The Dangers of DIY: How the Narrative of Self-Sufficiency Harms Us, Our Herbal Businesses, and Our Customers

"The Dangers of DIY" written against a background of plants with an image of a tattooed white woman in black and white next to it.

As herbalists, many of us can trace our roots to one form or another of the DIY (Do-It-Yourself) ethos. From learning how to can our own homegrown food and make our own medicine, to making collaged punk show flyers and photocopying zines, one belief holds much of the DIY culture together: that it is better and more empowering to do something yourself than to rely on others for what you need. 

But while there is strength in our scrappiness, there are also hidden dangers lurking in this seemingly counter cultural movement. Dangers that actually cause a lot of harm to ourselves, our businesses, and our customers.


The DIY ethos is an attractive one – it promises us freedom from systems and structures we find abhorrent. Skills that will allow us to survive whatever collapse we can imagine. And it’s fun. My god, is it fun.

So I never really doubted it, myself. Until a friend of mine was visiting and helping us put together a permaculture design for the land onto which we had just moved, and we were chatting about what kinds of perennials to plant. As someone who had fully bought into the idea of the “self-sufficient gardener” (a la John Seymour and the like), I was a bit jolted by my friend’s painfully-obvious-in-retrospect suggestion that we didn’t in fact have to grow all of the food we needed on this one acre. “That’s what community is for,” she reminded us, “You don’t have to do it all yourself.”

You don’t have to do it all yourself.

That moment revealed something to me. Something insidious about the DIY movement in all its manifestations. That despite its outward appearance of rebellion and promises of liberation and healing, it actually plays right into our culture’s dominant narrative of hyper-individualism. And it’s very likely the thing that’s holding us back in our herbal businesses, and causing more harm than good.


Here are just some examples of what I see as the “henchmen” (h/t Kelly Diels) of DIY or Die Individualism – the ways that I’ve seen this villain show up in the businesses of both my clients and myself.

Overwhelm

I see this one all the time. When my clients have tried to take everything on themselves and avoided asking for help, it very quickly becomes too much for their brains and nervous systems and bodies to handle. This then often leads to self-defeating stories of “I’m just not cut out for this,” shame around their perceived lack of ability or capacity, and an increased likelihood that their amazing work won’t see the light of day from underneath all that pressure. 

Not-enoughness

This one’s a good friend of Overwhelm. I’ve yet to work with a client who doesn’t suffer from one version or another of “not enough.” Not good enough. Not experienced enough. Not skilled enough. Not enough. Not enough. Not enough.

While this is in large part a direct byproduct of conventional marketing (which relies on us feeling not enough so that we buy the things that will supposedly make us so), it is also an inevitable result of taking on more than we have capacity for. How could we ever feel like enough when our to do list is a mile long and we’ve never been taught how to do half of what’s on there? DIY or Die tells us we can learn all those things. But do we have to? And while the end result may in fact be empowering (I love that I know how to do basic coding on my website), to always be in that process of learning all the things can feel grueling, exhausting, and leave us questioning our own competencies.

Perfectionism

Another common challenge cited by the majority of my clients. When we look at what’s stopping folks from putting out a new product, or writing a new blog post, or literally anything else, it’s often perfectionism that shows its face. Really it’s just a particular manifestation of Not-Enoughness (“it’s not good enough yet!”), but it’s powerful enough I wanted to name it separately. And of course we would feel this way if we’ve bought into DIY or Die Individualism – because if it’s all up to us, we HAVE to get it right.

Isolation

This henchman is having a field day right now. Folks I work with have typically felt isolated as entrepreneurs, and the pandemic has only compounded this feeling. When we treat our businesses like they should be self sufficient homesteads, it’s no wonder it feels like the nearest warm body and source of support is a hundred miles away. Especially when most of our work happens via technology.

Difficulty navigating regulations

Herbalists, especially product makers, have the added challenge of having to navigate state and federal regulations that just don’t exist for many other entrepreneurs. From FDA (c)GMP compliance to commercial kitchen licenses, to limitations on what we can and cannot say in our marketing, it can be a confusing, convoluted, bureaucratic mess to wade through. 

In fact, many clients I’ve worked with have come to me specifically for help in understanding and applying these regulations, because it is that hard to figure out. And most have held some kind of shame around not being able to figure it out on their own. Which begs the question: what of the folks whose shame prevented them from getting help? How many businesses never make it off the ground because of this?

When we have to navigate hostile systems alone, especially ones that have not been designed for us, it becomes that much harder, if not impossible. Especially when we consider the added layer of cost on top of this. I often think about how much more would be possible if we pooled our resources and didn’t have to all be individually paying for kitchen space, license fees, and the like.


These henchmen of DIY or Die can be really destructive to our own mental health, and to the health of our businesses, especially for marginalized folks. This ethos, while it can help facilitate the scrappiness necessary for those with less resources, is actually deeply rooted in white supremacy culture and patriarchy that puts up monuments for the “self made man” while ignoring the many hands that invisibly supported his success. When we hear stories about Bill Gates doing it all himself, for example, we’re bound to feel pretty shitty about our own progress trying to DIY it minus all the privileges he had.

And here’s a potentially bigger issue – it’s not only harmful to us and our businesses, but it’s also deeply harmful to our clients and customers.

I’ve heard from many an herbalist that one of their goals, for example, is to help others “take their health into their own hands.” If you’ve read this far, I bet that kind of rhetoric is feeling dangerously familiar.

While well-intentioned, this statement actually only serves to reinforce the very-conventional idea that our health is 100% our responsibility. It’s our own responsibility to pay for it, and to manage it, and if something goes wrong with our help then it must be our fault. It’s the language of individualism that is infused into the U.S. health insurance system. That is at the root of why it’s been so hard to convince people to wear masks in public spaces.

And it encourages the same sort of isolation, and shame, and not-enoughness, and overwhelm in our clients as we feel in our businesses when DIY or Die is running the show. And those feelings, generally, are not conducive to healing.

The good news is, there’s another way, and we don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. In your business, you can hold on to aspects of DIY that have served you well – the medicine making skills you’ve learned and want to pass on, the scrappiness that helps ensure you don’t waste any of the precious dollars you have earned, and so on. But what if you took back these things and detached them from the toxic individualism this culture has tainted them with?

What if instead of asking your clients to take their health into their own hands, you offered your hands to them. What if you told them that we aren’t meant to do this alone, and that health is collective, not individual?

And what if you led by example?

What if you looked at your ever growing to do list, and decided to reach out for support on the things that are feeling overwhelming, or where you don’t currently have all the skills you need?

What if you hired others to help you, or even bartered for their help, so that not only the things got done, but everyone involved felt a little less isolated?

What if we committed to navigating bureaucratic systems alongside others, helping one another decipher regulations, renting space together, or starting cooperatives with others doing similar or complimentary work?

What more would be possible? How much overwhelm and shame would be released, and how much enoughness would be generated?


If this feels refreshing to you, and you want to be part of a culture shift among herbal business owners where we stop trying to DIY and start working together, I want to invite you to join the free Bud to Bloom community, an online space for emerging and established herbal entrepreneurs who want to grow their businesses while also infusing healing into every aspect of their business. And if you’re wanting even more support on the business end of things, check out my 6-month coaching program with lots of 1:1 and group support to help you overcome the struggling planter pot of DIY or Die and move into the collective abundance of the Greenhouse.

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2 thoughts on “The Dangers of DIY: How the Narrative of Self-Sufficiency Harms Us, Our Herbal Businesses, and Our Customers”

  1. This article was exactly what I needed to read this morning. It could not have been articulated any better. Thanks for always doing your community the service of reminding us that we aren’t failures for having impossible expectations of ourselves and for our businesses without any support! I’m feeling inspired and so grateful to be part of your community!

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