It’s time to stop looking for yourself
We’re taught to seek our individuality, but perhaps we should just try to fit in and resist the craze for self-improvement
A vast array of books and courses is offered on self-development and self-improvement. Our lives seem to be in a state of flux and change, but legions of coaches, therapists and lifestyle counsellors are on hand to steer us safely through these choppy waters by teaching us self-esteem and authenticity. The message often is: be yourself! Look within yourself for answers and then you can achieve what you want.
This message might once have been emancipatory. When the counter-cultures of the 1960s objected to oppressive structures by looking inwards and seeking self-realisation, there was no shortage of good reasons to throw off the shackles of a rigid society. However, as social theorist Axel Honneth argues, while this may once have constituted a legitimate form of resistance to “the system” (patriarchy, capitalism, etc), it has subsequently become the basis upon which that very same system now legitimises itself.
Developing yourself is no longer a radical idea, but the very foundation of our culture of consumption
Our current consumer society depends upon individuals who are flexible, and preoccupied with reinvention. To stand still in our society, which is based on growth and consumption, is akin to dissent. The self-realisation tsunami has aided and abetted the market’s demand for a servile and – we might say – stressed and rootless workforce. Over the last 50 years, supposedly progressive management and organisational theories have focused on “the whole person”, “human resources” and the idea of self-realisation through work. “Developing yourself as a person” is no longer a radical idea, but the very foundation of our culture of consumption.
Nowadays, real resistance to the system would consist not of turning inward in search of some authentic self, but in rejecting the whole concept and finding out how to live responsibly with yourself and others instead. The sentence “I don’t need to develop myself” is rarely uttered during performance and development reviews – indeed, given the prevailing orthodoxy, it would be tantamount to heresy.
Might what was previously deemed oppressive perhaps be liberating? Might habit and routine have greater human potential than endless invocations of innovation and change? Perhaps the person who dares be like everybody else is the true individualist. Like the famous scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, where the main character, who has been proclaimed the Messiah, lectures the masses on the need to be themselves and not follow him blindly: “Look. You’ve got it all wrong. You don’t need to follow me. You don’t need to follow anybody. You’ve got to think for yourselves. You’re all individuals!” To which the crowd responds as one voice: “Yes, we’re all individuals,” apart from Dennis, who says, “I’m not.”
Today, most of us are members of this crowd, conformingly affirming our uniqueness. Paradoxically, Dennis is alone in confirming his individuality by denying it. Maybe it’s the same with finding yourself: those who deny it makes sense to attempt to find yourself may just be the ones who are most themselves – or at least have some stable sense of self.
Those who reject the find-and-develop-yourself ideology have more chance of putting down roots and living a life of integrity – with joined-up and enduring identities – and sticking to what is important in their lives. We need to be more like Dennis. Let’s try to be decent human beings instead of chasing a narcissistic dream of uniqueness and individuality.
Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze by Svend Brinkmann, £12.99, is published by Polity Books and is available at bookshop.theguardian.com ■