How The Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless
Steve Salerno (Crown, 2005)
The Self-Help and Actualization Movement (SHAM) rakes in billions of dollars every year and has been doing so for a few decades now. Investigative reporter Salerno pondered the question “If any of this actually worked, if the methods offered by the Self Help Gurus to rid yourself of (insert personal issue here), the market would have soon become obsolete as everyone would have discovered bliss years ago and never bought another book, magazine, DVD, or took another course or attended another seminar.
Yet the industry has not only failed to collapse under its own mass of helpful advice, but has steadily continued to grow. This can only mean the industry is useless to anyone other than the practitioners themselves. But Salerno goes one step further – he asserts that it’s so insidious that it not only fails to help, but does so deliberately, and strives to help its target audience to feel even worse about themselves while purporting to accomplish the opposite. He also asserts they have succeeded quite well.
Why? Because an unhappy customer is a repeat customer. The cynical nature of the business is audacious at best, and soul-destroying at worst. SHAM makes the argument, convincingly, that the market is deliberately set up to ensure repeat business.
As long as SHAM has been popular, the more obese we have become despite all the diets. The more medication we have come to need even though we should be much healthier, physically and mentally. The obvious ineffectualness of the whole movement, though, has somehow failed to be noticed. On the contrary, it has only increased the profits of the snake oil salesmen.
Salerno discusses the genuine attributes of the most successful SHAM practitioners, giving credit where it’s due, but also points out their often dubious credentials and hypocritical habits. He pulls no punches as he delivers scathing indictments against such household names as Suze Orman, Phil McGraw, and John Gray among others.
The SHAM industry seems to be generally divided between “helping” people recover from real or imaginary past problems, and empowering them.
“Perhaps the most striking feature of SHAM’s Recovery wing is the mainstream credibility it enjoys despite the dearth of evidence supporting it”, Salerno contends. “No matter how confusing its methods or its metaphors, and no matter how questionable its success rate, Recovery is here to stay”.
The key to the Recovery angle is to ensure customers understand they are “damaged goods”. Once that’s accepted by the potential customer, after as much coaxing as is necessary, then the SHAM Gurus can set about offering solutions, to help overcome that damage from which they may not have previously felt they suffered. While, of course, ensuring they’ll be back for more.
But there are plenty of shady business practices around, as there always have been. This was all just background for Salerno’s ultimate argument as stated in the sub-title: this particular shady business has made the country utterly helpless.
He contends that before the SHAM business became popular, everyone knew we were all a little messed up and we dealt with it as best we could on our own. Where once the legitimately mentally ill were the only ones seeking help, the rest of the population dealt with their “normal” issues and this is what kept us strong, resilient, and confident, even if were weren’t quite perfect.
Now, though, we’ve been conditioned to believe that if we are any less fit than the ideal specimen, mentally and physically, that is laid before us as a model, we need to get help. Or if we don’t, then we need help for our aversion to seeking help.
SHAM, the book, is well laid out, articulate, and a blatant condemnation of the self-help business. It’s an eye opener for sure, with an important message about the state into which we have allowed ourselves to be corralled.