In the introduction to her latest book, Didn’t See That Coming, Rachel Hollis, a lifestyle influencer turned Instagram self-help guru, notes that she completed her manuscript before experiencing an earth-shattering trauma: her June decision to split with Dave, her husband and the father of her four children.
Known for her glossy, Instagram-ready, and enviable life, Hollis has now had to make divorce and messiness part of her brand. And she’s doing it by focusing her #girlboss, “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” style of toxic positivity on a new subject: dealing with trauma.
“I believe we will either be made better by our trials, our losses, our tragedies, or we will be made worse; there is no in between,” Hollis writes. “Do you want to be made into a better version of yourself because of your dark season or do you want to come through as a shell of what you once were?”
In many ways, the new book repeats many of the same messages that won Hollis millions of fans, and tons of detractors, in her first two books, which were gobbled up as gospel by a fanbase of mostly white, Christian women. The first, 2018’s Girl, Wash Your Face, was a No. 1 New York Times bestseller and was on the list for 85 weeks and sold more than 3 million copies. The second, 2019’s Girl, Stop Apologizing, also hit No. 1 on the list.
The two books have one core message: Girl, if you’re unhappy, do something about it. As Laura Turner wrote for BuzzFeed News in 2018, Hollis's core philosophy is the notion that “everything [is] a matter of personal responsibility.”
“You, and only you, are ultimately responsible for who you become and how happy you are,” Hollis writes in Girl, Wash Your Face.
Hollis’s decision to apply her philosophies to dealing with traumatic events and hardships couldn’t come at a more opportune time. A pandemic has taken over all our lives, leaving many people struggling with death and illness at a massive scale, or the loss of income because of the resulting global financial crisis. The country is grappling with decades of police violence against Black people, and the resulting social justice movement that is bringing hard truths to light. We live in a divided country with an anxiety-inducing election imminent.
In light of all this, Hollis has deftly branded her book as the definitive guide to making it through 2020, positioning herself as someone here to save us from all that we are going through. She told Good Morning America she wrote this book because she "wanted to offer some hope to [her] readers who were navigating a hard year in 2020.” (She said the book was in edits when her marriage fell apart in June.)
Hollis also shoehorns the pandemic into her arguments several times throughout the book, citing it as a traumatic event the reader may be experiencing, but also one she is obviously going through herself. But she suggests she is uniquely equipped to handle it. “Because I’ve been through this weird limbo before, because I’m familiar with terror, because I have walked again and again through pain and I am still here to write this down for you, I can also find peace in the storm,” she writes. “March 2020 and every unsettling week thereafter did not shake me loose from my mooring. Instead, I allowed the pressure of it all to anchor me more firmly into the earth.”
Unfortunately for Hollis, her message falls completely flat. Through a 2020 lens, her attempts at saying only personal responsibility can combat systemic issues feel laughably out of touch. Over the past several months, white people — especially white women — have been forced to acknowledge how white supremacy has shaped their lives and how much harder things are for people of other races, how privileged they themselves are, and how rigged the system is. The pandemic has laid bare many of the cracks in our society and shown how outside forces can decimate communities, no matter how hard they try to succeed.
Hollis has always been criticized for being out of touch, but it seems that even this watershed moment has not led her to undergo any self-reflection on her own privilege, or altered her philosophies at all. She also seems to have an inability to do any self-reflection on the breakdown of her marriage, the criticism she has faced because of it, and what it means for her brand. Rather than her divorce being a moment for her to do some reflection on her mistakes and grow, she shoehorns it into the book as an example of just one more hardship and challenge to overcome.
Reading the book, you get the sense that Hollis scrambled to pepper in references to these huge life-altering events in both her personal life and the world at large so her book would feel timely upon its release. In 2020, her dogged insistence that all we need to do is choose joy, be strong, and do the work seems delusional at best and toxic at worst.
Hollis’s lack of reflection feels most striking when she attempts to apply her one-size-fits-all philosophies to literally any negative life event the reader may have, vaguely referencing throughout the book “hardships” or “traumas” we need to overcome. In order to appeal to the widest readership possible, she cites potential events that could be challenging, from the death of a family member to divorce to being disappointed your wedding had to be held over Zoom.
I’m not an expert in trauma, but I would imagine that there is not a one-size-fits-all guide to dealing with the pain of an event like the death of a parent or a divorce. Maybe Hollis knows that too, because she spends much more time preaching to her readers about how to move on rather than how to deal with the emotional fallout of whatever ails them.
“I cannot control what happened to me in the past or what I must endure in the present but I for damn sure get to choose how I respond to both. I choose to fight for a better life,” she writes. “I think you’re here because you have a warrior spirit as well and you want to stand back up and go again.”
However, true healing from trauma can be more complicated than that, Leah Fogt, a counselor who works as a certified trauma practitioner, told BuzzFeed News. Fogt said she appreciates that Hollis "bravely shares in her book" what she feels is "her truth" about what has happened to her, saying personal accounts of overcoming adversity can be helpful to those struggling. However, while she agrees with Hollis’s assertion that trauma victims need to want to work to recover, she cautions against believing that is all it takes, saying “trauma is not something you can simply ‘get over’ by picking yourself up from your proverbial bootstraps.”
“Healing from trauma is not a straight shot,” she said. “We have ups, downs, light, dark, relapse, and remission throughout the process. Unrealistic expectations for healing can lead to negative, problem-maintaining thoughts like ‘I am weak,’ or ‘I am a failure.’”
Indeed, the most honest and compelling parts of the book are when Hollis specifically discusses her own traumatic experiences, most notably the death of her brother by suicide. In the final chapter, Hollis describes in detail how at 14, she discovered her brother’s body in their home. In another chapter, she describes how her parents, ravaged by grief, stopped parenting her the day her brother died. In Hollis’s mind, the neglect she experienced was unforgivable, and she sharply paints her parents as a prime example of how not to live your life following tragedy.
Hollis spends less time specifically examining her divorce. Unfortunately for fans who may be eager for the tea, Hollis gives very few details about why exactly she and Dave broke up. (Dave has implied on social media it was his wife’s decision to split. Dave, who’s also an influencer and published his first self-help book this year, also is working on his next book.)
After the announcement of their split, the couple was immediately criticized for positioning themselves for years as marriage gurus, without any actual credentials, and for hosting relationship counseling conferences (which cost $798 a person for “early bird” pricing) when their own union was apparently crumbling behind the scenes. Many fans asked how they were supposed to trust the advice of a woman who is unwilling to be vulnerable and honest about her own circumstances. Bloggers who reacted to the news wrote that while they didn’t judge the couple for the divorce, they did judge how the couple had portrayed themselves.
“We’re talking about two very influential life coaches who’ve rapidly built an empire on tough love and being supposedly open books, yet they’ve been covering up the real state of their own marriage for years,” blogger Shannon Ashley writes on Medium.
As Ashley writes, how can someone trust the guidance of a self-help guru who, as people online claim, isn’t being real with them?
“The absence of vulnerability is a significant problem with the Hollis brand and many other lifestyle bloggers who become life coaches,” she writes. “Dave and Rachel clearly want us to think they’re being vulnerable when they typically haven’t said anything of substance.”
Liz Faria, a licensed social worker who blogs at A Mothership Down, writes that she believes the backlash was so severe against the couple because they “have been profiting off of the vision that their marriage is one to emulate.”
“People have been following this couple, and wishing that their own marriage was more like the marriage between Rachel and Dave,” she writes. “This kind of fictional narrative presented as reality is harmful to followers who will never feel like their own lives are good enough because they aren’t as ‘perfect’ as what they see from influencers online. And now that Rachel and Dave are getting a divorce, these followers are angry because they (rightfully) feel like they’ve been duped.”
In the book, though, Hollis addresses none of these criticisms, instead reducing critics with legitimate gripes to “internet bullies” who think that just because she is devoted to “teaching” others, she should be perfect. Instead, she insists she did what she had to do for herself and feels “no guilt” about that decision. In her world, she is brave for making a hard choice that ultimately serves as just one more challenge she has overcome, and anyone judging her only makes her more determined to succeed.
“I am willing to be the villain in someone else’s story if it means I can be the hero of my own,” she writes in the book of her decision to divorce Dave.
In many ways, Hollis’s fans may appreciate this book. It is very similar to her others, and the overall message is basically the same. You go, girl! Life is hard, but you got this! You have the power to change your life! Etc., etc., rinse and repeat.
For some fans, applying Hollis’s old mantras to new challenges seems fine. On Goodreads, one early reviewer writes that her “pal Rach” is “uniquely qualified” to help guide women through this moment.
“No one else but Rachel even thought to write a book during a pandemic in hopes of helping others during a time so difficult for many,” she writes.
Another wrote that Hollis’s insistence that “we have to be self-motivated and responsible for our own mindset when we go through hardships” resonated with her.
“I know 2020 has been a rough year for many and I'm hopeful this book will inspire others and instill them with courage as they're trying to do the next right thing,” she writes.
Perhaps this is Hollis’s strategy. She’s found a philosophy that works for her, fans who already love her and take her word as gospel, so maybe she doesn’t feel the need to grow. But it’s hard to imagine how much longer her one-size-fits-all self-help approach can stay relevant. ●
Correction: Hollis had been working on a third, unrelated book in 2020 before starting to write this one. A previous version of this post conflated the two books.