Why self-help books don't help

Have you ever read a self-help book, thought it was enlightening, and then a year later realised you still have the original problem? Have you, perhaps, experienced this more than once? Did you read it all the way through, but had trouble sticking to the exercises? Do you now have problems recalling the exercises a book recommends? If so, this post may be for you!

We reach for self-help books when we feel bad. Something hurts, and we don't know how to fix it; we don't know something, so we look for a book about it. (Of course, a specialist would be preferable, but these days specialists are too expensive – regardless whether the leaky plumbing you need help with is a problem in your flat, your body, or your mind).

You know you're reading a self-help book because it has a mandatory section: "don't just read this book, do the exercises!" and isn't that weird? Exercise books and how-to manuals never need to say this. In fact, I think this sentence is a fig leaf that reveals the true nature of self-help books: they are for reading, not for doing.

Self-help books "help" by making us feel better as we read. They are like throat lozenges: they don't fix the illness, but they temporarily numb the pain. With time, the problem may fix itself, but if not... we eat another lozenge, or read another self-help book.

You can tell self-help books are meant to be read and not worked with because most of their content is not actionable. They contain long, convoluted explanations of how it is that you and people like you came to have a problem, followed by many stories of how people with this problem were able to solve it by following the author's patented method. First they remind you that you have a problem and raise the tension, have you nodding with recognition. Then they release the tension usingi a story of a miraculous cure. You feel relieved. You have the answer to "why" you suffer. The book has served its purpose.

Now, there are also anti-self-help books: the ones that brand themselves as "telling it like it is" or "telling the hard truth", the ones that sound like bootcamp instructors. Are those any better? Hardly. They simply cater to a different taste preference. Some people like sweet food and others like spicy; similarly, some of us want to be soothed and others – reprimanded. Self-help moves us to a preferred emotional state.

However, emotions are volatile, and generally incited by persistent life problems. While the book might have soothed you (or put some steel in your spine), you will eventually encounter the problem again and feel bad again. That's why self-help books don't help.

Categories: self-help · mental health