Is Self-Help All Total Bullshit, or Just 90%
By Ben Bartee - January 08, 2024

Originally published via Armageddon Prose:

2024 is going to be a year of transformation.

Into what remains up in the air. But, if I have any say, it will be for the better, which I have taken concrete steps to make happen.

One of my resolutions in the pursuit of betterment is to hate self-help literature less — one of my oldest and most deeply ingrained hatreds, and not undeservedly so.

I still acknowledge there are a lot of grifters out there selling snake oil. The self-help genre has always been and will probably always be littered with pseudoscientific sophistry dressed up in flowery New-Age language, borrowed without context from Eastern mysticism that appeals to flower children. That’s the nature of the beast, it seems.

Like “prosperity gospel” evangelical preachers, once the façade of the sage guru seated in the lotus position with all of the answers is lifted — like when you find out Jordan Peterson had his life upended by a benzodiazepine addiction (the highly addictive class of drugs that includes Xanax, Valium, Ativan, etc., prescribed to tens of millions of Americans every year), even though as a clinical psychologist he should rightly have known their dangers, even while he preached the virtues of self-discipline and “cleaning your room” — these people lose their luster as demigods.

We’re all mortal, fallen beings.


(Jordan Peterson, to his credit, has since admitted his former blind spot on benzodiazepines. But his former ignorance is emblematic of the kind of head doctor whom I used to seek out in desperation for help, before I knew better, who unflinchingly, within less than an hour of knowing me, was ready to scribble out a script for Xanax, SSRIs, and any number of psychotropic drugs as if they are panaceas, with no warning whatsoever of their adverse effects or addictive natures. To glimpse vicariously the total horrorshow that is getting a legitimate Xanax prescription, taking them as prescribed, and ending up in a torturous cycle of waning efficacy, addiction, and withdrawal, check out stories like this of medical malpractice and needless suffering widely available on the web.)

I am in no position — obviously, if you’ve read my memoir — to fault anyone for substance abuse, especially not benzodiazepines that get ahold of you insidiously, but I’d rather not receive lectures about “cleaning my room” with the doctor with his “Rules For Life” book deal hustle until he’s got his own house in order.

The hubris of the self-help guru astounds.

All that said, self-improvement is a worthy aim. Maybe it’s the ultimate aim.

Alas, if self-help is to be scorned, what are the alternatives? Stagnation; leaving things up to the whims of entropy; self-debasement? I’ve tried all that to no avail.

In that vein, I have come recently to realize that the music I listened to for years, at some point, became a large part of my self-defeating identity. The main recurring lyrical themes of one of the staples of my youth, Alkaline Trio, for example, are: alcoholism, boredom, apathy, Satan, and suicide, roughly in that order.

“You say I’m fixable
A classic case, lack of will
I say I don’t wanna try
I’d rather sit here all night

I’ve got a motivation problem
So my standard break from life is getting longer
Spent over 30 hours in this bed
In two days, I guess I could’ve phoned her
But now that I’m awake
I’d rather take a drink
And walk down to the lake”
-Alkaline Trio, ‘My Standard Break From Life’

Nihilism is a hell of a drug.

(As an aside that doesn’t ultimately matter very much except as an academic question, there’s a chicken-or-the-egg dilemma I haven’t sorted out: was I drawn to this music because it confirmed how I felt, or did I feel this way, or were my feelings instantiated further, by identifying with it and the subculture around it?)

At any rate, I’ve been through the post-adolescent “malt liquor tastes much better on the streets” binge that last well into my late twenties and only waned with concentrated effort, after much pain.

After all of those years living life on the ledge, I can definitively confirm that it’s markedly less romantic than the Sid and Nancy lore suggests. Fulfillment through living like a tramp with a deathwish was a bit of a clever advertising gimmick aimed at the disaffected youth of the West move more Hot Topic product.

If self-help — an admittedly broad concept that transcends a narrow literary genre — is the opposite of being an emo trainwreck stuck on the emotional floor, I’ll take the self-help.

Moving forward, I’ll keep writing about politics because that’s what people care about, I suppose — the bread and butter of what made Armageddon Prose what it is, or has been. And politics matters, but it’s also bullshit. And it’s bad for you.


What I really want now is to create something worthwhile and honorable, and to stimulate the development of a community here or elsewhere with other people who aim for the same.

Ben Bartee, author of Broken English Teacher: Notes From Exile, is an independent Bangkok-based American journalist with opposable thumbs.

Follow his stuff Substack. Also, keep tabs via Twitter.

For hip Armageddon Prose t-shirts, hats, etc., peruse the merch store.

Support always welcome via insta-tip jar.

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap