Where Is the Self in Self-Help?

file0001654787742One of the best articles I’ve read this year is “We have no idea what a self is. So how can we fix it?” by Kathryn Schulz. She deftly captures three dilemmas at the heart of any effort to change behavior.

Who resists our efforts to change?

One is our tendency toward self-sabotage:

Say you want to be skinny. You’ve signed on with Weight Watchers, taken up Zumba, read everything from Michael Pollan to French Women Don’t Get Fat, and scrupulously recorded your every workout, footstep, and calorie on your iPhone. So whence the impulsive Oreo binge?… How can I want to achieve a goal so badly that I will expend considerable time, energy, and money trying to reach it while simultaneously needing to be coaxed, bribed, tricked, and punished into a compliance that is inconsistent at best?

St. Augustine made the same point in his Confessions: “The mind gives an order to the body and is at once obeyed, but when it gives an order to itself, it is resisted.”

In the 1,600 years since Augustine raised this issue, we still don’t have any great solution.

Who changes whom?

The second dilemma Schulz describes is the “theory of self” that underlies our attempts to change behavior.

Actually, we don’t have one.

The best we’ve come up with is a lame dualism. As Schulz puts it:

Somewhere below or above or beyond the part of you that is struggling with weight loss or procrastination or whatever your particular problem might be, there is another part of you that is immune to that problem and capable of solving it for the rest of you.

In short, we seem to have two selves—”one that needs a kick in the ass and one that is capable of kicking.”

But how is this possible? At best, we have a metaphor for the self—not a coherent theory.

Why do we still succeed at change?

Despite those dilemmas, many of us still manage to change our behavior. We stop smoking and drinking. We get off the couch and hit the yoga mat every day. We run. We walk. We lose weight.

Somehow, the self helps itself. Change happens, even though we can’t say precisely how.

Schulz discovered this first-hand:

I have no idea how I got over my depression. I spent a year doing the things one does: I read Feeling Good, went to therapy, got exercise, tried to eat well in the utter absence of appetite, and routinely forced myself into sympathetic company when every particle of my being—or, I suppose, every particle but one—wanted to curl up alone in the dark…. And then some moon in my inner universe set silently, and the awfulness went out like a tide.

In short, she tried a lot of strategies—meaning that she’ll never know which of them produced the benefits. Her rise from depression was an “uncontrolled experiment,” much like life itself.