Help Yourself

Indeed, self-help represents one of the largest growth areas in the publishing world. Dr. Phil McGraw, benefiting from Oprah Winfrey’s patronage, has sold 23 million books in 37 languages. The nearly 4,000 new titles released each year bring in $650 million in sales–only a drop in the bucket for a $6.5 billion self-help industry also comprising weekend power retreats by the likes of Tony Robbins; life coaches who will, for a fee, coach you to become a coach yourself; and such radio busybodies as Dr. Laura Schlessinger, the physiologist who instead practices psychotherapy.

In his new book, SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless, Steve Salerno identifies two particular strains of American psychological invalidism–empowerment and victimization–each with its own set of gurus and spokesmen. On the one hand, Americans enjoy deflecting responsibility for their own behavior onto such indefensible victims as society. But on the other hand, America’s can-do entrepreneurial spirit supposes that, if one wants something badly enough, prays hard enough on it, and puts in a little work, one can overcome any obstacle. “Get over it,” recommends empowerment enthusiast Dr. Phil, a line he allegedly first tried out years ago on his wife when confronted with suspicions of adultery.

If one positive thing can be said about the self-help industry, it is that empowerment–however vague the concept–has won out against victimization. In the 1980s, talk shows celebrated the abused and neglected; self-help books of the era referred to toxic people, toxic relationships, and toxic shame. “Victimization,” Salerno writes, “became socially permissible, if not almost fashionable in certain circles.” But somewhere between O.J. Simpson and Monica Lewinsky, Middle America began to sense that things had gone too far. Tender feelings, they said, led to slack criminal penalties and lower standards in schools. Oprah manned the point, first with her willingness to openly confront her weight issues and challenge women to take charge of their lives, and then by introducing the world to her bald-headed former jury consultant beau ideal.

But empowerment in theory is not the same as empowerment in practice, particularly when the therapy takes place on a sound stage before an audience of millions. As Salerno makes clear, it can be hard to distinguish television psychologists from the unscrupulous doctors who lend their white coats to the promotion of dubious natural healing products. As anyone who has been to therapy knows, psychology is more art than science. One gastroenterologist may be as effective as another, but even the most qualified and reliable therapist may not be helpful to many patients, and most practitioners operate outside any formal oversight. For those like Dr. Phil and Dr. Laura who keep their clients at a distance through books and other media, there is nothing other than their ratings to keep them honest. To ward off liability, Salerno reports, “guests are required to sign a waiver form in which they acknowledge that Dr. Phil’s advice is not to be construed as ‘therapy or substitute for therapy,'” although that, of course, is precisely what his show is marketed as providing.

In fact, these programs come as close to providing therapy as “The People’s Court” does to providing justice. But in the final analysis, not much permanent harm is done over the airwaves. Being called a “slut” by Dr. Laura may be unpleasant, but if one is “shacking up,” it’s the predictable response. Nobody appears on these shows as a substitute for needed therapy. Much more disturbing are America’s 25,000 “certified” life coaches who, working more intimately with their clients, are able to milk thousands upon thousands out of their needy clients.

The beauty of life coaching is that the potential market is mind-bogglingly huge–anyone with a life needs a life coach, goes the slogan. For a few hundred dollars an hour, your life coach will assist in making personal and career decisions, and setting priorities. “Many life coaches begin with diagnostics intended to yield a reasonably valid personality profile of the customer,” explains Salerno. “Having established a baseline…a coach works with him or her on a ‘life blueprint’ and eventually formulates a series of ‘action plans.'” In short, these “New Age therapist[s] sans portfolio” earn their money by simply passing along common sense. How can this work, you ask? Life coaching is, according to Salerno, therapy with a different gender marketing plan. The word “coach,” he writes, is used to draw in a male clientele: “Men make up a full sixty percent of the caseload of coaching while women represent seventy percent of the caseload in therapy.”

Life coaching, Salerno explains, began in the 1980s with a financial planner named Thomas Leonard. Riding high in mergers and acquisitions, Leonard noticed his clients “seemed to need more from him than just the usual tips on how to invest.” His masterstroke, however, was to position himself not as a coach to the regular man, but as the coach of other coaches. Franchising of this sort is typical of many scams, including late-night real estate courses and multi-level marketing, and it makes good financial sense: Tuition at the premier Coach University is $6,000 for full accreditation.

Salerno is at his best when detailing the lives and crimes of America’s self-help celebrities. Did you know, for instance, that Dr. Laura’s ex-husband refers to her as Ku Klux–she was “a wizard under the sheets”? But the book breaks down at the end as Salerno tries to live up to his subtitle’s grandiose promises. The self-help movement, he argues, is responsible for more than liberating people of their wallets and self-respect. It also inculcates resistance to standardized testing in schools, encourages trial attorneys, and is responsible for abuses of the Americans with Disabilities Act. And although most of his other targets–especially the alternative medicine industry–deserve rougher treatment than Salerno is even willing to mete out, none has anything to do with the self-help industry except that they rely on typical American credulity.

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