How Instagram self-help gurus have become pseudo-spiritual leaders

Some self-help Instagram influencers evoke the feeling of televangelism of days past, says author Leigh Stein. She believes that there’s something religious going on in their comment sections that’s attracting millions of female followers, and yet, she feels that this brand of spirituality ultimately rings hollow.
Glennon Doyle speaks on stage at Together Live at Clowes Memorial Hall on October 20, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Michael Hickey/Getty Images for Together Live)

On Instagram, nestled between lifestyle photographers, slide-show essays, comedic memes and beauty regimens, you'll also find self-empowerment gurus.  People like Glennon Doyle, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Gabrielle Bernstein encourage discussions about ongoing personal struggles on their Instagram accounts, and have an audience of millions. 

 Accounts like these can seem to take on a religious tone, according to author Leigh Stein. She says the comment sections on these accounts can become confessionals and posts become sermons on how to deal with emotional pain. 

Stein noted in her essay "The Empty Religions of Instagram" that "these women look and sound radically different from conservative evangelical male televangelists like Pat Robertson and Joel Osteen. And while they don't brand themselves as faith leaders, this is the role they play in many of their secular fans' lives."

Stein talked to Tapestry host Mary Hynes about what connects Untamed author Glennon Doyle to televangelism and what makes this specific brand of self-help a predominately gendered phenomenon.

Was there a tipping point for you? A moment when you realized there is an undeniable, religious spiritual feel to certain hugely popular accounts on Instagram and elsewhere on social media?

Well, I spent about two years researching and writing a novel called Self Care that's a satire of the wellness industry. So I'm like an amateur internet anthropologist, spending a lot of time on Instagram and Twitter, looking at how these influencers operate and what kind of scripts are in their playbook. And I just started to observe the popularity of certain women who post this kind of confessional content and encourage their fans to do the same. 

This was coinciding with my own experience during the pandemic when the politics were so charged. I live in America, obviously, we were leading up to our 2020 election. And I just found myself craving something deeper than what I was finding on the internet. And that started to make me wonder if I was actually getting curious myself about religion.

Leigh Stein spent two years researching and writing her novel Self Care, which she describes as 'a satire of the wellness industry.' (Brian Jacks)

And you mentioned the playbook that seems to be at work on some of these accounts, the Glennon Doyle, perhaps Gwyneth Paltrow, Brené Brown, and maybe Elizabeth Gilbert is part of this set. What's in the playbook in the spiritual sphere? How are they operating on that front?

There's a big focus on your feelings. And I think a lot of women find this validating because the reality is, a lot of women, not just in America, but around the world are under tremendous stress. There's a whole industry that has arisen to sell us creams and pills and vitamins and exercise regimens to comfort us in our pain. So it's almost like this destructive cycle where you feel terrible, you sign on to Instagram for the dopamine hit, you get Glennon Doyle telling you that your pain is what makes you beautiful. You post a prayer hand emoji and say, "Thanks, that's what I really needed today." 

There's this interesting relationship between … her stories of vulnerability from her own life, and how she turns that into content. So that the scripture of this religion is almost like this narcissistic obsession with the worst tragedies in your life and just thinking about them over and over again and sharing them with an audience. It's very performative.

Is part of your concern that you can spend too much time with your feelings?

My mom is a clinical psychologist and an Episcopalian. So I grew up in a house where therapy was very normal. But acknowledging your feelings is maybe one step along the way. But an obsession with your feelings — a cultivation of your feelings — that's not healthy. Worshiping your wounds as some would call it doesn't show that you've recovered from them, if you're still obsessed with them.

What kind of dynamic are you seeing there in this church, as Glennon Doyle calls it?

So a lot of her followers are extremely devoted. I follow 700 people on Instagram and one out of seven of those people follow Glennon Doyle. She's hugely popular. One comment that really stuck out to me that I found this from this woman named Kimberly, she'd had a horrible time during COVID. She'd broken up with her boyfriend. She'd lost her job. She'd had to move. And she wrote this very emotional post about how much Glennon Doyle's book meant to her. And Glennon Doyle didn't respond. Of course, I have no expectation that Glennon could respond to every Instagram comment, but I called Kimberly and I interviewed her and I said, "You know, I noticed that no one responded to your comment." And she said, that was okay. It didn't bother her. She felt like Glennon Doyle gave her the gift of speaking her truth, basically, and putting something in her own words. 

But to me, there's something very confessional about it. And I feel like it's a confession without a confessor. There's no one to hear your struggle, there's no one on the other side of that of that wall, to say, I hear you, you are loved, it's going to be okay. And so the internet is just filled with these stories of pain. And it's like, we're all telling the stories, but who's listening to us, unless you grow your following and you develop an audience to listen to you. You're just confessing into a void.

There's a stream of Christianity promoting something called the prosperity gospel and the televangelist, Oral Roberts, was just one of its missionaries. You're seeing a connection between the prosperity gospel and some of the ideas these influencers are sharing online. Tell me what you found.

So the prosperity gospel, I believe began with this idea that it's connected to tithing. So if you give back to the church, if you give back to Jesus, you will see returns. If you give 10%, you'll get back 100%. And so that, of course, increased donations to ministries that were on television, such as Oral Roberts. There's this great image of him on TV actually putting his hand up to the camera so that viewers at home could put their hand up to the television screen and feel healed by his touch. So the message was about wealth, but it was connected to suffering and to the promise of healing. 

I think now today, we have these little phones in our hands that we are touching for a similar healing. The way I've seen the prosperity gospel transform over Instagram is the idea of manifesting and manifestation from the popular book, The Secret, which is now imposed by women like Gabrielle Bernstein, who encourage women followers to shift their mindset, and to believe that the limitations and problems and suffering in their lives are a problem of their own minds that they aren't faithful believers in positivity. And so I think that's an interesting evolution.

One of the things traditional religion has always grappled with is the fairly existential stuff, right? Why are we here? What happens when we die? How do the influencers handle that kind of deeper spirituality?

They don't!  And I think this is one of the things that's really missing. And I found myself so moved anytime I would see a religious leader on TV, at a televised funeral, like for John Lewis. I feel like the kind of self-help literature, the messages to take care and self care — it's all so self centered. 

I've been reading this book Morality by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and he talks about how we've moved from we to I. What religion offers us is the 1000s of years of people going through very similar struggles. We're born. We might get married. We might have children. And then we all die. Religion has really been wrestling for centuries about "how do we make meaning of our finite time on earth?" And maybe it's a fact of aging that I'm even thinking about these questions. I think for a lot of us, the pandemic has really made us all super aware of our mortality. Even someone like me, I'm an older millennial — I thought I had decades to go. But I'm very aware that even people my age have died during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

So these more profound existential questions, I don't find that the influencers will even touch them because the whole influencer economy on Instagram is built on selling us things. We have an anxiety about death that we don't want to talk about. But here's a cream or here's a program, you can try to pretend you're immortal. So they have no incentive to answer those bigger questions or even consider them. And yet I find myself profoundly seeking these older traditions that at least acknowledge that our time on earth is finite.

Written and produced by Arman Aghbali.


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