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7 September 2005Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

More than just a SHAM
Self-help gurus might be fakes - but why do so many people fall for them?

by Josie Appleton

In SHAM: How the gurus of the self-help movement make us helpless, Steve Salerno exposes the pretensions of the Self-Help and Actualisation Movement. Gurus' degrees are often fake, their personal lives a disaster, their advice wacky.

John Gray, of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus fame, offers instruction on the hidden meaning of women's underwear: '[when] she wears silky pink or lace, she is ready to surrender to sex as a romantic expression of loving vulnerability', while a 'cotton t-shirt with matching panties…may mean she doesn't need a lot of foreplay'. One 'life coach', Hale Dwoskin, instructs his clients to drop pens and throw chairs as '"symbolic" ways of letting go of impediments to happiness and power'.

Self-help gurus become famous by hitting on a catchphrase and running with it. Richard Carlson started with Don't Sweat the Small Stuff…and It's All Small Stuff, and graduated to Don't Sweat the Small Stuff For Women, …At Work, …For Teens, The Don't Sweat Guide for Couples. Once a guru makes it, they can diversify into pretty much anything: weight-loss products, relationship counselling, business start-ups, moon landings…. They pose as messiahs, as if everything they touched turned to gold. Indeed, it often does: self-improvement is an $8.5billion industry in America. Gurus charge thousands of dollars for a seminar, and hundreds to answer an email. The self-help industry is smaller in the UK, but is making steady headway.

All this could be dismissed as empty guff. Tony Robbins is a walking cliché: his seminars have titles like Life Mastery, Date With Destiny, Unleash the Power Within, and he offers such homilies as 'The only limit to your impact is your imagination and commitment', or 'All personal breakthroughs begin with a change of beliefs'. However, as Salerno argues, it's more serious than that. SHAM is based on two different philosophies - victimisation and empowerment - which can only make people's problems worse.

Victimisation preaches that everybody's life is fucked up - and if you don't know it, you're really fucked up. Everything bad that happens to you is somebody else's fault, generally your parents'. This tends to spawn suspicious individuals, who are permanently in recovery. They 'believe nothing and believe in nothing'. Empowerment, by contrast, is about mind over matter. If you believe that you will be a 'winner', you will be. This sets people up for a fall, when they discover that self-belief alone cannot move mountains.

Salerno does a good job at exposing the self-help industry, but he accords too much power to these modern-day snake-oil salesmen. He argues that 'American society has largely remade itself in SHAM's bipolar image' - or, as the subtitle claims, they 'made us helpless'. Apparently, gurus have cunningly manipulated their audiences, and forced their ideas on institutions from medicine to education. Esteemed doctors have allowed aromatherapists into their hospitals, while teachers teach self-esteem rather than ABCs. Why has everybody fallen for these fakes?

In truth, it's less that we were made in Tony Robbins' image than that he was made in ours. These guys have the classic shady biographies of opportunists. They are just capitalising on the weaknesses of our age.

It’s only a society that has lost its moorings that can be seized by charlatans
The doctrines of victimisation and empowerment weren't concocted by John Gray and his ilk. Way back in 1979, US sociologist Christopher Lasch argued that a 'culture of narcissism' was infecting family, work, sport and education. Lasch described people's uncertainty about the boundaries between the self and the world - which results in delusions of omnipotence (empowerment) as well as paralysis (victimisation). Today we are even more confused about where the boundaries of responsibility lie.

We've seen the decline of traditional moral codes and motivational frameworks. American capitalism's old ethos of hard work and self-control had been fraying for years before it was pointed out in 1976 by Daniel Bell, in his book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. When businessmen lacked an ethic, they were suckers for the motivational mumbo-jumbo of gurus.

The self-help industry offers answers to two questions: 'How should I live?' and 'How do I motivate myself?' Its answers are crass and often deleterious. The fact that people drink them up merely shows the weakness of other sources of social authority. This is an industry built on desperation - why else would anybody call a stranger on prime time TV to ask whether they should leave their boyfriend? People seem not to know where to start in dealing with their problems. That is why they plead to life coaches: 'Sort me out!', 'Just get me where I want to be!'.

It's only a society that has lost its moorings that can be seized by charlatans. Rasputin preyed on the decadence of the Tsarist regime in early twentieth century Russia, using his mystic cures to work his way into the elite's courtrooms and bedrooms. Self-help gurus are really just parasites, preying on the weakness of the social organism. Exposing gurus as shams won't make them vanish. They will only be out of a job when we get our heads straight.

SHAM could perhaps have benefited from less on why Robbins and co are wrong, and more on how we got here and what the alternative might be. The book's chapter on relationships is the most satisfying, because it counters the cynical formulas of relationship gurus with another idea of attachment: that 'glorious alchemy between one single man and one single woman'. Salerno might then have avoided his downbeat conclusion - that we need to stop hoping for happiness and accept 'what real life is about'. The desire for happiness is a good thing. We just need to stop trying to hitch a lift with mystics, and work out a real way to move forward.

SHAM: How the gurus of the self-help movement make us helpless is published by Nicholas Brealey, 273pp, priced £10.99 (buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA).


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