‘Manifesting’ the language of self-help
This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode.
Subtitle is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.
Kavita Pillay: In the beginning, there was a word, and the word was: manifest.
Voiceover: Adjective: able to be seen; clearly shown or visible. Example: Their sadness was manifest in their faces.
Kavita Pillay: That’s from Merriam-Webster. Also:
Voiceover: “Noun: a list of passengers or an invoice of cargo for a vehicle, such as a ship or plane.”
Kavita Pillay: In the 19th century and with a capital “M,” “Manifest” takes a darker turn: Manifest Destiny.
Voiceover: “An ostensibly benevolent or necessary policy of imperialistic expansion.”
Kavita Pillay: That’s one way to say colonial Americans killing Indigenous people at the behest of God.
God — or rather, The Universe — has a hand in a more recent definition. It’s ‘manifest’ as a verb. And it dates back to 2006, to a video by an Australian woman named Rhonda Byrne. It’s called The Secret.
Video excerpt: “I’ve been given a glimpse of a great secret…I began tracing The secret back through history…All I wanted to do was share the secret with the world…You know, this secret gives you everything you want…happiness, health, and wealth.”
Kavita Pillay: Rhonda Byrne later turned this into a book also called The Secret. Here’s her claim: There’s this thing called The Law of Attraction, and through it, our thoughts help manifest whatever it is that we truly want. Money. Health. Love. Success. Happiness. Like attracts like.
Video excerpt: “Everything that’s coming into your life you are attracting into your life.”
Kavita Pillay: But if something bad happens? It’s also because your thoughts attracted it. Are you fat? You attracted your own fatness. If you die in an unthinkable way? You attracted your unthinkable death, whatever the circumstances.
Here’s a direct quote from Rhonda Byrne: “In a large-scale tragedy, like Sept. 11th, Hurricane Katrina, etc., we see that the law of attraction responds to people being at the wrong place at the wrong time because their dominant thoughts were on the same frequency of such events.”
This is the flipside of manifesting. Who would get behind this idea of cause and effect? Oprah. That’s who.
Oprah Winfrey: It is the secret to creating the life you truly want. Make more money! Lose weight! Fall in love! Land your dream job! Isn’t that amazing?
Kavita Pillay: In 2006, Oprah Winfrey used her singular name and the juggernaut of her daytime talk show to promote Rhonda Byrne and The Secret. It went on to sell tens of millions of copies and to make hundreds of millions of dollars. But the clearest legacy of The Secret is that it launched an enduring new definition of the word “manifest.” Oprah still seems to embrace it.
Oprah Winfrey: I am a powerful manifestor.
Kavita Pillay: And there’s now no shortage of people who use the word ‘manifest’ in this way. Who believe it, and who want you to do the same.
Fan of ‘The Secret’: This is the video talking about how I, me personally, script to manifest all of my dreams into a reality. You guys!
Kavita Pillay: Love it, or hate it, “manifest” and other terms from The Secret — like “The Law of Attraction,” “vision boards,” “gratitude journaling” — they’ve entered our vocabulary. And they’re not leaving anytime soon.
Kavita Pillay: From Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America, this is Subtitle: Stories about languages and the people who speak them. I’m Kavita Pillay. The language of self-help is familiar fruit from a very old tree. It’s got some invasive species too. And, it’s spreading like crazy.
If you’ve done a cleanse, set boundaries, practiced mindfulness, taken up a gratitude practice, ended a toxic relationship, decluttered in a quest to spark joy, or tried to win friends and influence people, then you’re already versed in the language of self-help. It’s a language that offers diagnoses and an occasional cure for the ultimate affliction: being a human. But what makes self-help as American as baseball and apple pie? And what does the language of self-help tell us about our era, and ourselves?
Kristen Meinzer: There’s the idea that we can uplift ourselves and that a lot of our mythology, at least in the US, is about being self-made and we can be anything we want to. We can be born a pauper and at the end of the day, be the president. There is so much self-determination in our national mythology. And that’s a lot of what self-help is.
Kavita Pillay: Self-help is not a new phenomenon. For most of history, it came through religion. Think: the ten commandments in Christianity, or the idea of karma in Hinduism and Buddhism. But self-help as we now know it has a very American bent, dating back to Ben Franklin, who authored Project of Moral Perfection. It included a list of virtues such as frugality and chastity. 200 years later, we’ve got decluttering and self-actualization.
When I set out to report on how we got from there to here, I really wanted to speak with Kristen Meinzer. I sent Kristen an email, and very quickly, she responded. You could say that I put it out into the universe and I manifested our interview!
Kristen Meinzer: Manifest — Manifest drives me nuts. I hate that. I hate that so much. I hate it so much.
Kavita Pillay: Okay, not a fan! And Kristen knows of what she speaks: she co-hosts a podcast dedicated to testing out self-help books. It’s called By the Book.
By the Book excerpt: “In each episode of By the Book, we choose a different self-help book to live by, follow it to the letter, and weigh in on whether it actually changed our lives.”
Kavita Pillay: To date, Kristen and her co-host, Jolenta Greenberg, have lived by over 60 self-help books, putting each book’s insights into practice for two weeks straight, and sharing the results with listeners. That adds up to years of living by self-help books. They’re really leaning in to this whole self-help thing. But Kristen’s a skeptic. So how does someone who is skeptical about self-help books get through so many of them?
Kristen Meinzer: I think some of the books do have bits and pieces that can be useful. I think some of them can be incredibly damaging. I like to shed a light on that. But more than anything, the reason I’m along for this ride is because I care about the values that are put forth in books and in media. I’m also a culture critic, and so it’s not really about the books, if that makes sense. You know, I could just as easily be talking about politics or about medicine or anything else. But what it comes down to is I’m trying to shine a light on what’s working and not working as far as our social and national narrative is concerned.
Kavita Pillay: Self-help books may be the best known and most obvious part of the self-help sphere. But as our media ecosystem expands, so too have the ways in which you can seek out self-help. You’ll find it on tv shows, streaming platforms, audiobooks, podcasts, and of course, social media. And even if you don’t follow the most popular self-help influencers on Instagram, chances are that you’ve heard the word, “influencer.” As I worked on this episode, I kept an unscientific list of the self-help terms that I heard over the course of a week. Through mass media, social media, friends, and colleagues, I heard:
Voiceover: “Hacks; work-life balance; boundaries, mindfulness; toxic; toxic positivity; productivity; lean in; burnout; growth; purpose; stoicism; cleanse; love languages; wellness; self-care.”
Kristen Meinzer: Well, can I just jump in there and say that some of those words drive me nuts, and self-care in particular is almost always taken out of context and not credited to Audre Lorde.
Kavita Pillay: Audre Lorde. Feminist. Civil Rights activist.
Kristen Meinzer: And her opinion that self-care is necessary so that she, as a woman of color, can go out there and continue the good fight.
Kavita Pillay: Lorde wrote that not overextending herself was, quote: “Crucial. Physically. Psychically. Caring for myself,” she wrote, “is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
That was Audre Lorde’s take on self-care.
Kristen Meinzer: This is a term that’s supposed to be related to activism, and now it’s turned into bubble baths and watching Real Housewives, and it’s fine to take bubble baths and watch Real Housewives, but that is also completely erasing the history of what that term is supposed to be or originally was about. Not that language can’t evolve — language absolutely can evolve — but it’s important that we don’t erase the origins of that term and keep in mind what it was supposed to be about and that we do continue the good fight.
Kavita Pillay: Cultural observers have noted that the 2016 US presidential election is when self-care entered the mainstream in a big way. In Slate, Aisha Harris wrote that, “It became the new chicken soup for the progressive soul.” And that the week after the election, Google searches for the term “self-care” skyrocketed. It gets at one of many catch-22s of self-help and helps explain why it has flourished for so long in America: If you’re anxious about the demise of democracy and voter suppression, maybe it’s because you’ve got a flawed system. And that same flawed system isn’t going to give you what you need to combat the Black-white wealth gap, decades of wage stagnation, or a growing political divide.
Kristen Meinzer: A lot of the self-help industry is providing a place for people to turn to to get that help that maybe they can’t get somewhere else because their medical systems aren’t giving them what they need, because maybe their health insurance for most of history has not covered mental health or job training or those other things that self-help books often do cover.
I think of self-help also as not just pull yourself up by your bootstraps, but maybe we don’t have a national safety net that is providing straps or boots for us.
Kavita Pillay: Remember my list of self-help terms? I kept a parallel list as well. If the first list were the leaves and branches of the self-help tree, this second list is about the unseen elements — the pith inside a tree. It includes references like the 19th century New Thought movement. In New Thought, American healers drew on ancient Asian and Western practices and claimed that all diseases were rooted in thought. Sounds a lot like what Rhonda Byrne claimed in The Secret. The list also includes Protestantism; scarcity; moral perfection; corporate capitalism; predatory optimism; feminism; patriarchy.
Kristen Meinzer: Other things I’d add to the list are structural inequality and privilege. So much of self-help is based on those things who can follow these rules and get to the top and who can follow these rules and be considered an angry black bitch. You know who can follow these rules and be seen as more respectable and more authoritative, and who can follow these rules and people will continue to not listen to them, you know? So I really don’t think that we can completely talk about what the ecosystem is of self-help books without acknowledging the privilege and the systemic inequality that we live with.
Kavita Pillay: After the break: Self-help and the pursuit of happiness, in the happiest country in the world!
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Kavita Pillay: In the past few years, Finland has earned a reputation for being the happiest country in the world. I recently moved to Finland, and I wondered: Is there much demand for self-help books in a country where things seem pretty good?
Laura Honkanen: My name is Laura and I work in Akateeminen Bookstore in Helsinki city center. We call it the book palace. Sometimes in Finland, self-help books, it’s still seen a little bit, like, lowbrow — like women’s fiction type of genre. Even though in our store, there’s quite a range on the self-help books.
Kavita Pillay: Well, let’s take a look at what’s here in the Finnish self-help section. Glennon Doyle, who is definitely up there.
Laura Honkanen: We have Eckhart Tolle and Rhonda Byrne, of course. So there’s always that, that we do get influence from, especially, US and UK cultures.
Kavita Pillay: Do you have any favorites that you would consider self-help?
Laura Honkanen: One that I really like, not highlighted but made a lot of notes and Post-its, was a Finnish book on burnout and being exhausted. I’m not the only one loving it because its sales have been through the roof, even though it’s hard, as saturated as the field of self-help is, to become a bestseller or even, let alone a steady seller.
Kavita Pillay: Wow. So in a country that is now the happiest in the world for four years running, a book on burnout is a big seller.
Laura Honkanen: For sure, yeah. As good as things are in Finland, we’re still not free of all those structural issues and how to handle them. I think there is a downside of self-help, if we think that it would be the solution to all structural issues, and then it would be individual responsibility to fix all of those by their own action, which obviously is not possible.
Kavita Pillay: This is one of the paradoxes of self-help that Kristen Meinzer was talking about: people turning to self-help for personal problems rooted in structural issues. There’s no shortage of conundrums and contradictions in the self-help sphere. Maybe it’s fitting — the term itself seems like a contradiction! The comedian George Carlin did a bit on this about 20 years ago, and I wondered what Kristen might make of it.
George Carlin: If you’re looking for self-help, why would you read a book by somebody else? That’s not self-help; that’s help! There’s no such thing as self help! If you did it yourself, you didn’t need help! You did it yourself! Try to pay attention to the language we’ve all agreed on!
Kristen Meinzer: I think, you know, a lot of times in our path to taking care of ourselves, we will turn to somebody else to first help us get onto the path so that we can finish walking the path. And we kind of have to do that with self-help books. They’re not going to hold our hand the entire way. They’re going to be with us for anywhere from 100 to 350 pages, right? And then the rest is on us to do it.
Kavita Pillay: The rest is on us. And I think that gets at a bigger underlying contradiction: growth and change, becoming a better version of yourself, aren’t those things we should all aspire to and celebrate? And if so, why is there so much disdain for people who use the ever more available tools of self-help to get there?
The disdain for self-help sometimes borders on hatred. In the same George Carlin bit that you just heard, he also talks about wanting to kill off people who read self-help books!
Kristen Meinzer: I will say that I’ve definitely come close to having thoughts like George Carlin before. There was almost a disdain I had in the past, of like, what is wrong with you feeble lost souls? You are the kinds of people who would join cults because you would believe anything somebody told you is wrong with you! And as I was saying earlier, we also live in a society where a lot of the moments where we feel like we’ve hit rock bottom are the times when we need that mental health support or that medical support. And we haven’t always had the systems in place. We still don’t. So I understand. I think the longer I’ve been making By the Book, the more empathy I have for the people who feel drawn to self-help, even though in the beginning I was very much more in George Carlin’s camp there.
Kavita Pillay: Because it covers everything from astrology to neuroscience, the self-help industrial complex is hard to quantify. Suffice to say, it’s large, and lucrative. Market size estimates range from $10 billion to several trillion. Trillion! And so it’s no surprise that there’s another category of self-help lingo, in the business world. Take a look at Harvard Business Review — the list of topics includes ones you’d expect — mergers and acquisitions, employee incentives. But it also includes things like mental health, mindfulness, personal purpose and values, authenticity, emotional intelligence, and sleep. There’s the business of self-help, but also, the self-helpification of the business sphere.
Kristen Meinzer: But I think they’ve always overlapped. But for the most part, male authors have tried to make sure they’re more — historically speaking — more on the business side of things, because that’s the more serious side of things. So much so that certain awards for books even just combine them, like the Audie Awards, which are for audiobooks. Their award is just one category: Self-help/Business. It’s one category because they acknowledge they’re all the same books. It’s just that some people don’t want to be in the self-help category.
Kavita Pillay: Kristen remains a self-help skeptic. But she’s also a self-help author. It’s sort of meta: she and her By the Book co-host, Jolenta Greenberg, have authored a book distilling the wisdom of the first 50 self-help books that they covered on the show, and their personal experiences with them. I was intrigued by a particular word in the book’s title, so I asked Kristen about it.
Kavita Pillay: The title is How to be Fine, and it has, you know, the all important ‘how to’ is in there. In this category, which really seems to be dominated by, like, superlatives and major promises, the word ‘fine’ is interesting because it’s kind of underwhelming. And I wonder, why did you go with How to be Fine?
Kristen Meinzer: Because we don’t want our book to be about being aspirational, we want people to accept themselves and their own expertise. And the point of the book is to hopefully help you trust your own instincts to see that just because something worked for Jolenta doesn’t mean it has to work for you. Just because it worked for me doesn’t mean it has to work for you. And so the book is broken down into three parts: What worked for us, or what didn’t, and what we wish more self-help books included. And at the end of the day, what we hope you see as we all have different experiences with books. And hopefully at the end of reading the book, we won’t change you, but maybe it’ll be a reminder that it’s OK not to believe everything you read, including us.
Kavita Pillay: Maybe being ‘fine’ isn’t enough to manifest your dreams. But maybe it’s The Secret to keep you from spending more money on self-help books. And I’m fine with that.
Kavita Pillay: Tina Tobey is our sound designer. Allison Shao manages our newsletter and social media. Thanks to Aki Järvinen and Laura Honkanen at the Akateeminen Kirjakauppa in Helsinki. Also thanks to Sitara Nieves, Betany Coffland, Sauli Pillay, Alyson Reed, and everyone at the Linguistic Society of America.
Subtitle is a member of the Hub & Spoke podcast collective. We’re a bunch of podcasters who are all dedicated to telling stories about stuff that you’re not going to come across most anywhere else. Here’s one of the other Hub and Spoke podcasts: Iconography. This is a podcast about icons — things with meaning in our lives. Meanings that we don’t fully understand. Like, The Full English Breakfast. Plymouth Rock. The Spice Girls. Iconography host Charles Gustine tells stories about these icons that help us understand them.
That’s it for this time. Thanks for listening. We’ll be back in a couple of weeks.
Subtitle is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.