Who is Being Helped When We Help Our Self?

How to Cite

Green, L. (2002). Who is Being Helped When We Help Our Self?. M/C Journal, 5(5). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1992
Vol. 5 No. 5 (2002): Self
Published 2002-10-01

Over the past quarter-century 'the self' has been transformed from a relatively esoteric concept of principal interest to philosophers and psychologists to a mainstay of popular culture and critical reflection. This paper addresses some of the themes linking this transition and suggests that the driving impetus behind it is the commodification of ideas as a strategy of coping with change (as well as the packaging and consumption of goods and services which bridge the gap between the less-than-perfect present and the shining future just around the corner).

I start with a vivid recollection of some weeks in my undergraduate years worrying about the issue 'Is self-deception possible?' The problem to be solved for a tutorial presentation was, 'If the self is deceived by the self, which part of the self is doing the deceiving?' This conundrum could be handily addressed by reference to the various models of the divided self: the mind/brain model; or the conscious/subconscious model; the id/ego/superego model; the Parent/Adult/Child model (for all those Transactional Analysis aficionados) and, had I been dealing with the same query today, the Adult/Inner Child model.

In addition to these theoretical constructions, there was evidence from physiological psychology of the 'split brain' phenomenon, where some unfortunate patients had had the crossover pathways between the two hemispheres of the brain surgically cut, usually as a strategy for dealing with epilepsy. Here it seemed to be literally possible for the right hand to not know what the left hand was doing (but only under strict laboratory conditions where certain information was only available to one hand or the other, or one eye or the other).

Essentially, psychological theory had gone to considerable trouble to identify the self as a potential battleground for warring elements: internal 'others' with which the self is composed; in addition to the external influences impacting upon the self. All of these approaches offered a metaphor for conflict, which tied in with the subjective impression of 'the self' wanting things a number of ways; in particular wanting to have the cake, wanting to have a different cake and also wanting to eat all possible varieties of cake. The trouble was, this approach didn't really answer the question 'Is self-deception possible?' because I knew when I felt conflicted, and thus was not deceived.

To be truly deceived, I rationalised, I wouldn't ever be aware that self-deception had been in operation. In which case, had it ever really happened? Where internal warring was evident, the idea of 'deception' failed to convince me, and was replaced instead by one of opposing impulses. Thus I decided that self-deception is impossible, and that instead we use it as a more-or-less conscious excuse for behaviour that is out of character. (My tutor was concerned that I had elided the concepts of 'I' and 'myself', in this presentation, but that is another story.)

Two decades later, in the mid-nineties, I suddenly woke up to the fact that popular psychology had spawned a library of self-help literature of Alexandrian proportions. In fact, the volume of books, articles, magazines and related TV/radio shows (such as Oprah) -- not to mention the mega-millionaire motivationalists such as Wayne Dyer and Tony Robbins, whose website promises 'resources for creating an extraordinary quality of life' and whose influence is now evident in other areas of popular culture (eg, Farrelly and Farrelly's embarrassingly awful Shallow Hal).

Robbins' claim: 'Within you is a powerful driving force that, once unleashed, can make your boldest visions, dreams, and desires real. You are about to discover the finest resources and tools available for awakening that force within you -- and transforming your life, instantly and forever', somewhat overstates my own experience of trying to put his theories into practice, but I've only bought the books and thus may be deceiving myself that I've truly committed what it takes to achieve transformation... (For those of you lacking 'disposable time' -- too busy to read the books -- the principles are often available on easy-to-consume cassette-tapes, videos, CDs and interactive websites.)

A visit to any popular bookshop (although these sections are generally lacking in the academic ones) indicates that self-help is right up there with business/motivational books, and with new age/spiritual guidance. The popular culture of business practice might arguablely have started with Blanchard and Johnson's The One Minute Manager, but it is increasingly evident in such global best sellers as Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly EffectivePeople, Gardner and Gardner's The Motley Fool Investment Guide and Kiyosaki's Rich Dad, Poor Dad (and associated spin-offs). This interest in business, however, is more than an interest in practice and process: it's an interest in versions of the self. Thus the Motley Fool reader is advised to 'go against' their instincts, because that way they do something different from the average. Rich Dad, Poor Dad is a fable of different ways to view life, success and happiness (one of which is presented as more likely to result in a humungous bank balance). If it only takes a minute to be a manager -- why wouldn't you spend that minute? And all of us would like to be more effective in some area of our lives… The business books that make it into the best seller lists offer help to transform the self into someone … rather more suited to the times than we were before we started to read that particular guru's take on the future perfect.

The impetus for the growth in the popular culture of the evolving self seems to me to be (at least partly) explained by our sense of accelerating change. The constant in both the business and the self-help literature is a valuing of the capacity of managing and adapting to change. It is no accident that there has been this burgeoning of self-development material at the same time that we are encouraged: to prepare ourselves for new careers every seven years; to reclassify ourselves as lifelong learners; to assess ourselves as a collection of 'skills', 'attributes' and 'competencies', able to apply to others for 'recognition of prior learning'; and, to accept a governmental diktat that we are all in the business of 'mutual obligation'.

Under these circumstances, and in this environment, a willing engagement with the self-help literature indicates a positive desire to manage the transition of the self to some acceptance of a changed future. It implies the resolution of the five stages of grief (Kubler-Ross). Having worked through denial and isolation; anger; bargaining; and depression the active self-developer reaches 'acceptance' and manages the stress of change by helping the self adjust to an anticipated future. Even the sense of having a strategy to cope with new demands can be part of a solution to perceived powerlessness: helpless leads to hopeless (and depressed). Self-help is a strategy to cope with change and move on.

The pressures may be new, and the books may be growing in number and in applicability, but the marketing principles fuelling this consumer demand are well established. For example, an Australianised Consumer Behaviour textbook identifies (Schiffman et al, 137) 'four specific kinds of self-image:

  1. Actual self-image (ie how consumers in fact see themselves)

  2. Ideal self-image (ie how consumers would like to see themselves)

  3. Social self-image (ie how consumers feel others see them)

  4. Ideal social self-image (ie how consumers would like others to see them)

before going on to add, "a fifth type of self-image, expected self-image (ie how consumers expect to see themselves at some specified future time)" (137, bold in original).

Marketers use the gap between the perceived self-image and the ideal self-image as an opportunity for product development, and for creating strategies to promote existing goods and services. In essence, consumer societies continuously package and represent images of our future selves as ways of selling us products that help us become more beautiful, clever and effective. They might also 'reverse the visible signs of aging'. (The realage.com website is a wonderful place where an older self becomes younger as the days pass and the life-extending strategies are adopted, minimising an individual's 'real' -- as opposed to chronological -- age.) Although Schiffman et al (137) argue that the expected self-image is somewhere between the actual self-image and the ideal self-image, most well-founded (credible) expectations of the future-self involve a planned programme of change -- such as enrolment in a course of study or diligent application to the contents and suggestions of an appropriate self-help book… Thus the expected self-image might differ qualitatively from the ideal self-image in that the former may have some basis in an achievable future while the latter might be impossibly unlikely.

An individual's social identity and their consumption practices are already well linked. For example, Hearn, Mandeville and Anthony (104) estimate that 'consumption now accounts for about 60 per cent of GDP … mass communication, advertising and the consumer economy form a nexus that is centrally implicated in the operation of Western societies.' They go on to argue that the 'central assertion of postmodern views of consumption is that social identity can be interpreted as a function of consumption' (106). Green suggests that it is 'the voluntary nature of consumption -- together with the impossibility of not consuming -- [that] prevents [consumption] from being categorised unambiguously as work'.

The implication is that the self-help literature represents a complex communication. Purchase of a self-help book identifies one version of an ideal self-image for that person, and also allies them with those aspects of popular culture including and touching upon that book and that self-help philosophy. (Even more is communicated if the book is purchased for someone else, or received as a gift from someone else!) The presence of the book on a person's shelves can also indicate a strategy to manipulate perceptions of the individual's social self-image and might express to others an element of the individual's ideal social self-image (moderated, perhaps, by throw-away statements such as: 'Of course, theory is one thing, practice another', or 'I think Carmen may have been dropping a heavy hint with this present'). At the same time, the individual may have a clear impression of the expected self-image likely to result from consumption of the book's contents, and thus the act of consumption is likely to represent the adoption of a particularly individual vision for the future self.

The popularity of the self-help genre and its generalisation into lifestyle programmes and publications -- the Martha Stewart effect -- is an indication that the 'present self' is generally categorised as a work in progress. Paradoxically, the self may be most evident and fixed in the act of becoming, since the self in the present undergoes continual change (apart from its constant requirement for 'help').

Author Biography

Lelia Green