The Pitfalls and Promises of Self-Help
I’m a self-help scavenger. Over the course of a lifetime, I’ve read hundreds of self-help books. Like many people, I started life off on uneven footing and always had the sense that I had to make up for something that I was lacking – something that was preventing me from being the confident, self-actualized, happy person I thought I should be. It’s taken decades to understand how to make self-help advice useful and how to discard that which is not.
There is a wide variety of books out there, one for every phase or problem in one’s life. The approaches vary and as we all know, so do the results. Some are sweet aunties who love you and just want you to be happy. Others are drill sergeants who bellow in your face. And then there are the shills, who turn basic ideas into a secretive language of high wizardry.
Here are a few things that I’ve learned about self-help books:
The first half of the book usually covers all the concepts.
I will be the first to admit that it is a rare self-help guide that I finish. Unless the writing or the stories are compelling, repetition sets in and then it all starts to sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher in my head. I also find that I need time for thoughts to marinate – once I catch an idea I like or that makes sense to me, I’m eager to put the book aside.
The harsher the tone of the writer, the less I trust their ability to understand human nature and therefore offer useful advice.
This is the drill sergeant approach. Take someone who is feeling down and out, tell them what to do, and then suggest that they’re a failure if they can’t make it happen. This is, essentially, what many self-help books do. Throw in a little moralizing and finger-wagging and you get the idea. This is, to loot modern terminology, self-help shaming. What? We told you what to do. If you’re not happy now, there’s something wrong with you.
Some books have a narrator who talks as if they’re in the midst of a bar brawl or on the battlefield. The toughness approach generally makes me want to tear the book in half. I grew up with negative motivation. It means that fear drove most of my behavior. I’m a grownup now and won’t be yelled into compliance. Convince me with logic and reason. Use your indoor voice.
Most self-help books are missing major caveats.
I recently read a self-help book that is popular right now. The first chapter started out with the origin story. The second was a cheap remix of The Secret. The following chapters had a few actionable items. I finally quit at the chapter that characterized depression as some sort of defeatist laziness. The writer was a little older than I, so there was really no excuse for this type of ignorance.
This is not the first time a self-help writer characterized depression as something besides a brain chemical imbalance. The positivity movement of the 1990s, in its self-congratulatory glee and smiley faces, runs roughshod over obstacles to good mental health.
It is likely no coincidence that, despite all of these friendly people telling us to get happy, depression is on the rise in this country. It turns out, willful ignorance and grinning determination is not actually an antidote to mental health issues.
Like most things, the sequels are rarely better.
This is about marketing, not self-help. It’s just squeezing an already-juiced orange.
So those are some of the pitfalls. The biggest one, of course, is believing that you are one constant DIY project. I’ve unraveled a lot of the thinking around that. I like self-improvement pursuits, but it’s very easy to focus so hard on trying to be better, that you fail to appreciate the things about yourself that are pretty good. And when pretty good is good enough.
It’s part culture and part related to whatever messages we get as kids. We get pulled into the advertising of better selves through possession of better things and it can attach itself to that part of our psyche that says whatever we have, whatever we are, it’s not enough.
Using Self-Help to Your Advantage
Self-help advice is like a buffet.
You pick what you like, what resonates, what seems like a possibility. You don’t make yourself eat the beets just because they are next to the chocolate pudding (or vice-versa, depending on your intentions and tastes).
There’s no failure. There’s what works for you and what doesn’t.
If you don’t implement every step the author suggests, you’re not a failure. Has the step you’ve chosen helped improve your life in some way? That’s the only thing that matters.
Sometimes good ideas come from odd places.
Many years ago, I read L. Ron Hubbard’s “Dianetics” – the tome associated with Scientology. The one thing I learned was to think about my reactions to situations and whether or not I was reacting to what was in front of me or to other memories and connections related to the situation. That’s pretty much all I got out of a 600+ page book, but it was something.
Change is not a television show. There is no big reveal.
I used to love watching This Old House on PBS. Usually it was a kitchen or basement that got transformed in the course of an hour. Of course, ginned-up versions of this now come in weight, house, and fashion makeover shows. Buses are moved, curtains pulled aside, and suddenly, there’s the after, dramatic and “improved”. Real change takes time and perspective. I’ll read something today that I may not try for years, but it’s a tool in the back of my mind that might come in handy someday. You just never know what might be useful when the time is right.
My Abbreviated History of Self-Help Books
Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus by John Gray
I learned that I hate any self-help books divided by gender – and this guy’s books in particular. It’s loaded with stereotypes and unimaginative solutions. This smarmy trad-dude is from Uranus.
Between Parent and Child by Dr. Haim G. Ginott
I learned some good communication skills, not just with my child, but with humans in general. Kept it as a reference book.
Women and Self-Esteem by Linda Tschirhart Sanford and Mary Ellen Donovan
I read this back in the 1990s when I was spending a lot of time on public transportation. It had a chapter about women in public spaces that made me not only function differently in public, but also improved my observation skills of others around me.
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
Don’t quip corporate terminology, show me what is essentially a PowerPoint presentation, or encourage me to buy your extensive line of products. Sigh. I bought one of those stupid planners. I needed to schedule time in my day to fill in the damned thing. Not effective and carries a whiff of corporate bro-ness.
This was my first encounter with this American Buddhist nun and I’ve been hooked ever since. Most of the time I listen to her audiobooks, but I will sometimes pull When Things Fall Apart off the shelf. The thing that always sticks in my mind is the idea of “leaning into the sharp edges” – this idea that instead of seeking distraction and avoidance of unpleasant feelings, to look at them with a clear and present eye. It’s much less destructive.
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
I really wanted to like this book, but it was a bit of a clunky read, with anecdotes that were too lengthy and perhaps intended for people who routinely miss the point.
Small Move, Big Change by Caroline Arnold
I read this book last fall and set about immediately making changes (microresolutions). I’m still in the enthusiastic phase. I’ve made changes that are, 8 months later, habits. I read another book at the time that was similar in nature: Mini-habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results by Stephen Guise. It was a good starter book, but Ms. Arnold’s book included an important piece often missed in goal-setting – teaching you how to pick the right goal for yourself.
The Power of Now by Ekhart Tolle
I tried, I really tried. There’s no way around it – the condescension just irritated the hell out of me.
Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore
This book stays on my reference shelf. I like writing that makes me feel just a bit smarter. The narrator, a former monk, does not limit himself in sources, drawing analogies from religion, mythology, and culture. His book embraces complex feelings, instead of trying, like so many others, to deny or simplify them.
Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman
I learned how to change my internal dialogue with this book. There are a lot of ways to go about this, but this particular book resonated with me. I learned how to challenge my irrational thoughts. Not permanently, of course – that’s an ongoing challenge.
I’m going to stop there – the list is getting too long. The books that I have actively disliked (and passive-aggressively not provided links to), might just be the thing that does it for you. And some of my aha book moments may completely elude anybody else.
Do you read self-help books? What have you read that has been useful?