It’s Time for Self-Help Gurus to Sit Down

Positivity at the expense of reality is destructive.

Shannon Leigh
Oct 22, 2020 · 9 min read
Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash

uffice it to say I’ve had quite an eventful couple of years. Since 2018, I suffered a series of losses, each challenging on their own, but all arduous as a whole. I’ve been dealing with trauma and the chronic physical pain that often accompanies it.

I’ve tried meditating, exercising, stretching, talking, crying, and yelling the pain out of me. I’ve seen a psychotherapist specializing in grief, a psychotherapist specializing in somatic therapy, my medical doctor on multiple occasions, a chiropractor, a physiotherapist specializing in vertigo, a physiotherapist trained in dry needling, and a massage therapist.

And while a lot of the aforementioned therapies and approaches have helped, none of them singlehandedly “cured” me of my pain. And they didn’t erase my grief, either. They simply provided me with better tools for coping with it.

Now that some time has passed, and after a lot of processing on my end, I’m a bit better equipped at navigating grief, as well as all the other unfortunate events that have ensued. But this experience has allowed me to see beyond the veil, to recognize a lot of my own privilege, and to contend with the fact that so many people are suffering every day for things they have no control over. I’d just never really noticed, that is – not until it had happened to me.

With this new knowledge brought the recognition of just how many people in the personal growth community are grossly ill-equipped at dealing with trauma and suffering. I’ve discovered that behind the idea of “manifesting” is an industry that profits off white privilege and the systemic inequalities that perpetuate it. I’ve witnessed self-proclaimed “gurus,” “lightworkers,” “spiritual coaches” and the likes, selling the notion of transcending one’s emotions and traumas, while directly perpetuating the use of spiritual bypassing. I’ve had my own emotions dismissed, downplayed, and disregarded by so-called “experts” who charge fees for their services and believe themselves more evolved than the rest of us.

And I’m here to tell you why this form of toxic spirituality is harmful, exploitative, and long past its expiration date.

Manifesting is a facet of privilege.

In order for you to believe you have complete control over your environment, to the extent that you can think something into existence by persistently wishing for it, you must live a life in which you haven’t yet been proven wrong. Which means you’re privileged.

As my university stats professor drilled into my head a decade ago, correlation does not equal causation. Just because things go right for you, doesn’t mean you caused them to. Being privileged doesn’t mean you’ve never had something unfavorable happen to you, it just means the things you long for were probably always at your fingertips, you just hadn’t realized it. More than likely, the odds were already skewed in your favor.

According to The Law of Attraction’s website, manifesting “is where your thoughts and your energy can create your reality,” and so if you think and act positively, then you’ll attract favorable circumstances. The flip side of this is that when things go wrong, it’s also because of you. Which is glorified victim-blaming, and discounts so many factors outside of our control that prohibit or hinder people’s successes.

There are significant boundaries to manifesting; for instance, racial inequality.

So manifesting implies that you can attract wealth, fame, and career success by changing your thoughts. But how does this notion translate to systemic racial inequalities? Let’s first look at a bit of history for why we have a racial wealth divide today.

According to a 2019 article in the Center for American Progress, the US federal government has directly contributed to racist housing policies. After The Great Depression, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) promoted residential segregation by keeping middle-class neighborhoods white and making it difficult for black people to qualify for mortgages.

This, in turn, led white people to earn more equity, allowed them access better to education (due to tax-funded schooling), and enabled them to afford certain opportunities for their children, such as extracurricular activities and college tuition, that were less accessible in more impoverished communities.

Of course, the opposite happens for black people. “African Americans face systematic challenges in narrowing the wealth gap with whites,” reports the Center for American Progress. “The wealth gap persists regardless of households’ education, marital status, age, or income.” With less access to wealth and equity comes a lack of opportunity for higher education, which inevitably impacts employment prospects.

Further to that, according to the Stanford Centre on Poverty & Inequality, a huge barrier preventing people from achieving financial and employment success can be reduced to the spelling of their name. People with “white-sounding” names are more likely to get callbacks for interviews, making them more likely to get the job, and leaving them under the false impression that it’s their skills that earned it.

Equally-qualified, educated, and skilled black people — those beating the odds of systemic inequality raised against them — can still be turned down from jobs they apply to, simply because of the fact that their names sound “black.”

And there are many other barriers to success outside of racism that manifesting doesn't account for. According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study revealed that childhood abuse or neglect increases a person’s risk of developing negative outcomes, such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, cancer, diabetes, and even suicide, as an adult.

Barriers like the gender pay gap, suffering from mental health conditions, growing up with neglect and abuse, being raised in poverty: these are all factors that are outside of a person’s control and can greatly impact their ability to “think their way” into success.

The personal growth community believes you are your only roadblock.

“The truth is that financial success starts in the mind and the number one thing holding many people back is their belief system concerning wealth and money,” says Jack Canfield, motivational speaker, and corporate trainer. On his website, Canfield boasts a subscriber’s list of 2.5 million people and has allegedly sold more than 500 million books worldwide, many of which earned him the title of New York Times’ Bestseller.

“I am successful because I have never once believed my dreams were someone else’s to manage,” writes motivational speaker and author Rachel Hollis in her book Girl Wash Your Face. Founder of The Hollis Company alongside her soon-to-be ex-husband Dave, Rachel’s company focuses on personal growth and motivational seminars. According to the company’s LinkedIn page, they are based on six core values, one of which is centered on the belief that “our only competition is who we were yesterday.”

And how can I even discuss toxic spirituality without discussing the eponymous face for the personal growth movement, motivational speaker, and author Tony Robbins? On his website, Robbins boasts the ability to help you master every area of your life, and he sells anything from training programs to supplements and retreats.

Despite the fact that he’s been accused of berating abuse victims, subjecting his followers to dangerous techniques, and sexual harassment, his personal and professional development program is said to be the #1 of all time, with more than four million people in attendance to date. “The only thing that’s keeping you from getting what you want is the story you keep telling yourself,” says Robbins.

Now I beg to differ.

What do these three personal growth “gurus” have in common? They’re all white, they’re all rich, and they’ve all ignored systemic inequalities as a possible barrier to achieving success. And if they were to admit that there are other reasons someone may not land their dream job or make six figures, it would dismantle their entire platform and raison d’etre.

Consequently, by ignoring these barriers, they’re also directly profiting off them.

Spiritual bypassing is a self-righteous form of avoidance coping.

“Once you attend the motivational workshop I went to last weekend, you won’t sink to the level of getting angry over this,” a friend of mine said to me recently, efficiently undermining my emotions, suggesting that anger wasn’t a healthy, nor appropriate, response.

I didn’t say anything more to her, mostly because the entire purpose of her spiritual bypassing was to circumvent my experience with self-righteous “holier than thou” spiritual rhetoric, and in doing so, creating a more comfortable reality for her. At that moment, though, I vowed to always be someone who was comfortable feeling anger.

Spiritual bypassing, by its very definition, is harmful.

Author and psychotherapist John Welwood, his 2000 book “Toward a Psychology of Awakening,” described spiritual bypassing as “the use of spirituality, spiritual beliefs, spiritual practices, and spiritual life to avoid experiencing the emotional pain of working through psychological issues.”

Spiritual bypassing is the act of avoiding feelings deemed to be “negative,” blaming unfortunate circumstances as “vibrating at a lower frequency,” and claiming that transcending one’s emotional reactions is a goal to strive for.

It is the belief that everything has a “higher purpose,” and that difficult circumstances are no more than lessons in disguise. And it’s an efficient form of avoidance coping, which a 2011 article in the Journal of Personality defines as “attempting to evade a problem and deal with it indirectly.”

Changing its name but not its practice is just as futile.

Autor Michael Beckwith decided that it might sound better to call it “spiritual shapeshifting” and talks about how he “shapeshifted” the energy from his healthy knee to the energy of his injured knee, holding a “higher, purer vibration” and somehow magically ridding himself of pain and inflammation.

Now I’m not exactly sure which frequency I’m vibrating at, but I can tell you that promoting the notion that your thoughts can cure your pain is a dangerous narrative to spin, particularly for those suffering from a debilitating disease or chronic pain.

Claiming that an injury, whether physical, emotional or otherwise, being reduced to no more than “low frequency” implies that it’s entirely under your control. Does this line of thinking translate to cancer sufferers? Can someone with multiple sclerosis think themselves out of symptoms? Is it our fault if we’re diagnosed with a life-threatening illness?

Can you see how this rhetoric is inherently damaging?

Anyone who’s ever experienced acute suffering and trauma can tell you that while positive thinking as a concept can be helpful at times, positivity at the expense of reality is utterly offensive and harmful. It may make other people feel good to respond to your pain with “love and light,” but it entirely disregards the very real suffering you’re going through. And it efficiently undermines your experience.

“Spiritual laws offer an elegant solution to the problem of unfairness,” writes author Kate Bowler. “They create a Newtonian universe in which the chaos of the world seems reducible to simple cause and effect. The stories of people’s lives can be plotted by whether or not they follow the rules. In this world there is no such thing as undeserved pain.”

But this is not the world most of us are living in. And if you still live in this world, count yourself lucky that you haven’t been kicked out yet.

Those who spiritually-bypass live in their own world, and are uncomfortable with yours.

When you suffer in a world not governed by spiritual laws, you are not required to find a silver lining. The notion that “everything happens for a reason” is not true, and it’s very harmful. The universe isn’t a sentient being out there to teach you a lesson by causing the death of a loved one or unleashing a pandemic. Your personal growth is not the focus of the entire universe.

It may help some people feel better about themselves to spiritually bypass your experience because it gives them a false sense of control, and prevents them from having to empathize with (and thus, acknowledge) your tangible fear. By avoiding the reality of your painful experience, spiritual bypassing enables people to separate themselves from believing it could also happen to them.

The truth is, every single day, horrible things happen to people who don’t deserve them, by absolutely no fault of their own. I’ve seen it, I’ve witnessed it, and I’ve lived it. Failing to acknowledge this fact is a gross disservice to ourselves and to others.

It’s not about transcending your emotions and always remaining positive, it’s about processing your life and adapting to its ups and downs. People who are suffering don’t need to be victim-shamed or feel at fault for their circumstances. Talk about adding insult to injury.

Those entitled enough to preach toxic spiritual rhetoric to vulnerable people need to take inventory of their own lives and process their unresolved traumas. Anyone feeling comfortable profiting off others with their MLM essential oils or motivational seminars should do us all a favor and sit down. And we should all take stock of our privilege; while it may be invisible to us, it’s certainly obvious to others.

Life is hard enough as it is. Let’s not make it any harder.

Image for post
Image for post

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +771K people. Follow to join our community.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store