“Self-help discourses in popular culture encourage us to transform ourselves into active, confident, and successful people”.
“Success in an individual’s life can never be an ultimate phenomenon, as failure can always take over it. But failure in life is not permanent and does not end everything; rather it helps discover areas which were previously undiscovered, but there is only one element which can help a person through their tough times, and that is courage. However, it is natural of a person to take failure as an inescapable situation, and the attribute of courage cannot itself dawn upon them, so there is always a need for someone to ‘induce’ optimism and courage into a person’s life. Such induction, carried out by other people to support someone in times of adversity can be helpful because people affected by misfortune can start life anew with a sense of self-assurance and poise toward a triumphant life.
All over the world, people find themselves to be entangled in intricacies that different situations in life offer on a day-to-day basis. Throughout history, the world has come across people who exhibit leadership qualities and live a life which becomes an example of motivation, zeal and a sense of aspiration among the people who look up to them. Such people are called motivational leaders, who have the ability to infuse a spirit in people so that they (the people) can themselves take specific actions to create favorable circumstances for themselves, to cope up with the challenges that life presents to them.
There are numerous situations in life when we all find ourselves in a dire need for someone to motivate us to re-focus on our thoughts and energies, so that we can help ourselves to achieve better results in every day situations and, in turn, lead a happier and contented life. When it comes to seeking advice, expertise and knowledge on how we can help ourselves to adopt and use the self-help principle to make our lives more productive and livelier, there can be no better way than the various self-help discourses that we find in popular culture. Every individual is exposed to various kinds of messages through spoken words, written or sign language/images, multimodal or multimedia forms of communication. Various messages are disseminated toward the masses, suggesting ‘ways of living’ and ‘overcoming problems’ through movies, music, books, newspapers, sociological movements and even fashion, etcetera. The market shelves are flooded with books and video tapes on self-help (also known as ‘popular psychology’ and in some cases, ‘recovery’ texts) and personal training, and in the form of movements launched by collectivist groups trying to achieve a common goal, which gradually becomes a part of the popular culture. For instance, we often get to see portrayals of people in movies and books who find ways to live life tactfully by countering difficult situations and leading an ‘ideal’ life. People in movies are shown to fall prey to the worst situations that life can offer, like becoming bankrupt, stuck in cases of ‘allegedly’ committing crimes, winning over someone they love, fighting for rights and in the end, winning them, etc. The people in the movies, through the exhibition of traits like bravery, self-confidence, high self-esteem, enthusiasm and optimism, sometimes become our role models – They become a reality because they manifest a persona through their performance, scripts and roles. As a result of this interaction between the audience and that of the performers, the former derive their own meaning and interpretation of what they see, and act toward the meaning that they have perceived. For instance, when actors interact with the audience, they attribute meanings to themselves through their performances, as well as to the audience they are interacting with. This sort of interaction is found in every society of the world, and is a phenomenon related to one of the major Sociological perspective, called the ‘symbolic interactionism’, which implies that people act toward things in accordance with the meanings they perceive about and attribute to those things (Goffman, 1959).
Motivation on the self-help principle requires a lot of energy, action, perceptual ability, rhetoric, eloquent speech, and commitment, on part of the self-help professionals or groups. Most self-help books present personal biographies of successful people to motivate the readers with ideas of strength, coherency and resilience so that the readers can mould their narratives of self accordingly, and achieve confidence, self-direction and a greater sense of personal power. Other types of self-help books help people to ‘transform’ their entire self and help achieving a new, stronger, and positive personality (Gauntlett, 2008).
In contemporary American society, there exist a large number of self-help groups which are working on women, elderly, minority, homosexuals’ medicine etcetera to lend people social and emotional support through their discourses. People suffering from fatal diseases like AIDS and cancer, economic losses, alcoholism, postpartum depression, suicidal tendencies owing to failure in life, etc seek help in solving their problems, and when many people facing similar situation in life come together, giving birth to self-help groups, they together seek a collective identity. The discourses often give rise to social movements so that people can construct a desirable self by becoming activists in a particular group. This is especially reflective through self-help discourses of groups like homosexuals and feminists. Despite the ever increasing burgeoning of and popularity of self-help interventions all over the world, coupled with the promises that ensure people a newer approach toward life, the question on the efficacy of the said phenomenon still lingers in one’s mind whether self-help is really helpful in bringing about a transformation in a person’s life.
Sociologists have differing opinions whether these self-help discourses really help people to completely transform themselves into a new sense of being and adopt a different approach toward life.
Some sociologists think that self-help literature and workshops is nothing but a commodified quick-fix advice and sometimes the dividing line between self-help discourses and therapeutic consultation diminishes. Many popular best-seller self-help books are a mere copy of studies carried out by professional therapists, and together the languages of self-help and that of psychoanalysis have become deep structural forces that inform our practices of thinking, speaking and writing about the self.
There are certain distinctions which exist between formal and informal knowledge, which professionals of a given field have to defend. Sociologists cannot rely upon the apparent significance of such distinctions, and consequently, they have to subject these distinctions to questions and systemic examination in order to understand the cultural continuities, which are deeply embedded in a given culture and exist beyond the social divisions and discourse of knowledge. So there must be a dividing line between ‘self-help’ discourses and that of ‘therapy’ that people are unaware of (Illouz, 2008, pp.13). Other Sociologists believe that people do actually help them to transform into the ‘self’ that the group intends to bring about. In self-help movements, the primary goal are mostly that of changing identities. A sense of pride develops among the group as soon as the identity of that particular group is shaped according to the desired goal. Discourses aimed at achieving an identity not only induces a sense of solidarity among the group, but also help the members to change their self and their relationships. The core collective identity of which ever group a person may belong to, shapes the person’s individual sense of self. Movements promote new identities as a way to gain power and as well as transform themselves whether emotionally, economically, socially or intellectually (Jasper & Poletta, 2001,
For example, advertisements portray women through the ‘male-gaze’, compelling young girls and women to act according to the ways that males want to see them in. Beauty is often considered to power and only beautiful, sexually attractive and obedient women are portrayed to be acceptable in the society, thus stripping women off their true selves, and forcing them to comply with the tailored norms of the society, which are often aimed at degrading women and considering them to be inferior beings. Moreover, the continuing historical power and the pervasiveness of the certain cultural and stereotypical image of a woman as a body—the perfect, flawless, all-good creature, urge women to internalize this ideology holding themselves to blame for unwanted advances and sexual assaults. This guilt festers into unease with the femaleness and shame over their bodies. When experiences are molded according to the changing trends in a culture, which fashion our expectations, interests and our responsibilities, therapeutic culture helps to bring about such formulation. In such circumstances, the shattered self image of women has to be addressed to in order to bring about the change in her that she ought to feel (Bordo, 1997). Self study can help people (women) discover their hidden parts of self, which after being accepted by the individual, can lead to the discovery of a new, integrated and forceful self.
Self-help discourses are found to be productive for people who have totally lost their true identities (especially women) without even knowing what is happening to them as self realization can be destroyed by social experience, For example, feminists believe that women who are most of the time attending to others’ needs and end up negating their own selves thus losing their ‘selves’. Feminist often oppose to the idea of motherhood, the stereotypical images of women’s body for that matter and in their self-help discourses, they try inducing self-actualization among women (Simonds, 1996).
Although self-help discourses do fill a gap in people’s life and fulfill a need for support in times of crisis and actively incorporate personality grooming, aspiring, and motivating ideas of psychological backing into our daily lives. They also help people to adhere to their collectivist ideologies like that of feminism, or homosexuality for example, but often, self-help discourses and movements can be misleading and incorrect. This is because in such movements, even when an individual’s actions are emphasized upon, to bring about a transformation of self, they fail to encounter the immensity of various social problems that continue to prevail and persist in a society, the predomination of males over institutions of coercive power like that of military, being an example (Chancer, 1992). Secondly, proponents of self-help always target a general audience, which clearly means they cannot replace therapy and therefore cannot address interpersonal and immediate responses to people’s problems. Discourses on self help might induce a temporary spirit of achieving well-being among the masses and help them move toward a common goal, by changing their thinking patterns, but they fail to address detail-oriented problems and constant support that widely differ from person to person. Moreover, people help themselves solve their issues but by mutual support, guidance and dissemination of information but it is ultimately up to the individual to bring about the desired transformation, so it is more of a self-knowledge discourse than self-help, because if one is technically looking for someone else’s help, then it cannot be termed self-help.
Moreover, self-help professionals have made good business out of selling millions of copies of their books etc, and attracting conformists (as in case of movements). If we qualitatively analyze this situation, the mere number of people, which is undoubtedly huge, following the bandwagon of seeking self-help discourses cannot ensure cent percent success and transformation.
Thus, we can conclude that although self-help discourses apparently do help to change people’s mind-set that individuals are masters of their own destiny and help people adopting a positive approach toward life, but they do not ensure a happier, healthier, a successful and a problem free life per se.
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Chancer L, 1992, “Sadomasochism in everyday life. The dynamics of power and powerlessness”: New Brunswick, NJ: Rugters University Press.
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Illouz, E, 2008, “Saving the Modern Soul: Therapy, Emotions and the Culture of Self-Help”, University of California press Ltd, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California.
Simonds, W, 1992, “Women and Self-Help Culture: Reading between the Lines, Rugters University Press.