Know Yourself and Renounce Self-Help Therapy

Enlightened humility and the audacity of therapy culture

Image by Johannes Plenio, from Pexels

Most of us want to be told what to do and how to do it.

The answers are all on the internet in byte-sized packets: how to organize your closet, start a business, bake a lasagna, write a novel, paint a picture, tell a joke, go on a diet, survive a zombie apocalypse — it’s all there in black and white, endless step-by-step instructions.

If one recipe fails you, try the next. You need never live with doubt or failure. A world of know-it-alls is out there to pick you up, dust you off, and set you on the right path.

Then we leap to the conclusion that we should be told not just what to do but what to be. We think therapy should be just as straightforward as a how-to guide. If we’re short on the money for a professional therapist, we can resort to the “self-help” industry, since with all the free advice on offer, we assume we might as well help ourselves.

If you don’t like your personality, you can fix yourself just like you can fix a leaky faucet. What’s more, you can do so quickly and easily, with the same convenience as ordering stuff from Amazon, McDonald’s, or Uber Eats.

The Audacity of Therapists

But this insistence on easy answers in life is ludicrous and pernicious.

Looking up advice on how to make better sushi rice is one thing. Presuming you can learn from others how to be a better person, because someone somewhere knows the proper way to live is foolish.

And this therapy culture is dangerous, too, because it feeds our egos. Who says we should be thinking so much about ourselves in the first place?

Who is anyone to tell some law-abiding person what they should be doing with their life? Who has the gall to reduce all the philosophical and religious discourses about what our existential purpose might be, to a handy ten-step program?

Therapists often skirt the audacity of their profession by pretending the main goal in life is settled. They turn the question of what to be into yet another how-to query; specifically, they turn it into the assignment of learning how to be happy.

“Happiness” is an empty word in this self-help context, just as it was when the ancient philosopher Aristotle took happiness to be open-ended “flourishing.” Happiness is different for different people, which means there’s no universal procedure for achieving it.

The notion of happiness is vacuous because what we really have in mind here is the ideal person. That’s the person who has all the right interests, skills, memories, circumstances, successes, and relationships to be rewarded for being the best. No such person exists, and even if someone were perfect, there’s no compelling reason to think that person would be treated fairly and rewarded in this world.

“Happiness” is a placeholder word, and the self you can work on with your therapist, guru, or know-it-all author is just as shallow as the goal of being happy. That perfectible self is just the side of yourself you’re willing to share or to perform, depending on your mood or interest in the moment. This is the public image of yourself that might be based on a movie character you once resonated with or on a thousand other accrued mental associations that form the themes of your inner monologue.

Then there are the cognitive behavioural therapists and neo-Freudian psychiatrists who assume that even if no one can be perfectly happy, at least we can be normal, and they take their cues for what counts as normal from society. The goal, then, is to be a functional member of society, which means your counterproductive thoughts need to be reprogrammed or you’ll have to take drugs to alter your disadvantageous or dangerous habits.

Of course, these upstanding health professionals aren’t inclined to wonder whether it’s ever the culture that need reformation.

The more laid-back therapist may not presuppose any ideology or purpose in life, but will just let you, the patient, do all the work in therapy, the only goal in the session being for the patient to express whatever she has on her mind. The therapist just gives you a safe space to vent. It’s a great job if you can get it — or you could settle for being a bump on a log.

The Folly of Fixing the Unfathomable

The wrongheadedness of this notion of improving yourself becomes clear when you reflect on what you really are.

You’re a brain that’s been deluged with experiences over the decades since you were born. No one knows you better than you do, and even you don’t know the half of yourself, because no brain can fully process it all. That’s why we forget so much of what we’ve perceived. We remember the highlights and alter them in the mental act of recalling them.

Your true self is a hyperobject, the labyrinthine complexity of which is mistaken for the mark of an immaterial, immortal soul or spirit. Likewise, the ancients mistook our anomalous, antinatural human behaviours — our intelligent, imaginative, creative, free actions — for miracles that show we’ve been created by gods. None of us is that remarkable, but you are vast enough to transcend any self-image, metaphor, myth, or canned internet advice on how you could be improved.

What you are is even more complex than a pebble that’s rested on the beach for tens of thousands of years, having eroded from countless wave impacts and interacted with a mind-bending multitude of days and nights, weather patterns, and flora and fauna. Everything we can see is a four-dimensional object stretching back billions of years to the Big Bang across unfathomable transformations of matter and energy.

You’re all of that plus the complexity of your brain that adds the meta-dimension of mentality. A pebble is what it is (including all its relations to everything else), but you’re something that is what it is and that knows partly what it is. You’re partially aware of yourself. You remember some of what you’ve done and can think about what you are and would like to do. Your brain makes your life meaningful by adding these mental symbols to your identity, which connect you to your culture and to a vision of your desired future.

Imagine, then, the arrogance of someone coming along and declaring she knows what you should be like. The best response to anyone who’s impudent enough to pretend she’s figured everything out and is herself perfectly happy is the ancient adage, “Physician, heal thyself.”

Mind you, it’s not just the therapist’s arrogance but yours, dear reader, assuming you’re inclined to take seriously that person’s advice. The therapist is only filling an economic niche and playing what society calls a “productive” role. You’d be the one with the conceit that you should buy into those expectations, that you can be so easily encapsulated and directed.

Knowing You Can’t be Fixed

Instead of demonstrating a creepy God complex, impersonating a medical expert with some authority on what the ideal human character is, and dispensing sophistry about how all comers should live their life, the would-be therapist should be humbled by the infinite mystery of herself.

The goal of improving or of fixing yourself is an infantile one we should expect from a neoliberal consumer culture. We’ve come to expect efficient resolutions of all matters, because we’ve been spoiled by all our technological advances. We eat cheap, fast food, order products online that arrive the next day, and sit in planes that take us around the world.

Then we presume the sources and beneficiaries of those conveniences — the people that produce and use them — are just more problems begging for technical solutions.

But the more enlightened, prior task is the Platonic one of knowing yourself. That task is endless, but you learn along the way that we’re not perfectible. Not only can we never mentally or verbally encompass our whole natural self, but once our brain stops growing in our mid twenties and we’ve had our most formative experiences, our character is mostly set for life. Thereafter, we can personally develop along with our new environments and situations, but our basic tendencies will have been established.

Even if the self were like a computer code that could be reprogrammed, there’s no way of knowing which ideal is best or how we all should be. That’s just not an objective question that could be answered with any legitimacy by someone claiming to have arrived at that answer with scientific authority.

If we feel we’re not at our best or we don’t like what we’ve become, we can search for models to live up to, and our commitment to them would be like a religious act of faith. Instead of being guided by the easy answers supplied by a technocratic yet paradoxically infantile consumer culture, we’d be struggling with the fictional nature of our model or myth.

There is no fact that settles which value or purpose is supreme. We imagine that some facts should have been otherwise, and we tell stories to explain that creative vision. We assume that nature should have been paradise or Heaven, so we imagine we’ll encounter Utopia in the afterlife.

The very self as we understand it is likewise just a story. Instead of presuming we’re things that can or should be corrected or normalized, we should be diving into everything’s existential depths and emerging humbled, perplexed, and bereft of convenient answers.

Knowledge condemns. Art redeems. I learned that as an artistic writer who did a doctorate in philosophy. We should try to see the dark comedy in all things.

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