Jan. 24th, 2017

osprey_archer: (books)
One thing about Netgalley is that it really highlights trends in my reading - in particular, the fact that I read a lot of self-help books. Even more particularly, I like self-help books about how self-help books and positive psychology are the worst. Someday I will find one that asserts that self-help books are the worst because they rarely plumb the depths of how very bad we really are, and how can anyone possibly improve when they don’t even have a clear sense of what they’re doing wrong in the first place, and then I will have reached anti-self-help nirvana and… well, let’s be real, I’ll probably continue reading anti-self-help books. (Another thing that anti-self-help books don’t say often enough is that most people don’t actually change that much once they’re adults, and when they do it’s not always an improvement.)

Anyway. My newest anti-self-help fling is Svend Brinkmann’s Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze, which is refreshing in the breathtaking directness with which it dismisses, well, everything really. The culture of constant development! The idea of self-improvement! The entire idea of the self!

No, seriously: “under the surface, inside, there is nothing, no authenticity,” Brinkmann says. He also quotes a psychologist who suggested that “the depression epidemic in the West is explained by the fact that if you look inwards long enough - if you dwell on how you feel, and use therapy to find yourself - then depression will descend the moment you realise that there is, in fact, nothing there.”

I think saying that there is nothing is an overstatement - people do seem to have stable basic personalities, for instance, and I think it’s valuable to know that sort of thing about yourself. But if you’re perusing your deepest soul for the meaning of life and find nothing but a tendency toward introversion and a middling score for neuroticism, then of course that’s going to be a disappointment, not because introversion or neuroticism are bad but because they’re not a Meaning of Life (™).

Brinkmann’s rejection of the idea of an authentic inner self leads to another point that I found interesting, the idea that we are the masks we wear. “You might also ask why it is assumed that it is inside ourselves that we are most truly ‘ourselves.’ Why is the self not reflected in our actions, our lives and our relationships with others…?”

So there is no such thing as inner kindness, for instance, because kindness is entirely about how we treat others. If we feel that we’re being kind but other people don’t experience it that way, then we’re not. Or truthful, reliable, humorous, punctual, responsible, or any number of other traits that are based on how other people experience us.

(My cynical answer to Brinkmann’s probably rhetorical question is that believing in an inner self that is more real than the outer self allows us more space to rationalize away our own flaws, and that’s why we cling to the idea so fiercely. If we believe in our own inner goodness, we can do away with the necessity to actually do good things in order to feel good about ourselves.)

And one last quote, because it made me wince in recognition: “Many people, unfortunately, buy into the idea that they can ‘do anything’... so self-flagellation is a perfectly understandable reaction when their efforts prove inadequate. If you can do anything, then it must be your fault if success proves elusive in work or love (for Freud, ‘lieben und arbeiten’ were the two most significant existential arenas). Little wonder, then, that nowadays so many hanker after a psychiatric diagnosis to explain away perceived personal inadequacies.”

No one’s going to forgive you for suffering from the universal frailties of humanity. If you want forgiveness for your flaws, you’d damn well better be able to pony up with proof that those so-called flaws are actually a disease.

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