The Nation's Pulse

Self-Help Cries Out for Help

A conversation with Steve Salerno, author of SHAM, which Oprah has yet to select for her book club.

By 12.19.06

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After my recent encounter with The Donald and a slew of motivational speakers at The Learning Annex Wealth Expo, it seemed as good a time as any to check in with essayist Steve Salerno, author of SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless, a brilliantly detailed deconstruction of the history, personalities and consequences of what he has christened the Self-Help and Actualization Movement. From Oprah's couch, Dr. Phil's fear factor and the Culture of Blame to Dr. Laura's lack of messianic qualities and the new Will Smith movie, what follows is the transcript of our wide-ranging discussion.

The relationship advice wing of the self-help movement, you argue, has spread like a "social Ebola" and is taking "the spontaneity and magic out of love." How worried should a suitor be should he see a copy of Codependent No More or The Rules lying on the desk of his heart's desire?

Steve Salerno: My advice (to guys, anyway)? "Put your hands up -- and step away from the woman..." Seriously, the trouble with romantic self-help is that it's so programmatic. The whole Mars-Venus conceit, for example, reduces the genders to two sets of immutable cliches; then it teaches you to relate to your would-be beloved as a cliche, instead of as a unique individual. How are you supposed to find your soul mate when you spend the entire getting-to-know-you period sparring according to a set of rules and fixed assumptions? As for codependency, the basis of the concept is that you're supposed to put yourself first. You don't let someone else's ups and downs affect your own joie de vivre. I ask you: Would you really want a wife -- a mother -- who took that approach to daily living?

You describe SHAM as "an inherently feminizing movement, by all the traditional benchmarks of what it means to be feminine." Aside from explaining why SHAM is not an Oprah Book Club selection, I'm curious how you expect women to react to this. Why should they not be offended?

SS: I'm not necessarily saying they shouldn't be offended. But they should also be offended by much of what they see on Oprah -- which, for all its empowerment-speak, clearly embraces a very traditional view of womanhood. And they should be deeply offended by almost everything that's published monthly in "their" magazines, which have done more to reinforce narrow, patronizing notions of femininity than anything ever attempted by Howard Stern. What I'm really saying is, self-help is "feminizing" by the classic view of "what it means to be woman." With the exception of its career wing, after all, self-help is consumed, to the tune of 80%, by women, and it's "spun" accordingly. It emphasizes feelings over thought -- there is no question about that. When it reaches out to men at all, it does so by trying to teach them to meet women at a woman's level, which is to say, the emotional level. I also find it telling that women have no problem with stereotyping when it suits their professional aims -- e.g., many women rally behind the idea that their "social tendencies" are a great benefit in police work, defusing situations that machismo would only inflame. Fine. But then don't scream when somebody says those same "social tendencies" are becoming problematic in education, where the ethos seems to be, "Hey, wouldn't it be swell if we could just make all little boys act like nice little girls...with penises?"

"We are each, to varying degrees," you write, "victims of 'second-hand self-help.'" Further: "You may think Dr. Phil is the greatest thing since sliced bread, or you may chortle at his braggadocio and his sagebrush sagacity. But almost no one worries about Dr. Phil." How, exactly are we with neither subscription to Oprah's magazine nor $7000 tickets to a Tony Robbins weekend caught in that web? Why should we fear Dr. Phil?

SS: Where to begin? Moral relativism, with its blurring and rationalization of good and evil, comes directly out of self-help's concept of "personal truth" -- that is, each of us is entitled to define his private reality, with all such realities enjoying equal stature. Self-help also gave us the self-esteem movement, and its idea that the very worst thing you can do is hurt someone's feelings. This has been especially disastrous in schools, where the practical effect is to teach kids to pride themselves on second-rate performance; test scores clearly show this. Today's entitlement culture had its genesis at the intersection of those two constructs: self-esteem and personal truth. The "diseasing of America," too, can be traced to AA's successful crusade to de-stigmatize alcoholism. That reasoning has since been expanded to cover myriad behaviors that once were regarded as character flaws. Further, since diseases are things you have to recover from, companies now find themselves in the curious position of committing a disproportionate amount of resources to their least productive workers. You don't just summarily fire people anymore. You send them to rehab. The menu now includes paid programs for substance abuse, gambling, "anger management," sexual addiction, etc. Then there's the whole Culture of Blame and all of its documented ills. At the other end of the spectrum, "empowerment" dogma is inducing millions of Americans to abandon medical orthodoxy and instead "tap their inner healing energies." Major medical centers now include mind-body regimens as part of the overall treatment for no better reason than patients increasingly are asking for it. So you have medical protocols driven not by validated research, but by consumer demand. What a terrifying notion! I could go on and on.

When I recently saw Tony Robbins, his reputation preceded him in such a way that I genuinely assumed I would end up walking out with an armful of books ready to seize the day. Instead, it did nothing for me, but ten thousand others bounced with an ecstatic collective happiness I have infrequently witnessed. Still, you write, "If Victimization teaches us to deny our faults, Empowerment teaches us to revel in them," adding that Empowerment is "just as flawed, just as silly, and maybe even more diabolical." How can we square the unbridled joy with your dire assessment?

SS: The unbridled joy is the problem, Shawn. Because it's not only unbridled -- it's unfounded. Totally disconnected from reality or any meaningful competency or plan of action. As one of my sources put it, "The most dangerous person in corporate America is the enthusiastic incompetent; he's always running too fast in the wrong direction." And as a thinking person, I also cringe at the logic. When I hear Will Smith, in promoting his new feel-good film, The Pursuit of Happyness, parrot that bromide about how "you can be anything you want in life if you just believe it strongly enough!"... Well, no you can't. By definition, we can't all be president. Hell, we can't all be Will Smith! I'm never going to beat Shaquille O'Neal in a game of one-on-one, no matter how much I "believe." In fact, one of the dumbest things you can do is take someone who's successful, then reason backwards, look at his background and beliefs and say, "See? That's why he's successful!" If that were true, Bill Gates and Ted Turner would be living proof of why we should all drop out of college. They're the exceptions that prove the rule. Yet the seminar junkies never see that! They think that zeal alone will carry the day. And that pervasive, misguided belief is responsible for a colossal waste of time, money and emotional energy. There are limits to what most of us can achieve in life, and I often think the true path to happiness resides in knowing one's limitations, as well as one's aptitudes.

You argue, "The self-help guru has a compelling interest in not helping people," but doesn't a guru with a stack of books to sell actually have a compelling interest to at least somewhat help people so they will trust his other products?

SS: What he does is infuse them with hope. If you take self-help books and really analyze their "programs," as it were, it's pretty generic stuff. Alas, humans are complex, highly nuanced individuals, mixtures of good and bad, selfish and unselfish, productive and counterproductive, to the extent that even we don't always know the operative mechanisms responsible for the things we do. It's thus unlikely that any one-size-fits-all program will supply the answer to your problems. But the books represent a verbal pat on the fanny -- "hang in there, we'll get it right -- if not this time, then next time." And many people need that. It becomes addictive for its own sake. It's like I love you in a marriage: You're not being told anything new each time you hear it, but you still want to hear it every so often.

Success, you suggest, gets self-help gurus thinking of "brand extension" far beyond their already questionable "core competencies." Nonetheless, despite the banality of some of the observations and the marketing schemes, I wonder if you don't believe these guys mostly buy into their own shtick, especially after the President or, more importantly, Oprah endorses their program? If you were Tony Robbins or Dr. Phil wouldn't you end up a bit messianic as well?

SS: I think that's true -- it goes to their heads. But explaining it doesn't justify it. In the first place, by and large these people lack the credentials to be true messiahs; many of them, if you look at their personal histories, have some very un-messiah-like blemishes here and there. (I outline all of these in the book, and have been duly threatened because of it.) Most of them don't even have the technical prerequisites you'd expect. Dr. Laura, for example, got her doctorate in human physiology, which really makes her closer to a gym teacher than a psychotherapist. But look, I do believe that some of the gurus were sincere at the outset. It's just that the money and power corrupt, and it all feeds on itself. They become one-man (or -woman) industries and start doing transparently venal things like franchising themselves or recycling their material ad nauseam, such that unsuspecting consumers are buying the same material over and over in only slightly altered form. When you have a situation like we now see in life coaching, where companies are literally phoning leading business schools like Harvard and Wharton and begging professors to come in and do coaching -- that doesn't go unnoticed. It attracts hordes of wannabes who may not have the end-users' best interests at heart.

You write, "The mainstreaming of SHAM dogma did not occur by design." Is there any design for getting free of its tentacles? Can you foresee any set of circumstances whereby America would replace the easy self-help mantras with your tougher love "Sometimes, paradoxically, in order to keep yourself on the Road to Happy, you must choose sad"?

SS: The trouble is, in order for a self-help regimen to gain real-world traction, it must be oversimplified. It must be extreme -- polar. Either it offers full absolution from responsibility and blame (i.e. victimization) or it offers the promise of omnipotence (i.e. empowerment). Neither pole has much to do with real life, which, as noted, is heavily nuanced and laden with unknowns. Can you imagine trying to sell a book or program that dwelled in that more realistic middle ground? A book with a title like, Look, We Both Know You Probably Can't Do It, But What the Hell, Why Not Give It a Shot? Who's going to buy that book! More to the point, what publisher would publish it? Add to that: the vagaries and infinite variety of humanity itself, which means that the same program may have vastly different impact on two different people. So by its nature, mass-market self-help is an oxymoron. In reality, as implied earlier, we must all pretty much find our own way: a nation of 300 million separate self-help programs.

Researching SHAM did you come across any self-help guru or program that you didn't think was full of it?

SS: This may surprise you, but I think Tony Robbins wouldn't be half-bad, if he could lose some of the cheesy shtick that are such a part of his routine, and if he'd just stop recycling himself through so many different channels at such high-dollar cost. He teaches some things that do seem useful or at least are intriguing to consider. But the larger point is this: I didn't write my book to say, "Self-help is absolutely worthless to everyone!" There are useful nuggets of this-and-that scattered throughout the SHAM-scape. I'm just saying that the movement promotes itself and its constituent parts as a panacea -- it makes all these extreme promises about transforming people's lives -- and it offers almost nothing in evidence. Certainly nothing that meets the most minimal standards of scientific validity. (Plus, much of the "evidence" it does offer is clearly tainted.) So we really don't even know what self-help is capable of, because we've never held the movement's feet to the fire. In a society that lives and dies by statistics calibrated to the ninth decimal place, the same corporations that demand substantiation when shipping-and-receiving wants to switch to a new twine supplier will commit a half-million dollars to a one-day motivational extravaganza and never even attempt to reckon the cost-effectiveness. I find that mind-boggling.

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