The Self-Help Industry Needs an Empathy Check

No one improves themselves in a vacuum

Illustration: Laurie Rollitt

The problem that Kenny Trinh was using self-help to solve was his shyness. The bigger problem was what it turned him into.

Trinh was a self-described “meek and shy” office worker who wanted to become a self-assured CEO type. “I wanted to be the smart, confident person in the room,” Trinh says, but “I was lacking in social skills and I didn’t believe in myself.” Looking for a transformation, he turned to self-help, reading a library of books on leadership and self-esteem. “I read them as if my life depended on it,” he says.

And according to Trinh, the strategy worked: He credits his whirlwind tour through self-help literature with giving him the confidence to launch his business, the technology-review site Netbook News, where he now manages a small team of workers.

But when it comes to personal growth, “worked” is a relative concept. Trinh’s journey toward self-improvement came with a noticeable side effect: He became That Guy. Inspired by all he’d read, he began preaching his newfound lessons to friends, family, and anyone else who would listen. Someone mentioned a problem in their life? Trinh was there, ready to talk about a seven-step plan that would most definitely fix it, or to point out the ways they were holding themselves back. “I didn’t notice people were starting to get annoyed,” he says.

That’s because self-help, counterintuitively, often crowds out self-awareness. The big tent of the genre’s central promise — that anyone, with the right know-how, can take charge of their life and become the person they want to be — can promote optimism at the cost of empathy. In our endless quest to optimize who we are and how we live, we run the risk of applying those expectations to those around us, ignoring the very real obstacles that can prevent others from making the same changes to their own lives. We get caught up in the belief that bootstrapping is a universal possibility: If I can help myself, surely anyone can do it.

And that can be true even when we’re aware that it’s happening — a cognitive dissonance that Chad Barnsdale knows well. “One of the lessons I learned in my early 20s is that self-reflection is important and that I wasn’t doing it often enough,” says Barnsdale, founder of the lifestyle site Unfinished Man. So he “did a deep dive, obsessively quantifying every aspect of my life and behavior to try and improve.”

Decades later, Barnsdale says he’s still obsessed with self-improvement content. “Many areas of my life have indeed improved, but the trade-off has been less empathy toward other people,” he says, explaining that he gets frustrated when he feels someone isn’t doing everything in their power to better their life. “I know this isn’t healthy behavior, and ironically, I’m yet to find a way to break the habit,” he says.

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about a bootstrapping mentality without talking about privilege. After all, it’s easy to believe anyone can overcome the obstacles you’ve overcome if you don’t need to consider structural barriers tied to race, gender, socioeconomic status, or other elements of your identity or circumstances. Psychologists have a name for this: the just-world fallacy. It’s a cognitive bias that assumes the world is morally fair, so if a person can’t pull themselves up on their own, they must be doing something wrong.

And the just-world fallacy is perpetuated, intentionally or inadvertently, by the cults of personality that dominate the self-improvement world. There’s a vaguely religious flavor to the idea that someone has the answers that will solve your problems, no matter what, whether it’s Tony Robbins promising Unlimited Power or Tim Ferriss helping you achieve a 4-Hour Workweek. I have it figured out, these motivational-personalities-turned-brands promise, and if you buy my book/take my course/attend my event, you can, too. If you buy in, that’s half the battle. If not, well, you’re missing out on a ticket to salvation.

Hence the proselytizing: Who wouldn’t want to get their loved ones in on something like that? “The shy and meek office worker became a loud and obnoxious jerk,” Trinh says of his own experience. “I kept telling people about these ‘hacks,’” only to be met with eye rolls. “Thankfully, my friends discussed this problem with me and I was able to tone down the preaching and act like a normal human being.”

This sort of black-and-white thinking — either you’re willing to put in the effort or you’re not — creates an unhealthy level of perfectionism, argues Will Storr, author of the book Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us. “There’s ‘narcissistic perfectionism,’ in which people believe they’re absolutely capable of reaching the highest heights,” Storr writes, and crash when they realize they aren’t.

Such an extreme emphasis on perfectionism can wreak havoc on your own mental health, but it’s also dangerous from a cultural standpoint. The idea that there’s a perfectly optimized type of human being that we should all strive to be suggests a hierarchy that some will never be able to reach.

So reject the hierarchy. Sublimate individual action into community care.

In social services and the nonprofit world, community care often refers to offering assistance to underserved communities. In the context of self-improvement, community care involves “interpersonal acts of compassion,” as the writer Heather Dockray put it at Mashable. It’s self-help with emphasis on the second half of the term: Help improve the world around you, and the self improves, too.

Personal transformation can come from maintaining a more open, less absolutist mindset. We can improve ourselves and care for our communities. We can push ourselves to be better while still maintaining a sense of empathy. We’ve gotten so used to going at it alone, without considering that it may not be the most effective way to get where we want to go.

Kristin Wong is a journalist and freelance writer. She’s written for the New York Times, ELLE, The Cut, and Glamour.

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