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)

The other day I was browsing in my favourite bookshop. Walking around the store I read title after title and found myself – quite unexpectedly – in the Self-Help section.

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?

Before we get started, it’s worth reminding ourselves what self-help books are. In short, they are books which instruct or give advice on how to improve yourself. This could be physically, mentally, financially, spiritually or otherwise. The idea is that by reading a self-help book you are capable of improving your current position without the need of external resources, advice or support. In other words – you help yourself.

So, whose reading these books?

According to Gitnux, “over 45,300 new self-help books were published in 2020”, with Marketwatch predicting that the self-help market would reach a total value of “USD 56073.74 Million by the End of 2030”. That’s a compounded annual growth of around 5.13% expected till 2030. The average reader of self-help books buys 3 a year.  

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. 

So why then is success coach, public speaker, self-help author and actor, Tony Robbins estimated to have net worth of around $600 Million (Wealthy Gorilla)?

Again, have I missed something?

Do self-help books work?

The premise of seeking advice from a self-help book is that you do – in fact – need help. Funny that since it’s kind of in the title of the genre. 

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. 

And yes, I know that’s not the purpose of the self-help genre. I know that. But I do believe Cristofer Maximilian in his article Self-Help Books Don’t Work — Here’s Why when he says – 

“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

Author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life, Mark Manson sets out five major problems with the self-help industry (that are unlikely to go away). I have (partly) paraphrased for ease of the reading – 
Self-help reinforces perceptions of inferiority and shame there are (generally speaking) two types of people who purchase self-help books. Those that feel they can simply improve on their lives with a few little tips and tricks and those that feel that there’s fundamentally something wrong with them. Those that just want to improve themselves will read a self-help book and go “Ok, I can do that” and not feel disparaged by the contents of the book. Those that feel there’s something fundamentally wrong with them will take the content in the book and use it to make themselves feel even worse about themselves. Because “the irony here is that the pre-requisite for self-help to be effective is the one crucial thing that self-help cannot actually help: accept yourself as a good person who makes mistakes.
Self-help is often yet another form of avoidance – if you suffer with anxiety (like I do) reading a self-help book has two consequences. The first is you replace one neuroticism with another one (in other words instead of feeling anxious about performing in my role as a legal practitioner, I start my own baking business and then become worried about not performing there too). And two, reading the book and implementing the thoughts and advice in the book leads to avoiding the issue altogether. The book becomes more important than dealing with the problem. And that’s not self-helping anyone.
Self-help marketing creates unrealistic expectations – The Secret comes to mind here. The incentive for the self-help market is not enforcing real change. Instead, the only thing they need to do is create the perception of change. Real or imagined. You see all these people living their best lives because they did steps 1 – 6 out of XYZ self-help book and you feel let down because it isn’t working for you. That’s setting yourself up to fail.
Self-help is (usually) not scientifically validated – The fact is people without qualifications, without degrees and with little real expert knowledge of the human brain, psyche and serious mental health issues often write these novels. I mean what gives them the right to give other people advice? And should people really be listening to them?
Self-help is a contradiction – self-help amounts to self-improvement. Simple as that. And the purpose of self-improvement is to improve on yourself. To enhance what you already have. Is to accept yourself as is and be happy with that – only needing slight tweaks here and there. The person who has a fundamental problem with who they are is not going to find the help they need. They are looking to replace one aspect of who they are with something else. Something better. That person will never succeed. Instead, they will become bogged down by the “nonsense and pseudo-science and suppress your feelings of inadequacy rather than deal with them head-on”. Again, who is that self-helping? 
For me, self-help books create more problems for the people who need real help from medical professionals. Reading a book will not result in real change. 

And that seems counterintuitive.  

But I’m a cynic.

Self-help books – The believers (Frieda’s viewpoint)

Cynical or not, Ali’s viewpoint has its merits. Achieving our goals and dreams requires a lot more than just believing that they are possible. I’d love it if I could think myself to becoming the fastest trail runner on the mountain, but the reality is that if that ever has a chance in hell of happening, I’m going to need to take action. So, Ali and I are in agreement on that point.

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 affordable Not everyone can afford therapy or coaching (no matter how much they may need it). It’s the reality of the world we live in. Self-help books provide an accessible and affordable means of gaining insight into issues which individuals are facing. The self-help book genre tackles the full range of topics: from improving self-esteem, coping with stress and developing communication skills to discovering your potential, improving personal relationships and enhancing emotional awareness. Having the ability to read around a topic on which you are struggling and learning from the experience of others is a natural way that humans progress and develop awareness in this world. Why should that be any different merely because it now has the label: “self-help” attached to it.

They are relatablePrior 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 gain a sense of autonomy There are two dominant drivers for reaching out for a self-help book: You either want to learn something new or improve the way you are approaching something (a more proactive, enhancing approach) or you are experiencing a crisis and your existing coping mechanisms are no longer stepping up to the task (a more help-seeking approach). In the latter case, everything feels off balance and you often find yourself feeling stuck and incapable of shifting out of the situation. It’s not a fun place to be. Although potentially not a replacement for coaching or therapy, relevant self-help books can help to restore a sense of autonomy and agency. The action of purchasing and reading a self-help book restores your mobility and gaining a new perspective on the situation acts as a stepping-stone to restoring equilibrium. You are helping yourself.
You may not need therapy As mentioned above, self-help books are not all about fixing you or helping you cope. There is a whole genre of self-help books which are about skill-enhancement, creating self-awareness and assisting with growth and development. You don’t need a therapist for that! Learning from other people’s experiences and what has worked for them is a great way to add new tools to your own skill set. If I’m a new mum, why wouldn’t I want to learn tips and tricks from mothers who have raised 3 kids? If I’m a workaholic, why wouldn’t I want to hear the story of how a former workaholic managed to flip her life into something a lot more fulfilling and balanced? Sometimes all you want and all you need is a new perspective from someone who has walked a similar path before you. A bit of inspiration. What you do with that information is completely up to you. Some things may work, others may not. But without reading those stories, you may never have discovered those techniques or approaches. Who’s at a loss then?

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:

Once we have satisfied our lower-level needs of safety, security, love and belonging and we’ve reached a stage of healthy self-esteem, we still need purpose. Needs motivate us. Self-help isn’t about self-improvement (i.e. you are not good enough as you are). Self-help is about self-expansion (i.e. acquiring resources, gaining new perspectives, growing).


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.

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