I was recently recommended a book entitled Radical Self-Love by Gala Darling (watch her Ted Talk about it here). I haven’t finished it yet, but the title brought up an immediate question: “Why is Self-Love Radical?” Why isn’t it just automatic? More importantly, who are all these self-help blogs/books/podcasts, curated for?
I’ve been down the rabbit hole of self-help and self-love one too many times, and usually come away a bit disheartened after reading tips like: “Begin your day with love, meditate, journal, give yourself positive affirmations, be mindful of your emotions, try something new, enjoy life enhancing activities, be patient with yourself, listen to your intuition, live in appreciation, take a bubble bath, forgive yourself, focus on the positive, make (and keep) good friends, seek professional help, stay off social media, stop reading the tabloids, get a manicure," et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
None of these actions are, in and of themselves, harmful or useless, but they don't address the root of the issue. Perhaps you buy a self-help book, read it, and feel better for a few hours or days, but the deeper issue remains unaddressed. Perhaps that's exactly what you needed or all you were searching for. Maybe you buy a different self-help book that resonates more, utilize a few tips, and gradually see your life improve a bit. That's arguably good. But unless you understand and address the fears, attitudes, and habits that cause your unhappiness, even the best self-help book can't go deep enough because it wasn't written specifically for you, taking into consideration your unique experiences, traumas, triumphs, and worldviews.
I’m severely uninterested in dispensing recycled self-love advice. There are literally 926,000,000 google results for "self-help tips". The proverbial horse isn’t just dead, it’s a pile of beaten up carcass mush. I’m more interested in why there are 926,000,000 search results for “self-love tips,” and why the intended audience is overwhelmingly female.
Research confirms that women are more financially invested in self-help than men, and make up over 70% of the self-help market (books, podcasts, blogs, guides, videos, et cetera). Despite women’s investments, a study conducted by the University of Montreal found that self-help books aren’t all that helpful. Many women read them not for actual advice, but to feel hope. And in many cases, self-help books made women feel worse. The same study found that self-help readers are typically more sensitive to stress and more likely to experience depressive symptoms than non-self-help readers.
And, while self-help literature might be huge among women in the United States, it isn’t all that popular in happier countries. Finland is the happiest country in the world, according to the latest World Happiness Report. Norway, last year's winner, came in second place, followed by Denmark, Iceland, and Switzerland. This is telling for a few reasons:
The self-help market (worth over $9.9 Billion) makes way more money from unhappy people than from those who are happy.
The U.S. (18th in the latest World Happiness Report) values traits that don’t necessarily lead to happiness for most people: hard work (long, often under-compensated, working hours), self-sufficiency, and rugged individualism to name a few. Countries that value family, social connection, fair pay, and general well-being are generally happier.
Women in the U.S. are particularly burdened with the need to have it all and do it all while smiling in heels. The expectation that one should be happy often triggers unhappiness. And, when women notice a problem—in romantic relationships, friendships, family relations, or even at work, we take it upon ourselves to change. Men do this far less often, and therefore consume far less self-help literature.
Finally, the self-help industry (much like the diet industry) was built on the back of quick fixes and profit. Telling someone to “embrace gratitude,” or “draw a bubble bath” is nearly pointless. Selling books, herbs, oils, lotions, mediation classes, crystal lamps, et cetera, doesn’t lead to self-love or happiness either, but we think it might. And the might is enough for us to pony up ungodly amounts of money for useless tchotchkes and synchronized humming. Unhappy people buy things they don’t need to fulfill some need or desire they haven’t yet identified or addressed.
Matthew Jones—a clinical psychologist, licensed therapist, addiction specialist, and certified self-help coach, writes that “most Americans are unhappy…the most baffling thing about the self-help industry is that it delivers exactly what people want, and most people actually want unhappiness. They practice unhappiness. They create it themselves and then complain about it.”
Isn’t that profound? Despite our surface level attempts to find true self-love, we intentionally don’t, because we’re afraid. We’re afraid of being vulnerable, and we are highly resistant to change. Nothing outside of you can bring you the love you so desperately crave. Many well-meaning authors, bloggers, life coaches, or people on the internet (like me! only not) will try to feed you watered-down bullshity secrets to self-love—like buying their book, or taking their online course. If you’re really interested in self-love, don’t buy them. Don’t buy anything, except perhaps better insurance that includes weekly therapy sessions. The only item I would absolutely, undoubtedly recommend any unhappy person to invest in is professional help. Find a good therapist and do the deep work, or else nothing will really change.
So why is self-love radical? It's not. Self-love is only radical for those whose default setting is self-hate. I can't tell you exactly how to be happy, or exactly how to cultivate self-love, because I am not you. I can tell you that true happiness and honest self-love can't be found by looking outward.
P.S. If you want to find a therapist, contact your insurance company. The Talkspace app is a good option if you're always on the go, or use a search tool like this one to find a therapist covered by your insurance near you. If you don't have insurance and are strapped for cash, check out these tips for accessing quality care.