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Only You Can Help You

Life occasionally throws up mortifying situations: meeting your boyfriend’s mother and greeting her as if she’s his gran, for example. But few are as bad as laughing, heartily, in the face of someone telling you about the glories of self-help. But don’t feel too guilty.

Your laughter is a sane response. Self-help is an industry preying on the deluded, and the person chuntering away opposite you about “goals” and “the power of change” needs to be laughed at to rouse them out of their idiocy.

Our therapy culture means we are constantly being bidden to look within ourselves; to search for inner truth, inner beauty, inner strength. In. In. In. We have become so self-regarding we aren’t so much observing our own navels as getting down with our small intestines. The popularisation of psychotherapy has become hideously folded into me-me-me culture. The world is so fragmented and challenging, the notion of self-control, of perfecting you, your world, your space, is the goal of many. Out there is big, bad and scary. So head inwards.

But does it really edify us? When does self-aware become self-obsessed? Diana, Princess of Wales’s famous Panorama interview – in which she dished about the “three of us” in her marriage to Prince Charles – was a landmark in the evolution of the public confessional. It was dynamite TV but its backwash has been toxic. Ever since, in books, print and on TV, the famous and the ordinary have been baring their souls, their pain. The idea is that once you’ve externalised all your crap – and bleated about it to your friends and loved ones, “put it out there”, shown yourself FOR WHO YOU ARE – you can “move on”.

This is a staple dramatic arc in a soap opera or novel: life-changing event happens, character undergoes transformation, moves forward. But that’s fiction. Real life is messier, more ordinary, perhaps, in its dramas(hopefully), but with less tidy resolutions. Baddies don’t always get their dues, we don’t always learn by our mistakes, we’re not always better people after something rubbish happens to us. Sometimes we’re upset, sometimes we fall apart, sometimes we don’t move on, sometimes we learn bugger-all.

But the desire for self-improvement and self-awareness is everywhere. Go to a bookshop and look at the hundreds of self-help titles. One funny blog has listed the 10 worst. They include How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It, How to Survive a Robot Uprising: Tips on Defending Yourself Against the Coming Rebellion, and – my favourite – Self-Help For The Bleak.

Far from encouraging true self-help, self-help books are didactic, authoritarian and creepily foster their own dependency. You can’t do anything for yourself without their sanction. Their insidious ubiquity runs alongside a New Age therapy industry that pushes dodgy smelling unguents and strange psychological exercises: “Visualise yourself as a pea in a pod, sir. Thank you, that will be R500.” Because life is tough and a drudge, and we want to be better people – do we ever? – we fork out for it all. We wear pendants and chant and go on retreats.

But none of it is as good for you as getting out there and facing the world. Go for a walk… without headphones. Involve yourself in what’s around you. Do some voluntary work.

Look out, not in. A long ramble, even in the howling rain, is a thousand times better than a spa weekend. Don’t buy the baloney that you become a better person by self-analysis. Accept that your “inner self” is more attractive rough around the edges, not shiny and perfect.

We are better people when challenged with a new task, a fresh problem. Rise to it. Help somebody else. Meet people, enjoy proper time with friends. Spend a fortune on first class travel, not second-rate therapy. The self-help industry is a fraud. Nobody know you better than you. You can help yourself by yourself.