You would have to be even vaguer and fluffier than me not to have noticed that, weirdly in tandem with the rise of reality home improvement shows, people are madly doing themselves up. The catch being, rather than minimising pores and reducing cellulite, now the (perceived) faults are on the inside. God help us. Bad enough there exists such a thing as a ‘thigh gap,’ (formerly only seen as the effect of rickets on cats and a reason for pity) − these days your psyche needs tweaking too.
We live in an era of mass negative self-esteem, globally talking ourselves into a funk: I’m not OK, you’re not OK; giving rise to the publishing phenomena that is the Self Help book, the ideal gift for the person who feels they don’t have it all. Really, these have been around for a while, in the 1600s ‘Conduct’ books instructed men in how to behave in polite society, covering topics such as Loathsome and Filthy Things, Hair Cut Round like a Bowl and Beards of Frightful Lengths. In 1913, the English writer and philosopher GK Chesterton said, of the screed of ‘Success’ titles then doing the rounds, “Let us hope we shall live to see these absurd books covered with derision and neglect.”
Poor Chesty, he must be spinning in his grave. While a small group of anti-self-helpers attempt to fight back the tide with moderating assertions such as, “I was thrashed within an inch of my life every morning before sitting down to cold gruel and it never did me any harm,” these straight-talking failure-embracers don’t stand a chance and today’s titles range from the puerile to the astonishing, especially when it comes to the bread and butter of Self Help genre, relationship advice. There’s Men who Hate Women and the Women who Love Them, How to get your Husband to Talk to You (having married a man who hates woman, one presumes) Self Help for the Bleak and my personal favourite: The Problem is You (actually, I made that one up, but I bet it would be a bestseller).
Publishing figures indicate 80% of Self Help book buyers are repeat customers. Some suggest the mere act of purchasing makes people feel better and readers don’t often get past the first 20 pages. As Oliver Burkeman of The Guardian points out, most of the titles are wooden-headed tripe written by mountebanks and halfwits, making it difficult to sift the good advice from the twonkery. Yet Fix Thyself tomes continue to soar in popularity. Which begs the question: are we turning into a bunch of feebletons, wallowing in our emotions?
Steve Salerno, author of Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless reckons not, but thinks a society in which everyone seeks the unicorn of self-actualisation, while simultaneously eradicating the notion of personal responsibility, might naturally have a hard time holding together.
“No man is an island,” said dear dead old John Donne, but I have never felt more like an island amidst the current battering ram of blame-shifting hocus pocus. It being on-trend to have problems coping with life, I’m happy to admit to a fundamental inner shabbiness and occasional self-loathing. Like everyone else, I sometimes get the morbs (a state of melancholy, of feeling wretched and in the dumps, caused by swimwear-shop lighting and your friends getting engaged) and have to lie on the floor for a while going ‘woe,’ but I don’t consider it reason for Prozac and 12 sessions on the couch at $200 an hour because I know that it’s part of being human and, like bad haircuts and double denim, this too will pass.
I don’t want to take away from the truly depressed, who, by the way, do not go around announcing, “God! I’m so depressed!” but as Billy Bragg so perceptively sang, the only way to disarm is to disarm. Do you have friends, a roof over your head, food to eat and clothes to wear? Are your children still speaking to you? You’re successful beyond the imaginings of many. Stop creating drama where none exists. Everything is fine, or it will be. Go about your business, maybe eat something with cream on it. And the next time it all seems too much and you’re tempted to wave your arms around like C3PO flagging down a passing psychoanalyst, pause for a moment. Just breathe. There you go. You are awesome. Love you, just the way you are.