The Evolution of Self Help: From Me to We
Between the tumult of the world, and the tumult within my own world this past year, all my carefully-held beliefs have been rocked. It’s like the junk drawer of everything I thought I knew got unceremoniously dumped, and I’ve been left to sort through what works and what no longer serves. At first I wrote a rambling treatise on all of the things I’ve been rethinking, but then my ace girlfriend/life coach Steph gently suggested I tackle one topic at a time. So here’s one thing I’ve been thinking about a lot: self-help must evolve.
Self-help has focused a little too much ‘self’, and not enough on the ‘help’. Think about the ideas that are part of the self-help lexicon: I am the creator of my right life! Only I can change the way I feel. I am the only part of the world I can save. Everyone is on their own journey. That’s a whole lot of “I”. It’s true that we only have governance over ourselves, so it makes sense to learn how to nourish and love ourselves, and how to look to our own inner guidance to chart our life course. But… I don’t believe we’re meant to go it alone.
We need each other.
So many people I talk with feel a sense of isolation and loneliness. They feel like they know lots of people, but they don’t feel deeply known.
This whole idea that we’re supposed to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps, to solve our own problems, to deal with it, feels so heavy and lonely to me. Sometimes this shit is so hard, and we need a helping hand. We need to be held and comforted as we find our way. Our bootstraps are broken. We humans are communal creatures, we aren’t meant to be alone.
We need each other personally, and we need each other societally.
Indulge me in a bit of “Me” background before we move forward into the “We”.
The 80’s was the Me Decade. In addition to amazing frosted hairdos and a plethora of truly questionable fashion choices, there were larger forces at work. The economy had bounced back and with more women working than ever, many dual-income households had more dollars at their disposal. Anyone who grew up in the 80’s is familiar with the materialistic vibe of that time. We also saw an explosion of self-help books — we learned things like men are from Mars and women are from Venus, the five stages of grief, and that we’re pretty much all hopelessly codependent.
Here’s an interesting little tidbit: some social theorists even suggest that this shift to the preoccupation with the self served as a tool of social control — that there was less political unrest than there had been in the previous two decades as people focused on their own pursuit of self-invention. Hm.
Additionally, as the focus turned to the self, people began losing their sense of community.
There’s a season for everything, I believe the focus on self-exploration had its place. It allowed many women to find their own power and a fuller self-expression beyond the traditional roles of wife and mother. It allowed men and women to see how they are creative forces in their own lives, and that they have agency and power to shape their own paths. And as the self-help movement matured, we learned that we can all throw off the constricting ties of the predominant culture and decide how we want to live and thrive. All good!
What I’m witnessing now is a desire to swing the pendulum from Me to We. Any time I talk about this idea with people, either they smile, exhale deeply and say YES; or burst into tears because they feel someone has tapped into their innermost need. I see countless social media posts speaking to the desire for authentic connection, and even some pushback against those they see as inauthentic or capitalizing on people’s pain and insecurity. People have had it with being told they’re broken, flawed, or should become some idealized version of themselves. They just want to be their messy selves and be loved for who they are. I might be projecting there a bit.
Moving to the We on the personal level means re-establishing our communities of support. I’ve seen so many beautiful examples of this in my work over the past few years. People who meet each other at retreats or take a course together and feel an abiding sense of connection. There’s a feeling of sister- and brotherhood. People are creating lasting friendships where they can practice relating: they can say what they need, have healthy conflict and enjoy the increased intimacy that it creates, and they can practice truly listening instead of trying to fix or shut down the other person. Communities where people can feel safe enough to open their hearts, feel a sense of belonging, and let their true selves come forth and flower.
The way I see it, just as we need each other, we are also responsible to each other. That’s the societal aspect of the We. I know the word responsibility isn’t always popular in self-help circles, but who says it has to be painful to consider our responsibilities? We can use our handy self-help reframing skills to look at responsibility through a new lens.
A critical part of self-actualization is gaining the spiritual maturity to move beyond the self and consider your place in the world, and how you serve. We can, as poet Rainer Maria Rilke said, “live the questions”. Questions like: Are my actions contributing positively to the whole? How can I actively show care for my fellow humans, creatures, and the planet? What are my unique and special contributions to the world? (Notice I didn’t say “big” contributions. Who says big is better?) What ways am I complicit in the systems of oppression? How does my own ambition and consumption impact the planet? How can I shift these behaviors so I’m contributing rather than diminishing? What will I devote myself to? And finally, how can we all leverage the collective good effort from personal growth into something that not only fills our own souls, but also helps the greater good?
I don’t have pithy answers to these questions. This is a road I’m traveling myself and I wouldn’t assume to tell you your path. But I do think we can travel together. We can use our collective will, creative force, and desire to begin creating a new world. A world where there’s room to be our flawed selves. A world where we hold each other up. A world where we see reality with clear eyes and actively engage with it. A world where we create a little more truth, beauty, and justice for all.
It’s not about either/or: Either you’re a spiritual person working on personal development or you’re a justice warrior working for the collective good. Even though I set this piece up as a movement from Me to We, I’m not an absolutist. I see it as a both/and: The Me and the We are both necessary. The perfect blend is exploring how we nurture and create peace within ourselves, get the loving support we need, and then engage with the world from that place of peace and centeredness.
The last big chapter of my life began six years ago in a circle in the middle of the bush at my favorite place in the world, Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa. That chapter launched with me setting the intention to live the wild life with faith and passion. I’m keeping that, it still works.
It seems only fitting that this new chapter also began in a circle in the middle of the bush at Londolozi. This time, I sat with another extraordinary group of people who had come to love each other over an incredible five-day span together. We all sat around the fire during our last night, and as I witnessed all of us vulnerably sharing from the heart, I knew what my next chapter was supposed to be. I stood before the group and devoted this next chapter of my life to creating places for people to come together, nurture themselves and each other, and from that place, maybe, just maybe, change the world.
Me? I’m not remotely close to having any of this figured out. Sometimes I’m a totally self-absorbed hypocrite. Thank god it’s not about being perfect. It’s about letting go of our beliefs, of our culture, of what we thought we knew for sure — so that something new and wonderful can grow.
I invite you to join me.