Are you reading too much self-help?

This might sound like an ironic topic given that you are reading this article. Still, I think it is an important question because, like a lot of things in life, you can get too much of a good thing, and this includes self-help.

When we are in distress it is only natural that we look for some help, and self-help literature is one of the most useful cultural resources that we have. It can provide us with tips, techniques and, just as important, a sense that we are not alone in our suffering - that others "get" what we are going through.  

However, there are number of ways in which reading self-help can become counterproductive. One of the most obvious ways is given in the name of the genre: self-help. What I mean here is that self-help, as the phrase indicates, involves a preoccupation with the self, and this is where there are potential problems: if you are already too self-conscious, reading self-help with its emphasis on the self can contribute to the problem rather than help you overcome it (as solution-focused therapists might say, in this case the solution is part of the problem). In general, I am not saying that reading self-help is intrinsically a problem, as it can provide a number of useful ways of coping with self-consciousness or social anxiety; but if your reading of the self-help literature, with its techniques and pointers, starts to make you feel that socialising is a very complicated affair (since there is so much apparently you must keep in mind to do it "effectively"), then your reading has indeed become counterproductive. Indeed, rather than help you to relax and "lose" yourself in the pleasures of connecting with others, reading too much self-help literature can make you feel that you should carry an extensive check-list with you to make sure you are doing it "right".

Related to the above, not using self-help wisely can make us too introspective and make us more anxious due to our navel gazing. Learning more about ourselves can be a pleasure and it can certainly be useful in helping us know how to change our lives for the better. With that having been said, reading too much self-help literature can encourage an obsession with ourselves and with our inner life, and, in such cases, our thinking is apt to be more like anxious rumination. And above all else, when we introspect excessively our focus privileges the inner world too much and at the expense of the outer. If this happens, we can end up feeling disconnected, lonely and, strange as it may sound, less certain about ourselves. While introspection can provide valuable self-knowledge, a crucial part of knowing ourselves is by what we do, and so involvement with the world can give us a surer sense of our preferences and values, since external action always requires making choices. So, to avoid the Hamlet syndrome where you feel you have to sit an exam on your psyche before taking part in life, use your reading of self-help literature to augment your reflections on your feelings and on your actions.

One final point I wish to make is a bit less obvious than the other two. When we read a self-help book, we might not be readily aware that they reflect - usually implicitly - a political worldview (normally, this worldview will be the dominant ideology of the society in question). Now, whatever your political position may be, the practical, relevant point is this: since any society will consist of some counterproductive trends, and we have to be careful when reading self-books that they might be (unwittingly perhaps) reinforcing some of these trends. If we simply take what is said on faith, acting as if the worldview is as objective as Newton’s laws of motion, then we might indeed be consolidating beliefs that have already contributed to our problems. For example, if you read self-help books based on the false idea that you can do anything if you put your mind to it, then you might work to the point of burnout, because before reading those books you were already stressed out from believing the view that success is the be all end all.

So, part of using the self-help literature wisely is to not only read the bestselling books of the genre which tend to focus on techniques to achieve some desirable end, but also those books that critique our society and show the relationship between the way we live and the problems we have (e.g. the relationship between the excessive drive for accumulation and mental distress was explored in Oliver James' book Affluenza). By doing this, we can start to understand that some self-help ‘solutions’ are still too embedded within the problematic worldview to be helpful, and so we can begin to find answers that are right for us given our temperaments, particular life experiences and our talents.  

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Dr Alexander Fox (MBACP, Masters in Counselling, PhD (Eng Lit.))

I am a pluralistic counsellor in private practice in the city centre of Dundee. I am trained to help clients with a wide variety of problems and I am able to employ a number of different therapeutic approaches, so that the therapy process is always tailored to the individual needs of each of my clients.… Read more

Written by Dr Alexander Fox (MBACP, Masters in Counselling, PhD (Eng Lit.))

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