How the philosophies of self-improvement and self-love created a culture of self-blame

In the pursuit of success, the modern mind is having trouble navigating the two parallel mindsets and is creating a culture of self-blaming hypercriticals


We are in the midst of a generational dilemma in the modern pursuit of success and happiness. On one side, we have the self-improvement mob kicking the ball into our fragile egos whilst chanting we can do better. In opposition, we have a team of self-lovers heralding a philosophy that tells us to be present and happy in our own skin. This representation of battling teams ferociously kicking the ball back and forth, reflects a conflicted modern mindset straddled between two opposing philosophies and striking the balance right. Younger generations are taught to chuck the boomerang in the direction of self-improvement, only for it come back and tell you to be happy in your own skin. Throw the boomerang into the self-love net and it will find its way back to your ego demanding you to do better. Unsurprisingly, becoming unsatisfied and burning out has become an inevitable generational trajectory, diagnosed by the self-help gurus who prescribe a culture of hyper-productivity to medicate the very anxiety it itself creates. I am happy, but society tells me I can be happier. The grass is always going to be greener on the other side, so they say.


Thanks to the self-improvement masters, a step-by-step process to the greener side has been quantified into measurable strategies. There is a 1+1 formula to getting a better life that teaches you to be more efficient, focussed and productive. Tied with an alluring bow and wrapped in our own self-esteem, these strategies have been packaged and marketed to us. Before we know it, we’re displaying our own insecurities on our bookshelves. Currently worth $11.3 billion, the self-help market is forecast to grow by 6 per cent annually and estimated to reach $14.0 billion by 2025.


To translate your dreams into reality, Debra Eckerling’s ‘Goal Guide’ helps you develop practical roadmaps and methodologies. Meanwhile, Jane McGonigal’sSuperBetteruses video-game-inspired techniques to gamify your way into success, by finding “allies” and collecting motivational “power-ups”. If you’re ever feeling like you’re in a rut as your muscle your way to the other (greener) side, no worries, Sam Bracken’s ‘GUTS!’ teaches us how grit and grace and a large spoonful of self-belief is the best way to fight the odds stacked against you.


That philosophy of rapid self-improvement has infiltrated itself into corporate life. The global personal development market size is anticipated to reach $56.66 billion by 2027, according to a new report by Grand View Research, Inc. From personal coaching, workshops, personality tests, seminars and e-books, our sense of self is being torn by the seams and has hacked its way into our professional egos too. The modern pressures of always doing and achieving better is like a ticket to be processed at every junction of our lives – there’s nowhere to hide and the pressure’s officially on.


Rhonda Byrne’s bestselling book ‘The Secret’, the sacred guidebook and foundation for many younger generations, unlocked a global revelation that human beings have an untapped power to visualise their desires into existence. With that, law of attraction has become getting your dream life through self-improvement and a reinstalled mindset. Google searches for ‘manifesting’ increased by 400 per cent in the UK and US by August 2020, compared to pre-coronavirus. By October 2020, manifestation had become the latest social media trend and the #manifest hashtag on TikTok alone had over a billion views.


But although sounding rather ‘woo woo’, there is a reason it works and so many, including myself, practice it in their everyday lives. Dr Yuval Noah Harari in his bestselling book ‘Sapiens’, argues that the evolution of the hunter gatherers, with their prefrontal cortex and ability to imagine, is why Homo sapiens out lived the other five types of humans (Homo neandealensis, Homo soloensis, Homo erectus etc). Turning thoughts into reality is therefore not airy fairy, it is a fact of evolution. Changing and controlling the mind and visualising intently is the wiring of any successful musician, politician or CEO. It’s what sets the rhythm for progress within cultures, human beings and individuals. So yes, there is merit in its teachings and there’s no doubt it fuels true success and happiness.


But whilst much of it is about making one’s life better through visualisation and self-improvement, it can also trip many of us up and see us limping into failure. This is due to its corresponding emphasis of being happy right here, right now. The philosophy teaches that if you want a new car, visualise yourself driving it down the motorway. If having a loving husband and 2.5 children is your desire, visualise how it feels. But in the same breath, it teaches that if one isn’t grateful and present in the moment, then you can’t possibly attract the abundance you are asking for. This paved the way to books around mindfulness and such as Eckhart Tolle’s ‘The Power of Now’. If you want to lose 10 pounds, be grateful for the body you have – embrace it and the rest will manifest. To an extent, I believe this to be true.


At the same time, someone wanting to be 10 pounds lighter surely means they can’t be happy in the body they have, so how can they be grateful? At this point, the conflicting philosophies of self-love and self-improvement have us being stretched out in two opposing directions, and our minds are being tangled up in string of two philosophies. And there we are, left conflicted and lost as we try to whip up the formula of living our best life, only to be disappointed when the pay rise we spent our time manifesting, didn’t come by June.


There is no doubt that the self-love, manifestation and mindfulness camp serves a vital purpose. It rightly taught people to dream and ushered in a culture of optimism to permeate our generation – a generation of people who can almost wish things into existence (although, not quite as simply that). Its downfall, however, is that if things don’t pan out the way you visualised and planned during your night time ritual of visualisation, tough luck - you didn’t try hard enough.


In walks the culture of hyper-productivity, in which our economic and personal sense of self has dragged by the ear and capitalised on through a proliferation of toxic apps. The devil on the shoulder telling you you’ve eaten too many macros, you failed to tick off your unattainable list of ‘to-dos’, or that stretching your outgoings by an extra 32 pounds one week means that you’ll never get that one bed flat you’ve got your eyes on. And with that, we have burned ourselves into the ground by creating an overcompensated culture of workaholism. In Jill Lepore’s 2021 New Yorker article, she argues burnout has become a modern affliction and universality. She also cites that 4 out of 10 workers in the US alone report burnout. As Clementine Prendergast writes in British Vogue, “put avoiding toxic productivity on your to-do list” – the woman talks sense.


So it’s being trapped between two opposing philosophies of self-improvement and self-love that is impossible for modern generation’s to strike and even keel on, leaving them disappointed and impatient when their desires don’t magically turn up. An extra ounce of self-improvement means you’ve lost an ounce of self-love. An extra spoonful of stillness and self-love, you’ve fallen off the treadmill of rapid self-improvement. It reflects the mental battle of the modern generation – a generation of self-doubters unable to weigh up the ingredients and getting themselves into a mental flap. When people can’t buy the flat they want to, or get the job their dreams, is it because they didn’t wish hard enough? Is it because they didn’t tick enough ‘to-dos’? Or is it because they’re just not grateful for their current circumstances?


These sorts of questions reflect the self-talk of a generation trained to magic up their desires, kicking themselves repeatedly when it’s not exactly how they planned. The internal wiring of a generation where self-blaming hypercriticals have become the victims of an overemphasis of self-love and self-improvement that stand parallel to one another. They are certainly mindsets worth training us up for, but not to be prescribed at the rate they’re currently at (not to mention the cost).


The overemphasis means that when a financial crisis or pandemic hits and make desires almost entirely impossible for many to achieve, people lose sight of the external context of which they are subject (austerity, tax rises, lockdowns and the like). The grass isn’t so green on the other side after all. When we know the younger generations have been born into a world of immediate self-gratification, the last thing we should be telling them everything you want comes as you wish if you just try hard enough and if they don’t, that’s on you bud.