Robbins’s words weren’t an isolated reaction to the #MeToo movement. They embodied an antipathy to social movements that is central to the American self-help industry. Since the 17th century, self-improvement schemes have reliably been rooted in the belief that weak individual will — not social malaise or structural inequality — is at the heart of all problems, from poverty to extra pounds to sickness to sexual assault. It’s called self-help for a reason, and taken too far, this ethos can tend toward solipsism at the expense of social change.
Robbins disdains those who “choose victimhood” instead of exercising their “ultimate power” to simply decide differently. Indeed, the history of the American self-help industry can be reasonably recounted as the self-serving “me” trumping any regard for the collective “we.” But McCool’s challenge (at an expensive seminar she traveled hundreds of miles to attend, as a believer in Robbins’s overall message) suggests how self-help might evolve — by marrying tenets of individual agency with social purpose, and by refusing to let influential figures like Robbins operate outside the social and political realm.
Before stadium-size seminars, social media groups and webinars, self-help was a predominantly literary form. Since Cotton Mather, Puritan pamphlets and then books were packed with variations on an individualistic but politically important theme: The key to health, riches, heaven and happiness is in your hands if you only want it badly enough.
With surprising consistency across eras, guide after guide promised that optimism and perseverance would yield success in arenas from business to parenting. In the 1897 bestseller “In Tune With the Infinite,” Ralph Waldo Trine told readers to be persistent in their positive thoughts because “thought is a force, and it has occult power of unknown proportions when rightly used and wisely directed.” Fifty-five years later, readers of Norman Vincent Peale’s “The Power of Positive Thinking ” (1952) learned that “you need be defeated only if you are willing to be” and that his book would teach them “how to ‘will’ not to be” in a “perfected and amazing method of successful living.” The best of these books extolled character and virtue, but too many had an insidious underlying structure of blame: If you are unwell, poor or otherwise disadvantaged, the only one at fault is yourself.
Yet in every decade, such advice is inseparable from the sociopolitical climate, a reality some experts have forthrightly acknowledged. The celebrated “Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care ” (1946) — the second-best-selling book after the Bible for a time — instructed a generation of parents how to raise their children in pragmatic, rather than moralistic or even clinical, terms, breaking with established opinion in encouraging parents to follow their instincts in responding to a baby’s needs. This advice, author Benjamin Spock eventually realized, would work best alongside larger social changes: “Day care, good schools, health insurance, and nuclear disarmament are even more important aspects of pediatrics than measles vaccine or vitamin D,” he wrote in 1988. His opponents didn’t like this streak of progressive activism; Spock recalled late in his career that he was often rebuked for “seeming to step out of my professional role to become undignifiedly political.” Many readers were unconvinced that a parenting expert should be talking politics, and book sales fell in the late 1960s.
By the 1960s, poverty, racism and sexism were at the forefront of American politics. These were daunting challenges, but self-improvement guides offered an appealingly simple answer: Solve social ills by managing your feelings about the world and channeling your individual potential. In 1967, Thomas Harris’s “I’m OK — You’re OK” popularized “transactional analysis,” a theory that focused on the role of the ego in individual social interactions. While this was sound therapeutic advice, it became reductive when repackaged in popular self-help form: Unhealthy mental states that led to dishonest exchanges of emotions, the simplistic version went, were the ultimate cause of social conflict. By this logic, the best hope for equality wasn’t marching in the streets or fighting for policy change, but eschewing these collective endeavors to focus on individual “recovery.”
As the “Me Generation” came of age, though, it was hardly the tuned-out, narcissistic group of the caricature. Its enthusiasts of self-help — or, as it became known, “self-actualization” — earnestly strove to use those individualistic solutions to repair the broken world that surrounded them. At the experimental Esalen Institute retreat in California, famous for cultivating the human potential movement, a workshop billed as “Racial Confrontation as Transcendental Experience” highlighted how wrong this approach could go. In the late 1960s, organizers brought together black and white radicals in one room, ostensibly to strip away social pretenses and let them interact as individuals who could openly express, and thus transcend, their innermost racist feelings. Within minutes, the two groups were in each other’s faces, screaming with rage and frustration. The experiment collapsed because “authentic expressions of emotion were by no means as free of social and political pressures as proponents of the encounter groups thought,” wrote historian Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn. Committing to intense introspection, as Esalen required, could not eradicate racism from one’s worldview. Or sexism: Feminist Betty Friedan also visited the Big Sur enclave in the early 1960s and observed that for all their radical pretensions, these Esalen hippies “kept their wives barefoot and pregnant up in the mountains.”
Feminist critics have noted the particular poison of self-help ideology for women, who are its most voracious consumers and whose marginalization only stands to intensify if they internalize the idea that they, not sexist social and political structures, are to blame for inequality. Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider’s 1995 bestseller, “The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right,” even instructed young women how to abide by, rather than resist, a gendered hierarchy that prizes coyness and submission; the authors describe men (whom they caution never to try to change) as the ultimate prize.
These attitudes span secular and spiritual approaches: “Love Your Life” author and pastor Victoria Osteen acknowledges that a woman’s role is not always an easy one, but says one solution is to turn inward and “guard your heart ” to “stay above the fray” and “keep yourself above the things that would try to pull you down.” As pop-culture scholar Elayne Rapping has argued, gendered self-help “leads us farther and farther away from the social root causes of these problems — as feminists originally understood and addressed them — so far away that we are in danger of lapsing into chronic political myopia and self-absorption.”
The truth is that self-help and social change don’t have to be enemies. McCool is a devotee who invested time and money to attend Robbins’s seminar, after all. Some of the self-help movement’s messages can help us work through our weaknesses in order to combat the injustices that surround us. Feminists were among the first to meld social critique and self-improvement: Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, women’s health advocates like those at the Los Angeles Feminist Women’s Health Center modeled this approach, fighting for policies to protect reproductive rights and regulate pharmaceutical companies while running seminars and clinics to teach women self-defense, meditation and even how to do a pelvic self-exam.
We are two scholars who study the history of these movements, and to us it’s clear that taking individual responsibility vs. noticing structural oppression is a false dichotomy. Christine studied the history of self-help and writes and lectures on how to merge personal satisfaction with public commitments to change. Natalia’s ambivalence about her participation in fitness programs that both inspire people and capitalize on their insecurities led to the subject of her scholarly research. (For a decade, she has also taught intenSati — a workout class that uses affirmation, rather than body-shaming — at gyms, in under-resourced schools and at community events in New York.)
Millions of consumers fuel the $11 billion self-help industry. Like McCool, they have the power to change it.