Monday, 14 May 2012

Self-Help Books: an exercise in ambivalence

I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman, "Where's the self-help section?" She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose. 
George Carlin
I read my first self-help book at 28. It was by Iyanla Vanzant and it was In the Meantime. I found it very useful at the time. Her premise was simple: you will get the love you deserve, In the Meantime, you've just got to get yourself sorted. It sat on my bookshelf, next to my Marion Zimmer Bradley, Stephen King and Dean Koontz.

A few months after that, I had cause to hang out with someone who didn't have one self-help book, she had one bookshelf of them. She bought the CDs, the DVDs, went to the weekends and she was probably one of the most dysfunctional people I've ever met. Conversations with her were difficult; it was like fielding volleys delivered in Psych 101. An endless analysis of my 'issues'. It wouldn't have been so bad except I couldn't see where all the self-help stuff actually improved her Life and her relationships. All it seemed to do, was to give her a better vocabulary when it came to criticising other peoples' behaviour and motivation. Oh yeah, and mine. We don't hang out any more.

That experience made me somewhat cynical. Ultimately, it raised the question: does the guru walk their talk? Can someone who is in a dysfunctional relationship, is unhappy in their economic activity, is unable to maintain warm friendships, can they tell another person the best way to live their lives? How important is their present-story to their guiding someone else out of the darkness?

I'm asking questions. I don't have the answers. These are questions I ask myself daily.

How useful are self-help books, if instead of one, a person needs a whole book-shelf of them? Do they undermine self-reliance, or do they provide a valuable insight to Life, the Universe and Everything? Is there a clear cut answer, or is it like truth, a blending of the two?

If a person is constantly referencing their behaviour externally, i.e. they ask other peoples' opinions in order to understand what's happening around them, it shows a lack of confidence in their decision-making skills. No doubt, you've already met them. When you all sit down to dinner at a restaurant, they ask everyone what they're having before they can even think to chose something to eat. 

The other end of the scale is the internally referencing person, who doesn't need to ask anyone, anything because they're right and that's that. I'm sure you've met someone like that too. Impossible to deal with because their view of reality is inflexible.

Those are two extreme examples, most people swing between the two, which I think is a good thing. Flexibility is one of the key behaviours which promotes good mental health and well-being. Being able to adjust to new circumstances and the surprises Life throws, rather than trying to impose a world-view on an entirely incompatible situation, dictates how well a person resolves inter- and extra- personal difficulties. This is the cornerstone of NLP. A person cannot change what happens outside, but they do have a choice in how they react and feel about it. It's about taking control. It's what I love most about NLP. Anyway, I digress.

Since 1998, I have acquired quite a few self-help books. Some of which I bought thinking: that'll be good to read, and they've sat bored on my bookshelf. Others, I've read cover to cover and over again. A year ago, I became a Licensed NLP Practitioner and in that time, my collection expanded exponentially. I was intrigued to find out what other people were saying about the path to wellness. I find I can't put them down. I read them and then compare and contrast with what I learnt from Bandler and his team last year. Many of the books are NLP manuals, the nuts and bolts of NLP techniques, some of them are not. I find some of them useful, some of them quite appalling. But over the next few months I'm going to be reading them all (did I mention I bought quite a few without reading them?) and I'm going to be sharing my thoughts on them with you.

In the Meantime, if you've got any suggestions and thoughts, for goodness sake: join in. The more the merrier. This is a journey we're all sharing and the more opinions and thoughts you contribute, the more enriched our time together will be.


  1. Self help books in my experience are often a great distraction from doing the real work... That is... helping ones self! The self help book genre I think in the most part only help to inflate the bank balances of the people who write them! Like you I have had shelves full of them over the years. My life improved dramatically when I stopped reading them searching for answers and found most of the answers within myself... I just had to ask myself the right questions!

    1. Excellent point. It's all about asking the right questions.

      And action.

      Did you give the books away or burn them?

  2. Oh dear Princess, I'm sure that you've unconsciously used many of the techniques and tricks you read in those books once you started to put them into practice. In fact, it is because you read all those "crappy" books that you finally decided to take action! :)

    You cannot just learn to play the piano by yourself that is if you want to do more than just playing "Mary had a little lamb". No! If you want to tackle the more substncial repertoire, you've got to get piano lessons (I'm talking from experience here for I've studied piano for more than 6 years, full time, 6-8 hours a day)

    So, all that reading was necessary to get you going on your journey. At least, that was for me and I still read all kinds of "self-help" books, always eager to find new ideas the same way I still go piano masterclasses from time to time and read about composers to develop my sensitivity and my awareness.

    But I so agree that lots of people just "read" the books, preach about them, but never put what they learn into practice!

    Now that quote at the beginning of the post is simply delll-licious! :D


    1. Good point Jon, we don't know how much we absorb unconsciously and reading the books may have given Princess some good pointers.

      You've also raised a point dear to my heart Jon, living well is a skill that does not get taught formally, nor is it possible to do it by yourself. It happens with the input of people; whether they stand next to you or pass on their knowledge through words in blogs and books.

      I know I've learnt so much from the blogs I've read: courage, differences, laughter.

      I wonder why we have this worry that if we can't do it by ourselves, we're failures?

      Glad you liked the quote, had me hooting with laughter.

    2. Huggy Jon, you have a point. I probably did get something from reading the many books but, possibly only took on board in practice the stuff that was personally helpful to me at the stage that I was at in my life at the time. but I failed to mention that I also had many mentors and confidants along the way as well as undergoing my nurse training in Psychiatry. I was always on the lookout for alternatives to the Medical Model. There had to be more to treatment than locking people up and filling them full of drugs...

      In regards to the quote... I seem to strike the same attitude in a lot of places....

    3. I confess, the more reading I do, the more I begin to grit my teeth.

      And the more I believe people do have to find their own way. Because that's the only way they have and people have to do what's right for them.

      (though the last point does not include people who 'need' to hurt others. Serial killers etc need not apply)

  3. As a long time scrutinizer of Pop-Psychology Gurus and their tidy little bundled self-help programs that have all the 'Answers 2 Life' (for only 4 payments of $35.99) I accept the limitations of this noble quest.
    First and foremost is the fact that I have chosen to surround myself with other seekers and self-actualizers, most of whom dwell on the interwebs. Our mission is to better understand ourselves and others in order to try and make some sense of it all...and here we are, in the midst of a communication tsunami at the end of The Century Of Self in which the average person has gained immediate access to centuries of philosophical and scientificky well as the luxury to imagine that little old me has a right to find out who we are because we think that we matter...our ancestors never thought that way.
    Before I go off on an exhaustive tangent trying to encapsulate the sum of all my labels:Myers Briggs Type Indicator et cetera...the main thing that I have observed is how many people are simply "outer-directeds"..they just seem to live on what the Powers That Be tell them. This world is set up for the average person to be bamboozled and too busy to worry about WHY they do the things they do. Our society is designed to produce Mainstreamers and Belongers who won't rock the boat.
    My particular wonderment du jour is why we don't spend all of the money wasted on warfare and funnel that into brain research...we are what we think..our physical brain hasn't changed since we were scurrying about the African Savanna 200,000 years ago. We have this three pound, pattern-seeking, super-computer holding our ears apart which has physical limitations. Our brain looks for routine & same because that feels safe...and it's always safer in the middle of the herd.
    Right now our society is struggling with an explosion of The Self over our grandparent's generation who adhered to that quaint notion of sacrificing for the betterment of others. Look at all these ridiculous reality TV shows that are oozing with white hot's almost as if we've hit the ceiling.
    Still, in my mind the most important thing that we can do is understand why we are the way we are. We have charlatans and altruistic saviors trying to lead us to the promised land but I am always reminded that we've only been on this path for a few Centuries...before that Religious authorities simply told us what and how to think.
    Caveat Lector..let the reader beware...we need to test everything we discover and build on it. To me this is the most interesting thing about Life..piecing it all together..finding out where we fit and WHY!?

    1. I agree, I am also very wary of the self-styled Gurus who offer you The Way for £7.95 for the book, and you can buy the CD, the DVD, the weekend course or the 10 day optional.

      Are we screwed? It would be tempting to say 'we're going to Hell in a Handbasket', except I've been shown too much kindness from people who didn't have to, to believe that our damnation as a species is a given.

      There's quite a lot of research on the brain, how we think and the way we store information, I agree, defence budgets should be diverted to health and education. We'd be so much better off globally with lives dedicated to knowledge and wellbeing. But hey ho. It's not, so we work with what we've got.

      And what we have got, is each other.

      Why? No idea. A fluke of circumstances, the chance decision to follow someone back to their blog. We fit together through thick and thin through the deaths and births...just like in real life. This interwebby thing has meant like-minded people can find each other across the oceans and exchange ideas. Sometimes for good and ill.

      I'm not giving up yet.

  4. I prefer my calligraphy books :-)
    Look out, not in, is one of my mottoes. I Did the self help book thing when I was younger and came to the conclusion that it was just another economic industry - another money spinner sucking cash from the wallets of those who are insecure and vulnerable.

    1. You do beautiful calligraphy, so you've obviously put those books to good use.

      It is indeed a very successful money-spinner for some people. And actually, thinking about it, Paul McKenna is very frank about the fact that he wants lots of money and to hang out with beautiful and successful people...and actually, I'm totally cool with that. Because he's so upfront about it. He also has very good products which also helps.

      It's the sneaky ones I have issue with.

    2. The worst one I ever read [early nineties] was the Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield - people went nuts over it - it was so obviously a scam to make money - I think it was the last proper self help book I read because it made me disgusted with the genre.

    3. I had to Google it. It had passed me by.

      The Information God, Wikipedia said it was a novel.

      Just goes to show Dan Brown couldn't be original even in that idea....

    4. It was written as a novel... but, I suppose it functioned in the same way as the bible... littered with moral tales of how to live your life. It was very badly written.
      The thing is I've never forgotten how awful it was, left a very bad taste in my mouth... even now I remember how angry it made me feel! I'll shut up now.

    5. Wow. That book really climbed up your tree! I can relate to that. I have that kind of reaction when I think of Dan Brown and his crap.

      The thing is, if he was writing about a universal truth, he should have written it as a novel. A novel is a made-up story. No wonder it got your goat. I didn't read it and I'm cross.

      If something is written as a novel, it can't be given the same space as say a biography or an auto-biography. And if it was authentic, that's exactly how it should have been presented. Quite simple really.

    6. Miss Scarlet... You obviously just didn't cleanse your aura enough to raise your vibration to the next level...

      *Removes tongue from cheek dodges hurtling nib*

      As for the books Roses most of them still grace my shelves but rarely do i look at them other than to admire the pretty colours of their bindings...

  5. I've never read one. Perhaps you should write one - "How To Survive Without Books Like This" - I'd read that.

    1. Hmm... That's food for thought. When I really get strapped for cash, I'll consider it.

  6. Hi Roses - Love the quotation at the top! Have you ever read the Oliver Burkman column in the Saturday Guardian? He goes over a different self help book every week and considers its usefulness.
    Hope the link works

    1. No, I hadn't found him before. I'll keep a beady eye out for him in the future.

      Link definitely works. Damn, there goes my 'original' idea. Ah well.

  7. I've read a few self-help books, the most recent regarding Social Anxiety Disorder. Can be useful in understanding the dimensions of the condition, but useless in finding a way through it. For example, the advice to do such-and-such when at a social gathering is useless as the socially inept aren't invited to parties!

    1. You might like to have a look at Richard Bandlers: Get the Life You Want and Trance-formations. He's not interested in why Social Anxiety Disorder, he focusses on getting out of that pattern of behaviour.

      His techniques will be a good starting point to get you to be invited to parties.

      Oh yeah...and I'm pretty sure you were invited to Z's blogging party. Just because you're not going to fly all the way over-here for it (spend the money, sort out worshiping arrangements for kittehs etc). I've got a very comfy sofa if you change your mind.

  8. I've never read a self-help book either. The one that would have been useful when I was young could have been called *Stop thinking that everyone's looking at you, you're not that interesting so think about other people for a change* - I finally worked that out myself and it's all been a blast ever since.

    LX isn't coming to my party? Oh.

    1. You're the most together person I know. I have a blast with you too!

      Texas is a long way to come. Damn.

  9. I read a few self help books years ago and I found that often, everything they had to say was said in the introduction. Good ideas, interesting perspectives, striking differences from ordinary, daily 'not thinking'. But all the rest of each of the books was padding to make you think they were offering a course which could change your life. Huh!
    It would be interesting to gather a compendium of introductions to such books and see if you got a useful result.
    I loved your post about abundance.

    1. Hi Mig

      We need to sit down and compare titles, cause I haven't found that to be the case. Mind you, in a couple of cases I never got any further than a couple of chapters...having got bored or lost the will to live.

      Abundance is an awesome mindset I must say.


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