Take This Advice and Shelve It

By Jennifer Niesslein
Sunday, February 24, 2008

If you believe in luck, you're not alone, but I have to tell you: You're in the minority. If the billions of bucks the self-help industry makes is any indication, a substantial percentage of us believe that with the right manual and a can-do attitude, we can take charge and fix anything -- from our clutter problems to our marriages to our existential angst.

Plug "self-help" into Amazon, and you'll come up with almost 150,000 books. Over the past couple of years, millions of us have plunked down money for "The Secret" (book or DVD) to master "the most powerful law in the universe." The universe! It's called the "law of attraction," and it's the very opposite of luck. On the face of it, $23.95 seems like a bargain for the wisdom "that has been passed throughout the ages."

A few years ago, I jumped on the self-help bandwagon. I was vaguely dissatisfied with my life, and although I'd had little experience with self-help, I decided to give it a go. I'd take what was useful. Like you (and you! and you!), I thought I could become a better, happier person.

My initiation was not gentle.

"Life is totally fair. You get what you go for," financial planning expert David Bach lectured.

"Your relationship is in trouble because you set it up that way," declared expert-of-all-trades "Dr. Phil" McGraw.

"Your life is as difficult as you make it," proclaimed an e-mail from the decluttering expert known as the FlyLady.

Flinch! Among today's crop of self-help experts, the name of the game is Claiming Personal Responsibility. It's a very American idea, this belief that with enough git-up-and-go, people can fix what ails them all by themselves. The country is, after all, founded on independence, the strapping individual who conquers all that stands in the way of success. Have a gander at our national heroes -- Abraham Lincoln? Bill Gates? Ms. Oprah herself? All self-made success stories, exemplars of Claiming Personal Responsibility. In other words, if you have any problems, it's all your fault.

The reason we come to self-help, of course, is to rise above whatever problem is plaguing us -- and to do it without paid assistance from doctors, lawyers or other one-on-one professionals who would charge at least 10 times the price of a book. It's a good instinct, to try to find some sort of peace, whether from financial worry or the ever-present cloud of marital irritation. But why self-help? Why all the do-it-yourself gurus? Because this same spirit of independence has taken us to the extreme, both in terms of capitalism and social policy, where the market and personal responsibility rule. At this moment in American history, we've created the perfect tinderbox for a self-help industry to boom.

Some of us leave home and go where the well-paying jobs are, even if it means relocating to places devoid of friends and family (who could otherwise offer a word of advice). For some of us, the safety net has fallen away and one misstep really could spell disaster (ask anyone who invested their retirement money in dot-coms), so we look for advice that's been vetted by people in the know. And some of us, strapping individuals that we are, are just too embarrassed to admit that we need some help and some perspective. (I went into a full-on cringe when I brought a relationship book and an issue of Cosmo to the bookstore clerk. What kind of sad creature did I look like, ignorant of both wifely wisdom and hot sex tips?)

So I dove in. I signed on for dozens of programs. For the two years of my quest, this was me: racing through the house with a trash bag, a la the FlyLady, decluttering 27 items at a time; playing mind games with my child to teach him some emotional intelligence (a tip from parenting expert Lawrence E. Shapiro); applying a slash of lipstick to up my sex appeal before my husband got home (per "Dr. Laura" Schlessinger); taking many quizzes about my happiness (one of which revealed me to be "moderately hopeless"); journaling, filing, focusing, exercising, hoping, hoping, hoping that I would reach the point of official happiness.

For happiness is something the experts all promise, no matter how long the leap of logic -- and it is a long leap from, say, the stilted dialogue Dr. Phil demands that his readers have with their mates to peace of mind. To be fair, I imagine that it may be the marketing folks who insist on that promise of happiness. But we readers would all be better served if the experts didn't blow their promises out of proportion. Based on financial advice, I set up a retirement account and got a will in order. Following the nutrition experts, I exercised and ate more vegetables than my G.I. tract had seen in years -- and I lost 10 pounds. All good things that most of us can attain. But happiness? Sometimes, it's enough to escape with your sanity.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company