Do self-help books actually work?
Updated: Jun 6, 2022
We all might secretly hope to find a magical recipe for overnight success, but of course, we know that's not likely (and not as much fun). So are self-help books legit or complete BS?
I love self-help books
I’m usually reading 1-3 books at any given time, most of them from the category of “Self-Help”. I often reference the books I’m reading with my coaching clients, and there’s one question I get asked all the time:
“Do self-help books actually work?”
And my answer is: “No. The books don’t don’t work, but you can, if you choose to.”
No one (or book) is perfect
Self-help books get a lot of hate and I understand why they have a bad rep. There are plenty of people out there selling a version of success that never really had you in mind. They make a living off of selling a particular idea of success without actually offering systems of support and strategy for defining what success looks like for each individual. But those people aren’t all people. There are genuinely people who feel called to share the lessons they’ve learned on their journey to achieving their definition of success. I believe the things those people have to share can be enormously valuable. Who doesn’t want to know how Iris Apfel became so fashionable, or how Jane Goodall crafted a life so in alignment with nature, or what other secrets the-one-person-who-is-living-a-life-you-only-dream-of might be holding?
A second reason self-help books get a bad rep is because of self-help junkies. We all have that friend (and hopefully I’m not this friend, but I might be) that’s obsessed with self-development. They can’t stop talking about the latest self-help book they read or seminar they went to, but since you’ve known them, their life has mostly stayed the same, mediocre hot mess. It’s logical to assume that if the books or seminars really “worked”, their life would look different, but as I said earlier, it’s important to remember that the books and seminars don’t do the work, they just present you with the tools to do it yourself.
For example, if you had to dig a ten-foot deep hole, would you rather do it with your hands or with a shovel? And if you did it with the shovel, would you say the shovel did the digging? I think you and your back muscles would beg to differ. In my experience, reading self-help books is like discovering all sorts of different shovels to help with all different kinds of digging. Healing trauma or achieving our goals and dreams can feel as daunting as digging a hundred- foot hole. It can get easier when we have the right tools, even though we still have to be the one to do the digging. I hope this is making sense.
To be fair, I have been a bit of a self-help junkie at times, but I now know the warning signs of when I’m just using “self-help” to procrastinate. When I have more advice flooding my inbox than I can actually read in a day, and I’ve got more books in my queue than I’m currently reading, I know I need to slow down and take some action. If you’ve ever read a self-help book, felt invincible from the amount of clarity you gained, and proceeded to do nothing to change your life, you’re not alone. Trust me, you’re not the only one. But that doesn’t mean that you failed or that the book or seminar didn’t “work”. Growth is non-linear. Don’t write something off as a failure just because it might need some time to metabolize.
How I got started
One of the first self-help books I read was You Are a Badass by Jen Sincero. I devoured it. I think I read it in one night. I had previously read many books some might consider self-help, but I would consider more psychotherapy. After years of therapy and deep healing work, I felt like the sky had finally cleared and I could look toward the future, having healed the past. I didn’t want to go in circles of self-analysis and psychoanalyzing any longer, I wanted to focus on my dreams. I don’t remember who recommended You Are A Badass or how I came upon it, but I do remember, vividly, reading it for the first time.
When I read Sincero's words, I felt as though she was talking directly to me. She opens the book with a quote:
You can start out with nothing, and out of nothing, and out of no way, a way will be made.
-Reverend Michael Bernard Beckwith; former drug enthusiast turned spiritual enthusiast turned inspirational badass
Sincero proceeds to share how she used to think quotes like that were a “bunch of crap”. She confides in the reader that she used to be “too cool” for any sort of self-help or spiritual development. I didn’t necessarily fall in the same camp as her, but her honesty made me trust her. The tone of her writing was direct and zero bullshit. I could tell she was being truthful and wrote this book for me, the reader, not just her own self-gain. Her enthusiasm was contagious and when she reminded me throughout her book that I, in fact, am a “badass” I started to believe her.
There's no overnight success
I’d be lying if I said I completely turned my life around and started living my dreams the moment I finished You Are A Badass, but I don’t think any self-help book author has ever purported their book, alone, will transform your life overnight. To be truthful, I read Sincero’s book probably over four years ago and I’m still actualizing lessons I learned from the book. It takes a lot more energy to get a ball rolling than it does to keep it rolling. When I read You Are A Badass, I was lacking momentum. I needed to completely turn around and take my life in another direction. I knew it, but I felt stuck. Sincero’s words were like a flicker of light to ignite my momentum. That light was hope, and that hope was something I could use to begin walking, or even crawling towards the life I wanted, one small step at a time.
So no, I didn’t turn my life around 180º overnight, heal all my traumas, and achieve my wildest dreams by reading one self-help book. But I did begin to trust my ability to create the life I’ve always dreamed of. After reading that book, I saw myself more clearly and decided I wasn’t going to settle. I struggled with depression for a while longer. It took me time to pick myself up out of my self-doubt and cycles of what I call “depression napping” to avoid my fears. But I never forgot the light of hope, and I kept moving towards it a little bit each day.
How it's going now
I can honestly say that I am living my life with more gratitude and intention, moving more in alignment with dreams and core values today than I was the day I first picked up Jen Sincero’s You Are A Badass. The book itself didn’t change me, but it did give me the courage to trust myself and a nudge to continue healing and pursuing my goals, no matter how difficult or isolating it felt.
I now read self-help books on a regular basis, but I think it’s important to explain the way in which I approach reading them. I’m not reading them in search of answers. I’m not expecting them to heal me. I’m not even expecting to agree with what the author has to say. I’m simply using them as a portal into someone’s viewpoint. Their viewpoint can teach me about them, about myself, and about others. My vibrational alignment or friction with what they have to share serves as a barometer for my own understanding and trusting of self. The words they choose to share expose what they value and that teaches me about what others value differently. Each book I read teaches me at least one thing. Sometimes that thing is related to the book’s purpose, and other times it’s entirely something different. The other important note, is that I apply what I learn. I embody it (at least I try to).
Self-help books might not be for you
I love self-help books. And I love sharing the things I learn from them with friends and clients. And I also acknowledge, they’re not for everyone. Though I'm not a huge sci-fi fan, I admit that you can learn life’s lessons through Star Wars if you’re paying attention. We all have our own answers, we just need gentle reminders to trust our Self. Those reminders might come in the form of self-help books, but they also might come in the form of comic books, cosplay, sci-fi films, or reality television (for real). I’m a huge promoter of trusting your intuition above all else. You know you.
That being said, if you’ve never even read one, I gently suggest you give it a try.
Here are three tips I recommend:
1.) Assess your biases
Take out a piece of paper or pull up notes on your phone, set a timer for 5 minutes, and write the words “self-help” on the top of the page.
Then free-write all of your immediate gut/knee-jerk reactions to the words. Most likely there are certain emotions, certain people, etc. that come to mind when you think of “self-help”. Keep writing for 5 minutes. Try to recall all the associations you have with the words.
When the 5 minutes are up, look over what you’ve written on the page as if someone else wrote it. Play the “Devil’s Advocate” for a moment and begin questioning your own beliefs.
We learn through association but it does not prove causation. We may know a self-help junkie that seems to prove no self-help book works, but do we know if that person actually applied the lessons? We may have attended a self-help conference and felt like a superhero only to return back to our unfulfilling habits and patterns, but are we really willing to give up on ourselves that easily, after just one conference? Likely, your dreams are bigger than something that could be achieved by attending just one conference or reading one book!
2.) Find the right book
Not all self-help books are made equal. Trust me, I’ve read enough to know.
If it were up to me, self-help books would be subdivided into categories because people receive and give help very differently.
Before you choose the book that’s gonna determine whether you’ll ever read a self-help book again, get clear about what “help” means to you. You might wanna explore your definition of success and your core values too.
If being wealthy isn’t your top priority, you might not want a book written by someone who puts financial gain first. If productivity doesn’t define your sense of self-worth, you might not want to start with a book centered around mastering your to-do list. It’s not rocket science, but I see a lot of people who do not know where to turn to for help and end up feeling like a failure simply because they chose the wrong book.
I'm going to begin blogging about all my favorites so stay tuned.
3.) Take action
Apply any lessons you learn- don't be lazy, just do it.
Done is better than perfect. Don't procrastinate on taking the action steps provided in the book. It doesn't have to be the "right" circumstances to start following through.
Get messy. Take notes. Highlight. Fold the pages. Go back and re-read. I used to be afraid to write in my books, and I'm so glad I got over that. Books are magical, when you write in them and add your energy, you only add to their magic.
tl;dr (too long, didn't read)
Self-help books are my sh*t and I love using them to improve my life and expand my coaching skills. I acknowledge that they might not be everyone’s jam and that’s okay. I truthfully feel that my life has transformed because of lessons I learned in reading self-help books and I’m passionate about helping others overcome any stigmas or fears around “self-help” if that’s something they're interested in. If you find yourself curious about self-help but don’t know where to start, I recommend you do these three things:
Get clear about your historical associations, biases, and expectations of “self-help”.
Get clear about what “help” means to you and choose your first self-help book wisely.
Once you’ve read the book, don’t be lazy. Apply the lessons. Take action.
Whether you're already into self-help and want to share your favorite reads, just finished your first book and wanna unpack the lessons, or totally overwhelmed about choosing your first self-help-type book... I want to hear from you. Let's connect!
Email me at: email@example.com with "Self-Help" in the subject line.