Why Critics Of Self Help Have It All Wrong

Before I started writing this piece, I thought it would be wise to see the arguments that have already been set out in the debate over self help; I expected to find a fairly balanced conversation between the supporters and the critics.

What I actually discovered, however, was a largely negative rhetoric damning the whole self help industry for being ineffective, money-driven, and even fraudulent.

Article after article on popular websites such as Time Magazine, the Huffington Post and the Daily Mail all used very derogatory language when discussing the practice. “Self-help books could ruin your life!” proclaim the Mail in their usual sensationalist style, while Time asked the very pertinent question “Why Do We Keep Searching for the Perfect Advice Book?” before answering it with a largely critical viewpoint.

I went through page after page of Google, reading countless editorials, and the majority were quick to launch attacks on the books, courses and retreats that millions of people shell out their hard earned money on each year. And yet they all seemed to be missing something.

So what follows is my impassioned defense of self help. I have read a lot of books in this genre and I honestly believe that they have played a part in my personal and spiritual growth. I consider myself to be a more rounded individual than I was beforehand and I am more mentally resilient too.

I am not, however, going to proclaim that I am a spiritually enlightened person who feels no worry or anxiety; I do. But, as I’ll discuss later, I don’t believe this to be the aim of self help in the first place.

But let’s start at the beginning of my self help journey…

I had just quit a job that, while fairly well paid, didn’t leave me at all fulfilled, in order to start my own business – a dream I’ve had from a young age. In a sense, I guess this means I had already embraced the idea of helping myself.

And yet here I was, a few months after going it alone and I was finding it incredibly difficult to motivate myself. I was going into an office every day, but I’d often find myself procrastinating for much of the time; I’d chat to people via instant message, I’d read news websites, I’d surf forums, I’d just listen to music.

I wasn’t sure where I was going to find inspiration to properly sit down and get on with things. That’s when one of my friends recommended a book that she thought would help. It was The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.

I was skeptical at first, but I didn’t have any reason not to read it. I wasn’t much of a reader at this stage of my life so it took me quite a while to reach the end and, if I’m honest, I was far from impressed. None of the views expressed in the book really resonated with me; all this ‘be in the present’ malarkey didn’t sound like it was a solution to the problems I faced with work.

I tried another book a month later – this time it was one specifically about procrastination. Again, I was far from inspired and didn’t even finish reading it – how ironic.

Luckily for me, I hadn’t been completely put off the idea of self help by these early setbacks, and the next couple of books I read finally stirred something within me.

The first was a business book called the E-Myth Revisited and it struck a chord in terms of how I should approach my work issues. I can’t say that I implemented everything it taught, but it did have a few golden nuggets that started to break down the barriers I had built up towards work.

The second book had an even bigger impact; I have read it a number of times since and it never fails to leave me enthused about life. It is one of the classics of the genre: Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl. I found his account of life in the concentration camps of WW2 deeply moving and the basic outline of logotheraphy – Frankl’s approach to psychotherapy – enlightening.

From here I started buying other self help material – mostly books, but also a number of audio programs including guided meditations, NLP, and affirmations.

That was over 6 years ago, but even today I buy and read self help books on a regular basis and occasionally listen to audio tracks or watch videos online.

So I guess the big question is whether or not I’ve experienced the ‘help’ in self help. It is worth pointing out that I can’t be 100% certain – after all, I can’t go back and relive those 6 years without the self help books and then compare the two versions of me.

But it is my belief that I have taken a great deal from all the books, mp3s and videos. I have tackled specific issues such as stress, money, time, and meaning, and although not entirely resolved – each issue rears its ugly head to a greater or lesser extent – there have been significant improvements in these areas of my life.

Will I continue to digest self help material going forward? Almost certainly; I can’t now envisage a time when I will actually stop.

But you may be thinking, surely this means it doesn’t work? If I continue to read self help books for the rest of my life, is this not proof of their ineffectiveness? I look at it a different way: if I didn’t ever take something from the books, why would I keep buying them?

That would be like someone going to an opera, not enjoying it, but returning over and over hoping to like it the next time. They just wouldn’t do it.

Anyway, enough about me; let’s move on to a more thorough look at some of the arguments…

The critics of the self help movement seem to overlook or misunderstand some of the things that make it what it is. What follows are just some of the important points that seem to have slipped under the radar in many of their published commentaries.

Change Is Not Instant

One of the key arguments made against self help content is that people wouldn’t keep buying it if it worked; they would be able to resolve their issues and move on with their lives.

Oh, if only it were that simple. What the skeptics don’t seem to appreciate is that change is a gradual process, one that never actually stops while we are alive. You don’t simply consume some self help material and wake up the next day a changed person.

So, yes, people do continue to buy books and tapes, and go on courses; these might shine a different light on a situation or reinforce a message that they have heard before.

Think about it: a good school teacher will try many different ways to help a child learn and will repeat core principles over and over until the child has mastered them to the best of their abilities. Even then, most people will forget much of what they learn at school because they do not utilize it in their day-to-day lives.

The ongoing consumption of self help literature is necessary in many respects for the individual to continue to explore the concepts being discussed. This isn’t a failure of self help; it is a by-product of modern day life and the constraints it puts on our time.

As I said earlier, I can see myself reading self help books for the rest of my life because my personal and spiritual growth isn’t something I want to limit.

A final point on change is that the critics might not be focusing on the right changes (or lack thereof) when they are harshly judging the industry. Self help is just as often about coping with a situation as it is about changing it.

As I alluded to earlier, I still feel a sense of anxiety at times; I still worry, I get stressed, and I have the occasional low mood. Critics may point to these feelings as evidence that self help has failed me, but the way I now approach such feelings has changed greatly compared with the past.

Different People + Different Times = Different Books

When I first read the Power of Now, the message it delivered simply wasn’t the one I needed to hear at that point in my life. Based on this experience alone, I too could have proclaimed that self help is a load of rubbish.

But neither was I a fan of spicy food in my younger days, and yet I will now happily eat curries, stir fries and other chilli based meals. My palate changed over time to include a far greater variety of flavors, and this is no different to my choice of self help books.

I first needed to find something that I could sink my teeth into, if you’ll excuse the pun, before I could start to experiment with the various sub-genres.

When I returned to the Power of Now a few years after my first attempt, I actually gained a lot more from it. I found the message it contained matched my needs at that point in time.

And this is what critics don’t understand: not all self help material will be right for each person at every stage along their journey. You might not take a great deal from the first book/mp3/course you buy, but that doesn’t mean the next one won’t resonate with you. Or perhaps it is because you learn something from one purchase that you are then better prepared for the next lesson.

Science Does Not Have All The Answers

Another of the main criticisms of the self help industry is the lack of empirical scientific evidence to back the claims being made and the techniques being circulated.

I actually have a strong belief in science – at least for the most part. Scientific advancements and discoveries have done a great deal for human health and the quality of life, but I also disagree with the idea that science is ever settled, that scientists can ever prove something irrevocably.

The world of science is akin to the world of an individual in some ways – it is forever learning new things, it has a sense of wonder, its views evolve over time, it yearns for self improvement.

Where science and I start to disagree with regards to self help, however, is how empirical evidence should be used and whether it is even necessary in every situation.

Scientific studies may suggest that 75% of people will not benefit from positive thinking exercises (this is a made up figure to make a point), but the flip side of this statistic means that 25% of people will. Mindfulness exercises may work for 50% of people, which sounds great, but this does, of course, mean that they may not work for the other 50%.

It all comes back to my earlier point about different self help material being right for different people at different times. We need to be aware that we are all different; our genes are different, our past experiences are different, our present situations are different.

Much like a psychotherapist would deal with the specific issues afflicting a patient and how personalized medicine is breaking through in areas such as cancer treatment, a self help industry that is of benefit to the widest range of people will need to offer a wide range of approaches.

Think of it this way: if you had an issue that you wanted to address and you found a method that worked for you, wouldn’t you share it with other people facing that same issue? You’d say to your friend “I went through something similar and this is what helped me the most – try it out and let me know how it goes.” So when a self help author does the same, why are some people so quick to denounce his work because it lacks a scientific basis?

Not All Self Help Is Made Equal

Just as with any form of expression – whether literature, film, TV or music – there can be both good and bad self help.

The effectiveness of any approach to help, whether administered by yourself or another, is partly based on the methodology, but also on the manner in which it is delivered and the willingness to participate.

A good self help program – whether in the form of a book, audio course or physical retreat – is one that engages with the participant to the extent that he is motivated to genuinely digest the material and use it to address his issues.

In many circumstances, this involves:

  • Being able to tell a story – this is one of the best ways to engage an audience and something that many of the most popular books and programs make use of.
  • Making the material accessible so that it can be easily understood and absorbed. For the majority of people, a scientific research paper is far less likely to lead to action, even if it promotes the same ideas as a book written for the layman.
  • Having a structured approach so that the basics are taught (or reinforced) before more specific concepts are discussed. New readers will need these basics, while others will either appreciate the reminder or be able to skim the initial sections.

Not all self help is quite so well constructed which makes it less effective to those consuming it. Criticism in these cases can be justified.

Approaching Self Help

One thing that is vitally important when it comes to utilizing self help material is to maintain an independent and critical mind.

  • A self help book or program is not an instruction manual – you should digest the contents and learn about the different ideas that exist, but most of all it should be a portal through which you actively think about and engage with the issues in a way that best fits your situation.
  • You shouldn’t be afraid to disagree with something – while suggestions can be made and approaches put forward, they aren’t truths that need to be religiously stuck to. If you think they are nonsense, then that’s absolutely fine (although your views may change over time as mine did).
  • Don’t blame yourself or the program if you don’t connect – much like people, you just won’t get along with everybody all the time. You might be able to learn from such an outcome, but if not, you shouldn’t punish yourself with negative thoughts such as “I’m a hopeless case” or “why didn’t this help me when it’s helped so many other people?”
  • Neither should you let the program blame you – there are some which would have you believe that when a positive outcome is not forthcoming, it is because you didn’t believe in it hard enough. If you come across anything like this, my advice would be to ditch it (although others may disagree).

You should also remember my earlier point about change not being an ongoing process, so that you have realistic expectations regarding the outcome.

The Limitations Of Self Help

While I have defended the very idea of self help throughout this article, I will, however, concede that there are times when it is unwise to attempt to treat oneself with it.

Some conditions are so complex and so serious that seeking professional help is the best way forward. That’s not to say that self help material cannot be used in conjunction with more structured treatment. In fact, professionals may sometimes prescribe reading – often, but not always, of self help literature – as a way to help a patient overcome the challenges they face. This is known as bibliotherapy.

Much like any health advice, if you are in doubt, don’t be afraid to consult your doctor.

A Conclusion And An Apology To The Critics

To be sure, the self help industry is not going anywhere; it has been growing consistently over time and will likely continue to do so. The reasons for this are many, but my view is that it shows the value that people get from such material. Not only do they consume more of it, much like I intend to do, but they also recommend it to their friends and family.

I would, however, like to offer an apology to the critics for my use of language in the title of this piece. I suggested that they are wrong about self help, but this is not really what I mean; I hold my hands up and admit that this simply made for a better title.

Just because they have a different view to me, it doesn’t mean I am right and they are wrong. We should be striving to make self help as effective as possible and this may involve being critical of certain aspects of it. I expect criticism of this very article, but I welcome it because seeing a perspective that is different to my own, and accepting that this is how some people feel, is an extremely healthy thing.

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