self-help

Silly White Lady Nonsense: Critical Thoughts on Some Self-Help ‘Advice’

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A.P. Scheiderer

Senior Contributor, Associate Editor
Feminism and Snack Eating Enthusiast

I was given the book You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life by Jen Sincero as a gift and was stoked. The woman who gave it to me is a total badass, and I consider it a privilege to be able to listen and learn from her. She was really excited about having me read it, so I was excited to do so. It wasn’t until I got about a quarter of the way through before I realized there were a few too many themes resembling the always-loveable ‘bootstrap theory.’

Throughout the book she shares her personal journey in recognizing her badassery and how she got to a place of success and emotional/financial/and social stability. At face value, all of those things sound super great, right? Who doesn’t want happiness, money, and friends? No one I know, that’s for sure.

My feminist analysis ears perked when I came across this gem of guidance:

“Whenever I become impressed by a particularly creative array of new excuses I’ve come up with, or start to organize an elaborate pity party for myself, I turn to Ray Charles…he was a broke, blind, minority who was orphaned by the age of fifteen and raised in the “colored part of town” in a time when slavery wasn’t all that distant of a memory, and he went on to become one of the most influential and successful American musicians of all time. Basically, he wasted no time on excuses… All you have to do is make the choice to let go of everything you’re so attached to that’s not serving you and manifest the reality that you want. Life is an illusion created by your perception, and it can be changed the moment you choose to change it.” (p. 137-138)

She references Ray Charles like a musical version of a character in one of Horatio Alger’s novels (the man who, through his fiction novels, shaped the mid-1800s notion that “if he can do it, anyone can” in a “from rags to riches” tale – about men, of course. White men, at that).

“[Life] can be changed the moment you choose to change it.”

Weeeeeell… I meeeeeean… sometimes.

I could see how that this statement occasionally applies to having a badittude about things; whining when you actually do have resources, intentionally hurting loved ones for some inconceivable reason, or sitting on your ass being apathetic when you very well could be not doing that.

That being said, for the most part, I think,  people don’t want to live lives of emotional drudgery, financial instability, poor health, and no community. Don’t you think that if they could ‘change’ it, they would have already? Racism, poverty, sexism, classism, transphobia, ableism, environmental racism, homophobia, limits to education, poor health systems, and so many more factors all contribute to a very long list of reasons why people may or may not be able to ‘get their shit together.’

There seems to be a significant lack of recognition of experiences other than that of the ‘average’  ‘middle class’ (whatever that means) white lady.

Next, we find:

“Let’s say, for example, that your story is that you’re depressed. Chances are pretty good that even though it feels awful, when you feel awful you don’t have to work hard or do the laundry or go to the gym. It also feels very familiar and cozy and comfortable. It gets you attention. People come in and check on you and sometimes bring you food. It gives you something to talk about. It allows you to not try too hard or move forward and face possible failure. It lets you drink beer for breakfast.” (p. 141)

Depression is a real thing that is not a choice. Period. End of story. Are there such things as ‘depressive episodes’ that one might find themselves in, situationally? Yes. But claiming that people who have depression or other mental health issues are acting the way they do because it “gets you attention” and believe that it provides you with an “excuse” to not do anything is ill-informed and offensive, and just straight up rude. There are countless lists, images, and videos on the internet about what it is actually like to suffer from depression. Personal narratives from close friends have opened my eyes to what it means to move throughout a world where people with depression are constantly told to just “be happier, already.” This is not helpful advice. In fact, it is not advice at all.

“… Let’s say you grew up with a violent alcoholic father, and your way to protect yourself from being the target of his rage was to never speak up, to never let yourself or your wants and wishes be visible. Cut to you as an adult who never speaks your truth or who never stands up for yourself. You’re still reaping the false rewards, you’re playing it safe, not risking getting hurt or yelled at, but this behavior is backfiring on you because by hiding and not taking a stand for yourself, you’re living a life that totally makes you want to roll over and go back to sleep every morning instead of getting up and facing your day.” (p. 142)

Let’s see, where do I begin? First of all, what a classic example of victim/survivor blaming. I cringe at the phrase “reaping the false rewards.” I do not know, or have ever heard of, a single person who would consider themselves lucky to be “reaping rewards” by being a victim/survivor of sexual violence. By making this statement, Sincero gives power back to the abusers. It assumes that the victim/survivors have not been doing their fucking damnedest to work through… well… being a victim/survivor, and that by letting their past experiences define them they are to blame for their own misfortune. We see these messages spread over and over again in our culture. Adding this piece of garbage ‘help’ to the pile is not, in fact, helpful, not loving, and not supportive.

These snippets were written in the context of a section called “Part 4: How to Get Over Your B.S. Already” in the chapter titled “It’s So Easy Once You Figure Out It Isn’t Hard”.

Well, unfortunately, it is hard. Or it can be hard. Reading this book from the perspective of a young, white, educated, working class, cis woman, I can see how this type of ‘get off your ass and do something’ mantra would be really effective if you were feeling down in the dumps or frustrated with life or feeling uninspired. But for the most part, and for many, there are simply too many intersectional identity and societal factors that go into ‘facing the day,’ with very few of them being in our control. Ignoring these factors and making blanket statements intended to help others is counter productive, and quite isolating for readers who do not fit into the categories that would set them up for success using the suggested tools by Sincero.

When “self-help” books are written only from the perspectives of middle class white cis ladies (not just Sincero), the voices and experiences and Truths of entire marginalized demographic groups are left out (similar to mostly everything else). Not everyone can help themselves by simply changing their attitudes or outlook on life. The social, cultural, and economic restrictions that exist in the world prevent this from happening and ignoring that is very un-helpful.

What I can say – and what I do truly believe to be helpful universal advice that would make this world a better place – is what she ends each chapter with in big bold letters:

“Love Yourself” 

One comment

  1. this entire article is one big excuse to not work your ass off for what you want. everyone has odd working against then, but it’s every last person in the country. I have e depression too and no ‘be happy already’ is stupid. but you can just make yourself walk the walk while being depressed, it’s not a neurax worm. this article is going to hurt more people than help them. this is coming from a black gay man if you want to know since you’re blowing white privilege out of proportion as well.

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