Why self help books don’t work for most people and what you can do to help yourself

by David

in Be Awesome, Featured

slef help books don't work

How long have you been reading self help books? One year? Two? Five?!

And are you successful yet?

Are you where you want to be in your life?

Or are you still going around in circles unable to break away from the life you don’t want to lead?

It’s frustrating isn’t it? You’ve worked your rear-end off trying to make a difference in your life and yet you encounter the same difficulties over and over again. It’s like groundhog day.

Smile, breathe and be in the moment. Arrggghhh!!!

The same blog posts keep appearing telling you to smile, breathe, be in the moment.

You do these things and wait for the clouds to break and reveal a shaft of bright sunlight to welcome you to the promised land.

But instead you’re brought back to your own miserable reality with a bump when you realise that the home business you’ve been working on for months isn’t working, your bank account is hemorrhaging money and your wife’s eyes are pleading with you to go out and get a proper job.

Honestly, I read those posts and it makes me want to scream because this kind of thinking (as useful as it is later in the process) is no use to the person so consumed by frustration, fear and anger that they can barely function on a daily basis.

The people who most need help are often those in the most desperate circumstances. They feel closed off, entrenched, hemmed in, trapped, lost, scared, uncertain, hopeless, helpless and anguised. Telling these people that the solution to their problems is to smile, breathe and be in the moment is ridiculous.

The disconnect

I suspect there are legions of people who feel disconnected from much of the self development wisdom found in books and floating around the web.

It feels like it makes sense on some level, but somehow it also feels like it’s been written with someone else in mind.

When your life feels unbearable, when you’re scared and vulnerable and physically sick with fear, the high-level concepts offered by the self-help books is too much of a leap for many people to take.

The principles and concepts from the self help books are great and really do work, but it takes time to learn them. How long? Being realistic… months and years. We’re certainly not talking days and weeks here.

If you need to change the way you think… and you probably do… it’s going to take a while. If you’ve spent 30 years as a pessimist you cannot expect to become an optimist by the end of the week.

Unfortunately, failing at the self development game becomes another reason to beat yourself up for being useless and stupid and it’s incredibly damaging. I often wonder how many people’s lives have been made worse because they read self-help books.

So what’s the answer?

Do what you were born to do. Survive!

I wrote a pretty crappy survival metaphor or allegory (not sure which) in which I describe your life as having crash landed in the wilderness.

It was a bit surreal to say the least, because there in the middle of the wilderness, was a helicopter which you could fly to freedom. The problem being that a helicopter is so complex that most people couldn’t hope to even start it let alone fly it.

And that’s the way I feel about a lot of the self help stuff. I feel it’s pretty useless in helping to deal with the immediate problems that many people face.

In my little story (which I will improve over time) there was also knife. The knife was meant to represent a simple but effective tool, something that could be used immediately to improve the situation.

The point was you have to use the tools you already know and learn to use the more complex tools as you go.

Don’t let the tantalizing promise of the helicopter distract you from improving your present situation.

Your first goal is survival

I know, it doesn’t really fit with the ‘aim high’ and ‘live the dream’ messages, but don’t dismiss it out of hand.

Believe me, surviving, is one fantastic exhilarating step up from existing – which is exactly what many of us do.

Survival is living – there’s a vibrancy to surviving – whereas existing is merely tolerating the misery while waiting for it all to end.

Survival is triumph over adversity through persistence and determination.

Survival is mastering yourself and your environment.

Survival involves improvising and ingenuity.

Survival teaches us to adapt to changing circumstances and make the best use of the resources we have, while searching for or creating other resources.

Through survival we can find happiness and contentment in the most challenging circumstances and still foster hope for a better future.

Survival is something that is baked into our DNA

It’s what we’ve done for thousands of years.

It’s what we do best.

Survive. Adapt. Thrive.

Have self help books changed your life? Have they made it better or worse?

Image used under creative commons attribution and share alike Mark Sebastian

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Jennifer May 31, 2012 at 3:06 am

What a great blog. I am a female, so I am forced to read at least 1 self help book a year but I used to read more. I am 45 now and have given up on those sort of books. It will sound woo-woo, but the most effective self-help thing I have ever encountered is hypnosis. Not to quit smoking or lose weight but to get into my own mind and see what is going on there. I go to a particular guy about 3x a year and it is always a wonderful experience. I was raised in a violent home. My dad loved porn and vodka and hitting me and we moved all the time since he didn’t love paying the rent for the crap apartments we lived in. So I was pretty messed up by the time I hit adulthood. I won’t go into details, but meeting my husband and marrying him — even though he was not my type (i.e. a convicted felon covered in tattoos) saved my life and my sanity. But going into a trance and being guided to explore my past — a lot of which I didn’t want to remember — has changed my brain and my whole existence. I make sense to myself now. I can see how my actions and reactions are not my Destiny. I can watch myself do and say things that are negative and think, Aha, there it is again. I need to go easy on that. I ‘ve been able to forgive myself and kick my own butt at the same time. I’m not a fearful self-hating moop anymore. Anyway, that’s my self-help story.


David June 1, 2012 at 12:02 am

Jennifer, thanks for sharing. I love your story, it shows you have a fantastic attitude towards your situation.
The key, as I’ve discovered (and still discovering), is that if you want to change your life, you have to change the way you think. I’m glad the hypnotherapist has been able to help you to do that, but it has to be said, the major part of the work has been done by you.
I still read a lot but that’s because I view reading the self help books differently now. My reasons for reading them have changed and that makes a big difference to the value I get from them.
BTW… ‘moop’ is a fantastic sounding word, that’s the first time I;ve ever seen it. 🙂


M.D. June 18, 2012 at 11:16 am

One time, when I was a teenager, sick in hospital, my local librarian recommended my mom to bring me two books, Cheaper By the Dozen and How to Win Friends and Influence People. Being an only child, I loved Cheaper by the Dozen. Never have read Carnegie’s book. As self-help books go, I think they may be helpful but personal growth and healing take a lot of effort and time, no shortcuts. “Thinking happy thoughts” (my two daughters) was my formula when life got me feeling exhausted. Plus an enormous amount of stubbornness against the odds.

What I actually wanted to say is, thank you for your insight.
What a wonderful blog.


David June 18, 2012 at 11:42 am

Hi M.D.,

Thank you for the kind words.

I trust that all is well on the medical front now, and that you’re fully recovered.

You’re absolutely right. Taking on new ways of thinking and bringing about personal growth can take a long time. Indeed, it’s process that becomes the work of an entire lifetime.

So, just as you did, I think we need to take a pragmatic approach and do whatever works for us in ‘the here and now’ and develop as we go along.

If it takes stubbornness, so be it. I’m all for that.

Keeping your daughters in mind as you recover is a fantastic way to do it.

Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment, it was useful to me to hear about your experience. 🙂


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