Self Help & Actualization Movement (SHAM): Uneasy Speculations!

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The Trigger

A distant relative has recently decided to attend one of those “Self Help” seminars in New York, an event anchored and designed by a ‘self-help guru’ known as Tony Robbins, who is white, male, extremely rich, charismatic, successful, and appears to have many celebrities as parts of his clientele or so his website appears to claim. The brochure for the 3+ days long seminar, makes big promises – transformation, unleashing the power within, redemption from the past, grand success, how to make millions, finding love et al, and even refers to exotic rituals that enable this journey – such as a fire-walk.

When I first heard about her resolve – my instant fantasy was that such an event is being held in a huge stadium (this was later confirmed by the e-brochure) with hordes of intense, extroverted, men and women in their thirties, greedily lapping up every line and every trick in the book, chanting back and forth ‘mantras’ or rather one-liners that speak of success, of moving beyond limitations, of hope, and cathartically experiencing a collective orgasmic high (and sigh) at the culmination. A quick google based browsing led me to big fans who seem to have immortalized such one-liners in their blogs, and I include some, at my peril, as:

  • “The only limit to your impact is your imagination and commitment!”
  • “The secret of success is learning how to use pain and pleasure instead of having pain and pleasure use you; If you do that, you are in control of your life. If you don’t, life controls you!”
  • “Leaders spend 5% of their time on the problem & 95% of their time on the solution. Get over it & crush it!”
  • “Your past does not equal your future.”

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This relative of mine has been devouring many a book on self-help in the recent past, and appears to be fervently hoping for a breakthrough from a seemingly meaningless life tinged with a sense of failure, boredom, loneliness, and despair – she seems to be investing the very last of her resources into this experience, flying all the way from India, and perhaps setting herself up for being the recipient of the magical key that unlocks a beautiful world or the gates of that playboy mansion.

In this entire episode. I was also struck by my own cynicism and my deep disdain for such forms of ‘learning and development’. What worried me was that behind this disdain and cynicism may also lay other emotions, prejudices and biases that were disturbing. For example, I was not too sure whether I was deeply envious of this omnipotent guru who seemed to have thousands if not millions of awe-struck, dependent disciples across the globe.

I did some quick research and came across interesting data and opinions across websites and blogs that merits some reading before a deeper self-enquiry. The SHAM ecology data was quite intriguing – as per The U.S. Market For Self-improvement Products & Services” – Jan. 2015, by Market data Enterprises, Tampa, FL., the highlights included:


  • The SHAM ecology in USA is generates revenues of USD 12 Billion and more each year, and is growing at a 5.5% growth rate. Live training seminars that look to motivate, empower, and teach people to reach their potential are now a $500 million industry. Webinars offering individual and group connects are the next container for this ecology to grow even faster.


  • The Self-Help and personal growth books have been huge sellers for decades now, with an estimated $776 million in sales for 24 million Americans every year. There are almost 15 million books about dating and relationships sold every year! Books about some sort of self-betterment are so popular that they have even sprung a new classification of psychological counseling called “Bibliotherapy!


  • The typical self-improvement disciple who might buy books, attend seminars, and utilize coaching is a woman who is of middle-class origins and is well educated. Most consumers in this ecology are repeat customers who wish to improve ‘relationships’, and other than this aspect the common goals that people want to achieve through self-help books include increasing happiness, experiencing weight loss, wanting success, money, and spirituality.


  • The undisputed modern self-help guru is Tony Robbins, who brings in more than $80 million a year from his books, seminars, appearances, endorsements, videos, and coaching, making him the most profitable self-improvement brand of all time. It is said that Robbins is now worth an estimated $480 million.


  • I discovered opinions from similar skeptics ranging from – “the more simplistic and stupid the title of the offering, the more it sells”, to insightful ones – “Self Help does not consider the environmental factors”.


Biases & Prejudices

For those readers, who do not know me, I am an OD practitioner, process consultant, trainer, and a coach – much of what I do today would fall within the ecology of adult learning, maturation, leadership & self-authorizing, and mindfulness. Even my regular teaching at a well-known business school in western India would include the reading of a book that comes very close to the SHAM portfolio – though I would rationalize and say that The Elephant and The Executive is an excellent read for someone who wishes to understand the unconscious and establish a practice that encourages a mindful stance for managers and leaders. My partners at TAO are in the process of establishing a coaching academy that embellishes and leverages self-help & actualization – there is some emphasis on the guru-shishya (guru-disciple) practice as well.

Thus, between you and me, o reader of this blog, at the surface level I am very much a part of the SHAM ecology and sitting with clear biases and prejudices – these need some articulation lest I be accused of envy and rivalry.

When it comes to learning and growth is that adult learning is complex, dependent on working within groups, dependent on exploring and deep dialogue on the here and now processes, and that it is largely experiential. Exploring the environment or the context held in the mind that envelops and sometimes traps the adult learner is as critical as the internal work around identity, socialization of self, and defining self / the other. More often the learning experience in the form of new truths for self is tainted with sorrow and pathos.



Having stated all of that, let us look at the SHAM ecology again:

  • Hypothesis 1: The marketed and commoditized Self Help & Actualization seminars and forums contradict and negate the real experience of discovering one’s resources within self.

Data shows that many of the ‘consumers’ of SHAM are repeat consumers – they come back again and again for that elusive miracle of discovering actualization within. It is as if that this potent drug is available over the counter, and all it takes – is to become ‘dependent’ without examining the act of consumption. It is my belief that these forms of offerings on Self Help only distract the human being from exploring the resources within.

The notion of Self Help is laudable as it implicitly underlines the need to garner the resources within – but I suspect that such offerings create a dependency – an addiction of sorts to the experience of a new found high in discovering commitment to change, and very little else.

Now you may argue that even the Guru-Shishya / disciple relatedness requires a form of surrender and trust as an entry contract – except that this contract is perhaps dyadic and not enmeshed in money. Speaking of money, often I have heard that real success and money in the SHAM ecology come from writing a book or anchoring such events. There is also a ‘seva-bhava’ (loosely translated as serving dharma) that embellishes and dignifies the contract.

A lot of work around Self Help in India is done through not-for-profit institutions and trust. Whether these institutions be Sumedhas, ISABS or Group Relations India – many of their offerings do not see Self Help & Actualization as commodities to be peddled and scaled up.

  • Hypothesis 2: The Self Help & Actualization seminars and forums are designed around simplistic models that tug at one’s heartstrings perhaps at the risk of infantilizing, and without examining the context.

A lot of the messaging and content that I have been reading up on is downright simplistic and quite misleading – I suspect a lot of it is deliberate.

For example, one of the tugs at the heartstrings is all about convincing the Self Help consumer that he or she is omnipotent! And that when he or she feels this surge of omnipotence however ephemeral the experience is, he or she believes that anything is possible. This surge is reinforced through narratives and anecdotes that simplify other people’s contexts, and only endorse their omnipotence. Omnipotence is such a seductive drug for people in their 30s and 40s – it soothes the victim, the helpless, the depressed without really looking at the self and the context interplay. Finally experiencing an omnipotent guru in front of you completes this delusion.

Another tug at the heartstring is the emphasis that the past is of no significance especially if the past is replete with pathos or rage, and that one can make a fresh start! Or that a couple of days can make me feel like a virgin again – full of innocence and purity…

Both experiencing a power to change and moving away from one’s past has its merits in deep introspection, but when it becomes a do-it-yourself (DIY) packaged kit without linking it with one’s own life-journey, it becomes too simplistic.


  • Hypothesis 3: The Self Help & Actualization seminars and forums only reinforce the universe of purpose and achievement without co-holding this with other realities.

The EUM framework readers would know what I am referring to but for those who are not aware of Ashok Malhotra’s work on looking at multiplicity inside – I sense that the SHAM ecology over-emphasizes ‘purpose’ and ‘achievement’.

The cherished experience of actualization is limited to transcending alone (I will push myself to gain and reach greater goals and greater purpose by overcoming the present) and not with the world of immanence. The transcending verb in the world of purpose and achievement makes the whole actualization world quite masculine – and its link with omnipotence becomes very apparent.

Actualization seen from the Immanence perspective becomes perhaps a lot more feminine for it means accepting and working with innate realities within and outside. The closest that immanence comes to is the Klein’s perspective – actualization has to do with experiencing the depressive position and a prerequisite with any change.

So, if SHAM was to only look at greater purpose and greater achievement / success – it in several ways does not grace other significant realities of being human – that of experiencing deep empathy and intimacy with the world, or of working with double binds and dharamasankatas or even a wish for unconditional love and acceptance.

Perhaps, by making SHAM very goal directed, the consumers of SHAM set themselves up for self-sabotage as actualization is designed around one-path and not offered the requisite space for real growth.


  • Hypothesis 4: The Self Help & Actualization seminars and forums are biased towards behavior modification and goes against person centered psychotherapeutic approaches such as Rogerian Counselling


While I have not been a part of such seminars – my reading of other people’s narratives as well as messaging of the so-called gurus lead me to presume that there is a bias towards behavior modification. Many of the books that I have browsed through reinforce the following:

“… that there are easy techniques for increasing adaptive behavior (how to be a winner or be an excellent lover or a successful entrepreneur) through reinforcement and decreasing maladaptive behavior (such as dysfunctional behaviors – feeling let down or impotent or reactive) through extinction or punishment (with emphasis on the former)…”

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This goes against my grounding on approaches such as Rogerian counselling that has influenced my work with process groups. I think many would join me in challenging the notions of behavior modification as the sole lever to bring in actualization.


  • Hypothesis 5: The SHAM ecology through its approach, its philosophy, and its consequences both intended and unintended reinforces the myth of Agency and the egalitarianism of Market Capitalism

I suspect that my own political stances are clearly prejudiced against SHAM for I fear that it only tried to reinforce the myth of the human being as agentic and a co-creator of an egalitarian world of market capitalism.

These myths fuel consumption, greed, and clearly challenge the traditional systems that offer love, security, and faith such as family and friends. The SHAM ecology would want us to believe that we are alone, self-reliant, independent, purposive, and that we don’t have to deal or engage with our interfaces with communities that we are a part of. SHAM in many ways counters the notion of communion, the notion of reciprocity, and the idea of intimacy and altruism with the other (s).



The SHAM models are steadily making a presence felt in India. Many are picking up books around Self Help – in many ways the Indian society seems to be valuing this ecology very much. Data seems to suggest that there is a huge market already. Life coaching seems to be on the rise, and so are books on weight loss.

Perhaps one is also witnessing the death of traditional systems that offered avenues of maturation and actualization – these systems designed around exploring spirituality and well-being were once considered as a core competency of Indian society – available to all and sundry. Perhaps the new niche segment of SHAM signals to another me-too product that looks better than the original.

It may also be that the family as an emotional infrastructure – a traditional container, seems clueless to look at the younger people and their respective angst and woes today, and that real dialogue and reflection does not happen within the primary system.

I do look forward to your views on SHAM …

One thought on “Self Help & Actualization Movement (SHAM): Uneasy Speculations!

  1. I loved the acronym SHAM. Must also admire the dedication of your distant relative- imagine going all the way to US for a SHAM event. The pull of whatever she is seeking must be really strong. Also wonder what if her adventurous and unputdownable spirit was channelised more meaningfully. Your post has also triggered a thought- Does the grip of SHAM have something to do with our ambivalence towards MAGIC. On one hand, we regard ourselves as rational, sensible adults who can not believe in magic, yet there is a non-rational infantile part which keeps looking for magical solutions and endowments. SHAM resolves this conflict beautifully- it promises magic and retains the myth of self-help, hence agency and control. One can simultaneously feel like an omnipotent adult and a dependent infant. What a lovely way of having your cake and eating it too.

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