though we should accept their advice. They are successful therefore it feels natural for us to presume their advice would be valuable. Rhimes’ “Year of Yes” was a reflection of her experience saying “yes” to every opportunity she had with the blurb encouraging this philosophy to the reader. Singh’s “How To Be a Bawse” presents itself to the reader as a comprehensive guide to becoming successful like her through hard work and effort. Reading advice from celebrities who have “made it'' asserts their authority, that they are the ones competent enough to suggest what life should be like. The self-help category gives its author an incredible amount of authority for selling the idea that whatever it is the reader is looking for, they will find in the author’s words and experiences. With that in mind, it makes sense that we would only find the advice worthwhile if it was given by certain types of people. The people who have what we want.

There is an aspirational quality about self-help when it is written by prominent public figures. As though by reading their advice on life we are able to emulate them, whilst reminding ourselves that they were once ordinary people before they became something more. They become mentor-like figures that echo in the back of your mind, whose advice becomes almost an authoritative rule that must be obeyed in order to achieve their kind of success. Giving readers a framework of guidance for them to apply in their day-to-day life by asking the question “what would (insert public figure’s name ) do in this situation?”.

Final Thoughts

The buzz that comes from consuming self-development content feels very intoxicating at first only to follow through with an often depressing outcome. When you first read a self-help book, many of your troubles suddenly have actionable solutions, you are told to fix yourself up or change your mindset and in the beginning, it feels like you are finally succeeding in the direction you want to move in. Yet when that buzz starts to feel less intense you find yourself returning to your old ways and finding old thoughts resurfacing. Often to curb this, you find another self-help medium to dedicate yourself to, to kickstart the cycle again. The transformation montage moment in movies never seems to fully come through for you because it keeps restarting over and over again.

Self development exists as a means of coping with capitalism and fulfilling its demands. It reminds us of how inadequate we are in order to sell us another product to fulfil our more abstract desires. In the end, solely relying on self-development to answer our emotional, mental and spiritual concerns will never lead us to anywhere with substantial answers. It’s important to see self-help books in a different light compared to the way they’re sold to us. You can always reject the advice they have given, there isn't a requirement for you to follow through everything they suggest. Rather than relying on them to provide answers and guidance for one’s life, it might benefit us to view them almost through a biographical lens. Looking at the author’s words as a way to see how they as a person learned to cope with the world around them.

I never got around to finishing Tolle’s or Peterson’s books, for multiple reasons. They required a lot of stamina in terms of dealing with the preachiness of the content, but it was interesting to see how they structured their understanding of the world. Rather than adopt every rule spouted by Peterson into my life I found myself listening attentively to stories of his hometown life and trying to earnestly understand why his life experiences formulated his rules. In Tolle’s dissection of the many layers of “ego”, I found an inkling of how we identify defensive responses in one another and why his ideas of the universal ego were so important to his understanding of the world. I didn’t find myself metamorphosing into a new and better version of myself. Maybe because I didn’t feel the need to or maybe because I know change is going to happen gradually. I am a firm believer that change will happen at the right time, with the right conditions set out to help your growth. That will take time, effort, and probably the will of God for me, I don’t think I’m inclined to find it in self-development literature.

So if you still love or hate self-help, that’s fine. In the end, it’s all about remembering that change doesn’t need to happen the moment you finish a self-development book. Sometimes you just need to close the book, put it back on your shelf, just tell yourself “that was an interesting read” and understand that you’re already enough.

Edited by Palwasha A.



Clark, M., 2021. The Religion of Marie Kondo and her KonMari Method of Tidying. [online] Religion Unplugged. Available at: <> [Accessed 25 April 2021].

PETERSON, J. B., DOIDGE, N., & VAN SCIVER, E. (2018). 12 rules for life: an antidote to chaos.

TOLLE, E. (2005). A new earth: awakening to your life's purpose. New York, N.Y., Dutton/Penguin Group.

Schwartz, A., 2021. Improving Ourselves to Death. [online] The New Yorker. Available at: <> [Accessed 25 April 2021].

Sinclair, M., 2021. Why the Self-Help Industry Is Dominating the U.S.. [online] Medium. Available at: <> [Accessed 25 April 2021].

York, M., 2001. New Age Commodification and Appropriation of Spirituality. Journal of Contemporary Religion, 16(3), pp.361-372.

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