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Which Is Better, Self-Help or Therapy?

We can change how we decide.

I have tended to be rather down on self-help. I thought therapy was far more beneficial than reading could ever be. A book cannot possibly hear you, it will never be a conversation. And if a self-help book doesn’t work, won’t that leave you feeling more of a failure than when you started? And if such books did work, wouldn’t we all be following their advice and living in a peaceful world? And how can a self-help book give you feedback? No, I used to conclude, they must be a con, taking advantage of people’s vulnerabilities.

What we tend to do, is see the world and then interpret the world. I had seen self-help books and then decided the meaning of their existence for myself along the lines of my previous paragraph. It takes a while for most of us, or maybe its just me, to realise that the interpretation of the world is separate from how the world really is. How we interpret the world depends upon what filter, metaphorically speaking, we look through. I could change my filter and find a different set of meanings for self-help books. I can argue that they can help people see that their particular issues are common to humanity and that they give a vocabulary for thinking them through. Print has the weight of authority, when spoken words can be ephemeral. A self-help book can be part of a person’s personal development, helping them with a step along the way, a book need not claim to be all of someone’s needs. And self-help books are obviously much cheaper and don’t require appointments.

Human beings are significantly formed in relationship with their earliest caregivers. We continue to be formed and reformed throughout life by our subsequent relationships, so another person - a therapist will probably have more of an impact upon us than a book. This makes therapy a more powerful tool than a self-help book. But power is not always necessarily benign so just as a therapist can be a great influence for good, a bad therapist has more possibility of being harmful than a bad self-help book. My way of looking at self-help vs. therapy at the moment is therefore:

A good therapist is the best option.

A good self-help book is the 2nd best option.

A bad self-help book does the least harm.

And a bad therapist is the most harmful.

And of course, we don’t have to make such a choice. If we have the resources, we may have both. A good self-help book in my opinion won’t tell you what to think but can offer you an alternative way of how to think. This is because one size cannot fit all. We all come from different backgrounds and different gene pools which means what one person needs to do more of, another will need to do less. For example a self-help book could tell you to risk being more open and trusting. This will be good advice for some, but for someone already gullible it would be unhelpful.

Here is an example of an exercise that suggests a way of how to think rather than what to think.

The 1234 Breathing Exercise

Become aware of your breath. As you breathe, give each stage of your breathing a number:

Inhale ONE

Top of in-breath TWO

Exhale THREE

Bottom of out-breath FOUR

Get used to counting with the breath. If you spend too little time at the top or at the bottom of the breath to apply numbers 2 and 4, slow yourself down until you are counting and breathing easily.

Now, as you count and breathe, bring in the observing part of your mind. Notice the subtle differences of emotion you experience with each stage of the breath. First of all, compare 1 and 3, then compare 2 and 4. Notice which is the most comfortable stage of the breath cycle for you and which is the least comfortable. Spend as much time as you need to do this.

When we have become aware of the nuances of our emotion on each number, we are going to exchange the numbers for a mantra. So you get the whole phrase in, you might need to lengthen the breath. Replace the numbers with the following phrases:

1, I take from the world . . .

2, I make it my own . . .

3, I give back to the world . . .

4, I come back to myself . . .

You can think about whether the phrases correlate with the moments of the breath cycle when you felt most and least comfortable, and whether there is any new information for you there. You can take the exercise further if you like and use these mantra to meditate upon any interaction about which you feel self-righteous or otherwise emotionally charged. For example:

1, (I take from the world) I see that self-help books exist. . .

2, (I make it my own) I imagined that they are a con. . .

3, (I give back to the world) I told other people they are not good. . .

4, (I come back to myself) . . .I felt a little bit *superior.

*Always be suspicious of yourself if you feel a bit superior!

Then you could use the mantra to think about what you will do differently afterwards. For example:

1, I see that there are self-help books (I take from the world) . . .

2, I study them and find that some may be helpful (I make it my own) . . .

3, I confess I initially came to a conclusion without considering enough of the evidence (I give back to the world) . . .

4, I am ready to learn more (I come back to myself) . . .

What I like about this exercise is that it helps me to separate to some extent what I see happening and my interpretation of what I see happening. Thus giving me the chance to be flexible in my interpretations. It is a structure for self-reflection. The more I practise it the more adept I become at separating what is happening and what is my take on what is happening.

This and other exercises can be found in my School of Life self-help book, How to Stay Sane, published in the US by Picador.