The Power Dynamics of Self-Help Language

Tl;dr As I start on learning to be a life coach, I am contending with how self-help language shifts responsibility away from the people in power and onto the oppressed.

So, one of the adventures I’m currently going on is learning how to be a life coach. I’m not really there yet, my Official Training starts in October (and will probably give me loads to reflect on), but I’ve been doing my preparatory reading and some test work with some willing friends, and spending a lot of time just kind of absorbing what is going on in the life coaching world.

Just to back up a bit, I know that life coaching, for many people, appears to be bogus pseudo-therapy for unhappy rich white cis women.  Honestly? What I’m learning is that a lot of it is. There’s a lot of buzz words, appropriated language, and general bullshit. It feels like a “live, laugh, love” sign in someone’s kitchen surrounded by the worst of the motivational statements (“you can do anything you set your mind to!” “if you can dream it, you can do it” etcetc.)

The grump in me absolutely wants to just slap a “die, cry, hate” sign on top of all of this and call it a bust.

(It also feels like a huge flaw in our system that so many unhappy rich white cis women have to keep on paying other people to help them find some kind stability in themselves. We shouldn’t have this many unhappy women to begin with that the business of making them happy can be monetized.)

At the same time, I’ve actually been interested in life coaching for a long time. Honestly, there’s nothing cis or woman about me, but I am the classic example of an unhappy person turning towards self-help motivational lingo.

Quick summary: I deal with mental illness (we can talk about how disgustingly common that is another time), and, due to a lot of reasons, my ability to get Official Professional Help is particularly hindered by this mental illness. It’s a fun ironic twist of fate. I have been able to get some help (yay therapy!) but there were long periods of time when that wasn’t an option for me. I had to cobble together something to hold myself together and that turned out to be a mix of obnoxious motivational statements, the internet, and the mind-body work that is very popular in a lot of dance these days.

None of these things on their own work. I have scathing things to say about all of them. But, I can say, I am lucky that, despite everything I struggle with, I have a very strong sense of knowing when to say yes or no to something (my first word was “no”, I’m very proud of that fact). So, my cobbled together, completely faked self-help regiment saved me enough to get me to that next step of getting therapy. Since then, I’ve gotten to add a lot of more “creative business skills” such as theory of change and human-centered design to my toolkit. I still use that toolkit daily (therapy is only an hour once a week, mental illness is, unfortunately, always).

Here’s the thing that keeps bugging me: between what I’ve learned in the past and what I read now in preparation for my Official Training, one of the underlying themes is the idea that the individual alone is responsible for their own wellbeing and happiness.

That is a crock of bullshit.

The reality is that we live in a community and we live in a system. I remember the first time I got angry about this is when there was talk of adding meditation for students at my high school. This was one of those super high-powered, high-stress high schools and I remember not understanding why they would make us meditate when they could just give us less homework and maybe not publish every senior’s college destination in the school newspaper.

So, let’s talk about power systems and how self-help motivational language, with everything from mindfulness and meditation to life coaching to the motivational (and probably fatphobic) poster up at the gym, maintains them.

See, the oversimplified idea with an oppressive system is that there are the privileged and the oppressed. We know that the interaction of these systems make a much more complicated system, but, for the moment, let’s go with this and use my high school (in simplified form) as an example.

Personally, I would argue no one involved in public education in the US is privileged at the moment, but we do have decision makers with a lot more control and then we have students and then we have  a lot of teachers who don’t actually have a lot of say in the decisions, but still in the awkward position of having to enforce other people’s decisions on students. Let’s say, in this example, our privileged decision makers include administrators (yes, there’s the school board and policy makers etc. Trust me, this is simplified.)

Their privilege involves the ability to make decisions that will affect the entire microsociety of school, but also the prestige and recognition that comes from leading a school that has high test scores, lots of kids going to Ivy leagues, and the optics of winning academic teams. This is also be monetary – many superintendent salaries, at least in my area, are six figures and superintendents are often the highest paid town official. (side note: I’m not saying this to pass judgement on putting money into education. Personally, I would love it if teachers were paid a lot more than they are right now).

When people hold privilege, they want to keep it. We see this over and over again. Cis people cannot handle trans people taking up any amount of space. White women start crying as soon as a black person raises their voice. Society goes out of its way to claim neurodivergent people don’t have a right to autonomy and decision making.

In this case, privilege is mostly legitimized by position – you get to have all this power because you were elected or hired into a position. There are also some very very ingrained societal norms legitimizing it. However, with this legitimation comes threats. If the “high-achieving” status of the school tips a little off balance towards the “lack of student wellness” situation, the people in power have to contend with parents, teenagers, and their reputation from other school districts and schools. At the same time, part of their power comes from this “high-achieving” label – it both makes them look good outwardly, and keeps students, our oppressed in this case, too busy and stressed out to cause a riot.

It is within decision-makers’ best interest to maintain student wellness just enough so that they can keep making them look good and to ensure that they won’t take the blame or lose power if something goes wrong. They want to use their dominance to maintain the status quo.

So, they make wellness an individual problem – it is on student’s to meditate and do yoga, students are reminded to get enough sleep and eat healthy meals, students are given “self-care techniques” to practice and agendas full of motivational quotes to write their homework in…

If we looked at the system that has created student stress, it would show how decision-makers are benefiting off of it. Making students deal with the problem individually by teaching them techniques that will help them survive the system not only looks nice on paper, it removes responsibility from the decision makers and puts it squarely on the students. The individual oppressed person has to do the work, not the person in power. Systemic power is maintained.

And that’s exactly what so much of this life-coaching and self-help bullshit is. It’s about learning how to survive a system that we shouldn’t have to live in the first place simply because the people in charge like their power and want to maintain the status quo.

So, long ramble aside, this boils down to the kinds of questions I’m asking myself as I keep looking into this life coaching work. Instead of learning how to help ourselves more, how can we ask others to help us? Instead of “coaching for success”, how can we coach for supportive community? How can we survive this hellish system long enough to have that community? And, once we’re there, how can we unlearn the individualism we’ve had to use to survive along the way?

I have no interest in teaching more people to survive on their own. Been there, done that. It sucks. What I’m interested in is how we can survive together. I don’t think we know what that looks like yet, but I’m excited to find out.

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