At the beginning of the pandemic, Stacy Li, a 24-year-old from Los Angeles, had just moved home to live with her parents and was struggling with her mental health. To cope, she started bingeing self-help content and making videos on TikTok documenting her “#personalgrowth” journey, from the self-help books she was reading to waking up early to journal and doing daily ‘mirror affirmations’.
Self-help is a booming, multi-billion dollar industry. And, like Stacy, many people turned to it during the pandemic, looking for a way to take control of their lives in a world that seemed to be spiralling out of control.
Then, in early 2021, with the pandemic still in full swing Stacy reached a tipping point. She suddenly felt totally “saturated” by self-help media and realised that it was making her increasingly anxious – these were feelings she shared in a viral video, where she talks about how the relentless pursuit of self-improvement “can often make us feel like we’re not enough”.
“It had gotten to the point where I had been pathologising all my behaviours and actions,” Stacy tells me. “Having all these things I could be doing to ‘optimise’ myself constantly made me feel like there was something wrong with me.”
The ‘tricks’ or ‘life hacks’ contained within self-help may differ – whether it’s manifesting or journaling – but all contain the same core belief: that individual effort will always be rewarded. As Jen Shapiro, author of You Are A Badass puts it: “If you want something badly enough, and decide that you will get it, you will”.
While this might be true for some, for the vast majority of people, hard work does not guarantee success. This is a truth obscured by self-help media, which holds that it is not social injustice - experiencing prejudice because of gender, class or race - that holds people back from success, happiness or wealth, rather, it’s a lack of positive thinking, resilience and confidence. As Stacy’s experiences show, it’s a fantasy that often does more harm than good.
Though self-help books have, traditionally, been portrayed as the preserve of middle-aged people on the cusp of a relationship breakdown and personal breakthrough (see the scene in Eat Pray Love where Julia Roberts as Liz Gilbert hands over her credit card as she buys an entire shelf of them), they are finding a new readership among younger audiences.
On TikTok, the ideas these books contain are enormously popular: the ‘self-improvement’ hashtag boasts a staggering 8.3bn views, while ‘selfhelp’ has 833.8m views. Self-help ‘bibles’ such as Shapiro’s book (first published in 2017), James Clear’s Atomic Habits (2018), Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret (2006) and Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck (2016) are eulogised on the platform for their life-changing power, often forming part of #BookTok reviews or ‘that girl’ morning routines.
A more recent self-help trend on the platform has come in the form of manifesting (a strategy to bring about a personal goal, primarily by focusing one's thoughts upon the desired outcome) with books such as The Secret and newer titles, among them Vex King’s Good Vibes and Good Life (2018) and Idil Ahmed’s Manifest Now (2018), often touted as the ultimate guides to it. This new-age spiritualism is often neoliberal - which advocates for a largely unregulated capitalist system - in its outlook.
As TikTok user, @abbiemilytaylor111, says in her round-up of the best books for manifesting: “It’ll motivate you to get off your bum and do something with your life”. As self-help gurus are often quick to remind us, wishing and wanting our lives to be better is not enough, ‘hard work’ is also required.
Such sentiments have sparked a fierce backlash against public figures such as billionaire Kim Kardashian (who said in her recent Variety interview that women who want to succeed have “got to work”) and Molly Mae (who recently stated that “we all have the same 24-hours in a day”) for their failure to acknowledge the role their privilege has played in their success.
And so, the popularity of self-help TikTok points to the enduring appeal of the myth of meritocracy among younger generations. This should come as little surprise, given that it is young people who are the hardest hit by unemployment and spending cuts. Faced with this financial precarity, Thatcherite beliefs - which advocates for a competitive individualism - have taken on an even greater appeal in promising success to anyone willing to hustle hard enough.
Self-help has become a glimmer of hope against the backdrop of a bleak socio-economic landscape where opportunities are scarce. And, on TikTok, life coaches who espouse its doctrine, promising to teach people the skills to ‘level up’ are cashing in on the insatiable demand for self-optimisation.
Among them is Izzie Miller, a 23-year-old, self-described “mind-set strategist” from Milton Keynes, who began making self-improvement videos last year. She soon realised she could monetise this hobby, and began offering one-to-one coaching sessions. A consultation session with Izzie is free and prices for coaching after that are not listed on her website.
The ease with which Izzie established her business shows, life coaching is an entirely unregulated industry: there are no oversight boards, no standard curricula, and no codes of ethics. On TikTok, it’s created a whole cottage industry of influencers operating in the murky world of ‘self-empowerment’.
Izzie’s teachings are based on self-help bestsellers (she usually recommends that her clients read Good Vibes Good Life and Steven Bartlett’s Happy Sexy Millionaire). “If you let life trip you up and pull you down, you’re not going to be fulfilled,” she says, a mantra which embodies most self-help content.
Izzie adds that she helps her clients to “feel more confident” by advising that they wake up 20 minutes earlier than they normally would, and “check-in with themselves” through practices such as journaling, affirmations and goal-setting.
Izzie’s videos are usually met with comments praising her approach: “I needed this more than you know,” writes one user, “so amazing,” gushes another. But this imperative to confidence is worth scrutinising in and of itself. Indeed, Izzie is certainly not the only young woman offering confidence coaching and life advice online.
“It is notable that self-help is disproportionately addressed to women,” say Rosalind Gill and Shani Orgad, sociologists and the authors of Confidence Culture - a book which interrogates the prominence of confidence in contemporary discourse about body image, workplace, relationships and motherhood. “What is common to many self-help titles is the way they frame problems and challenges that women face in an unjust society as private, personal and often psychological problems, which women therefore need to work on individually.”
In framing confidence as something gained through intensive work on the self, as Izzie advises, self-help can make us turn inwards. It ignores the fact that it is primarily patriarchy, capitalism and institutional sexism that hold women back. In doing so, it distracts from the kind of coalition-building that could bring about systemic change.
As Shani and Rosalind put it: “Self-help famously begins at home but where it is problematic is when it also ends at home.” The authors stress that this isn’t about seeing confidence itself as a bad thing. Rather, it’s about how the focus on confidence “displaces other questions and critical engagements – especially in relation to changing the structures that make women less confident in the first place”.
What’s concerning is how this focus on mindset can prevent people from fighting for change. In one video, Izzie says that we shouldn’t complain about problems we might be having at work or school. “The way to get through it is to put your head down and work,” she says. “Make the pain worth it”.
This suppression of negative feelings, or the reframing of negative experiences as positives ones – sometimes referred to as ‘toxic positivity’ – is a ubiquitous feature of self-help. It’s an approach Shani and Rosalind consider to be “deeply problematic” for “encouraging women to police how they think, feel and behave”. They add: “Many of those so-called ‘negative’ feelings – such as anger, disappointment, hurt, sadness, despair – that women are continuously exhorted to censor and replace with positive ones, are those very sentiments that have animated the feminist movement and other political movements for justice. So asking women to disavow these political feelings and replace them with positive feelings and dispositions like confidence, resilience, happiness and optimism is a depoliticising move.”
Within our culture of hyperindividualism, seeing beyond the self can be liberating.
For Stacy, escaping the “self-help rabbit hole” has encouraged her to use her TikTok to offer alternative messages, such as “your work is not your work” and “life isn’t a constant self-improvement project!!!”. It’s a reminder that while self-help might soothe us in the short term, to bring about transformative change, individualistic solutions are not the answer.