CO-WRITTEN BY FRIEDA LEVYCKY, FOUNDER OF BRAVING BOUNDARIES, AND ALICIA KOCH, FOUNDER OF THE LEGAL BELLETRIST
Self-help books seem to divide the world into two camps (a bit like Marmite): The lovers and the haters.
I hadn’t realised this until I suggested to Alicia that we write a joint article on the self-help books which have shaped our lives and our careers.
“But I don’t believe in self-help books”, came the response.
“Really?”, I asked in surprise.
“Nope. It really annoys me that anyone (often with no qualifications whatsoever) thinks its ok to tell you that if you ‘follow my method’ or ‘learn from my experience’ you can be more successful, thinner, happier … you name it.”
Hmmm… she has a point. But, I think it is a little unfair to smash self-help books as a whole. I personally see a lot of value in them.
So, instead of proposing a list of self-help books that have changed our lives, we have decided to provide a narrative on the pros and cons of the self-help world.
We hope you read both sides of the argument and challenge your existing beliefs. Maybe you find that self-help books do have their place and could be beneficial for you? Or maybe you realise that self-help books can only get you so far and that sometimes investing in external support is required. That’s up to you though.
We just hope you enjoy the read.
Self-help books – The non-believers (Alicia’s viewpoint)
Not my usual preference.
As I stood there looking at the rows of “How-To’s” and “Do-You’s?” I admit to having a certain degree of curiosity. Enough to find myself picking up one book and reading the back of it.
To summarise – the book promised to help guide you through “some of your most difficult times and help you find a place of serenity and happiness”. I’m paraphrasing here because it said a lot more than that.
It was a tall undertaking by the author (who shall remain nameless) – all for the nominal price of ZAR680.
This book promised to do what no other psychiatrist or clinical psychologist would promise (especially in one session and especially to that degree of certainty). And at an absolute bargain – considering that the going rate for a mental health professional has a far heftier price tag.
That got me thinking – who are the people extracting the most value out of these self-help books? And how effective are they?
As a non-believer in the self-help movement, I think it’s only fair that I apply some reason and scientific analysis to my approach or face – perhaps – missing out on the greatest invention of all time.
With the sheer volume of titles on the Self-Help shelves there must be quite a tally of bodies that flock to the stores, that sign up for the newsletters and that attend the “sold-out” shows of the latest “Guru”.
If there weren’t, there wouldn’t be a section in any book shop with titles like The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life (which is – as fate would have it – the only somewhat self-help styled book I have ever read. And that’s saying something since it’s touted as the counterintuitive kind).
What are self-help books?
So, whose reading these books?
Let’s face it, those are not only big figures (backed by sound scientific research) but a rather large readership.
Am I missing something?
I remember the hype that surrounded the launch of The Secret by Rhona Byrne in 2006 – first a movie that “revealed the great mystery of the universe” – and following that (and a little after the release of the movie), a book that became a worldwide bestseller.
Every single – female – member of my family was hooked. Everyone was talking about it. Everyone believed it would turn their humdrum lives into something masterful and full of opportunity.
I had my doubts.
For starters, The Secret said that the skills learned could be used in “every aspect of your life—money, health, relationships, happiness, and in every interaction, you have in the world. You’ll begin to understand the hidden, untapped power that’s within you, and this revelation can bring joy to every aspect of your life” (Amazon).
It sounds incredible… Wait just a second. All I have to do is foresee the thing I want to happen, happen? To truly believe it will. And it shall be? It felt far, far too easy.
So, there I sat the day before my final exam of my worst subject in University – Economics – and truly believed (and in fact, foresaw) me acing the exam. Achieving an A.
Well, surprise, surprise – that didn’t happen.
I passed that exam by the skin of my teeth actually. I should have spent more time studying than “foreseeing the event happen”.
Perhaps that wasn’t the purpose of The Secret. Perhaps I’m oversimplifying. But that was the value I extracted from it.
Which then led me to ask – was it only my female family members that read The Secret – and by extension – all other self-help books? Because I don’t remember my father, my uncles or my (then) boyfriend reading it. Or any other self-help book on the shelves.
The answer to that is funnily enough – yes. Generally speaking.
Turning to Gitnux again –
“Women make up the majority of self-help book readers, and African Americans have the highest percentage of self-help book buyers. Most self-help book buyers are under 45 years old and purchase books through planned purchases in chain bookstores, online, or through a friend’s recommendation”.
So, essentially, an African (American or not) woman under 45, that frequents a bookstore (or shops for titles online) would be the self-help market’s perfect target audience.
Bollocks to that I say. It can’t be. That’s far too general.
Again, have I missed something?
Do self-help books work?
But the people that need help (and quickly) often turn to the wisdom and knowledge of “mentors” like Robbins (who has made a success of his self-help career), rather than seeking the professional mental health support and care they most probably desperately need.
Sure, reading how to turn your life around in ten easy steps from the women who turned her love for fudge into a word-wide sensation, can give one hope. It makes you see possibilities in the world and in your circumstance that maybe you didn’t see before.
And that’s a great thing if it does.
Technically there isn’t anything wrong, per se, with the advice of the Queen of the Fudge Empire. It can be inspiring. But the problem I have with it is that it’s just her view. It’s just her experience. It doesn’t mean that because you can bake a decent batch of muffins, you will become the Muffin Monarch just because you did what the Fudge Queen told you to do in her book.
“While people lose themselves in a sea of advice, suggestions, routines, and “hacks”, they also lose sight of the fact that no amount of information will change this simple fact: in order to succeed or improve in any area of your life, you need to actually do something”.
And there it is. For me at least.
You can’t just read the book and expect a miracle. You need to act. You need to want to make the change. You need to put in the work. And that’s where having a professional coach, psychiatrist or psychologist can be far more beneficial. Why? Because they hold you accountable and support you whilst doing so.
When we’re done with the book, most of us put it back on our shelves. Maybe we sign up for the monthly newsletter. Maybe we read it every second month or so. Maybe we even attend a seminar (or webinar) hosted by the author. But are we really implementing the change we need in our lives? Are we really acting on the – well-meaning and well-intended but perhaps not exactly professional – advice of the self-help author?
The answer is most likely no. Again, generally speaking.
Reasons why I believe self-help books don’t work
And that seems counterintuitive.
But I’m a cynic.
Self-help books – The believers (Frieda’s viewpoint)
I also agree that the motivation driving individuals to pen a self-help book is not selfless. There is undoubtedly a benefit for the author: it forms part of a marketing strategy; they gain recognition as an author; and there is sheer reward and pride in being able to write a book. Gosh, I genuinely hope one day that I find the courage to write my own book.
Selfish or not though, given the effort and time it takes to write a book, I believe that authors of self-help books have a genuine desire to help people. And, even if they are not qualified therapists, people’s stories have the power to provide new perspective and insight, encourage self-reflection and provide a sense of hope. In fact, many psychologists, coaches and therapists often recommend self-help books as a means of developing self-awareness between sessions and helping individuals process issues through the use of stories. It’s called bibliotherapy.
Reasons why I believe there is a place for self-help books
They are relatable – Prior to my own therapy back in 2014, a friend recommended I listen to the audiobook: “The Power of Vulnerability” by Brené Brown. She was concerned about my inability to set boundaries both in my professional and personal life and could see it was affecting my self-esteem. For me, the power of the book was in its relatability. I was able to connect my struggles with self-worth to those reflected in the book which, in turn, encouraged me to question and challenge my beliefs and thus my negative self-talk. It is a book I will always recommend to clients struggling with self-esteem issues. Brene Brown is so relatable and her tone and delivery allow you to shed the layers of embarrassment and shame that is often attached to low self-esteem. Exposure to that book satisfied my need to belong and feel understood and became my first step to seeking the professional help I required.
You continue to grow and learn – One of Ali’s arguments is that self-help amounts to self-improvement. She argues that we should be seeking self-acceptance rather than self-improvement, and self-help books discourage this. I’m all for self-acceptance i.e. fully embracing who you are, without judgement or comparison to others. However, there is an innate need for humans to grow and develop. Take a look a Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs below:
Whether you’re a cynic like Alicia, or believer like Frieda, one thing is for sure – there is a huge readership of self-help books. And there’s clearly reason for it.
As Frieda has highlighted, self-help books do serve a purpose in the therapy/coaching spectrum. They are affordable, accessible, relatable and serve to help individuals address their problems. However, in this “helping” context, we both agree, that they are no substitute for the help of a therapist/coach. If you feel that you really need help, we encourage you to seek the guidance and support of a mental health professional who can support, guide and help you achieve mental wellness.
On the flip-side, it’s important to remember that self-help books are not all about fixing problems. They exist for self-expansion; to provide inspiration; to generate new ideas; to help you grow. You don’t need a therapist/coach for that. Self-help books – in Frieda’s opinion at least – serve a very valid purpose.
One final point to make is this. Whatever your views about self-help books, please remember that self-help books are not gospel. They provide the author’s perspective and opinion on a topic which is based on how they see the world and/or how they have analysed data presented to them. It doesn’t mean it’s right. It merely provides a perspective. When reading a self-help book, you therefore have a responsibility to question what you’re reading. Does this apply to me? Do I agree with it? Are my own beliefs and experiences influencing the way I’m interpreting this book?
We hope this article has given you some food for thought.
One thing we can both agree on though is this – happy reading (whatever genre of book you choose)!
About the Co-author, Alicia Koch, Founder of The Legal Belletrist. Alicia, an admitted attorney with over 10 years PQE, and now a legal writer and researcher, has established The Legal Belletrist to assist companies (in different sectors) to write well-researched articles that speak to each company’s core business, enabling growth and commercialism.