This Psychologist Wants You to Reject Self-Help

Ryan Fan

Designed by author on Canva Pro — Original Photo from Mogens Engelund on Wikipedia Commons

“To stand still in our society, which is based on growth and consumption,” said psychologist and philosopher, Svend Brinkman on Psychology Today

Self-help is all over us — it dominates the Internet, shows up on our newsfeed, and is ubiquitous in the advice we receive from both family, friends, and co-workers. I don’t like self-help, but I see the appeal. Who doesn’t want to be more confident? Who doesn’t want to be more productive? Who doesn’t want to be happier?

The boundaries, however, seem to be in a gray area. What self-help advice is helpful? What self-help advice is harmful? And when does self-help get flat-out annoying and cliche?

Brinkman urges, in Psychology Today, for us to actually reject self-help because it requires people to be “flexible, changeable, and constantly preoccupied with self-development and reinvention.” To not change, not adapt, and simply be yourself and stand still “is akin to dissent,” in Brinkman’s words. He doesn’t find the flexibility and adaptiveness of the self-improvement mindset to be a good thing.

Brinkman says that we are a “stressed and rootless workforce” when the market demands us to be overly flexible. He wants people to resist the system for their own mental health. The most important thing shouldn’t be developing yourself, but not developing yourself.

“I don’t need to develop myself” is the creed Brinkman urges to ward against the dominance of the self-help and self-improvement industry. The self-improvement world would call not needing to develop “heresy,” but the reason why it might not be best to improve is that habit and routine might be better than innovation, and conforming to societal standards is what may give humans more potential than endless innovation and change.

“Those who reject the whole find-and-develop-yourself ideology have more chance of putting down roots and living a life with a certain degree of integrity — with joined-up and enduring identities — and sticking to what is important in their lives,” Brinkmann says.

Instead of self-help, following anti-self-help has a plethora of benefits. In his book, Standing Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze, Brinkmann wants us to stay still and not go for the next self-improvement or mindfulness hack. He offers seven steps to resist self-help:

  1. Don’t base decisions on your gut feelings. Brinkmann stresses the health paradox, which means patients self-diagnose the more help they tend to receive.
  2. Focus on the negative. Although we’re always told to “think positive,” thinking about our own mortality every single day will help us appreciate life as we live it.
  3. Learn how to say no. Personal development constantly has us saying yes to new developments and projects, but Brinkmann notes that’s a bad idea.
  4. Learn to suppress your feelings, especially anger. We should put dignity over authenticity.
  5. Get rid of your coach. Coaches often help us find answers and potential within ourselves, but Brinkmann wants us to simply reframe our relationship with our coach — our coach should be our friend.
  6. Read novels instead of self-help books. Novels help us imagine life as “complex and unmanageable” instead of giving us a sense of control over life, which is usually an illusion. Self-help tends to sell false promises of happiness, while novels expand our imagination of the world.
  7. Dwell on the past. When we look back at the past instead of at the present, it looks brighter the more time that is past. Hindsight is 20/20, so make sure to tell someone that things were always better in the old days.

I agree with Brinkmann personally on his general backlash against self-help, but suppressing feelings? Not have boundaries with a coach or therapist? Dwell on the past? And so I did more digging into Brinkmann’s book. In his blurb, Brinkmann writes that our social interactions are increasingly “self-serving and opportunistic” as we pursue self-improvement and introspection.

“The secret to a happier life lies not in finding your inner self but in coming to terms with yourself in order to coexist peacefully with others,” Brinkmann says.

Takeaways for mental health

The takeaway from Brinkmann’s anti-self-help movement for our mental health is the beauty of standing still. He argues that a heavy cause for our depression is the mental exhaustion caused by us constantly reaching and trying to improve. Modern life seeks us to look for a quick fix solution, and often self-help offers a “quick fast easy solution to problems” which is often an illusion.

No matter what we may feel about Brinkmann’s advice, he has a point at the end of the day. Self-help needs an empathy check. You don’t tell someone with chronic illness they need self-help. You don’t tell someone with cancer or heart disease they need self-help. So why is it so often that the invisible illnesses that society tells us to keep reaching and keep pushing?

Self-help, by its definition, is the focus on the self. Brinkmann argues that focusing on ourselves so continuously is a means of making ourselves more unhappy.

“So many studies have shown that meaning is found in our relationships, with others, with the world, with society, with nature — with something beyond ourselves,” Brinkmann says.

At the end of the day, standing still in a world that’s moving fast and telling us to move, whose message is that we’re not good enough the way we are — that’s hard. But no matter what you think of Brinkmann’s advice, standing still is possible and beneficial.

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