The Self-Help Lie

Adam Hennessy
7 min readNov 30, 2021


Photo by Shiromani Kant on Unsplash

You do not need to be ‘well’ to help others

I want to delve into the idea of self-help.

A term, a belief, a system bordering on a religion, championed by Guru’s of many shapes and sizes.

I am not for a second saying that ‘self-help’ in its purest and most reductive form is not beneficial. We should, all, of course try to be better than we were the day before, try to work on the negative aspects of our psychosocial, physical, and mental facilities. However, this field of ‘pop-psychology’ has boomed into a multi-billion-dollar[1] industry and as a result I think made society as a collective worse off.

Photo by Jared Rice on Unsplash

Common sayings and now GIFs and memes are variations of, ‘self-care is not selfish’, ‘you can’t help others if you don’t/can’t/won’t/until you help yourself’ it is a hard point to argue against. The rationale being that someone broken has no capacity to help or fix others, or if one is not well how can they help others — the burden would become too much and the carer would break then not actively be able to assist but requiring assistance. On the surface it is logical, but what it leads to is heinous.

An analogy I hear often supporting this concept of self-care and care of others is the oxygen supply on a plane. When the masks fall assist yourself and then others. As hypoxia induced unconsciousness is a barrier (one which cannot be traversed) to assisting others.

This is undoubtedly true.

I will not rally against decades of air safety and medical research on aircraft depressurisation. I have neither the expertise nor the capacity, nor the scientific evidence to deny such a claim.

What I will say, quite incontestably, is that life is not an airplane!

I firmly believe it is an erroneous belief that this is analogous to life situations.

Moreover, I think it is dangerous to spout such self-centered ideology.

If you are rational and coherent enough to cognitively understand these rote principles. The belief that you have to ensure you are well before helping others. Then I would contend that you are sensible enough to understand that we have a social imperative to assist others up to and exceeding (not to irreversible detriment) our capacity. This capacity is not bound to a sense of personal perfection or a standard of immeasurable wellness that triggers kindness.

The self-help mantra of self-wellness before wellness of others or that the ability to assist others is underpinned by one’s own wellness is a subjective assessment of an internal measure. By whose test is one well-enough to assist another and on an greater meta level what is ‘well’.

Let’s look at Jordan Petersons rules for life. Rule number 2 in particular.

Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping

Photo by Avery Evans on Unsplash

On the surface good advice, torn from Christian ideology but nonetheless seemingly good advice. Taken further by the man himself in several interviews where he yells about ‘cleaning your room’ a reductionist concept about not effecting change unless one’s own room is in order. He told Joe Rogan:

“My sense is that if you want to change the world, you start from yourself and work outward because you build your competence that way. I don’t know how you can go out and protest the structure of the entire economic system if you can’t keep your room organised.”

I would contend that you can do so because the two are not intertwined. Now I do not want to reduce this concept of Peterson down to an interview with Joe Rogan. However, this is the core of his thesis. If you wade through the verbosity and ‘shock value’ statements he is saying, get yourself right before you help others. In the same Rogan interview, he clumsily refers to a biblical passage relating to a ‘spec’ in a neighbours eye and a log in your own intimating that this is analogous and that it means fix yourself before fixing another.

While I am no biblical scholar the passage is Matthew 7:3,

“And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?”[2]

This passage is about judgement, do not judge another on a situation when yours is worse. The whole concept of glass houses and stones is the basis of this passage. It has nothing to do with fixing yourself before others. Or of being little use to others if not ‘well’. It does go on to say remove the plank from your own eye before taking it out of you brothers, but the intention is about judgement. This is what we see time and time again in the self-help, ‘Guru’ community a co-opting of religious, new age, psychological, sociological, philosophical theories battered and forged to shape an argument or world view. Petersons Nietzsche/pseudo-Christian brand of self-centered psychology appeals to a specific audience, but I think he just propagates a dangerous selfishness that equates to internal misery and societal breakdown.

I read an article that did just this, citing Buddhism instilling a concept that Buddhism calls for self-care prior to care of others. On the contrary Buddhism, wisely (possibly a redundant word) calls for the concept of, ‘two benefits’. Meaning that helping yourself, loving and having kindness for yourself and for others are the two faces or the same coin. One feeds the other, being loving to oneself translates to being loving to others and being loving to others translates to loving oneself.

Photo by Shanthi Raja on Unsplash

This is the concept, not necessarily the Buddhist doctrine, but the concept that I want to instill. The concept that joy, wellness, peace comes from helping others. Now we still have to be mindful that we are not seeking to save everyone and that this help that we give is within our capacity.

Capacity not wellness.

We each will have a different capacity, a different threshold or breaking point. I contend the only way to be truly happy, whole, content and well is to give, care, love and help to that threshold before pulling back and bathing in the happiness created by your actions. It is a true perpetual motion psychological machine. We give and share until we are bordering on empty then that which we have undertaken fills us up again and away we go.

Study after study has demonstrated that it is not money, fame, success, cars, houses or ‘likes’ that produce happiness but giving and helping.

In a Gallup world poll collated and reported on in 2019 it was clearly indicated that volunteer work and/or donating money to charity predicted greater life satisfaction in most countries surveyed.[3]

An almost 80 year-long study the Harvard Study of Adult Development found that

‘Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives’[4]

Further to this and most compelling are the findings by Jenny Santi author of The Giving Way to Happiness: Stories & Science Behind the Life-Changing Power of Giving who has researched extensively into the field utilising fMRI technology, showed that giving/helping stimulates the same parts of the brain as food and sex do.[5] The same parts as food and sex — that is happiness!

I would contend that to gain true wellness, true happiness, true peace, and contentment we should at every possible juncture try to help others. Even if this is at the short-term detriment of yourself. I am not preaching damaging your own life for the betterment of others, know your boundaries, your capacity. I am contending we do not need to be ‘well’ or to have a ‘clean room’ to step up and give a damn about others. In fact, I believe we have a societal responsibility to do so.

I say to my kids ad nauseam and have done so for 25 years,

Leave every situation better that you found it.

This can be a smile, a few dollars, some time, a shoulder to cry on a compliment or anything that gives of oneself for the benefit of another.

Give it a go you might be happy you did!