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The Dark Side of Self-Help

Photo by Eduardo Izquierdo
You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. ~Mary Oliver

These days, as far as I can tell, some of the world is choosing drugs and distraction over soul-searching.

That’s not, you, though, right? You’re willing to do the work. You’re willing to look at the ugly stuff, and acknowledge the areas where you could use some work—whether it’s emotional, mental, physical, ethical, moral, or any other kind.

But like many things in life, there’s a shadow side to this.

At some point—if you’re not very careful—you may cross the line from personal growth into perfectionism: constantly assessing yourself and your flaws, berating yourself for not doing everything better, and then using the lessons of self-help not for freedom, but as another system for beating yourself up the very same way you would have before you started doing any work at all.

Voices of the Self-Help Shadow

“I really need to stop projecting my stuff onto other people.”

“I should be meditating more often.”

“The compassionate thing to do would be to accept his behavior, not leave.”

These are the voices of the shadow side of self-help; where the justifications for behavior stop being about integrity or trusting in one’s own clear vision, and start being about an adherence to the dogma of whatever the self-help tool of the day is.

It’s easy for this to happen, because—as so many of us who are doing personal growth work have learned the hard way, after putting up a lot of resistance—when you’re deeply entrenched in a dysfunctional pattern, you often don’t know what your clear thinking is.

Sometimes, when things have really gone wayward, we actually do need to turn to something external for help. (Case in point: an alcoholic who decides to turn to a program rather than trying to white-knuckle his way into sobriety because he knows that otherwise, he’ll find far too many justifications for drinking).

But what I see sometimes with self-help devotees is that every little flaw is something to “work on.”

I remember a workshop where people were discussing times in their lives when they were stuck, and my first thought was a relieved, “I know that place, and I’m so glad that I’m not stuck there any more.”

Then I was worried that I was arrogant. I showed up at the next workshop obsessed with the idea that my reaction spoke of a terrible arrogance on my part, a lack of compassion, a selfishness, only thinking about myself, not being present enough to be with them where they were at, and… (deep breath)

…and then the workshop coach said: “Kate, what’s wrong with your being glad that you’re not stuck, anymore?

Then he reminded me of how much work I’d done–hard work–to no longer be stuck in that space.

Point taken. If the purpose of doing this work in the first place is to make progress on my personal journey, to receive its gifts, to be supported and nourished in exploring this human experience and living a fully-alive life along the way, why in the world was I beating myself up because I was no longer stuck around an issue?

I was doing it because I had gotten into the habit of always analyzing, always looking for the supposed “flaws” to ensure that I was no longer caught into resistance. Personal growth had become another standard to measure up to.

Exploring the Voices

1.) “I really need to stop projecting my stuff onto other people.”

Yes, it might be true that it’s not a good thing to project your stuff onto someone else. But… where’s the room for being human? Being gentle with yourself? Can you just notice the times when you do that, and not let it become…a “thing”?

2.) “I should be meditating more often.”

Really? “Should” you? I’ll take a page from Byron Katie on this one: “Can you absolutely know that that’s true?

Can you really know that an afternoon spent surfing, reading a good book, working, connecting with a friend, or even spending time on Facebook isn’t the absolute right thing for you in the greatest cosmic sense? And is it healthy for you to “should” yourself on that?

3.) “The compassionate thing to do would be to accept his behavior, not leave.”

Oh, this is a rich one. We start confusing compassion and acceptance with masochism.

Sometimes, we choose to make soul contracts with people who rub our rough edges. And provided that there are really (really!) healthy boundaries around that, and a lot of lessons learned, and that the process of working with that frustration is genuinely resulting in helping us to learn the things we need to learn about in this incarnation, then great!

But other times? Other times, people act like assholes. They do that for reasons that we could never begin to understand. Sometimes, the spiritually evolved thing to do is to walk away.

How to Access Your Inner Wisdom

For this, we turn to somatics—the practice of using our bodies as tools, as a channel that we tap into for information that logic cannot access.

We do this because it’s the intelligence that exists above the neck that hasn’t brought us clarity. It’s the excessive logic that tells us we need to be—and are even able to be—perfect.

So try it: ask yourself the question: “Where am I stuck?

Then, scan your body to get a sense of where something feels tight or constricted.  Spend some time getting comfortable in that space. Sit with it. “Feel” your way into it. Start trusting the somatic response in your body, to discern the “truth of where you really need to go.

And yes, this may feel silly at first, or as if nothing’s happening, or so irritating you want to crawl out of your skin.  It takes practice, but a bat-shit crazy thing happens when you’ve done it for a bit: there comes an intuitive awareness of your “answers” for what’s happening in this area.

Some thing, some message, some clarity, some connection, will seem to arise as if from the body, and it arises for a reason.

This is one of those practices that evolves from the micro to the macro.

On the micro level, you spend a bit of time each day, over a period of time, quietly scanning your body, noticing the sensations, sensing and observing. You do this like a meditation practice.

Then, on the macro level, the next time you’re standing in front of your boss and she’s being condescending and something rises up in you that’s angry and seething, some other part of you is “watching the watcher.”

Your body is actually giving you a whole host of intuitive information.

Maybe that information will bring you a feeling of compassion.  Maybe it’ll bring a curious detachment. Maybe it’ll cause you to notice that your angry response really has very little to do with her, and actually, you’re still angry at grandma who was condescending to you while growing up.

When we take time to regularly practice connecting with our bodies, we can better parse out the times when the shadow is at work, prompting and pushing us to become ever better and using personal growth as another standard for success or failure.

This is where real personal growth happens. It is not, and never has been, about attaining “perfection”.

So when you are feeling stuck in thoughts or behaviors that you feel you need to “fix,” STOP. Think. Relax. Release.

Let the somatic side have its say–to be used for the useful information that it can provide in accessing what action you want to take next.

You Do Not Have To Be Good

Recognizing that you are human and have areas of your life that you’d like to modify for the better is honorable and worthy as an endeavor. Just try to notice the times when you might be trying to walk on your knees, through the desert, repenting.

“Fixing” all the broken pieces will never get you where you think you want to go.

You are already good.

Thank you for being willing to do the work.

Now go forth, but with gentleness.

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About the author

Kate Swoboda is a life coach, speaker and writer who specializes in courage. You can learn more about her at YourCourageousLife.com, where she writes about courageous living, integrity, and ferocious love. Life Coaches can check out her resources for business and leveraging your practice over at YourCourageousBlueprint.com

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6 thoughts on The Dark Side of Self-Help

  1. The other ‘dark side’ to self-help is becoming obsessed with it. For example, you run out to the bookstore each time your favorite self help authors have a book out because you ‘fear’ that you’ll miss vital information that you ‘should’ have in your personal growth arsenal. While your favorite authors will say, “Thanks for buying my book.” Is it really necessary for you to run out this second and buy their books, especially if you charge them on a credit card? How is that helping you to be financially free? It’s fine if you have a $0.00 or low balance and pay your bills with ease, but if you’re in debt, you may want to use the books you already have, or visit your library to check out the latest self-help books from your favorite authors. And… you may have become co-dependent on self-help. It’s a conundrum.

  2. This article totally hit home for me, as well as Amandah’s comment. I definitely can see where I’ve seen the dark side of self help, especially becoming obsessed with latest products out there. We just need to realize that we are perfect as imperfect human beings. We can’t be disillusioned by the people we look up to and think they live perfect lives where they don’t experience anger, stress, and frustration. We are complete now.

  3. LOVE this article. Self-help should never be about perfectionism. I started looking at spirituality books because I fell for a man who was a narcissist. I actually wanted to have less emotional needs so I thought that embracing my spiritual side would help me be a self contained unit so that this man would love me and not run away. It was only when I stopped reading these books and doing things for my soul (for ME) that I found my way back to these books and inner peace. Inner peace is mostly about self-accpetance, not self improvement. It’s also about being mindful and giving, but only with the right motives and not at the expense of your own health and happiness.
    – Kristina

  4. Interesting article! I think it’s a good thing to try to improve, but the process of always looking for what could be improved implies that you are directing your focus to a negative place. When I find myself doing this I ask myself questions that lead to a more positive focus, which I wrote about in the blog post below.

    http://www.alisonelissa.com/2009/11/10/my-happy-questions/

  5. Temperance

    This article is dead on. I’m just starting to look into my own thoughts, actions, reactions, past, etc and one of the questions that has been on my mind is “How much should I put up with?” (regarding people). I don’t want to become too passive, manipulated, used and abused. I guess I’ll have to spend time thinking about my personal boundaries and such.

  6. I’m glad to have stumbled upon this. I have subscribed to many self-help techniques to improve several facets in my life. But one of the things I had never realized was that I could have been damaging other aspects of my life by being so self critical. There are times, for instance, when I do like to veg out and watch television, take a nap, or just sit around without improving my mind, getting meaning meditation or otherwise doing something to improve my life. And on these occasions, I have guilty for not being in control of my mental focus. But I shouldn’t. After all, maybe that is exactly what my body and mind has wanted me to do for a while. It really is an occasion when I should have followed your suggestion and used my inter wisdom. The fact is I shouldn’t strive for perfectionism. I should focus on improving, but not at the risk of forgetting that I’m doing all of this to make myself feel better. Improvement shouldn’t be painful or promote feelings of guilt or stress.

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