Friday, August 12, 2005

SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless

SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless
by Steve Salerno
Crown Publishing, June 21, 2005

The type of people who buy self-help books are the kind of people who bought the same type of books 18 months ago. I just heard this auhtor on CJOB's evening talk show and felt compelled to make a note of his book. Some of what he said was absolutely riveting and I may buy this book or try to get my local library. Since I haven't read it, I can't draw any conclusions. You would have to read it and make up your own mind.

Here's a quote from an review. Many of the reviews of this book are slamming it, but given that the people posting reviews could have a stake in the self-help movement, it's possible that the reviews are meant to sand bag this book.

"The self-help industry was long overdue for a fall, and Steve Salerno is combative and tenacious enough to deliver the knockout punches.

If he had just pointed out how many emperors in the self-help universe have no clothes, it would've been a decent book. After all, we live in a world in which the overweight Dr. Phil is a weight-loss guru, the recently divorced Tony Robbins offers marital advice, and the profoundly screwed up Dr. Laura presents herself as a beacon of moral clarity.

But Salerno does more than land easy and cheap shots. He shows where the gurus present glib advice that actually contradicts scientific research. He shows how they build their personal "brands" by branching out into areas of advice and counseling in which they have no expertise. And he shows, first and foremost, how they enrich themselves by creating repeat customers. If they were legitimately helping people, why would anyone need to attend more than one seminar, or buy more than one book?

As an added bonus, this book is very well written. Salerno makes his points with style

And from the Barnes and Noble site.

"A book, maybe THE book, for its times
In taking on the addle-brained sloganism of the past fifty years in American pop psychology, the author shows clearly, compellingly, and with biting humor just where the self-help train has gone off the tracks. More important, he does it in studious journalistic fashion, following the money and connecting the dots. This was not the case with earlier examinations of self-help, which mostly played the topic for laughs or merely as a launching point for the author's own biases. I was particularly impressed with the book's scope, in that it reveals all the subtle ways in which self-help's teachings have bled over into society-at-large and its most important institutions. I also enjoyed the striking and original way it brackets various developments in self-help as sub-themes or sub-movements in their own right: e.g. 'sportsthink,' 'contrapreneurs,' and the rise of 'BADASSE' (Blame All Disappointments And Setbacks on Somebody Else).' But the most powerful and original aspect of the book is its searing critique of today's so-called Empowerment Movement, which actually chains people to unrealistic hopes and leads them to substitute a never-ending series of 'goals' for meaningful action. (The author also argues powerfully that Empowerment may have much to do with today's flagging commitment to marriage and other long-term undertakings.) There should be a way of getting this book into the hands of every Oprah viewer. And by the way, there's a lot of cool, juicy stuff on the leading figures in self-help. You may never see Dr. Phil quite the same way again. Simply outstanding.

From the publisher:

Self-help: To millions of Americans it seems like a godsend. To many others it seems like a joke. But as investigative reporter Steve Salerno reveals in this groundbreaking book, it's neither--in fact it's much worse than a joke. Going deep inside the Self-Help and Actualization Movement (fittingly, the words form the acronym SHAM), Salerno offers the first serious exposé of this multibillion-dollar industry and the real damage it is doing--not just to its paying customers, but to all of American society.
Based on the author's extensive reporting--and the inside look at the industry he got while working at a leading "lifestyle" publisher--SHAM shows how thinly credentialed "experts" now dispense advice on everything from mental health to relationships to diet to personal finance to business strategy. Americans spend upward of $8 billion every year on self-help programs and products. And those staggering financial costs are actually the least of our worries.

SHAM demonstrates how the self-help movement's core philosophies have infected virtually every aspect of American life--the home, the workplace, the schools, and more. And Salerno exposes the downside of being uplifted, showing how the "empowering" message that dominates self-help today proves just as damaging as the blame-shifting rhetoric of self-help's "Recovery" movement.

SHAM also reveals:

• How self-help gurus conduct extensive market research to reach the same customers over and over--without ever helping them

• The inside story on the most notorious gurus--from Dr. Phil to Dr. Laura, from Tony Robbins to John Gray

• How your company might be wasting money onmotivational speakers, "executive coaches," and other quick fixes that often hurt quality, productivity, and morale

• How the Recovery movement has eradicated notions of personal responsibility by labeling just about anything--from drug abuse to "sex addiction" to shoplifting--a dysfunction or disease

• How Americans blindly accept that twelve-step programs offer the only hope of treating addiction, when in fact these programs can do more harm than good

• How the self-help movement inspired the disastrous emphasis on self-esteem in our schools

• How self-help rhetoric has pushed people away from proven medical treatments by persuading them that they can cure themselves through sheer application of will

As Salerno shows, to describe self-help as a waste of time and money vastly understates its collateral damage. And with SHAM, the self-help industry has finally been called to account for the damage it has done.

Publishers Weekly
You! Yes, you! Are you addicted to self-help books? Do you require "empowerment" to reverse your "victimhood"? If so, relax-you're far from alone. The Self-Help and Actualization Movement (the titular SHAM) is, according to Salerno, an $8-billion-a-year industry that depends on legions of repeat customers. Salerno presents a carefully researched-and devastating-expos on SHAM's predatory and fraudulent practices and its corrosive effects on society. As former editor of Men's Health magazine's books program, Salerno knows the terrain from the inside. With judicious delight, he exposes the grandiloquent bluster and blithe hypocrisy of Dr. Phil (who, psychologists say, shames rather than helps his guests) and Dr. Laura (the preacher of family values who didn't know when her own mother was murdered), among many others. He cites examples of junk science, such as Tony Robbins's talk of "the energy frequency of foods," and charges that untested alternative medicine draws people away from proven medical treatments. In addition to detailing the raw facts, Salerno excels at pinpointing the self-abnegating strategy the self-help industry employs: namely, tearing you down in the name of building you up. And the positivity yields questionable results in any case. The self-help industry should not be dismissed as "silly but benign," says Salerno, and he documents how it has undermined psychology, education and health care in this blistering critique. (June 28) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Salerno, a freelance feature writer, essayist, and investigative reporter whose work has been featured in Harper's, the New York Times Magazine, and the Washington Post, minces no words in this evisceration of the self-help and actualization movement (SHAM). He takes on contemporary gurus like Dr. Phil McGraw, Tony Robbins, John Gray, and Dr. Laura Schlessinger-anyone, in fact, who dispenses popular advice or advocates psychological or alternative medical self-help (even 12-step programs take a hit). Ultimately, Salerno argues that SHAM, a multibillion-dollar industry, has fostered a culture of victimization that discourages people from taking responsibility for their lives, thereby undermining the character of our nation. This conclusion would have been much more persuasive if he had dispensed with the vitriol. Wendy Kaminer's I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional: The Recovery Movement and Other Self-Help Fashions is a more effective critique; Salerno's book is recommended only for large public libraries.-Lynne F. Maxwell, Villanova Univ. Sch. of Law Lib., PA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

Here's an article from National Review.

May 12, 2005, 8:10 a.m.
Overdosing on Oprah
The side effects of empowerment

By Steve Salerno

Ever since America began to wean itself off the sociological junk-food of victimization and the much-maligned Culture of Blame, the landscape has been steadily overspread by an antithetical conceit — loosely bracketed as "empowerment" — whose preachments can be summarized as follows: Don't let anyone take away your dreams. Everything you need to succeed is right there inside you. Believe it, achieve it.

Today, Fortune 500 conglomerates draft optimistic business models in bullet points drawn from Stephen Covey's seven (highly effective) habits; families settle disputes using ameliorative diagnostics straight out of Dr. Phil; millions of everyday Americans owe their feelings of "personal power" to prow-jawed fire-walker Tony Robbins, the arguable father of today's mainstream brand of empowerment. And, of course, there is that daily dose of spiritual adrenaline from Oprah Winfrey, who is seldom categorized as a guru in her own right, but whose role as the movement's éminence grise cannot be discounted: The road to self-help's promised land — and a bite of its $8.56 billion-dollar fruit, as per the latest figures from Marketdata Enterprises — goes right through the vast king-making machine that is Harpo Productions. The guiding nostrums delivered via sundry channels by these and other self-help celebrities form a cultural given, an uncontested (and, one is led to believe, incontestable) foundation for the present starry-eyed Zeitgeist.

Lost in all the adulation is the downside of this tireless effort to uplift. The overselling of personal empowerment — the hyping of hope — may in fact be the great unsung irony of latter-day American culture, destined to disappoint as surely as the pity party it was supposed to replace. And in a far more insidious fashion.

Though many of the consequences here are easily missed or confound measurement, the literal and figurative poster children can be found in America's schools, whose crusade to imbue kids with that most slippery of notions, self-esteem, has been plainly disastrous. It was once theorized that a rose-colored self-image would itself help students achieve greatness, even if the mechanisms required to instill self-worth undercut traditional notions of scholarship. In the intervening years, declining SAT scores and the generally dismal performance of American students in global rankings of competency in math and the hard sciences have shown that academic greatness is not what self-esteem promotes. (In 1998, the Amsterdam-based International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement released its Third International Mathematics and Science Study, involving twelfth graders from 23 nations. In overall scientific literacy, the U.S. placed fourth from the bottom, besting only such historic hotbeds of scientific innovation as Lithuania, Cyprus, and South Africa. In advanced math, the U.S. outpaced only Austria. In physics, American kids finished dead last.)

No matter. America keeps filling its children with this faux self-esteem, passing them on to the next set of empowering standards, and the next after that. If you teach college, as I do, you are certain at some point to be confronted by a student who's upset over the grade you gave him and seeks redress because, he will say, as though his point were self-evident, "I'm pre-med!" Only if and when that student actually reaches med school does he encounter less elastic standards: a comeuppance for him, but a reprieve for the rest of us, who otherwise might find ourselves anesthetized beneath his second-rate scalpel.

The larger point is that, with the gods of empowerment cheering in the background, society has embraced concepts like confidence and self-esteem despite scant evidence that they're reliably correlated with positive outcomes. The work of legitimate psychology notables Roy Baumeister and Martin Seligman indicates that often, high self-worth is a marker for negative behavior, as diagnosed in sociopaths and drug kingpins. Furthermore, self-esteem may be expressed in the kind of braggadocio — "I'm fine just the way I am, thank you" — that actually inhibits personal growth.

Unfazed by pesky questions about whether happy thoughts can even guarantee results for any one individual, today's champions of positive thought unflinchingly portray their quest as the folkloric rising tide that lifts all boats, supposedly enabling America en masse to reach new levels of happiness and prosperity. A nice thought — but impossible barring a wholesale change in the way the free market operates. Many pursuits are zero-sum affairs. For each winner, there usually must be a fair number of losers. Nonetheless, I have been to sales seminars where the motivational speaker implied to 250 real-estate professionals from the same company that all of them could be the firm's No. 1 salesperson next year. One of them will be. The other 249 will not. Consider, then, the psychic costs of coming up short in a philosophical system that disclaims the role of luck, timing, or competition, and admits no obstacles that cannot be conquered by the sheer application of will. If winning is a straight-line function of "character," then what does that say about those who lose? Of course, one never really loses in this brave new world of hopeful euphemisms. "There is no such thing as failure," posits a core maxim of the neurolinguistic programming regimen from which Tony Robbins drew much of his patter. "There is only feedback."

But why settle for redefining mere words when you can redefine the very world in which you move? Hence, the solipsistic outlook that fuels today's empowered thinking: Reality becomes an arbitrary affair wherein each individual decides his personal truth. One is hard pressed to find a setting where such reasoning is deemed inappropriate. At a presentation to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Dale Walsh, vice president of Riverbend Community Mental Health, hailed the new resolve that mentally ill "clients" feel about playing "a significant role in the shaping of the services, policies, and research" that affect them — this, as part of "taking power back from the system." A second mental-health activist, Selina Glater, writes that "empowerment," in a treatment setting, is about "clearly stating what it is you need in order to feel whole again." Inmates running the asylum indeed.

Empowerment has left its fingerprints on other areas of health care, too. It's at least a contributing factor in America's startling exodus from traditional medicine. One omnibus study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association put the total number of patient visits to all types of alternative-medicine practitioners at 629 million per year, easily eclipsing the 386 million visits to conventional MDs. In theory, these defections from the mainstream represent a quest for "self-empowerment healing" that will "put people in charge of their health-care destiny," to quote the popular holistic-health portal, Oughten House. (Oughten's slogan: "Change your DNA, change your life!" Uh-huh.) In practice, the trend puts increasing numbers of Americans at the mercy of opportunistic charlatans who position themselves at the nexus of mind and body.

We will not know the ultimate impact of all this for some time; it's been barely a generation since the surreal optimism described herein first began to make the logic of victimization sound ugly and old. But common sense suggests that this relentless emphasis on personal satisfaction betokens grim news for marriage, workplace camaraderie, or unity of any kind. One wonders how a nation comprising 295 million individuals, each vowing not to let anyone take away his dreams, could arrive at a true sense of collective purpose, especially with humility now in such short supply. Pop-psychology once taught us to wallow in our faults and limitations. It now teaches us to deny them, if not revel in them (as anyone who watches early-season episodes of American Idol can attest). As a culture, we went from impotence to omnipotence, sneering at the more realistic middle ground we sped past en route.

If empowerment is a quasi-religion — which is how Oprah and some of its other champions seem to frame it — perhaps it could use an updated version of the serenity prayer made popular by the twelve-step regimens it disdains: Something like, "Lord give me the enthusiasm to pursue what I excel at, the modesty to admit what I stink at, and the wisdom to know that there is a difference."

— Steve Salerno's book, SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless, will be published by Crown in June.

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