How Self-Help Groups Turn Toxic

Self-help groups are great – when they work to help their members. Some, however, stray far from their path and become inescapable pits of despair. This is most often seen in relationship advice, weight loss, mental health and addiction recovery spaces.

Learn how to avoid the groups that will just trap you in learned helplessness and what to watch out for when you’re looking for a group to help you with your problems.

Video Transcript

So you decided to join a self-help group. Good choice. Accountability can surely help… but you need to know that self-help groups can turn bad and if you don’t keep your wits about you, you might find that your self-help group becomes more of a self-harm group. 

Talking about incels here feels unavoidable, because they’re such a perfect example of what I’m talking about.

Did you know they started out innocuous? The person who coined the term is horrified by what it turned into, when it was originally meant to be essentially a self-help group for lonely people who were not sure how to start dating in challenging circumstances. These days? It’s a pit of despair, learned helplessness and rage.

They are far from the only such group, however. There are various sub-groups in the addiction recovery space that have simply given up, you can find such groups in weight loss and fitness spaces, as well as in the mental health space, where many are under the impression that no treatment or therapy will ever work for them. 

How does this happen? How do groups with the lofty goal of uplifting its members turn into something so antithetical to their original goals?

Evaporation of Expertise

“Evaporation of expertise”, at least that’s what I call it. Any self-help group that doesn’t invest time and effort to stop it from happening runs the risk of running into this problem.

Think of it as being analogous to literal evaporation of water. What happens there? Water molecules don’t all turn to vapor at the same time. They have different levels of energy – it’s the highest energy particles that leave first, while the lower energy ones stay behind. When the high energy particles leave, they take their energy with them and the remaining water gets colder.

Let us run a quick simulation to see what happens [see video]. How does this simulation work? Two simple rules – one, the least toxic members of the group are the most likely to succeed at their goals and leave. Those are the spheres who you see turn yellow and leave the group. 

What do I mean when I say toxic? It’s not just being an asshole, although it does include that. It’s also other behaviors and thought patterns that make it unlikely for you to succeed – it’s learned helplessness, lack of discipline and commitment, inability to deal with failure and so on and so forth. The more toxic you are, the greener and then darker your sphere is.

Two, new recruits won’t join a group that they find repulsive or just too much of a downer. On the left, you can see potential new recruits. If they go right, they join the group. If they go left, the group was too toxic for them – they decided that they’re not interested, even though their goals align with it. 

I think you’ve been watching this simulation long enough to see the pattern here. The most capable people join the group but they don’t stay long – they solve the problem they wanted to solve, whether that’s beating an addiction, weight loss, getting into a relationship or whatever is the group’s core goal. They may dispense some advice and wisdom on their way out, but eventually they leave – after all, they’ve got their lives to live now and there’s not much incentive to stay forever. They take their accumulated knowledge, wisdom, expertise and plain positivity and resilient character out of the picture – the group, on average, becomes less able in all these things.

Despite the fact that we started with an unrealistically motivated and saintly group with near-zero toxicity, the group is now composed of a core of bitter veterans who’ve been unable to solve the problem. If things get bad enough, they may cease to believe that improvement is possible at all – at that point, crab mentality often follows and the group becomes an almost-inescapable pit of despair for any remaining members.

That, in turn, affects recruitment. If the group gets a bad reputation, now only people who don’t mind join. That is not a problem if the group’s bad reputation is undeserved, but it’s a serious issue if it isn’t.

What can you do about this? The biggest red flag warning sign is crab mentality. A group member achieving their goals should be cause for celebration; if the group denigrates those who succeed among their ranks – or assumes that every member will come crawling back as a failure once more – you need to get out, because nothing good will come from you staying there. 

How can this be avoided?

Keeping the experts around. While there are a bunch of things I don’t like about Alcoholics Anonymous and its off-shoot groups, I can’t deny that they’ve had a very smart idea of investing time and effort into keeping their expert members around. Those sobriety badges are pure genius – monetarily, they don’t cost very much, but they have an enormous emotional and symbolic meaning to the person receiving them. That’s a powerful incentive to stick around or at least visit.

Leadership and moderation. A group that polices its members’ beliefs may feel stifling to any free spirits in the audience, but it can be an unfortunate necessity to prevent corruption from the group’s original noble goals. This can take the form of an actual leader who sets group policy; or it can be a culture of calling out shitty behavior. 

Constant infusion of fresh blood. Aggressive recruitment can keep the level of toxicity reasonably manageable, but it’s obviously a somewhat imperfect solution.

Barriers to entry. Don’t take this as me endorsing commercial self-help groups – there are so many scams and bad actors in this space that I can’t do that. However, I can’t deny that a barrier to entry can keep toxicity at bay. The biggest losers are unlikely to be willing to put down serious money to join a self-help group because they don’t believe that change is possible in the first place. A barrier to entry will filter out the most toxic people.

Does this mean that a group needs any of those things to stay corruption-free? No, but they sure help. Free groups with limited moderation can still be valuable places, so long as you remember to watch out for crab mentality.

If you think this video will help you avoid toxic self-help groups, like and subscribe. I invite you to comment down below about your own experiences with self-help groups turned toxic. Thanks for your time.

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