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  • Sarah Ratermann Beahan

The Self-Help Myth

When I was younger, I was besieged with dissatisfaction. Everything in my life felt just good enough--my work, my relationship, even the city I lived in. It was fine, everything is fine, I'd say to myself, with a heavy sigh. Everything was fine. But nothing lit me up, nothing made my eyes sparkle and my stomach flip. I wondered if I lived in a bustling, artsy coastal city, maybe I'd feel more inspired. Maybe if I had more responsibility or made more money, my job would feel less tedious.


Photo by Pedro Kümmel on Unsplash

Even as I thought these things, I could hear a voice in the back of my mind snarking "the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence." Which, of course, was a sarcastic way of saying that perhaps this dissatisfaction was caused by my own maladjustment, not by the actual grass--my life.


And so, I shamefacedly stuck with the relationship that didn't light me up and bought a house in the city that I tolerated, kept going to work and twirling my thumbs because clearly the problem was me. My consistent lack of fulfillment was clearly because I was impossible to satisfy. I had unreasonable expectations. There was something amiss inside me that was causing me to feel this way.


I worked for years in institutions that supported this idea as well. Over and over these nonprofits, counseling services, community agencies and educational institutions reminded the world that the problems clients face--depression, anxiety, financial ___, inability to lose weight, lack of academic performance to name a few--were a result of a personal lack or deficiency. Our clients lack resiliency, serotonin, self discipline, willpower.


Meanwhile, I left the unfulfilling relationship. I moved to the beautiful artsy city of my dreams. I began to look for jobs that used my strengths, and then I started tapping into what interested me. And something was happening: I was getting happier. Don't get me wrong, there were lots of lonely days. Living in that beautiful city had it's own pitfalls, namely it was expensive as hell. But I began to see that there was more to my dissatisfaction than simply an interior lack of adjustment.


So, perhaps some of the solutions to our problems lie outside of us, not just inside.


When I think about the systems we live within, this only makes sense. The majority of the population is governed by systems created by a very small minority. Read: people of color, women, LGBTQ live within systems and structures created by white, male, cis individuals. This is accepted as fact, yes? And so it seems completely normal to me that most of us might be plagued by an underlying sense of dis-ease. Of course we feel like square pegs in round holes.


I am rankled by the fact that the mental health, self-help, personal growth industry spends so much time looking through a microscope when we should ALSO be looking through a telescope. I push back against this "self-care" myth which puts all the onus of our contentment, security and ease on us, when there are so many obstacles in the way.


I don't mean to suggest that we all "play the victim" (good lord I hate that phrase). I only mean to open up this conversation to the fact that very often the roots of our malaise are in equal parts interior AND exterior. It is worth considering the impacts of our environment on each of us. To consistently be trying to look within, to be always trying to "fix" ourselves can only be described as disempowering when the malaise never ceases.

There is something empowering about pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps and independently architecting our world. But when that is impossible, it's unreasonably disheartening and disempowering. This takes a great deal of self-reflection and critical thinking to discern what is us and what is not, and then course-correct accordingly.


Perhaps a different approach to self-care is to evaluate our lives at a micro and macro level. Maybe we could all think about ways to improve ourselves AND address structures and systems that make life difficult.


I'd like to suggest that the whole system is a bit more symbiotic. More like a mobius strip than a continuum. I believe that when we care for ourselves, it ripples into the world. When we nourish ourselves, we are able to produce more nourishment for others. AND when we recognize systems that do more harm than good, that deplete us rather than fulfill us, that takes care of us and begins a more global shift as well.