Improve Thyself! On the Fantasy Person You’re Failing to Become

If you go to an American bookshop, by far the biggest section is self-help and […]

David Zahl / 1.16.18

If you go to an American bookshop, by far the biggest section is self-help and improvement. The idea that life is refine-able and that you can learn a technique for anything, whether it’s love-making, being a businessman, marriage, cooking, losing weight, whatever it is. There’s a Tony Robbins way of doing it, there’s a things-they-didn’t-teach-you-at-Harvard way of doing it. There’s an unbelievable sense that life is improvable.

These are the words of Stephen Fry, on his way to explaining the difference between British and American comedy (clue: Adam & Eve). While I’m not sure I buy his ultimate point, there’s no denying the observation about our national obsession with Self-Help. It is harder to be sanguine about the future, personal or otherwise, when you grow up surrounded by evidence of decline, as they do in Her Majesty’s (former) Empire and elsewhere on the continent.

Perhaps self-help is too easy a target, though. Not just because we’ve written about it countless times before, but because an America uninterested in self-help would probably be an insufferably cynical place to live and/or raise kids. That is, as much as our fascination with the genre signals an unshakably inflated anthropology, I also wonder if it correlates to a general hopefulness that’s taken for granted — and harder to come by across the pond, if falling birth rates and whatnot are to be trusted.

Then you read a year-opening summary of self-help trends like Alexandra Schwartz’s “Improving Ourselves to Death” (!) in The New Yorker, and all bets go out the window.

A few of the ones she notes will be familiar to readers, e.g., the shift from improvement to optimization (and accompanying metrics frenzy), the re-conceiving of the soul as the self, the emergence of anti-self-help books (in title only), to say nothing of increase-the-tresspass-itis, etc. But there’s plenty of fresh stuff scattered throughout, and even if there wasn’t, keeping tabs on what’s speaking to people doubles as an invaluable spiritual-religious metric map of where we’re placing our hope these days and what shape the fallout is taking:

[Carl Cederström and Andre Spicer, authors of Desperately Seeing Self-Improvement: A Year Inside the Optimization Movement] estimate that the self-improvement industry takes in ten billion dollars a year… The good life may have sufficed for Plato and Aristotle, but it is no longer enough. “We are under pressure to show that we know how to lead the perfect life,” Cederström and Spicer write.

Where success can be measured with increasing accuracy, so, too, can failure. On the other side of self-improvement, Cederström and Spicer have discovered, is a sense not simply of inadequacy but of fraudulence. In December, with the end of their project approaching, Spicer reflects that he has spent the year focusing on himself to the exclusion of everything, and everyone, else in his life. His wife is due to give birth to their second child in a few days; their relationship is not at its best. And yet, he writes, “I could not think of another year I spent more of my time doing things that were not me at all.” He doesn’t feel like a better version of himself. He doesn’t even feel like himself. He has been like a man possessed: “If it wasn’t me, who was it then?”

The desire to achieve and to demonstrate perfection is not simply stressful; it can also be fatal, according to the British journalist Will Storr. His forthcoming book, Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us (Overlook), opens, alarmingly, with a chapter on suicide. Storr is disturbed by the prevalence of suicide in the United States and Britain, and blames the horror and shame of failing to meet the sky-high expectations we set for ourselves. He cites surveys that show that adolescent girls are increasingly unhappy with their bodies, and that a growing number of men are suffering from muscle dysmorphia; he interviews psychologists and professors who describe an epidemic of crippling anxiety among university students yoked to the phenomenon of “perfectionist presentation” — the tendency, especially on social media, to make life look like a string of enviable triumphs. Storr confesses that he, too, is dogged by self-loathing and suicidal thoughts. “We’re living in an age of perfectionism, and perfection is the idea that kills,” he writes. “People are suffering and dying under the torture of the fantasy self they’re failing to become.”…

Pretty quick slide from improvability to perfectability, eh? Almost automatic — perhaps even indicative of a glitch in the software… You tell me:

Storr has conflicted feelings about the American view that the self is fundamentally good, and thus worthy of comfort and satisfaction. On the one hand, it’s a nice change from Christian guilt. On the other, it has “infected” the rest of the world with aspirational narcissism…

Parents continue to feed their children the loving, well-intentioned lie that there are “no limits” and they can “be anything,” which leaves the kids blaming themselves, rather than the market’s brutality, when they inevitably come up short.

[Storr] is quick to say that he isn’t encouraging anything quite as clichéd as self-acceptance. At the same time, he reports that he has, in fact, come to accept himself. “Since I learned that low agreeableness and high neuroticism are relatively stable facets of my personality, rather than signs of some shameful psychological impurity, I’ve stopped berating myself so frequently,” he writes. Instead, he now apologizes to those whom his disagreeableness and his neuroticism have offended. This seems like good, common sense, but Storr has another, more radical suggestion to make. Since it is our environment that is causing us to feel inferior, it is our environment that we must change: “The things we’re doing with our lives, the people we’re sharing it with, the goals we have. We should find projects to pursue which are not only meaningful to us, but over which we have efficacy.” Storr means to be helpful, but changing every aspect of the world we inhabit is a daunting prospect. No wonder people try to change themselves instead…

That last bit strikes me as particularly timely. As crushing as the law of Improve Yourself may be, and as much as it may promote a suffocating narcissism, it doesn’t have quite the same blame-shifting potential as ‘Thou Shalt Improve the World/Society/Culture.’ Meaning, when it’s just you that you’re trying to optimize, you only have yourself to blame if/when you fail. There might be some humility or grace that follows such a defeat, who knows.

But when you’re trying to Transform the World (or Usher in the Kingdom) and it backfires, you can blame those people who’re in your way. Or that institution. You get to stay on the noble/good/lovable side of the line and keep the bad safely ‘out there.’ Which seems more descriptive of where we are today. That, and this:

[Sarah Knight, author of You Do You: How to Be Who You Are and Use What You’ve Got to Get What You Want], who favors the shouty, super-caffeinated tone of a spin-class instructor, calls herself a “bestselling anti-guru.” She is particularly proud of the best-selling part, and it’s easy to see why her approach appeals. The phrase THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU takes up two full pages of her first chapter. She agrees with Storr that what is wrong is society, or, rather, the “random, stupid obligations set forth by society — whether to be nice or thin or to act submissive or sane.” Sanity seems not to be an entirely random or stupid social obligation, but never mind. Knight’s point is to encourage her readers to embrace themselves as they are, warts and all, and to help them do so she proposes strategies like “mental redecorating” (recasting one’s weaknesses as strengths), embracing pessimism (to be pragmatic and set realistic expectations), being selfish (advocating for one’s needs), dwelling on the thought of death (to maximize happiness while alive), and “breaking free from the Cult of Nice.” Knight is happy to demonstrate the latter.

We’ve talked about the You Do You tautology before, and another author spells out the troublesome implications below re: Anders Breivik and Mother Teresa. But it’s telling that in Knight’s view (and Storr’s too), there is either something wrong with the world or something wrong with the self, but not both. Alas, some might say there’s something wrong with the world because there’s something wrong with the self. It’s also telling that the direction in which these authors most seek to help people help themselves is work-and productivity-related. Cue the Danish:

Like Storr, [Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze author Svend] Brinkmann condemns self-improvement as both a symptom and a tool of a relentless economy. But where Storr sees a health crisis, Brinkmann sees a spiritual one. His rhetoric is that of a prophet counselling against false idols. “In our secular world, we no longer see eternal paradise as a carrot at the end of the stick of life, but try to cram as much as possible into our relatively short time on the planet instead,” he writes. “If you stand still while everyone else is moving forwards, you fall behind. Doing so these days is tantamount to going backwards.”

“Being yourself has no intrinsic value whatsoever,” Brinkmann tells us. Maybe the Norwegian nationalist Anders Breivik felt that he was being “true to himself” when he went on his murderous rampage; maybe Mother Teresa did not.

Calling Des McGrath!

In all this it bears repeating: Yes, we want to be more successful and more organized and more attractive and self-actualized, but only because we want to feel better. We want the voice of ‘not enough’ to be silenced. We don’t want to be in pain. That we scramble from one solution to the next, from one strategy to its opposite and back again, only shows how pervasive that pain is. Because the old adage is true: if the self were as improvable as this literature suggests, the self-help industry would cease to exist. Alas, what Schwartz describes is a bull market.

How else to account for this peculiar situation than to conclude that, however much we may want relief, we want even more to keep control? And when someone tells us what to do, we get to hold onto that illusion. Give me new law to replace the old one that failed me (rather than me failing it, ‘natch), e.g., a collective one in lieu of an individualized one, a progressive one instead of a traditional one, or a material one instead spiritual one — whatever form it takes, what matters is the certainty with which it promises results if I can just follow the plan. Anything but surrender to something that is not me.

When Brinkmann mentions the essential ‘secularity’ of the self-improvement boom, it’s hard not to do a double-take. I mean, a lot of this stuff has Christian roots. But he’s getting at something Esther Perel once described in regard to the pressure people feel in a post-religious context, when she said, “We brought happiness down from the afterlife, first to be an option and then a mandate.” In other words, this is your shot, be all that you can be…or else. The end result is pretty grim: an ever-shifting, technologically-amplified Improved Self/Society without any recourse for those who fail to meet their potential, which is all of us. Re-calibrated law meet subtracted gospel.

Even for Christians, who let’s-face-it eat up thinly veiled self-help books (i.e. the me-and-Jesus genre), we have restricted God’s purposes so entirely to the here-and-now that any longer view has become incomprehensible. One can’t help but wonder if our near-myopic focus on this life masks a faltering confidence in the one to come. Whatever the case, life both in and outside the church is no longer a veil of tears to be endured so much as a game to be won (which everyone loses). In practice this is the difference between being surprised by moments of joy — and personal growth — vs expecting them. As we’ve said many times before, it’s not defeating to say that we’re all sinners, incapable of (truly) improving ourselves. What’s defeating is the belief that we can improve/help/liberate/redeem ourselves but haven’t quite managed it yet (ht NBW). That’s where loneliness and despondency truly come into play. And I dare say it applies to groups as well as individuals.

I remember being told once that it sounded like we were advocating for a kind of Christian nihilism. I’m not so sure. That sounds like an oxymoron to me, one that assumes a non-existent pneumatology. What I am sure of is that 1. The short view is not always the most trustworthy, 2. The same people who applaud when you poo-poo personal piety projects as self-salvation get upset when you’re skeptical of collective ones for the same reasons (and vice versa), and 3. The wise man wasn’t lying when he said that the lower your anthropology is, the higher your Christology will be (and the less disdain you will harbor for others and yourself). If you find yourself, as a result, privileging the transcendent over the immanent, the salvific over the ethical, dying well over living well, so be it — because it doesn’t change the fact that human resourcefulness is still a wondrous and many splendored thing, one of the Spirit’s fondest instruments. To be alive is to know this. It’s just that hope in human resourcefulness — yours, mine, ours — is planned despair.

Or, at least, a solid marketing plan.

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14 responses to “Improve Thyself! On the Fantasy Person You’re Failing to Become”

  1. Sean says:


  2. Lance D. McClure says:

    This is the best post I’ve read of yours and I have read a lot.

  3. Cody says:

    Dang. It’s been a bit since I’ve visited this site. And this post just knocks it out of the park. Well said. I almost thought this was one of those good archived posts.

  4. Luke says:

    This is one of those posts that I’ve already read on here more than a few times. Bits and pieces of whats said here are in a large plurality if not the majority of the posts from Mbird. And I’m about 5 or 6 years into reading this 2 to 10 times a week. And yet, as this post states and so many others state, I CAN’T STOP trying to improve myself. Every time I do it and come out of the haze I think back to something I read here, (that I didn’t save and can’t find, much to my chagrin) and I just laugh. I actually get the giggles sometimes. A laugh to keep from crying thing I’m sure.

    I am a bit quicker, I’d like to think, to realize the issue. And sometimes I even manage to remember that Jesus has done all that is required. But it’s certainly still a slow process.

    In this particular post I did find it a nice reminder, that I haven’t seen or thought about in a while, that …. living this way, striving to get the most out of life or to be perfect (I absolutely shoot for the latter), is often if not always the by-product of forgetting that this is not all there is.

    And in the interest of a short comment I’ll just stop there.

    Enjoyed the piece.

  5. Amy Avery says:

    Wow! Great piece Dave! The following particularly resonates with me, “In all this it bears repeating: Yes, we want to be more successful and more organized and more attractive and self-actualized, but only because we want to feel better. We want the voice of ‘not enough’ to be silenced. We don’t want to be in pain. That we scramble from one solution to the next, from one strategy to its opposite and back again, only shows how pervasive that pain is.”
    Thank you for this!

  6. L. Jones says:

    ????Ahhh. I needed to hear this today. From someone who often feels dismissed as neglectful, irresponsible or even arrogant for walking past the waiting treadmill of improvement….I get it. And I also hear the kind of critics that would call my views nihilistic and selfish (although the vain attempt at fixing what can’t be fixed when the gift of grace stands waiting is a masochistically self-occupied phenomena ????). I wouldn’t trade the realm of freedom I entered when radical grace really dug in deep…however, I never would have expected the isolation that comes from a world (Christian and secular) that has no economy or tolerance for the satisfied soul. I could never have anticipated that “grace” would stir up an almost violent scorn in those determined to achieve what can only be freely given.

  7. Duo Dickinson says:

    Its tough when your editor is better at what he is asking you to do for him better than what you do for him: validating authority….this is terrific on many levels

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