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.

canstockphoto2656709This 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 canstockphoto13041791besides 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.


canstockphoto34597907So 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.

canstockphoto24077627Many 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.

canstockphoto12917145My 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.

Getting Unstuck: Breaking Your Habitual Patterns and Encountering Naked Reality by Pema Chödrön

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?



52 thoughts on “The Pitfalls and Promises of Self-Help

      1. It was more interesting to me. Her philosophy about minimalism was part of it. And maybe, too, that she approached her subject from so many different angles. I seemed to picture things and it felt interactive to me. Does that make any sense?

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Loved your thoughts on self-help writing and the abbreviated reviews, especially as I agree with the ones that apply to the books I’ve read.

    An aside for the record, I also love how well pureed beets work in my chocolate cake. Makes me feel like I’m not poisoning my family entirely with the sugar – lol.


  2. Anything Pema is worthwhile, as you note. Susan Piver is another amazing Buddhist teacher whose wisdom about relationships — particularly romantic love, which seems to implicate all our “self” issues — is radical and immensely helpful. Bruce Tift’s “Already Free” is a marvelous synthesis of psychology and Buddhist teaching by a man who is an accomplished practitioner in both realms. Allen Wheelis’ brief book “How People Change” is less a primer than an insightful window into the difficulties of real and lasting change; it’s a beautiful literary work, part memoir and part reminder of what we’re up against in the matter of transformation. I’ve read it repeatedly, as much for the quality of the writing as the insights.


    1. Wow – a whole list of books I haven’t read. I do tend to be drawn toward Buddhist philosophy when it comes to addressing issues of self-worth, being present, etc. They all sound interesting – my list grows longer – thank you!


  3. I really don’t read them. I think I bristle at the authority aspect of so many of them and the authors with groupies who will pay lots of money to be in the presence of them is a little unsettling. I think it’s because I spent all of my twenties in the evangelical movement, of the 80’s no less, and I have an aversion to people who are controlling in the name of goodness. I read a little Chopra and have a friend who is enamored of him and she is a wonderful human being, but I didn’t find his approach to resonate with me. I might try reading Pema Chodron and Thomas Moore based on your reviews. I tend towards reading non-fiction autobiographical books and often learn an awful lot from them.


    1. Like most things, self-help advice is only as useful as it appeals to the person reading it. I tend to be turned off by “law of attraction” nonsense, because it carries the weight of condemnation for those who are not successful, wealthy, or self-fulfilled. I also find fuzzy terminology or ideology to be unappealing. I don’t have much of an appreciation for Deepak Chopra, especially since he is one of those that tries to quantify spiritual concepts (e.g. The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success) and he emerged at approximately the same time as the prosperity gospel nonsense. If concepts become a franchise, the information is likely ubiquitous claptrap.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I have read a number of self help books over the years and left them by the wayside. I think bits of them may have somehow homogenised into my world view. I have found a lot of the changes in my life challenging and got on with them my way, as I was at that time.


    1. I find what you describe as homogenization is likely what happens with a great deal of the information I take in. It just sits on a shelf in the back of my brain until another thing comes along and connects to it. Often we arrive at solutions in the middle of a situation and we think it was something we came up with in the moment, when really it was a shelf clearing!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I think this was very insightful piece. I have to agree with most of your views on your self help books, I have read many of them as either required reading in my professional career or as a way to get through some difficult times in my own personal time. Many I have found are written by people who don’t have a clue in solution finding. They are great in identifying the shortfalls of just about every personality but many of the tools are faddish and short lived. I found that Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff by Richard Carlson had many good points and I refer back to it from time to time (I even have the workbook). How To Live Without Electricity And Like It, by Anita Evangelista had good suggestions but I found many fell short of my expectations of the book, I still hold onto it as you never know when the world will fall apart and we need to refer to old methods of survival. Lastly it is more of a government self help that should be required read for the man who now sits in the WH. Common Sense by Glenn Beck. Nothing more to say about that as I think that is clear.
    As always love reading your blog. Hope the heat is getting better in MN. Been horrible here in The Netherlands. No rain for over 5 weeks! Longest time here with the hottest temps in 300 years of recorded history of this country. Brown is not a color one would normally use to describe this country but right now it is and that is worrying for people like me concerned with global warming, climate change, and food supplies.


    1. It’s prime mosquito season here – with heavy rains followed by heat. I’m finding Minnesota to be more like the Iowa I knew growing up. I’m going to have to keep moving north if this is the new “normal”.

      I’m always interested in survivalist/minimalist approaches, so I’ll add the Evangelista book to my reading list – thanks. I’m not fond of Glenn Beck due to the many years of televised histrionics, but it reminds me to revisit the book he based his on – Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. A perfect reminder in this age of fools. It’s amazing to me how well-read our politicians and political activists were, compared to the many venal halfwits populating the world stage today. But that’s a post for another time!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I just watched former President Obama’s speech to the Mandela conference. I sure miss his intellect and his more diplomatic approach. I just donated to Bernie Sanders- I think he is in love with me because I am getting more email from him than my hubby. BTW- I will have property again in MN a bit further North than where you are. Tough Army Chicks are always welcome!😊

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Okay, it’s confession time: I was part of a group of freelance editors and copy-editors and at one meeting it turned out that most of us had worked on at least one self-help book and many of us on multiple ones. We all got mildly hysterical over them (no alcohol was involved and I can’t reconstruct what set us off) and ended up planning a self-help book for people addicted to self-help books. It was funny enough that I tried outlining it, but alone in front of the computer the joke died and I abandoned the idea.

    It may have been the repetitiousness of the form that got to us. When you’re not trying to get anything out of them for yourself, just brush the lint off them and make sure their buttons are done up right, you notice that sort of thing.


    1. I love how you always bring a unique perspective to the comment section, Ellen. I can’t imagine editing self-help book(s) without finding them tedious or amusing. At this point in my personal flagellation/self-help reading history, I definitely see corollaries between a lot of books. The last book I read was just a remix of The Secret with a lot of swear words thrown in, as if the Universe were suddenly a pot-smoking hipster. In which case, I don’t need to will it to me, I just need to put out snacks.


  7. You should check out the podcast By the Book ( The hosts live by a self-help book for two weeks and critique whether it actually helped improve their lives. I had multiple friends recommend it to me because they knew I love books (and self-help books in particular) and I’ve been hooked ever since.


    1. Somebody told me about that last month and I binge-listened to all the episodes! I really enjoyed them. The only limitation is that they try something for two weeks that might require a longer time commitment, but it’s a great way to whittle down one’s self-help book list. And this is a picayune thing to notice, but I’ve lived in Minnesota for 20 years and have NEVER heard a Minnesota accent as strong as Kristen’s! Holy cow.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Over the years, I’ve started a lot of self-help books but finished few. The only one I can recall finishing—and, in fact, rereading it at least three times—is Wayne Muller’s “How, Then, Shall We Live?” I love it as much for the quality of his writing as for the ideas and content. I have to admit that I was dismayed to learn that my own forthcoming book has been categorized as self-help. That category, I’ve discovered, is a big umbrella. I don’t want to read—nor be—a writer who tells other people how to live, or who claims to know the secret to a successful/happy/healthy/fulfilling life. I’m hoping my book comes across as a friend sharing stories, observations, and even some research, and hoping readers will pick and choose what resonates with them—with the shared hope that we can create a kinder world together. (Oh, and I completely agree about Ekhart Tolle–tedious and condescending . . . and also really enjoy Pema Chodron–don’t think of her as self-help, though I suppose she falls under that umbrella. Thanks, Michelle, as usual, you got me thinking.


    1. I just requested the Muller book from the library – thanks for mentioning it.

      There are a few approaches to self-help books, but the best ones tend to be about the sharing of discoveries, which it sounds like yours is. I wouldn’t get too hung up on the category – since it is such a popular genre, that might be a better place to be in terms of market, as opposed to a niche philosophy book or something.

      I do consider authors like Pema Chodron to be of the self-help ilk. She’s a teacher and most teaching does come down to helping others lead fulfilling lives. I’ve learned a lot from her (even if not always putting it into practice!). Now that I’m thinking about it – most books might fall under that umbrella. Perhaps that genre identification lies with the intent of the reader, not the writer.


  9. Great post! I love self-help books too! I agree with all of what you have said, and I love the metaphor of squeezing orange juice out of an already squeezed orange! I always learn something, whether it is in my own comfortable range of beliefs or not. I haven’t read all the titles mentioned here, but I will look for them.


    1. I’ve found that even books I loathe provide a lesson – my values are clarified and it forces me to think about why I reacted so strongly. I read fewer self-help books than I used to, but still pick one up every once in a while. I can’t decide if I’m “cured” or just tired of trying to fix myself all the time!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Sigh. So many books bought on (what was), so many donated to the library.
    The one book I’ve kept is Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach. Learning how to accept whatever I might be feeling was a huge sea change in my life. Recommended by my therapist, we used it a lot in therapy at the time.

    And harking back to beets… I just used the juice from a can of pickled beets to stain paper for my art stuff. Nice rosy tint & a pungent aroma!


    1. I gave up on Radical Acceptance and donated it years ago – I think I was as far from accepting myself as could be at the time. That’s the curious thing about these books. There are times when they show up at the perfect moment and one is open to them. And then other times, nothing gets in. Occasionally I’ll revisit a book in the hopes the kaleidoscope of time will give me a different perspective and it does. Or I’ll read something I adored when I was younger and think “was I that stupid?”

      I obviously need to add more root vegetables to my posts – I learn a lot from the comments!


  11. Hi Michelle,

    As usual, thoughtful and measured words here.

    The Dianetics book caught my eye. Haven’t read it, but when you say it makes you think about things more in the present moment than from memories past, I think that’s a powerfull concept. Makes me want to read it!

    And “Getting Unstuck” sounds super. I really like that idea of “leaning into the sharp edges.” It sounds like where I’m at now with my writing and having to make some tough choices…keep writing and see where it goes, or finish student teaching for a teaching credential and a job I don’t really want.

    The fact that I’ve had some recent writing wins (getting published) and just this week got news of a super huge win ( can’t even disclose here yet, since they want us to keep it under wraps till they officially announce the winners) is making a decision even harder to come by. I’m doing everything under the sun to avoid deciding!

    Gonna buy that book today!
    Thanks much for the post!


    1. I don’t know that I’m recommending that book – it’s a lot to wade through to get to that particular concept. Maybe you can get it at the library. Congrats on your many writing successes! Look forward to hearing the latest!


  12. Self-help books. Yeah, I got them. A lot of them! Pema Chödrön is my go-to for most everything these days. I’m lumping inspirational in with self-help although I’m not sure they’re the same. I love books that aren’t too filled with magical thinking. I lean towards Buddhist philosophy/thought. I don’t like The Secret, but I do believe in the power of thoughts or that thoughts become things. I really like Tolle’s The Power of Now. My all-time favorite book is Women Who Run With the Wolves. That’s a mix of a lot of genres—psychology, mythology, women’s studies. I don’t buy self-help books like I used to. Maybe that comes with aging or acceptance? I don’t know. As far as Covey’s damn planner, I agree with you! I tried that when my girls were young thinking it would make all of our lives simpler, better. Ha! Thanks for another thoughtful post. Happy weekend!


    1. I have a cherished copy of Women Who Run with Wolves, given to me by an inspirational friend. Pema Chödrön is always at the top of my list as well. I think these days I’m less interested in a “fix” than I am about going deeper and really doing the work to grow as a human.In my 20s I read through self-help books with a degree of desperation and now I’m just searching for new angles and ways of looking at things. It’s probably good to acknowledge that growth every once in a while!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I completely agree that most if not all self-help books miss something or worse almost make you feel worse for trying to improve yourself in the first place. It’s like reading a fashion or fitness magazine most the time, it only makes you feel worse.
    It is like a buffet, I agree, some of what you try will not look right, or even help you if you try. Being a person who is also chasing the self-help path in a goal to be a more Alpha male I’m still reading and admittedly trying a variety of things and at the end of it all doing what works best for me. Self-help is hit at miss, but it is still self improvement. Self improvement is always delicious. Enjoyed the blog. Be safe and good luck to us all.


    1. Glad you enjoyed the post. I’m not sure I really understand the whole Alpha thing, because so often it is couched in terms that seem derogatory about other humans (calling men Betas and having odd ideas about women). But I read a few of your posts in the hopes of understanding.

      I don’t think self-development and actualization is a gendered thing. But that is one marketing approach. To me, it’s always a mind, body, soul thing, and eastern philosophies cover it pretty well.

      I also read your post on trying and failing to start new habits/meet goals. Been there a thousand times! The two books I mentioned by Caroline Arnold and Stephen Guise were pretty useful. Set some goals last fall that I’m still following through using that advice. Good luck to you – keep on keeping on!


  14. “Sometimes good ideas come from odd places”. You’re so right about this! I actually found a lot of self-help advice from reading the Bible of all things. I’ve learned how to communicate better, how to relieve stress and anxiety, how to cope with loss and disappointment and so many other things that have boosted my confidence and self-esteem. I think many people think the Bible is just a religious text, but I’ve realized that it’s a gift from God that is designed to help us deal with this crazy world. The hardest part about reading the Bible is finding the parts that relate to your situation. is my go to website. You can just search the topic your looking for and an article breakdown full of pertinent scriptures pops up.


    1. It’s good you have found what works for you. I have an in-depth knowledge of the Bible from a fundamentalist upbringing and felt it still leaves plenty of room for questions and other sources of information. As a nonbeliever, I don’t feel the same way about that text, but it is meaningful to you. This is, of course, the beauty of knowledge – it comes in all kinds of form, depending on what you need and what you value.


  15. I love how you point out that there are lessons to be learned everywhere. Being completely new to the self help world, I have been a little discouraged by the advice I have found that urged me to change everything about my life all at once or be a failure. Trying to sort through all the conflicting advice has been a challenge. I’ll be definitely checking out some of the books that you have listed.


    1. I think all-or-nothing books really cater to the makeover mentality of reality TV shows. Most change that lasts is small, incremental, and reasonable specifically for you, your time and resource constraints. The cool thing about the small changes that I’ve discovered, is that they are confidence-builders to the next step. Even if you set out to say, make a goal of eating vegetables with lunch, which is a good goal all by itself, once you learn you can accomplish it, it’s easier to pick the next thing. I really, really liked the Arnold and Guise books for this reason.


  16. I can’t believe no one has mentioned this (or at least not that I could see) but Gretchen Rubin’s “Better Than Before” and “Happiness Project” are both great books to read! Her podcast “Happier” is also a real winner.


  17. I find Covey’s 7 Habits to be really useful. Maybe it’s because it’s one of the first I’ve read so it shook me out of the herd mentality I had all my life. It made me think and ask myself so many questions I wouldn’t have otherwise. Plus, it took actual effort and honesty to do the exercises, it didn’t just blindly throw some positivity mantras at me.

    To me a good self-help book is just a book you learn something useful from, usually some kind of fresh idea you never thought of. That’s why I love (some of) them. After reading your post you also made me think that I should be judging the author’s tone and beliefs too. Maybe that’s what bothered me about The Achievement Habit – I felt the author’s condescension and pressure (even towards his wife) frequently throughout the book. Looking back, even though it had good ideas, I don’t think I’d wanna hear that voice in my head anytime soon!

    Thanks for the post, it’s thoughtful and interesting.


    1. I can easily be attracted or repulsed by an author’s tone. Like you say, even with books that bother you though, you can walk away with a nugget or two. I came to the Covey thing late – after it had turned into a giant franchise with associated expensive products, so I wasn’t as open as if I’d come to it cold. But that’s part of the self-help thing as well – it depends on what point in your life you are at, if something appeals to you.


  18. I love this very much and love that you touched on the fact that many people out there want to force something onto people. It’s something that’s becoming common. :/


    1. Thanks! Sorry for the delay in responding – I missed this comment. I often think that when people are seeking advice, they are often at their most vulnerable. It means that people who are giving advice need to be aware of their tone and approach. Kindness is always the best route, isn’t it?


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