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More Self-Harm than Self-Help? How to Survive Today's Guru Industry

by Sarah Alexander(more info)

listed in health and life coaching, originally published in issue 244 - February 2018

Since its origins in the 1970s, the self-help movement has become a global phenomenon touching the lives of millions. A Google search for ‘self-help advice’ now throws up approximately 24 million pages of free downloads - a mix of YouTube Channels and internet sites all jostling with each other to promote their own brand of personal empowerment tips, life-enhancing techniques and ‘how-to’s’ in every area related to health and fitness.

A myriad self-help books have also flooded the market - many currently proffering variations of ‘The Law of Attraction’ as a panacea for human unhappiness. (The theory at its crudest being that we can overcome anxiety and low self-worth by learning to attract into our lives lots of often very expensive ‘stuff’ and achieve all the health, fitness and any other goal we desire). Bestsellers have proliferated through claims that we can do anything just by seeing ourselves as invincible and capable of unlimited success. Only then may we experience that elusive sense of fulfilment we seek. And for those of us who have tried and failed to awaken the giant within, there are more books to help us to piece back together our shattered self-esteem, and maybe start generating a little compassion towards ourselves for falling short.

The industry is not all bad. But within it are countless charlatans making wild and unfounded claims about their abilities. Some profess that their ‘Divine’ connection will guide us to a higher reality - their assertions only to be subsequently debunked by investigators. The 2016 CNN documentary ‘Enlighten us’, on the deaths of three self-help devotees, issues a warning: beware the self-appointed guru on a giant ego trip. Increasingly accused of exploiting the vulnerable and the weak, the self-help industry appeals to a fundamental desire in all humans: to find meaning, gratification and simple solutions to life’s complexities. So potentially, almost anybody can be drawn in.


I have been a coach and trainer who has been part of the self-help movement for over 16 years. I work with coaches, consultants and business professionals to optimise their performance using a set of principles described in my book, Spiritual Intelligence in Leadership. I also show people how to develop resilience in difficult times by cultivating qualities and skills that also inspire others.

For those seeking self-help advancement from a reputable source, I believe that today's modern sales techniques can blur the distinction between the genuine and the fake. Glowing testimonials, name-dropping, Youtube self-promotions and a plethora of other subtle and not-so-subtle sales techniques combine to shift more and more courses and materials. Some people will spend a fortune on a ‘leading light’ because it ‘feels right’, but their gut feeling is likely to have been engineered by some promise to fill a gaping desire - usually, to live that ‘dreamed for’ life. Such promises lead more to depression than Damascus.

Given the rogue aspects of the self-help movement, is it possible to sort the wheat from the chaff and find a self-help approach that really works? To develop better discernment, here are my suggestions:

  • Recognize that achieving goals will not bring long term happiness. Science proves unequivocally that when we focus on extrinsic goals (such as attaining vast wealth, looking 21 again or achieving VIP status) we become not more, but less happy and fulfilled. A fixation on outer pursuits leads to psychological instability. Yes, external achievements produce that short-term 'high' (if we succeed). But the thrill is only brief: a process known as ‘hedonic adaptation’ sets in, by which we grow accustomed to our new acquisitions and start to find them insignificant.
    By contrast, keeping our attention fixed on intrinsic goals - that focus on who we are as a person, at work, in our relationships and in our giving to the world - delivers the optimism and uplift most humans desire. But there's a caveat: being happy requires practice. It’s a skill that we have to develop by repeatedly noticing, and taking in, those fleeting instances of joy.
  • Accept that achieving success will not make you feel worthy. Very often, we set and pursue our goals by way of compensating for an underlying sense of lack and a gnawing insecurity: we are led to believe that we will feel worthy only once we have acquired the trophies of success - the thriving business, the prestigious job and healthy bank balance.  And so we connect our inner value to our outer value. We also imagine that the money, the gadgets, the house and the new car will bring us security.
    In truth, our worthiness and sense of self-assurance already exist within us. They are who, and what, we are. Our Self - the part of us that stands free from our mental conditioning - remains intact. So we don’t need to squander any resources seeking value in the world: humans benefit more from living a productive, principled life, inspired by knowing their worthiness, and grounded in an innermost sense of security.
  • Acknowledge the wisdom within you. There is a glut of information out there, some of it valuable and perhaps based on empirical scientific research - and some of it utterly meaningless. Certainly, continuous learning is a component of a good life. But so is the practice of listening to the intelligence and prudence inside - a more reliable guiding force within us all.
    We attune to this innate intelligence whenever we take time out for quietude and reflection - be it in nature, on the treadmill, at a yoga class or through contemplative activities such as painting, gardening or listening to music. If we keep constantly on the go, taking ‘massive action’, we miss the internal cues that inspire us to change direction, end a relationship, move to a different area or simply rest our bodies. If we allow ourselves the time and space to tune in, we can also become more discerning as to which self-help practice might be of greatest benefit to us. This internal guidance offers a better set of promptings than the false persuasions of marketing and hype.
  • Accept that ‘helping the self’ takes years of focused commitment. We want a quick fix - to be free from pain, a difficult situation, a life challenge. And we want it now. The reality is that personal evolution takes a lifetime of dedication. It requires training the mind, letting go of the reactions of the personality and aligning with our ‘Higher nature’, unfailingly.
    People from various religious and spiritual traditions have indeed attained such an enlightened place - but often by renouncing life and living in a place of solitude that enables them to sustain such a pledge. Most of us are not able to do that. So what can we do? Persistently, one step at a time, move towards that liberated place. We do it amidst our 21st century lives of busy-ness, information overload, personal and professional pressures and despite the darkness we witness in the world around us. And we accept that the journey is long-term. The peaks are hard-won and difficult to sustain. Importantly, no guru can do it for us.

So can self-help really help? The answer lies in our ability to recognize that achieving and acquiring won’t bring long-term happiness; that all the positive thinking in the world will not stop bad things from happening in our lives (at worst, it could stop us from taking useful action). As for channelled wisdom from on high, this will probably only provide nebulous answers.

True self-help means taking 100% responsibility because we are the only ones who can heal our lives. Being 100% answerable to ourselves also means letting go of our victim mentality: the desire to make life ‘all about me and what I want’; the complaining to avoid taking action to solve the situation; the avoiding of issues either through running from them or numbing ourselves out of them through the use of drugs, alcohol, food, the internet, the list goes on; the blaming of others for our problems; the wishing that ‘this wasn’t happening’ rather than accepting that it is. And lastly, being responsible includes the willingness to consider ‘what am I doing that has contributed to this issues?’ and ‘what can I do to move beyond it?’ This cannot be taught in a weekend workshop; it is wrong to suggest that it can. It takes a lot of mindful awareness to observe the facts of a situation free from our personal filters and preferences. It takes equiniminity to be able to allow and accept what’s happening and recognise we do not have control. And it take a determination to make a conscious choice about how we are going to react from a calm perspective, free from our emotional responses.

To be guided by a coach or mentor with a wealth of experience can be valuable. But all the very best self-help counsellors, training courses, books and DVDs are of scant benefit unless they convey that the answers lie within. And most gurus won't tell you that.


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About Sarah Alexander

Sarah Alexander is a coach, mentor, author and speaker with 14 years’ coaching experience. Sarah has worked with international sports competitors, executives from multinationals and successful entrepreneurs. She is the founder of a coaching and training system called Magnificence: Twelve Steps to High Performance and Low Stress for Business Professionals.

Sarah Alexander has had a daily meditation practice for over 18 years and brings that quietness of mind and inner connection to her coaching. She offers intuitive guidance in her coaching conversations which gives clarity, inspiration and peace of mind. She is the author of Spiritual Intelligence in Business: The Eight Pillars of 21st Century Business Success and Spiritual intelligence in Leadership: From Manager to Leader in Your Own Life. For full details and to download Sarah’s Eight Top Tips on How To Be Magnificent please visit


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