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Why Are Self-Help Books Not So Helpful After All?

It’s all about the self.

Have you ever read a self-help book? Have you, perhaps, had a friend recommend a great book that helped them sail above life’s troubles rather than bob about in the turmoil? When you dived into the book, though, did it not really live up to your expectations? Or did you find a book yourself that, from the cover information, seemed to uncannily zero in on exactly your current struggle, but when you read it, the promise was never fulfilled?

It’s one of those things that is so obvious when you realize it but, until that glorious “Aha!” bounds into your consciousness, the insight is completely invisible. I now feel like I’ve been let in on a secret that everyone else has known for a very long time. The insight and the secret concern the “self” of self-help books. My new realization has helped me understand why self-help books are only ever intermittently and unpredictably helpful.

I had always assumed that self-help books were about the person buying the book – the reader. What suddenly dawned on me, however, is that self-help books are about the author of the book not the reader.

Ironically, this idea burst into my mind as I was reading a self-help book. Self-help books are, by and large, stories about what the author found helpful in becoming the sort of person they want to be. They are written in different styles and formats but usually involve lots of anecdotes and examples, explicit advice and suggestions, as well as intriguing and engaging activities. They often share with the reader the personal struggles of the author as well as the amazingness of how things are now for him or her. The obvious implication is that if you follow their lead and do what they did, a similar splendidness will be yours to enjoy.

Will the discoveries they made about what was helpful for them be helpful for you? Who knows? You should definitely apply their ideas with gusto if you think they make sense and could fit, but if it doesn’t work out, it might be helpful to consider that what you were trying on was never yours in the first place.

 130711416, @123RF
Source: Elena Veselova, Image ID: 130711416, @123RF

Borrowing something from someone else is likely to only ever be an approximation to what you would consider. Whether it’s a recipe for successful living or for the perfect pumpkin pie, another person’s recipe is not yours. A few years ago we stumbled upon what, to us, was the most amazing dessert we had ever tasted. It’s still one of our top-shelf favorites. When we shared the recipe with family, however, they thought it was ghastly.

It really is different strokes for different folks. What you find a soothing stroke may be an irritating prod to someone else. No one knows your world from your inside perspective. If you have a problem, that problem is exclusively yours. Different people can certainly live through the same event but the repercussions and reverberations for each individual will be unique.

The idea that “a problem shared is a problem halved” is a misinterpretation of the frequently repeated occurrence that, when people talk about their problems with someone else, the problems can seem different, even not so bothersome. Through a process that is still not well understood, saying out loud the thoughts that are swirling around inside somehow changes those ideas, often for the better. Sometimes writing about a problem and seeing it expressed “out there” on the page rather than just experiencing it within can have a similar effect.

The point is that each of our lives is a unique and miraculous adventure. Part of the joy of living is extracted from those close, cozy, and enduring relationships we build with others. Regardless of the intimacy that is achieved, or how great the sense is that you know each other’s minds, you are each still living your own unprecedented life. You are in the outside world of your intimate and they are in your outside world.

Different people’s fingerprints are not exchangeable and neither are their lives. Because every life is distinct, so are the problems in every life, and therefore, so must be the solutions. Sometimes the differences might be slight, sometimes they will be dramatic. Nevertheless, differences are differences.

 39216867, @123RF
Source: linux87, Image ID: 39216867, @123RF

My suggestion is not to avoid self-help books. If life isn’t going the way you would like it to, it could be helpful to read some inspirational and instructive material. The critical thing to remember is that if someone else’s ideas don’t work for you, that’s not because there’s anything wrong with you. It’s because they’re not your ideas. Take what you want and keep reading. Find another book. Walk in the woods. Join a club. Listen to advice. Scour the internet. Go for a run. Meditate. Enroll in a seminar or a course.

Do as much or as little as you want to. Your mind has all the machinery it requires to create the solution that is genuinely your answer to your troubles. Different information, activities, and ideas can provide the raw material for your machinery to fix what needs to be changed. If the solution hasn’t arrived yet, keep at it. There’s no telling when the answer will appear, just the reassurance that it will appear, sometime.

The authors of self-help books provide interesting and entertaining accounts of how they traversed the peaks and troughs of the excursion that is their life. They are often remarkable illustrations of what is possible. With persistence and dogged perseverance, you can create your own “possible”. You might not know where or what it is, or when it’s coming your way, but you will know immediately once your mind has crafted it for you. With a tailor-made remedy at your disposal, you will have all that you need to resume forging the life you would wish for yourself.