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How to Tell Good Self-Help From Bad Self-Help

Look for the principles of emotional healing and growth.

Key points

  • Self-help advice should be consistent with neurological principles and research.
  • Bad self-help is focused on how you got into a hole; good self-help is focused on getting out of the hole.
  • Bad self-help merely validates; good self-help empowers.
Steven Stosny
Source: Steven Stosny

Self-help has become a multi-billion dollar industry. Some information available in books and online is actually helpful. Some is not, and some may make things worse. (A review published here is useful.) Although the thriving self-help industry is far from science, there are a few scientific principles to look for in the presentation of a book or blog that can help in determining if the material might be right for you.

Self-help advice should be consistent with neurological principles:

  • Mental focus amplifies and magnifies: whatever you focus on becomes larger and more important than what you don’t focus on.
  • Repetition creates default processing in the brain: whatever you think and do repeatedly you'll begin to do on autopilot.

The brain has to do three operations when it experiences something bad:

  1. Send a signal that it’s bad—in the form of a negative emotion
  2. Interpret the signal and assess the effects—how bad is it and how much damage it causes
  3. Improve, repair, correct, neutralize any threat, heal any wound.

The signal (or alarm) comes from the more primitive, limbic area of the brain (also called the toddler brain), and is triggered by either external change (a change in the perceptual field) or an internal change (a thought, image, memory, association, or dream).

The second operation is in the prefrontal cortex (the adult brain), where the signal is interpreted and the object assessed: How bad is it? How much damage has been done?

The third, and most important operation, also in the prefrontal cortex, is to improve and heal.

Good self-help teaches you to acknowledge the signal but not to confuse it with reality (the alarm is not the fire), assess the damage, and focus on improving.

Bad self-help keeps you stuck in a feedback loop of the first two: “I feel bad, confused, depressed, anxious, grieving. Of course I feel that way—I have every right to feel that way, with all the bad things that have happened to me.” Readers feel validated but only for a short time before they need another dose of validation in another self-help book.

Healing and improving must go well beyond validation. Many people become addicted to self-help, reading virtually nothing else for years on end. Instead of an indication that self-help is not helping, the compulsion to read more and more self-help makes them feel that they just haven’t "journaled" enough or sorted through their feelings enough, when the real problem is they don’t move to the third mental operation of improvement: find solutions and heal. That is, they continually validate the cut finger without applying antiseptic. Improving and finding solutions to their pain almost feels like they would be dishonoring or invalidating it.

Bad self-help focuses on how bad you feel or how poorly you’ve been treated. Focus on how bad you feel and why you might feel so bad inadvertently builds habits of mental processing that inhibit growth and healing. Through mental focus, what you don’t want becomes more important than what you do want.

Viable self-help keeps the focus on what you want to achieve, how you want to think, what you want to do, and how you want to be in life. It shows how to improve your situation (or, if you can’t improve the situation, improve how you experience it and what it means to you), how to appreciate more, connect to others, and protect and nurture what is important to you.

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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