mis-use of self help

It’s one of the classic self-help exercises: you write a letter to someone you’re furious at, letting them know every little thing that they’ve done wrong. You let it all hang out. You tell them in no uncertain terms how screwed up their behavior was.

And then, you burn it.

There’s a really important reason why you burn the letter–because actually sending it to the person is a shit-stirring maneuver that amplifies the drama. Also, it’s hypocritical (you’re doing to them what you didn’t want done, to you). Finally, it’s point-blank unkind.

To send that letter would be an abuse and mis-use of self-help; it would take the entire point of the exercise, and turn it on its head.

We live in times where self-help is exploding. More and more people are becoming life coaches, and Oprah’s got a channel dedicated to “living your best life.”

And sometimes, because we’re human and fallible, people take the concepts of self-help and abuse and mis-use them, turning what could be medicine inside-out until it’s poison.

The Classic Scenarios

Using “I’m speaking my truth” to tell someone off; to berate, to chastise, to put someone down.

Using “I needed to practice self-care” to get out of a commitment (when the real issue is poor time management and planning).

Using “You need to take responsibility for your choices” to take the focus off of yourself, to minimize someone else’s feelings, or to victim-blame (particularly egregious when used against members of a marginalized group).

Using “you should believe that there’s enough for everyone” as a justification for copying (or very closely copying) someone else’s work.

Making a request and saying that it’s okay if the answer is “no”, and then quietly holding resentment when the answer actually is, “no.”

Declaring that someone “doesn’t support” you or your goals, because they have a difference of opinion.

Running up a ton of debt on things that you don’t really need, because “it’s important to prioritize feeling good.”

These are all examples of taking a great concept, and twisting it inside-out until it does more harm than good.

Mis-Use of Self-Help = Self-Absorption

The examples above have one thing in common…self-absorption. In each example, self-help is twisted to fit the individual’s agenda. For instance, true “speaking your truth,” used in a healthy context, is about expression of one’s values and generally serves to bring about a healthier relationship–more distance where distance is necessary, or more understanding of one another that promotes closeness.

Calling someone a bitch and then saying, “I’m just speaking my truth”? Yeah. Not so much.

Or how about “I needed some self-care,” a common justification for last-minute canceling and a perfect example of the mis-use of self-help ? Poor time management that leads to bailing on other people in the name of self-care means…that someone else is going to have more on their plate…which means that they’re going to be hurting in the self-care department. By contrast, a conversation with someone where you own that you’ve taken on too much and will be remedying that in the future–and enlisting that person’s help with negotiating how to release ongoing commitments–is about trying to codependently meet each other’s needs.

Somatic Awareness

So how does someone know the difference between true self-help, and the justifications that are delusional, that lead to self-absorption?

It’s allll about somatic awareness.

Developing the skill of somatic awareness is a hugely potent super-power. I’ve written about somatic awareness, before .

When you want to know the difference between self-help and self-absorption, it’s all about how you feel in your body (because your body doesn’t lie).

Think back to the last time that you bailed on something, and you made some excuse. It didn’t feel 100% good, did it?

That’s somatic awareness. It’s recognizing feelings, such as that “out of integrity” feeling where something’s off, and understanding what the feeling means.

While it might be awkward to tell the truth (“I did a poor job of planning my week and now I’m completely overwhelmed, and I’m choosing to cancel because I want to correct that with some self-care. I’m really sorry about that”), it still feels better than the lie of making it seem as if you’re under the knuckle of some unavoidable circumstances.

Where we get askew with self-help–which is what slants towards abuse and mis-use of self-help –is when we get stuck in self-help dogma. When we use a dogmatic self-help line such as “I just need to feel good about myself” as our justification for spending money we don’t have on stuff we don’t really need, we’re hiding our heads in the sand.

Somatic awareness and interdependence

Somatic awareness is where mis-use of self-help can be confronted–where we can see the point within ourselves where we justify things that don’t really help anyone, least of all ourselves.

And interdependence? That’s actually the goal of all of this self-help stuff, you know.

Self-help, personal growth, “working on yourself”…really, we’re not doing these things so that we can individually live better lives. We’re doing these things so that we can live better lives within an entire framework of humanity. We’re supposed to be “working on ourselves” so that we can be interdependent with others. If that wasn’t the case, we’d all be living isolated lives, somewhere off on our own.

When it comes to self-help, the changes we make are intended to bring us closer together, not farther apart. Justifying narcissistic behavior in the name of doing good? Oy–not something that promotes interdependence. Let’s look at how we use the tools that are intended to make our lives better.