by Daniel A. Kaufman
The Cult of the Self has shifted into high gear. It was rough going out of the gate, back in the 1970’s, what with hirsute gurus, earnest, aging hippies talking about their astral projections, and simultaneously terrifying and lampoonable movements like EST (Erhard Seminars Training), but it has since found its footing and now enjoys an unprecedented level of cultural approval. From Wellness to Yoga (hot and not-hot) to meditation and “mindfulness,” we are all our own favorite projects, today, and everyone thinks that’s just great.
Except for me. I can’t stand it.
The old criticism of EST and more broadly, of the “Human Potential Movement,” from which it and the entire Self-Improvement industry was spawned, was that it was self-absorbed, narcissistic, and perhaps even amoral. As Peter Marin described it, in his seminal essay, “The New Narcissism,” published in Harpers in 1975:
An endless litany of self-concern, self-satisfaction, self-improvement, self-assertion, self-gratification, self-actualization, and self-esteem… Everything one finds in est – the refusal to consider moral complexities, the denial of history and a larger community, the disappearance of the other, the exaggerations of the will, the reduction of experience to a set of platitudes – all of that is to be found in embryonic form in almost all modern therapy. (1)
Now, you might think that the charge of self-absorption or of amorality couldn’t possibly apply to today’s Self-Improvement programs, which are almost always characterized at least partly in ethical terms; oftentimes, as the best means by which to get us to treat one another better; sometimes, even, as the secret to world peace. But as well-meaning as many of the people who say these sorts of things are, I still call bullshit. The new Cult of the Self is the same as the old one, just with better PR, and at its heart are – and have always been — several core ideas.
Self Sufficiency – One’s happiness, psychological well-being, flourishing, etc., do not rely upon external goods or the behavior of others, but on how one chooses to react to things. This idea is ubiquitous in the Self-Improvement literature, not to mention popular (and even sometimes clinical) psychology. “Only you can make you unhappy!” “Bloom where you’re planted!” or in a more serious vein, “Your feelings result from the messages you give yourself. [Y]our thoughts have more to do with how you feel than what is actually happening in your life.” (2) That hell might be other people or the result of immiserating conditions simply never occurs to the folks who say these sorts of things, and why would they? This stuff isn’t meant for people in Haiti or Sierra Leone, but for New Yorkers, Los Angelites, and the like. (And not the poor ones.)
Self-Precedence – One’s own well-being takes priority over everything else. Self-Improvement is a full-time job and requires an enormous amount of attention and effort, devoted to oneself of course. Daily meditations. Retreats. Perpetual “mindfulness,” which means “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.” (3) Even wearing devices 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, that track the number of steps one has taken, heartbeats that have gone by, and times that one has woken up momentarily in the middle of the night. Now all of this might seem obviously, clearly, demonstrably self-absorbed, narcissistic, manic — not to mention weird – but contemporary Self-Improvement enthusiasts assure us that this is not the case; that all of this self-attention is, in fact, the best thing we can do not just for ourselves but for other people. Expressing what one might call “airplane oxygen-mask logic” – Make sure your own mask is firmly in place, before assisting others! (which, if you did it with a gasping four year old next to you, should earn you a good kicking) – we are told that by paying all of this attention to ourselves, we are actually much more likely to be kind and generous to others. Of course, this is backed up by “studies” and “research,” which are dutifully, if credulously cited, in the manner typical of advocacy (i.e. with no concerns about framing, samples, reporting bias, replication, etc.). (4) And it is worth remembering that the discredited Self-Improvement fads of the 1970’s also could claim grounding in “science,” insofar as they developed out of Humanistic Psychology and Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” at the top of which is – ten bucks, if you guessed it – “self-actualization.” (5)
Self-Creation – With regard to our psychic and spiritual characteristics and identities, we are entirely self-made, with the potential for endless remaking. Who I am, what I am, what my purpose and significance are – these are all determined exclusively by me, without regard to family, background, culture, history, environment, or even nature. (Apparently, the New York City Commission on Human Rights currently recognizes 31 genders. (6)) Ordinary, timeless human expressions like “I am my father’s son” or the common notion that much about our personalities and perceptions is a matter of national or other culturally-inflected characteristics are completely alien to those belonging to the Cult of the Self. To accept them would be to acquiesce to the notion that there are fixed points – givens – that constrain just how much and in what ways we can change, an admission that would undermine the very premise on which the ethos of Self-Improvement rests.
Self-as-Project – The notion that one’s life is a deliberate, planned endeavor, in which one is both the project and the project manager. Hence the obsession with Self-Improvement in the first place, as well as the love for “programs” (especially if they have “steps,” “stages,” or “levels”), regimens, and routines, not to mention goals, benchmarks, and other allegedly tangible indicators of “progress.”
The old Cult of the Self was born out of disillusionment with all manner of prevailing institutions – government, religion, the family, traditional medicine – and with a distinctively 1970’s sense of malaise, which is why it wore its self-obsession on its sleeve. In that sense, the old Cult of the Self actually may have been slightly less loathsome than its newer, smarmier versions, insofar as it was at least honest, albeit in a brutal, tone-deaf sort of way. It understood the implications of its own principles and was unafraid to voice them. After all, if one’s happiness or well-being or flourishing or whatever is entirely self-sufficient – a matter of one’s own agency – then why think anyone has any obligations to anyone else or even that it makes sense to speak of doing right by or wronging another? Contemporary Self-Improvement enthusiasts entirely ignore this obvious, well-rehearsed criticism, but their predecessors were much more willing to admit to the “every man for himself” logic underlying their respective movements. As Marin described Warner Erhard, the creator of EST:
Clearly Erhard has a genius – not only for the efficiency with which his program is organized and sold, but also for the accuracy with which he tells his audience what it wants to hear… [E]ach of us is all-powerful, shame and guilt are merely arbitrary notions, truth is identical to belief, suffering is merely the result of imperfect consciousness – how like manna all of this must seem to hungry souls. For if we are each totally responsible for our fate, then all the others in the world are responsible for their fates, and, if that is so, why should we worry about them? (8)
Today’s Cult of the Self is also motivated by disconnection, anxiety, and emptiness, grounded in a disillusionment with prevailing institutions and especially, organized religion, as evinced by the rapidly expanding number of “Nones” and those who are “Spiritual but not religious!” Unlike its predecessor, however, today’s Cult of the Self represents itself as being socially oriented, and with social media having trained us to accept the thinnest, most indirect, heavily mediated interactions as constituting real relationships, it’s easy to convince ourselves that seeing others entirely through the lens of our own well-being and virtue constitutes genuine connection and concern, rather than self-absorption masquerading as such. Gone is the idea that our deepest relationships with and obligations to others are properly self-effacing, and in its place is the notion that the main thing to think about, with respect to other people and what they deserve, is how the way I treat them reflects upon me. And while this is a problem that has always dogged virtue-ethics, it is one that the crude, popular versions one sees in today’s Self-Improvement programs have in spades.
Of course, self improvement, in the ordinary sense, is a part of the human condition, and an inability or unwillingness to change or evolve over the course of our lives is undoubtedly problematic. Marriage and parenthood and middle age have led to my changing and developing in myriad ways, as has my relocation from New York to the Lower Midwest. I’ve had to begin paying more attention to my physical condition; to moderate some of my more reactive tendencies; to let more things go, rather than fight them all out; and to give up who knows how many personal prerogatives that I would have insisted upon, when I was younger, single, and childless, roaming the hedonistic mecca that was 1980’s and 90’s Manhattan. There is nothing special about this – indeed, it is boringly common. It isn’t the result of a program or a project or a plan. It requires no explicit philosophy or discipline. There is no need to meditate or visualize or take special views or whatever the hell the current Self-Improvement crowd would like to suggest is necessary. The result is not “enlightenment,” but growing up and eventually, growing old. This means, alas, that there is nothing to tweet or blog about, no reason to set up a website or to write a book chronicling “the journey”… unless, that is, one wants to broadcast to the world the bloody obvious, and why on earth would anyone want to do that?
It’s depressing to realize that the American memory is so stunted, so addled, that these fads have to be unmasked every decade or so and the same criticisms made over and over again. EST came upon hard times and was repackaged, in subsequent decades, into the “Landmark Forum,” which was even more successful than the original. Guru after guru has been revealed to be a crook, a fraud, or a pervert, but the parade of such characters and their mobs of credulous, adoring fans continues on, unabated. That Americans continue to exhibit an unending thirst for this sort of thing suggests that for all that has changed, we still have not escaped the grip of the malaise that arose in the wake of the 1960’s, the collapse of the counterculture, and the disintegration of America’s families. The retreat into cyberspace is only the latest and most radical manifestation of this national emptiness and sadness, and we can expect that as it deepens, the Cult of the Self will only grow stronger, easily overwhelming the few voices that rise up in opposition to it, and with no obvious end in sight.
- Peter Marin, “The New Narcissism,” Harpers, October 1975, p. 35.
- David Burns, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, 2008, p. xviii.
- Marin, “The New Narcissism,” p. 32.
- Marin, “The New Narcissism,” p. 34
**My title is, of course, an homage to one of The Who’s greatest masterpieces, “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” from their 1971 album, Who’s Next. Unfortunately, it seems as if we will get fooled again … and again … and again.