Where is the ‘self’ in ‘self-improvement’?

Today, many of us think about self-improvement in the same manner we think about home-improvement or car-improvement or culinary-improvement. That is, we think of the self as an object -like an Arabian camel, or a chocolate croissant, or a pair of pantyhose -that sits separate and independent from ourselves.

With a small amount of consideration, this way of thinking falls apart. The self, unlike pastries or pantyhose, is not a separate object. It is a part of us. When it comes to self-help, we are both the architect and the architecture, both the horse and the rider.

Things get more complicated when you realize that, despite advances in science, we are a long way from understanding ourselves -our motivations, our desires, or what really makes us do the things we do.

In fact, because science only deals with generalities (populations, not people), there’s a limit to what it can tell us about ourselves. The self remains opaque and resistant to self-knowledge -and it may stay that way forever.

But if we do not, and cannot, know ourselves, then how is it possible to improve ourselves? Or, put another way, “Where is the self in self-improvement?”

The Economy of the Self

When I had the idea for this essay, I did a  Google search to see if anyone else had my brilliant idea before I did. As always, someone beat me to it.

It seems the author Kathryn Schulz, who I am a fan of, was thinking along the same lines when, in 2013, she wrote an essay for NY Mag titled The Self in Self-Help.

In that piece, she challenges the self-help industry:

[In the past 1600 years], we’ve made very little empirical progress toward understanding our own inner workings. We have, however, developed an $11 billion industry dedicated to telling us how to improve our lives. Put those two facts together and you get a vexing question: Can self-help work if we have no idea how a self works?

What I think Schulz is suggesting here is that self-help has overstated how easy it is for one to become popular, or successful, or happy or handsome. Becoming happy, or escaping misery, has never been as simple as a twelve-step plan, a four-hour work week, or a daily dose of transcendental meditation.

The self is both complex and resistant to understanding. In this sense, managing the self is more like managing the US economy than your neighborhood brewery. A skilled Japanese craftsman may be able to brew a wonderful keg of beer 99% of the time, but this is not the case in economics. Our forecasts frequently fail, our policies backfire, and the things politicians do (or say they do) to improve the human condition can end up making life a whole lot more miserable.

Hello, Old Soul

Because economies are so complex, we use models -simplifications of reality -to guide our thinking.

When it comes to self-help (or psychiatry, or psychoanalysis, or psy-anything), we do something similar. All self-help theories, says Schulz, model the self in a particular way:

[The master theory] goes like this: Somewhere below or above or beyond the part of you that is struggling with weight loss or procrastination or whatever your particular problem might be, there is another part of you that is immune to that problem and capable of solving it for the rest of you. In other words, this master theory is fundamentally dualist. It posits, at a minimum, two selves: one that needs a kick in the ass and one that is capable of kicking.

Different self-help theories “carve you up” in different ways -emotional vs rational, conscious vs unconscious, mind vs body, primitive vs advanced -but they all possess this duality that separates you into both subject and object: the part of you that is acting and the part of you that is being acted upon.

With some reflection, this way of thinking starts to look a lot like something many of us thought we grew out of. Namely, the existence of an immortal soul:

The self-help movement seeks to account for and overcome the difficulties we experience when we are trying to make a desired change—but doing so by invoking an immortal soul and a mortal sinner (or an ego and an id, a homunculus and its minion) is not much different from saying that we “are of two minds,” or “feel torn,” or for that matter that we have a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other. These are not explanations for the self. They are metaphors for the self.

Renouncing religion does not free you from religious ways of thinking. Those of us unable to believe in the gods now turn to self-help books, backed by the guarantees of gurus or guru-scientists.

Playing With Chaos

If the self is chaotic and hard to understand, then what this also means is that we do not know as much about our likes, hates, or desires as we think we do.

We humans are constantly telling ourselves stories about who we are, what we want, where we came from, and where we are going. But stories, like immortal souls, are just a simplification, a metaphor for something much more complex and impossible to understand.

When we tell ourselves “She is the only one that will make happy,” or “I’m just not that kind of person,” we pretend we understand what we want and what will bring us satisfaction. But -as any adult knows -sometimes we love the things we thought we would hate and sometimes the woman of our dreams can, in reality, be a nightmare.

Or, as Schulz says, perhaps our lives need more randomness and more experimentation:

Or maybe we humans change the way species do: through random variation. If that’s the case, then the strategy we’ve arrived at out of necessity might be the best one anyone could design. Try something. Better still, try everything—throw all the options at the occluding wall of the self and see what sticks. Meditation, marathon training, fasting, freewriting, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, speed dating, volunteering, moving to Auckland, redecorating the living room: As long as you steer clear of self-harm and felony, you might as well do anything you can to your inner and outer ecosystems that might induce a beneficial mutation.

If I have learned anything in the past few years, it is that I do not know what I like, who am I, or what I want. Some of my most elaborate plans (world travel comes to mind) did not give me the pleasure that I thought they would. Other experiences I thought I would hate became hobbies that I now try to do more frequently.

Self-help, when I believed in it most, taught me that happiness was a matter of knowledge. If I my plans failed, it was because I had not found the correct guru, book, twelve-step plan, or scientific theory. Now, to me, this way of thinking smells of the old religion of Gnosticism, where people believed that obtaining “secret knowledge” was the secret to salvation.

Someone (I forgot who) once said that politics was the art of managing and dealing with “recurring evils.” This is the way I have come to think about the self. We should do what we can to make our lives better (or less miserable), but we should not have too much faith in the utopian illusion that we can make all our problems go away, always and forever.

Some might say this way of thinking is gloomy, but I find it quite freeing. Instead of spending my life in pursuit of perpetual improvement, now I have room to just be.