Everything Is Just Dandy!

Tedcore: the self-help books that have changed the way we live, speak and think

Phenomenology and Existentialism
Steven Philips-Horst

You are a victim. A person of anxious experience, navigating a minefield of shame triggers. Research suggests that people with your attachment style are predisposed to dissociating. Some experts believe this very sentence could re-traumatize you. It’s not your fault, of course. You just need to reframe your narrative.

This is the language of a coalescing sub-genre of self-help books that combine the comforting yet impenetrable language of modern therapy with pseudoscientific grand theories on human behavior. You’ll recognize it from titles like Atlas of the Heart, Atomic Habits, The Body Keeps The Score, Attached, Mating in Captivity, even The Artist’s Way. None were bestsellers upon release, but all have slow-burned their way to the tops of bestseller lists and the bookshelves of People Who Go To Therapy. These are the new bourgeois bibles – foundational texts for a generation of yuppies adrift.

These books peddle feel-good Marvel movie versions of philosophy that don’t challenge our conceptions, but validate our feelings, often backing up their circular logic with dubious “research” and “experts”. They cajole and condescend, opening neural pathways that lead directly to the author’s paywalled Substack.

I call this genre “Tedcore”. Most of these authors have given Ted talks, and much like the popular conference series, these books are accessible yet vaguely highbrow, prone to presenting the mundane as revelatory. With every new trite slogan she drops, the Ted speaker doesn’t just imply, “Aren’t I amazing?” – she says, “Aren’t we amazing?!” Everyone gets to leave feeling smarter and more special. Unlike its pluckier predecessors (Men are From Mars, Women are Venus or How to Win Friends and Influence People), Tedcore doesn’t attempt to decode what others are thinking, instead turning the gaze to our navels, pathologizing our every thought.

These books still sing with American optimism – yes, you can be happier! – but it arrives in the numbing straitjacket of an analyst who swaps Freud for Myers-Briggs. Psychoanalytic concepts – desire, sexuality, family dynamics – are sanded down until they can be comfortably applied to not getting a promotion at work. Your anxieties are your identity now. You don’t need to be fixed. Just discussed. And possibly medicated. For ever.

Brené Brown, seen at a Netflix event in 2019, is the author of Atlas of the Heart. Photograph: Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for Netflix

Few embody the genre more than Brené Brown, who boasts two podcasts; multiple Ted talks; a paid certification course for budding business consultants called Dare to Lead; eight books, including Atlas of the Heart (No 3 on Amazon’s nonfiction list as of Tuesday); and a new HBOMax series of the same name, where her audience nods approvingly to facile profundities like “language is the greatest human portal that we have”.

Her book is organized as a dictionary of emotional terms, where, in large font on glossy pages, she demystifies apparently inscrutable emotions like “joy” or “despair” by consulting Merriam-Webster then reporting back: “Vulnerability is the emotion we experience during times of uncertainty, crisis and emotional exposure.” On regret: “Both disappointment and regret arise when an outcome was not what we wanted.” Curiously, there are no entries for “self-pity” or “narcissism”.

Research and studies surface with alarming frequency and vagueness in Brown’s work, often burnishing her Grand Theory that different words exist: “Are curiosity and interest the same thing? Researchers don’t agree.”

Taking the top spot on Amazon is Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, where the motivational speaker James Clear explains how to lose weight, quit smoking or finally write that screenplay, mostly by renaming things that already exist: “stacking” is doing something after you do another thing, such as doing yoga after you finish your morning pages. “Temptation bundling” is offering yourself a little treat for doing your stacked habits. All habits consist of a “cue, craving, response, and reward”, which he helps illustrate by explaining that when I walk into a dark room and instinctively reach for a light switch, I am “satisfying my craving to see”. Ah yes, my insatiable lust for vision. Presumably when I blow my nose I am satisfying my nostril’s craving to feel empty.

Clear is also fond of the pseudo-fact: “People who are high in agreeableness tend to have higher natural oxytocin levels. You can easily imagine how someone with more oxytocin might be inclined to build habits like writing thank-you notes.” Soft qualifiers like “tend to” and “easily imagine” keep us firmly in the realm of feel-good conjecture. I did not sign up for his online “Habits Academy” for $299, but I imagine your time might be better spent stacking yoga on top of your morning pages.

Mark Manson, author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, signs books in Los Angeles in 2019. Photograph: Michael Tullberg/Getty Images

In The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck (which apparently gives enough of one to censor its own title), the author Mark Manson leans on Bukowski and other high school male heroes to guide his simplistic mantras, mostly benign euphemisms for getting over yourself, like a Jordan Peterson podcast, or perhaps a cool pastor’s motivational desk calendar. He offers mild coddling with a Seth-Rogen level of naughtiness: “Even if you get run over by a clown car and pissed on by a busload of schoolchildren, it’s still your responsibility to interpret the meaning of the event and choose a response.” Here, too, is a Grand Theory: when something bad happens, “it’s not your fault. But it’s still your responsibility”. I imagine it would also not be your fault if you signed up his online Subtle Art School (“More life lived, fewer fucks given”) at $149.99 a year, but that, too, would be your responsibility.

Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score. Photograph: M Scott Brauer/The Guardian

Is anything your fault? Probably not, according to The Body Keeps The Score. Released in 2014, it has been on Amazon’s nonfiction list for 48 weeks now. It is perhaps more responsible than any other text for centering the word “trauma” in our discourse. This hefty book, by the Dutch psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, might seem at odds with Tedcore: it is highly technical, rather academic. The font size is very small. Van der Kolk is a real doctor, who spent decades working with victims of very real trauma – the Vietnam war, childhood rape – and was treating PTSD before we even called it that.

He argues our bodies remember traumatic events and will chemically induce anxious responses when triggered, even if we know our tragedy is behind us. We meet a woman who binge-eats on dates because of her sexual abuse as a child; a couple who can’t sleep after a car accident. Van der Kolk offers evidence that with a combination of pharmaceuticals, specialized forms of CBT and other physical interventions, we might convince our brain to stop reliving trauma in a way that simple talk therapy can’t accomplish.

The Body Keeps The Score is convincing enough. But I can’t imagine that all the people who keep buying it are solely interested in its science, or have experienced the same level of trauma of its subjects. With its empathetic tone and medical seriousness, The Body Keeps The Score is deeply validating. It confirms a persistent worldview that the way forward is not looking outward, but looking in. Not seeing, but feeling seen. So when the reader is shown images of brain scans of people who’ve been in a car accident, they internalize this as evidence they are not crazy, that the brain hurts when we are sad: my anxieties are permanent.

Unsurprisingly, the few criticisms of the book I could find online were readers upset that its focus on people who had watched their friends die in Vietnam was not expansive enough a definition of “trauma”. That as a reader, merely extrapolating these horrors to your own difficulties wasn’t validating enough. They want to see themselves in writing.

Those looking for a mirror will surely find it in the aggressively useless Attached, which peddles attachment theory, dividing all people on Earth into three “attachment styles” – secure, anxious and avoidant. That’s it. The book finds endless ways to describe someone (almost always an “anxious” woman) who dates someone else (an “avoidant” man) who is simply not that into her.

From its credentialed authors, Amir Levine MD and Rachel Heller MA, we learn that “attachment security” directs us to the “comfort zone” while “deactivating strategies” lead us to the “danger zone” where our “signals” are viewed as “threats”. Translation? Being desperate is off putting. Again, pseudoscience: “It is believed that each attachment style evolved in order to increase the survival chances of humans in a particular environment.” Who exactly believes this goes unmentioned, as do the psychological professionals who have concluded if people do have certain “attachment styles” they are subject to change depending on the relationship, rendering the theory somewhat pointless.

One of the few instances of compelling writing in this genre comes from Esther Perel, a Belgian couples therapist and author of Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence. A sex-positive European, she name-checks Simone de Beauvoir and looks down on American puritanism. Unlike most of her contemporaries, she is more polemic in her worldview: good sex needs mystery. Distance breeds eroticism. She says things like “sexual alchemy” and “the primal bog of his erotic self”. What fun! Writing about sex should feel sexual. It should reference freaky swamps. This is good.

Yet while she is brave enough to speak about the bottom’s desire for submission, she still studiously avoids Freud, or truly plumbing the depths of human desire. She has a mission: to get her heterosexual readers in frustrated marriages to have more sex. She doesn’t want to scare them off by talking about the Oedipus complex.

Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity. Photograph: Jean Goldsmith/The Observer

It is tempting to locate the desire for the broader, 30,000-foot analyses these books offer to the “collective trauma” of the pandemic. But times have always been tough. We’ve always wanted answers. Lifestyle gurus from Jesus to Gwyneth have always held the attention of the town square, hawking their vision for a better world. I would argue it has more to do with the embrace of therapy as a moral imperative. Tedcore is a product that falls under “self-care” and “affirms” our identity. It operates through a modality of wellness: processing your trauma is green juice (and should be just as overpriced). What it ignores is all the things that actually produce anxiety in our society: precarious economies, war, mass migration and the climate crisis, rupturing social fabric. Our families. And perhaps most of all: sex.

The specter of Freud – and his greatest obsession – haunts these books like a wealthy conservative dad paying for his liberal daughter’s wedding to a Sarah Lawrence grad; everyone’s partying on his dime, but no one wants to admit it. All these pathologizing theories are indebted to psychoanalysis, yet he is mentioned rarely, and only in passing. How can we ignore the anxiety of our sexual hangups? Not just “does this person like me” but “why do I want to be slapped during sex?” And in 2022 no less? Even Urban Outfitters sells hats that say “Daddy”. Trends in gender are rapidly evolving, culture wars are still raging, and Gen Z is having less sex than ever. Masculinity is in crisis and we can’t even mention dick size? Perhaps because there’s nothing “pseudo” about that science. It’s a little too measurable.

As I scoured these pages for evidence that Tedcore was turning us all into narcissists, my own pseudoscientific Grand Theory, I found their call to self-pity increasingly infectious. I began looking for myself. Highlighting passages that could validate me, and my pain: six months ago, my ex-boyfriend left me for his co-worker. Yes, I’m still processing the trauma. None of these books were particularly helpful in affirming my victimhood. I wasn’t compelled by comparing our attachment styles, nor Brené Brown’s definition of betrayal: “It can cause anger, sadness, jealousy, decreased self-worth, embarrassment, humiliation, shame and even trauma symptoms.” How enlightening.

But in Mating in Captivity, I found a kernel of hope: a patient who had been having an affair for years, then finally thought to ask his wife if she ever thought about other men. She responded, “Maybe I do. Maybe I don’t.” Her answer shocked him. Perel offers: “It’s easy to imagine that you’re the mysterious one, the rebel, and she’s Penelope sitting at her loom, waiting for you to come home. Maybe she has a few secrets of her own, fantasies of men who can give her what you can’t.” I realized I had cast my ex-boyfriend as Penelope, incapable of straying. Perel’s reframing let me take more responsibility! Not that it was my fault, of course. Yet my path to this revelation was one of fixation. I had not replaced my trauma with anything other than navel gazing.

The solutions these books offer invariably encourage us to look outward, take yoga, learn a language, get over our exes, process our trauma by directing our energy towards something new. Mason describes the “value of suffering”. That “happiness requires struggle” and something great awaits you on the other side of feeling sorry for yourself. Yet there you sit, alone in your apartment, or next to your sleeping partner, or neck-pillowed in the Delta Sky Lounge, desperately scanning the pages of a self-help book for mentions of the only thing you really care about: you.