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“SHAM- How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless” by Steve Salerno. A review.

Posted by Andy D. on April 20, 2008

“SHAM- How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless” by Steve Salerno. A review

SHAM is an acronym for the self-help and actualization movement and it is the ultimate self-book for self-help books. This journey in skepticism shines a light on the 8.53 billion dollar (2003) direct revenue industry. Salerno estimates the true economic costs will be in the trillions when you factor in government spending, lawsuits, medical costs, opportunity costs, and growth trends. I fell victim to several of the authors below and I feel better already after reading SHAM. My skepticism skills from studying science versus faith-based reasoning now enlighten other topics and it is easy to see how anecdotal these self-help books really are.

If you have read from Zig Ziglar, Stephen Covey, Rick Warren, Tony Robbins, Suze Orman, Dr. Phil McGraw or other Men are from Mars/Chicken Soup for the Soul types of books, or any help book pushed by Oprah and Larry King, you need to read this book.

The theme of the book distinguishes between two main types of self-help. The first is the victimization movement. This shows up in the 12 step programs. (There are many different types of these groups and books). These surprisingly religious organizations involve a person saying they are powerless and they have to give themselves over to a “higher power.” Alcoholism is no longer a disorder but a full on “disease.” (Yes, there is a physical addiction but this is not cancer.) SHAM states one has a better chance of actually quitting drinking by going “cold turkey” than attending a single AA meeting. Those groups hide their numbers, too. The victimization movement has contributed to many frivolous lawsuits, unfounded rape allegations (think hypnosis fed mental memories), and people not willing to say they are responsible for their actions by blaming anyone else for their circumstances. America bought it up.

The other big theme of the book and the one more in our face today is the empowerment movement in self-help. Think Dr. Phil “Pick Yourself Up by Your Boot Straps” or today’s “The Secret’s” if you really believe it will happen law. This creates a situation where the thesis cannot be falsified. If a person achieves what they desire then the author was correct. If one fails they didn’t believe in it hard enough (like faith healing) and then they buy another self-help book after failing. It is worse if you flip the logic around by saying one cannot be healthy because they didn’t believe in themselves hard enough regardless of any genetic predisposition to their disease.

The victimization and empowerment movements feed off on another. The main results are more people keep buying more self-help books. Ever wonder why Oprah has self-help books all the time? What happened to the ones from a year ago? Didn’t they work? Salerno thinks the empowerment movement has help feed the divorce rate by having couples that are not always in a state of bliss empower and break-up.

A couple of celebrity highlights: Tony Robbins started giving $50 dollar sessions using coal walking to pump people up and overcome their fears. (This is just physics). Dr. Phil was failing as a psychologist and he helped “coach” Oprah in a court case about her statements about her distrust of beef during the Mad Cow disease scare. The two hit it off. Dr. Phil does have a degree in what he does unlike many pseudo-helpers. The main problem with Dr. Phil and others (like the hypocritical Dr. Laura Schlessinger) is their pop-psychiatry. One cannot dish out accurate advice in a ten-minute segment. It is just scary. Real therapy takes time. One has to think about long term and shot term decisions and repercussions. Suze Orman gives good money advice such as stay out of debt, know your credit score, and put people above money and things. She gets into woo-woo with her empowerment money laws for example, “if one is honest they will attract money.” We all know there are people who are not very ethical, who nonetheless make a lot of money.

The best part of the book for me was the chapter entitled “Ya Gotta Want It” about today’s Sportsthink in business. I had a gun-hoe sports-nut manager who loved the sports hero types such as Vince Lombardi, Tommy Lasorda and Tiger Woods quotes. I laughed all the way through this chapter! There is something weird happening when businesses are bringing locker room mentality to the boardroom. Americans like sports and business so why not combine them? The problem with this analogy is in sports; teams are usually playing one team at a time with well-defined rules. In business, there are many simultaneous competitors and the rules can be broken from any direction. The internal danger here is a witch-hunt on an employee who didn’t have the “religious locker room” mentality and the firm could miss new creative opportunities and talent. There is always an undercurrent to this type of thinking and firms have spent much money and time trying to pump up the “sales” team usually with poor results. One doesn’t hear about it because that would mean the manager who hired the motivational speaker or dished out the BS would have to admit to their boss they wasted time and money. There is a great chapter on the unregulated, unlicensed, and ridiculous “life coaches.”

There is a chapter on criminals who now write books and give speeches after finding Jesus. Schools hire them to scare kids straight but what Selerno argues there is a “glory” shown to the past gang banging activities. American loves a good come back story so many schools have wasted resources on this.

Selerno goes into great depth about how our school systems now focus on “self-esteem” rather than achievement and competition. I bet our teachers could comment a lot on this one. This is the scariest topic in the book. The public school classroom is focusing on feelings rather than focusing on academic subjects. It brings up the participations awards and how some schools are paying and passing kids just to show up!!! Some school sports do not have any losers anymore. Teachers have to focus on the bottom of the class in order to get them all to pass standardized tests. Schools administrators will fight holding someone back that needs to be because this might upset the child or their parent’s feelings.

There is a rather long section on health quackery and its relation to self-help. The usual suspects are here such as and therapeutic touch, distance healing, art therapy, feng shui, magnet therapy, detoxification therapy, and faith healing.

Salerno quotes many voices of reason throughout the book such as James Randi, George Carlin, and Stephen Barret of Quackwatch. This book should be required reading for all of us skeptics. It is scary what happens when we leave science for the anecdotal chicken soup way of thinking. Enjoy!


PS: I found Steve’s blog SHAMBOOK.  It looks great.

8 Responses to ““SHAM- How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless” by Steve Salerno. A review.”

  1. andyscathouse said

    Could someone tell me what the above comment means? I am still new to this blogging world. Is this an auto-sourcing type of website?

    Where are the teachers? I would love to hear what you have to say about the SHAM ideas in education.

  2. Anon said

    It’s called a pingback

    There are legitimate uses for pingbacks, but the comment you are inquiring about is not one of them. It’s an attempt to use a real blog (i.e. this one) to add legitimacy to a sham (no pun intended) blog by, literally, creating a mutual link between them.

    Hopefully the admins of this site will delete the pingback comment.

  3. mightymjolnir said

    Yeah, um, my fault.

    I left a comment on another post, and it didn’t show up right away, so I looked in the spam filter…I thought that comment was legit, so I saved it from deletion. (Until just now, that is.)

    That’s what you get for nosing through the trash, I guess.


  4. pjbottoms said

    Thanks for your post! As someone who watches Dr. Phil (because I find his shtick to be entertaining), and who has commented a lot about him, I can say that Dr. P always qualifies his ten minute “pop-psychiatry” bit by telling everyone that he will offer his “resources at the Dr. Phil Show” to the guests. He always asks if the guests want them and usually they say “yes” and the audience claps. So Dr. P gets more praise for actually getting the guests to accept the long-term, legit help they should have gotten beforehand, but perhaps couldn’t afford it or needed a kick in the butt on national TV first. Guests have often said,”Coming to the Dr. Phil Show is the only way I could get my family/girlfriend/ to stop…(doing bad things).” It’s sad that guests don’t seek the help they need, but the talk-show people know that what their future guests are doing is sitting around watching TV instead! Unfortunately, when it comes to self-help, I think the media focuses too much on the “before” and “after” stories, when what’s important is the journey people take to get to the “after.” (For a good laugh, see the Dr. Phil Random Quote Generator link on my blog)

    One more thing—I taught middle school English ten years ago and it drove me crazy that spelling was not a part of the curriculum because if we circled misspelled words, it would hurt the student’s self esteem. The result: happy kids who were poor spellers!


  5. andyscathouse said

    Thanks PJ,

    I know Dr. Phil gives out counseling after the shows so he is not all bad. As in the case of health quackery there can be good placebo results that seem to help. Is this similar? I am just asking and not accusing. Churches give out charity and that is very good but the goals of the “church” ultimately is to promote itself and the god meme. Likewise, Dr. Phil is more interested in promoting drama for ratings and not necessary the best interest of the guests. This is a dangerous line to balance. I don’t think he pushes as much crap and new age pseudoscience as Oprah.

    Thanks for the feedback as a teacher and for making it through my grammar mistakes. I must of had a similar teacher. That’s good because I like to feel well. 🙂

  6. Gloria said

    I stumbled on this book while looking for another book in the library, called “Excuse Me Your Life Is Calling.” I was told by my life coach to read “Excuse Me” (I won her services in a contest; I was actually more interested in winning the $50 Borders gift card that was part of the prize package) and checked that and SHAM out of the library. I couldn’t get through “Excuse Me,” it was poorly written and made me more paranoid than I already was. The theory was that if you had any negative thought, it would bring disaster upon you. I became too nervous to think and was worried sick about any negative thought that came my way. I told her I couldn’t read it anymore. I did finish SHAM and thoroughly enjoyed it. I recently read it again. It’s not a very inspiring book, but it IS funny. Salerno acknowledges that sometimes s–t DOES happen, even in the best of times, and we need to deal with it as best as we can. Sometimes you can “want” something very badly and still not get it. The truth is, some things in life are a gamble and sometimes we win, sometimes we don’t. I’m sorta going through that right now and instead of dreaming of a better life, I’m just looking for a job that will feed me and keep the utilities on. I was raised to expect a middle class life, but the last few years have been very hard. Anyway, SHAM should be required reading for self-help book addicts like my neighbor. She must have six dozen of the things, yet her life hasn’t seemed to have changed much (cluttered house, low-paying jobs, extremely unhealthy weight) whereas I have changed careers (although not necessarily successfully) but at least I set out to gain a new career skill and I did it without reading a self-help book!

  7. simon said

    hmmm…atheism. ‘god memes’, self help skepticism. Its all a usefull antidote to american self help addiction and can make one feel so very independant minded and forward thinking.

    But i’ve also seen many a Richard Dawkins devotee who is still as miserable, superior and arrogant as ever but now they have an added comfort that at least they are seeing the world for what it is unlike those poor weak deluded fools who still need their toy teddy….

    And peoples’ dismissive treatment of the great potentials of the placebo effect never fail to irritate me. Yes people are being over-charged for the placebo effect by hucksters- but it usually takes a lot to set one up these an entire hospital with the weight of the drugs industry behind it. Only then will most people be able to summon up the necessary level of auto-suggestive belief to stimulate healing. In the old days all we needed was a silver pendant and the abracadabra mantra respeated over and over again.

  8. but it usually takes a lot to set one up these an entire hospital with the weight of the drugs industry behind it.

    Beware Big Pharma!!!

    Only then will most people be able to summon up the necessary level of auto-suggestive belief to stimulate healing. In the old days all we needed was a silver pendant and the abracadabra mantra respeated over and over again.

    Which old days? When humans had an average 30 year life span?

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