Self-Help Can Be Beneficial, As Long As It’s Not Dogmatic
The recent excitement by some surrounding the possibility of Oprah Winfrey running for president is understandable.
In these days of Trump anyone with a public profile seems like an eligible candidate, and why not an individual as caring and well meaning as Winfrey? A self-made woman who has been infinitely more successful than Trump in business, even without her father’s help. Whether inexperienced famous people should run for public office is an on-going debate, but in terms of Winfrey, there is a an aspect of her many lifestyle recommendations that makes me feel very uneasy if she were to enter office, and that is her obsession with self-help material.
Winfrey’s admiration for The Secret, a 2006 book and film by Australian new age guru Rhonda Byrne, helped make it one of the most successful self-help packages of all time. 20 million copies of the book have been sold worldwide, thanks in no small part to Winfrey’s gushing recommendations, and thousands of people have shared their stories of how the book helped them make a success of their life. This is obviously a good thing, from her position as an influencer and lifestyle taste-maker Winfrey helped people, but this was all from the relatively powerless position as a television host, albeit a hugely popular one.
My problem comes when this idea of self-help becomes dogmatic and gospel. It’s like the difference between faith and religion. I’m not one of those atheists who disparage the beliefs of someone religious, my issue lies with manipulating religion for your own gains, or forcing it upon other people. I think faith is, on the most part, a good thing if it helps the individual recover from hardship or deal with a difficult situation. I think religion is dangerous and a major cause for ill in this world. I feel the same about self-help. If it works for you, and helps you believe in yourself then that’s great, just don’t force it on other people, because every situation is different.
I suffer from depression, but rarely get stressed. So, I use therapy for my depression, and conversely if I find myself stressed I stroke my cat. That does not mean that I should tell everyone to get a cat. Some people hate them, some are allergic, some people have much larger problems with stress that can’t be dealt with by petting a little critter. My methods are right for me because they are unique to me. As someone who has depression, being recommended a book that is supposed to help me help myself is insulting to the constant struggle I go through every day. Visualising being better isn’t going to make me better.
On a much larger scale, if Winfrey were to take office and carry her self-help recommendations in to policy, then my worry would be that less people would seek help elsewhere who really needed it. More than that, it could lead to positions of power shirking on responsibility when it came to mental health provisions. Both the US and the UK are massively failing on mental health, and no amount of self-help rhetoric is going to change that. Telling a person they can get better by reading a book is not only wrong, it will make the individual hesistate to seek help when the book doesn't work.
This is not a criticism of self-help, understand, if you have been helped by a book, or a podcast, or mindfulness or meditation then that is fantastic. Nor is this a criticism of Winfrey, God knows she’d be infinitely better than Trump. It is important, however, to remember that self-help is not an answer to all of life’s problems, and it is crucial that we all remember that.