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Self-Help Books Identify The Protagonist. But Where’s The Villain?

Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

I can’t stop reading self-improvement/self-help/self-development books. I listen to them on audio regularly and don’t bat an eye at grabbing a pile of them from the library to read.

How to build my confidence? How to overcome impostor syndrome? Sign me up.

Most of the time as I read these books, I find myself thinking the book could be a TED Talk or an article. But in thinking that, I’m able to also acknowledge that I’m not — nor have I ever been — the actual audience for these books. I’m instead an interloper, someone toward whom the writers and publishers of these books doesn’t target them, despite being an avid reader of the category.

Yet I can’t get enough.

Over the years, I’ve developed quite a list of self-help books I’ve enjoyed, as well as an equal-sized list of those which I haven’t. I’ve been told more than once that my reviews of self-help and development books over on Goodreads is a treasure trove and has been extremely useful for them when they’re seeking out insight or advice about a specific life situation (and it’s helped them stay away from some not so great reads as well).

I’ve never needed to seek out self-help/development books with a purpose in mind. I’ve done that in regards to big life events — though pregnancy books were such a fantasy during my COVID pregnancy — but if I need some tips or advice about how to give a good presentation, how to work through a mental trap I’ve built up, where and how to make friends as an adult, I don’t go to books. I’ll turn to friends who’ve been there and who I trust to give it to me the way I need the information presented, to thought work tools, or to articles online.

But self-help and self-development books are an incredible tool for me in another capacity: staying abreast of socio-cultural trends.

Trends in self-help/development are fascinating to watch. We’ve seen and continue to see profanity-laden titles with a snarky tone throughout; we’ve seen books about how to use the power of manifestation to dream big or make money; and we’ve been inundated for decades with books by white men with privilege telling readers how easy it is to do X or Y or Z if they just pick themselves up by their bootstraps and try a little harder (take that unpaid internship, kid, and earn your stripes like I did, despite the fact I didn’t pay tens of thousands of dollars per semester for college nor work to cover housing, books, food, etc.).

Self-help and self-development books showcase the rise in particular mindsets. Jordan Peterson’s right-wing, cult-like following has emerged in politics and in the entitlement mentality that plagues so many cis het white men. Cal Newport’s books have fierce devotees to the non-digital/digital-detox lifestyle afforded to the privileged few — certainly the average reader can pick and choose tactics from those books to implement and see value in, but the average reader can’t simply decide to not check email or ditch their phones or any other extreme measures of disconnection in an era when it’s a societal expectation. Rachel Hollis has encouraged scores of women to step into their best selves, even if it means not acknowledging the privileges afforded to them to do so.*

These books conveniently bypass the author’s ready access and/or choices to nannies, to private chefs or food subscription services, to medical bills or medication costs that aren’t covered by crummy work-tied insurance.*

At the same time, we’re also in the midst of a revolution in self-help/development meant to encourage readers to examine their biases and racist behaviors. Body activist Sonya Renee Taylor’s The Body Is Not an Apology is essential reading for understanding the political and physical meanings of the body, particularly the body that’s outside mainstream acceptance (i.e., thin, able, straight, white). Others like Emily and Amelia Nagoski have written about the need for female-identifying people in particular to take the power of their physical and mental bodies into their own hands while acknowledging the structures which limit and inhibit the ability to do so. Someone with a clitoris can indeed only expect to know the potential physical pleasure to be derived from that body organ when they’ve learned it exists as a tool for that explicit purpose.

But it sure says a lot about where we are as a society when, during summer 2020 when antiracism books took the New York Times Bestseller list by storm, the number one title wasn’t one by a Black author. It was instead Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility.

I’ve found myself especially drawn to self-help/development books devoted to low-waste/environmentalism, including semi-memoir type reads that offer insight into what an individual did to cut down on their impact. A tip or two might stick with me, but what I’m most drawn to in these narratives is how often systems aren’t put to task and thus, saving the planet depends on each of us as individuals to give up or change habits, rather than demand multi-billion dollar corporations improve. I develop a deep love/hate relationship for the smugness of a writer for all of the things they’ve done to be a better human and how easy it is for me to do, too, without once acknowledging the systems that might make such changes for them a no-brainer but nearly impossible for another.

None of this is to say I haven’t walked away with tools and insights to improve my life. I have, and when a book really resonates, I’ll annotate sections, reread sections, and ensure I have some sort of written record of the why and how of what was said applies to me. Brene Brown’s Dare To Lead and Reshma Saujani’s Brave Not Perfect are two I could revisit innumerable times and take something from.

Both address the systems which hold individuals back. We’re seeing more books in this category that are pushing boundaries and demanding better, even if reception for them follows in predictable and unsurprising patterns.

What makes me turn to self-improvement/development books again and again is the inability to look away from how all problems are those we bring about ourselves: the onus of change, of empowerment, of betterment, falls upon the individual, as opposed to the structural powers that keep individuals from becoming their best. Without social safety nets — a universal basic income, guaranteed good childcare for those who are parents, regulations that actually ding environmentally-damaging corporations, resources that allow all people to thrive in equal measure, as opposed to allowing those who can work the system in their favor to advance — self-help is a relentless pursuit. It sells more books and more conference tickets, playing right into capitalism. Playing right into what it is individuals are aching to hear or see or feel: empowered, seen, heard, ignited.

The more books in this category I read, the more I see the gaping holes in our social systems that need repair. The more I understand and empathize with people who think like me and the more I psychologically “get” those whose mindsets I find disturbing and troubling. I don’t have to acknowledge those mindsets as anything more than that.

It’s the same reasons we love a good villain in fiction.

In self-help books, though, it’s not an origin story which gives that insight. It’s the blank spaces and the missing pieces, the lack of clear, defined explanations for why. Why it’s our responsibility to become “the best.” To constantly improve, develop, grow, and shift to turn into our singular best selves, doing and being all.

But we don’t demand this of the very systems which hold us down and back. We don’t dismantle the villain. We continue to feed it through the relentless pursuit of individualism.

Confidence isn’t an individual problem. It’s a collective one.

Impostor syndrome isn’t an individual problem. It’s borne from a system wherein those with the most social power rise, while those living at intersections of oppression are regularly reminded they’ll never be good enough in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

The criticisms leveraged at a white lady leaning into a category of books that have forever overlooked systems of power and hierarchy fail to acknowledge or see the blatant misogyny behind those criticisms.

Self-help and development books are an incredible tool for advocacy, for really seeing what’s going on culturally, and for ensuring that these very ideas of self-betterment aren’t at the expense of those who’ve been most hurt by fierce individualism.

Because at the end of the day, we can’t become the best versions of ourselves — no matter what that looks like — without ensuring our neighbor can do the same. That development doesn’t happen over the course of reading a book. The time and energy is a privilege afforded to few. Becoming one’s best self only happens when we take what we see or don’t see in the book and put ourselves to work in our communities, with those whose needs we can help meet through hard work, through hard listening, and when we hand over the mic to those whose voices have too often been ignored, spoken over, or silenced all together.

*This post was written prior to Rachel Hollis’s now-infamous video on not being relatable, which showed loud and clear her beyond-problematic white privilege and ignorance.