Self-help or self-government? The role of psycho-disciplines in neoliberalism

In this modern era marked by a surge in mental health awareness, social theorists are increasingly examining the rise and influence of self-help literature and wellbeing technologies on individuals and communities. In particular, critical scholars of the social effects of psidisciplines, or fields of mental health, are studying how these approaches to well-being affect our self-perception and social roles.

In a new article, Roberto Rodrguez-Lpez of the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, explores how self-help, often lauded as an avenue to personal growth, can also subtly force people to mold themselves into marketable entities to align with societal expectations. Using Foucauldian theory, Rodrguez-Lpez delves into the nexus between neoliberalism, psychology, and technology, suggesting that the self-help bias toward self-government offers an illusion of freedom while transferring risk to the individual.

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Rodrguez-Lpez’s study raises the question: Has neoliberalism, through psy-technologies and self-help, transformed individuals into capital that must be optimized and showcased to the highest bidder? From this perspective, self-help is less about healing and more about carving yourself into a palatable commodity for social consumption.

Self-help is an activity that is assumed to be voluntary and individualistic, she writes. However, his preoccupation with self-liberation and self-enlightenment is the social and political result of a hyper-individualism fostered by the psychologizing of the self in everyday life.

Our reliance on self-help literature and wellness apps like Calm and Noom has grown significantly, especially within neoliberal Western societies. Rodrguez’s research examines how these technologies and texts shape individuals and how their narratives fit into larger social structures.

Business woman captured in glass jar with hand drawn media icons concept on backgroundRodrguez, along with colleague Efrn Borges Gmez, conducted in-depth analyzes of popular self-help magazines and best-selling literature, focusing on those designed to train people towards health or wellness goals. He investigates how people define and measure these subjective terms within our social context.

The loss of social ties and the cultural diffusion of psychology

A significant aspect of Rodrguez’s research is the transition from common spaces to an inner attention to individual psychology. As you put it, our understanding of suffering has become depoliticized and individualized, shifting responsibility from social to personal self-management. It is up to individuals to manage their own growth and mitigate risk in an increasingly uncertain world.

Our understanding of suffering in the psychologized world is desocialized and depoliticized and instead becomes a problem of interiority, a problem of the self and of self-management of the person.

The neoliberal individual must manage his stock of human capital in a way that is now also life-centered rather than purely economic. They are responsible for their own growth and also for their own risks in a new neoliberal social space of heightened insecurities.

Life’s dissatisfactions are now matters of individuals’ ability to manage their risks in the world and their process of investing in their own social capital. For example, when it comes to health in a neoliberal culture, individual behaviors, such as smoking, diet and exercise, meditation or stress management, are paramount, and social determinants of health are downplayed or ignored. When social determinants are incorporated into these discussions, they are individualized by examining people’s determinants or by creating individualized solutions to social problems.

Individuals must equip themselves with a variety of personal training and tools that tend to shape their chances for resistance or even promotion in the social space.

Technologies of the Self and Governmentality

Quoting Nikolas Rose, Rodrguez observes that when research analyzes technology, it is examining a set of arts and skills that involve the linking of thoughts, affects, forces, artifacts and techniques that are not limited to fabricating and manipulating, but that, more fundamentally, the order being, framing it, producing it and making it thinkable as a certain way of existing that must be approached in a particular way. Technology does more than enable individual agency; it shapes the world in which the individual exists.

Technology, imbued with psy language, creates the self-managed subject. A subject who seeks to control his experience of the world from within rather than imposing will on the social sphere. To govern the neoliberal subject, through these technologies, is no longer a disciplinary framework linked to the institutions that exercise their power vertically, but technologies that often operate by constructing a subjective space with specifically self-powered regulation possibilities.

While pointing out that many strands of psychology, including critical, indigenous, and liberation psychology, do not share these views, the writer, using the work of Glenn Adams, argues that traditional psychology is based on (1) a sense of freedom from constraint that offers an experience of radical abstraction from context; (2) the creation of an entrepreneurial self as a continuous development project; (3) an imperative for individual growth and personal fulfillment as the key to well-being; and (4) an emphasis on affect regulation as the key to personal success.

Neoliberal subjects must consider the constitution of themselves as their own capital. As a result, issues such as salary would be weighed against an individual’s ability to manage their stock of human capital. This is what Foucault called the entrepreneur of the self.

Psychological technologies and self-help literature

Rodrguez’s examination extends to self-help literature, an allegedly voluntary and individualistic activity. However, he argues that such literature reflects societal choices that foster a culture of individualism, emphasizing self-management and self-esteem.

Rodrguez states: Instead of seeing individuals as the historical product of the intersection of social and cultural processes, the rhetoric of selfhood, which is crucial in the self-help literature, assumes that the social world is the sum of aggregates of organized and independent individuals.

However, Rodrguez, using Rimke’s work, argues that an over-responsible self, a result of self-help practice, is intrinsically linked to governmental management of populations, and therefore to less rather than greater individual autonomy.

Psy-reflexivity, confessional testing, and behavioral and emotional management

Finally, Rodrguez addresses the emotional and behavioral management provided by self-help technologies.

Specific forms or language of areas of psychology, such as positive psychology or neuropsychology, are usually lacking in the literature. However, the researcher often found the idea of ​​the self as a constant and never-ending project, the emergence of modern confessional technologies in our case through self-applied testing and the idea of ​​building the self on an impoverished social context. However, what is clearest from our analyzes of this literature is the centrality and relevance of emotional self-management.

Subjectivity is no longer a terrain for scrutinizing the multiple hiding places of the soul, nor a possibility for constructing suggestive aesthetic fictions, as was common in self-help literature or in pre-neoliberal psychological culture. a key point of reference. The imperative of well-being is therefore not so much self-actualization as self-limitation through control. And this is where managing emotions plays a central role.

We no longer try to express our emotions as much as we work to limit them, especially those considered negative by cultural and social forces. The value of neoliberal subjects rests on their ability to maintain this emotion regulation as they take on and tend toward increasingly desocialized and depoliticized work.

Rodrguez’s research raises critical questions about the intersection of psychology, self-help, and social norms within neoliberal cultures. She points out the potential risks in the ongoing shift towards the individualization of wellbeing and mental health, opening a fascinating conversation about the evolving influence of self-help and wellbeing technologies on our personal and community lives.

The neoliberal ideal is a subject that can look after itself, especially as regards prevention, without having to resort to public-state institutions (for health, unemployment, social services and so on).

While the arena of mental health, self-help, and wellbeing has historically been viewed as objectively separate from policy debates, this research points to a historically significant connection between health and wellbeing ideals and political and social structures. Specifically, Rodrguez highlights the trend of traditional psychology towards the individualization of suffering and health that are co-constituted within a neoliberal society.

Central to these debates is whether the expansion of technology designed to create a healthy self is harmless and beneficial or whether it contains within it an ultimately harmful self-ideology that already exists within the culture.


Rodrguez-Lpez, R. Technologies of the self in culture: critical reflections on the self-managed subject.Subjectivity30, 152166 (2023). (Link)

#Selfhelp #selfgovernment #role #psychodisciplines #neoliberalism
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