Can anti-self-im­prove­ment guides be of any help in cur­ing ob­ses­sive nar­cis­sism, won­ders Mandy Sayer

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

About 50 years ago, Western­ers de­cided they were not happy enough and be­gan seek­ing ful­fil­ment through self-help move­ments and spir­i­tu­al­ity. Gone were the bru­tal strug­gles of the De­pres­sion and World War II and the sub­ur­ban cer­tain­ties of the mid­cen­tury.

By the 1960s, es­pe­cially in the US, the glass was sud­denly half empty, even though most of the drinkers were not par­tic­u­larly thirsty. En­counter groups, hu­man­is­tic psy­chol­ogy and psy­cho­anal­y­sis daisy-chained across Cal­i­for­nia and be­yond, sug­gest­ing to the mostly mid­dle class that they could get more out of life if they just gazed with more fo­cus at their own, unique navels.

Of course, the study of the self and its po­ten­tial be­gan with the Greeks and each of the four books re­viewed here ref­er­ences Socrates and Plato. Selfie, by Bri­tish jour­nal­ist Will Storr, is a jaunty ad­ven­ture through the his­tory of self-im­prove­ment, from Con­fu­cius and Chris­tian­ity to Sil­i­con Val­ley. It’s also a cau­tion­ary tale about how the de­sire for self-per­fec­tion can be dis­as­trous when com­bined with so­cial me­dia.

Many self-help pro­grams are di­vided into seven steps and, in an ironic twist, Storr struc­tures his anti-self-help book into seven chap­ters, with de­tailed his­tor­i­cal re­search am­pli­fied by per­sonal anec­dotes.

The au­thor freely ad­mits he is so­cially with­drawn and a bit of an ar­se­hole. In short, he has some­thing at stake as he trawls through books, in­ter­views ex­perts and vol­un­teers for var­i­ous ex­pe­ri­ences that promise en­light­en­ment, in­clud­ing liv­ing in a monastery and at­tend­ing an al­ter­na­tive ther­apy work­shop.

While Aris­to­tle be­lieved that all things in na­ture moved to­wards achiev­ing per­fec­tion of their po­ten­tial, Storr be­lieves that, 2½ mil­len­nia later, the con­tem­po­rary world grants us far more op­por­tu­ni­ties to com­pare our­selves with oth­ers and to feel like fail­ures.

A par­tic­u­larly fas­ci­nat­ing sec­tion of the book is his foray into the self-es­teem move­ment of Cal­i­for­nia. In the early 1990s, the state gov­ern- ment funded a ‘‘self-es­teem task­force’’ to im­prove the gen­eral well­be­ing of its res­i­dents. One re­sult of the mis­sion was that ev­ery child at school who par­tic­i­pated in a sport­ing event won a rib­bon for merely turn­ing up, re­gard­less of where they­placed in a race.

The rea­son­ing was that chil­dren with high self-es­teem would dis­play more ini­tia­tive, which on one level was true, but the sci­ence also proved that chil­dren with boosted self-es­teem quickly grew into nar­cis­sists, with lit­tle or no em­pa­thy for oth­ers. Hitler had high self-es­teem. So does Don­ald Trump. Com­bine high self-es­teem with so­cial me­dia and it’s no won­der some see links with es­ca­lat­ing rates of de­pres­sion, anx­i­ety and sui­cide.

Even though the in­ter­net is es­sen­tially lead­er­less, our ob­ses­sions with sta­tus, pop­u­lar­ity, moral ou­trage and tribal pun­ish­ment can cre­ate per­ceived win­ners and losers out of any us, at any time, with the sim­ple click of a but­ton.

The em­pha­sis on ex­ter­nal rep­u­ta­tion rather than in­ner val­ues has been re­in­forced by plas­tic surgery, den­tal im­plants, phone fil­ters, re­al­ity TV stars and celebrity di­ets. But what’s wrong with spend­ing money on self-im­prove­ment if it boosts our con­fi­dence? Ac­cord­ing to Storr’s re­search, happy, pro­duc­tive peo­ple re­alise — even em­brace — their lim­i­ta­tions and are con­tent to live within them.

Dan­ish philoso­pher Svend Brinkmann echoes Storr’s find­ings in Stand Firm: Re­sist­ing the Self-Im­prove­ment Craze. He ar­gues that we are liv­ing in an ac­cel­er­at­ing world and have be­come ad­dicted to the speed cy­cle of “keep­ing up”.

Like Storr, Brinkman also de­lib­er­ately struc­tures his book into a seven-step “pro­gram” to dis­man­tle the mis­con­cep­tions about what makes us con­tent. One chap­ter, Sack Your Coach, dis­cusses how gu­rus, life men­tors and ther­a­pists help to cre­ate a re­li­gion of the self, in which the quest for per­sonal im­prove­ment Selfie: How We Be­came So Self-Ob­sessed and What It’s Do­ing To Us By Will Storr Pi­cador, 370pp, $32.99 Stand Firm: Re­sist­ing the Self-Im­prove­ment Craze By Svend Brinkmann Polity, 138pp, $28.95 Carpe Diem Re­gained: The Van­ish­ing Art of Seiz­ing the Day By Ro­man Krz­naric Un­bound, 286pp, $35 The Courage to be Dis­liked By Ichiro Kishimi and Fu­mi­take Koga Allen & Un­win, 273pp, $24.99 takes prece­dence wider world.

Amus­ingly, Brinkman re­verses many re­ceived opin­ions about hap­pi­ness, and some­times the text reads like a self-help book writ­ten by a tipsy Os­car Wilde. One chap­ter ad­vises us to “dwell on the past” (to be able to view our suf­fer­ing in a cultural/his­tor­i­cal con­text, rather than through an in­di­vid­ual one); an­other urges us to “fo­cus on the neg­a­tive in life” (it pre­pares us for fu­ture ad­ver­sity); an­other coun­sels us to “sup­press our feel­ings” (like Storr, Brinkman be­lieves high lev­els of self-es­teem can lead to nar­cis­sism, and even psy­chopa­thy).

Ba­si­cally, the au­thor has taken the philoso­phies of the 3rd cen­tury Sto­ics, such as Zeno of Ci­tium, and ap­plied them to the con­tem­po­rary, dig­i­tal world: hap­pi­ness is not achieved by find­ing the in­ner self, but by ac­cept­ing your­self as you are so you can co-ex­ist with oth­ers peace­fully. over the well­be­ing of the

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