Self-help is one big con

Why the self-help industry is guaranteed to fail you


We are becoming increasingly obsessed with our minds. But before we get carried away with the Designer Brain Industry a word of warning…

The Diet Industry.

Nesster 3 way diet plan 1976

Some say it started in the 1800s, others claim our fixation on thin really kicked in after the war when rationing stopped and fashion returned but
the fact is that very recently in human history we started to think, en masse, that we could do something to perfect our bodies.

Wanting to look attractive is nothing new and that desire is unlikely to go away. What is new is a stubborn refusal to use reality as the basis for our decision making. Bombarded by anecdote, propaganda and wishful thinking, along with the means to stretch the distance between our actions and their consequences, we are obscuring the map that has any hope of leading us to some kind of gentle contentment. Instead we follow a cartoon arrow that constantly shifts, pointing us to blissful happiness. Now.

After all, the self-help industry tells us time and again, you’re worth it.

If dieting doesn’t work, get a trainer, try surgery or just think yourself thin. If you can’t figure this out there must be something wrong with you.  And not just you –

human beings are, on average, the fattest we’ve ever been.

Will 1961, Designer Janusz Stanny, Brain Puzzles




Segue to the burgeoning Designer Brain self-help industry. We are not looking as perfect as 40 years of collective struggle by a space-age society might have been expected to yield. And, more perplexingly, our actual appearance has very little bearing on our level of contentment.


Neither pretty nor happy.


So after all that self-help we’re neither thin nor satisfied. How can this be?

Take that cartoon gif with the arrow pointing at immediate bliss off the table and take a look at the topographic map to lasting contentment. You’ll find we have been working off three mistaken assumptions:

1. It’s all about you.

The myth goes like this: you eat too much and don’t exercise enough therefore you are fat. Or you think too much and don’t sleep enough therefore you are depressed. For a fascinating overview of what ELSE might be making us fat, this is an awesome article. It applies to every area of our lives.

Stop taking everything so personally. Even you are not really about you. You didn’t turn up on this planet out of thin air and then raise yourself in a vacuum, you are the incredible result of every single thing that ever happened leading up to this moment, including, but not limited to, how much you ate and exercised.

2. We can be satisfied.

Wrong. There is nothing in this universe that is completely and forever satisfying to we humans. Satisfactory is not in life’s job description.

3. There is a destination.

There is no end point, only evolution. We keep changing, every moment of our lives, and so does the whole world around us. When we get close to our goals we move the goal posts. When we get what we want we want more, or different. When we don’t get what we want we feel ripped off.


Unhappiness is the predictable result of living a fantasy.Happiness Arrow Stuart Miles


Believing those three myths makes it impossible to be happy.

And the same is true whether you are trying to shape your body or redesign your brain.

You can have an impact on your body shape and you can change the way your brain functions. Absolutely you can. But if you don’t commit yourself to living firmly rooted in reality it will be very hard work and you won’t feel any happier for it.

I have never engaged with the diet industry but I did train as a fitness instructor and I see very strong parallels with the Designer Brain industry. In both the diet and fitness industries there is useful information to be found. The nutshell wisdom is this – eat a nutritious, varied and unprocessed diet, remain active throughout your life each and every day and (here’s the kicker) surround yourself with a health-supportive environment.

You are much more likely to be healthy if you are surrounded by other healthy people, live a nice walk from work and don’t have a car, are never confronted by vending machines, pubs, people smoking or shops full of junk, your friends like to socialise over something active and you are not advertised to on every available medium. Good luck with that.

Changing our environment to one where a healthy lifestyle is inevitable is the real challenge.


I lived in a small village in Sri Lanka for 3 months and unintentionally lost 10 kilos. I ate vegan because that’s all the household had access to and walked my daughter to school and back every day over hills and rice paddies (carrying a baby on my back). Same thing when I lived in Indonesia and East Timor. And when I worked in a nursing home feeding old people so thin they looked like they would snap I thought ‘there is plenty of time to be thin.’ Losing weight has less to do with you and your will power and more to do with your environment than you might think. We tend to focus on cutting carbs because we think we can do that in isolation from the rest of our lives. But it is the rest of our lives that make us the way we are.

If you want to know how to eat well, exercise well and design a healthy environment find experts in those things, not self-help fads promising quick fixes or anything that smacks of those three myths: It’s all about you, you can be fully satisfied and focus on the destination.

Design your brain using the template of reality.

The same is true with your mind.

The nutshell version of designer brain wisdom is this:

1. Develop mindful awareness of reality as it is,

2. Release desire and judgement,

3. Practice maintaining a skillful focus on intention and action and

4. Design an environment that supports your healthy choices.

If you want to know exactly how to do those things find experts in those things, not fads promising quick fixes or anything that smacks of the three myths that it is all about you, you can be fully satisfied and you should focus on the destination.

There is a reason so many philosophies and religions encourage us to go on retreat, attend church and engage with those of the same faith. You’re more likely to stick at something and get better at it if everyone around you is doing the same thing. So by all means eat better, exercise more, meditate and practice managing your focus. AND remember that it is not all about you.

We have to be alright with the tension. There is always going to be the grating of different energies against each other, like tectonic plates forming new continents. The desire to be thin and the desire to go out to dinner with friends and not have to worry about calorie counting. The wish to meditate and the lack of time. The love for your children and the frustration when they seem to bicker and complain from morning to night.

This is life, things bumping up against and sliding along rough edges. The bumping and sliding is not good or bad, it is evolution – it is what gives birth to the new. Only the desire for smooth, tension-free living makes us unhappy.

Humans are all about hacking evolution – short circuiting the ponderously slow nature of natural change – for better or for worse. Make it better for you by taking a clear-eyed look at reality and turning the empty promises of sensational self-help into a slow, messy evolution of self-awareness.


Tanya Burke is the creator of the Wise Child Happy Child series of practical tools for teaching Emotional Intelligence and co-author of A Doctor’s Dream.


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