Few books in the self-help section will ever turn your life around, writes Suzanne Harrington. Real personal development requires far more time and often, professional help
Want to Realise The Amazing Person Inside Yourself? Change Your Life In 3 days? Lose A Stone By The Weekend? Heal Your Inner Child and Unleash Your Creativity Before Teatime?
Sorry. It’s that time of year. Although for the US$11 billion self help industry, it’s always that time of year. I should confess that for me the term ‘self-help’ is an anagram of ‘snake oil’; but this is only because I regularly see too many otherwise-sane friends seeking spiritual truth and inner contentment via the ersatz wisdom of so many cloying you-go-girl charlatans and plastic gurus.
Perhaps I need a self-help book on How To Keep Quiet, to stop myself screaming FFS read a proper book! Or as Alain de Botton writes in a Guardian essay, “Anyone wanting to damage their intellectual credentials at a stroke need only do one thing: confess they read self-help books.”
Comedian George Carlin says that reading a self-help book written by someone else is not self-help but help. Satirist Christopher Buckley, referring to the how-to-get-rich subgenre within self-help, says, “The only way to get rich from a self-help book is to write one.” Plenty of ‘experts’ have (self) realised this, as detailed by journalist Steve Salerno in SHAM - How The Gurus Of Self Help Made Us Helpless, who suggests that around 80% of self-help book consumers are repeat customers because guess what - they don’t work. (SHAM, quips Salerno, stands for Self Help and Actualisation Movement).
“Lucrative twaddle,” says Francis Wheen in How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered The World, where he examines how self-help gurus influence leaders and politicians. Yikes. It seems gullibility goes all the way to the top. Remember the Reagans and their astrologer?
Obviously in amongst the dross there are some proper books, written by people who have done more than a weekend course in angel channelling.
It’s impossible to give a top five, because one person’s mumbo jumbo is another person’s sacred text, but as a general rule, anyone that promises fast results to a long term problem is having a laugh.
The only thing you can change in three days is your socks. You cannot overcome depression in five easy steps, or undo long-embedded trauma with a shiny mass market book. You might think you can - and the industry would love you to believe you can - but the reality is that recovering / changing/ self-realisation / actualisation / whatever, takes effort, a multi-pronged approach, very often proper professional help, and most of all, time.
Time, time, time. There are no five easy steps. There might be 12 long ones, in conjunction with other help or years of therapy, or both, but you cannot sort out serious stuff like depression, addiction, or trauma with a how-to book. Sorry, but you can’t. Nor can you learn yoga from a book, or how to be a millionaire, or conquer the world.
It’s not that self-help wasn’t originally altruistic - Every Man His Own Lawyer was published in New York in 1768, for the purpose of empowering ordinary individuals with legal knowledge.
Fast forward to 1936, where Dale Carnegie’s original self-help book How To Win Friends & Influence People sold millions and is still in print today, as is Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, published in 1952.
By 1967, titles like the much-parodied I’m OK, You’re OK were in the public domain, and the tsunami continued, leading to a raft of fatuous titles: You Are Good At Things by Andy Selsberg, Shut Up, Stop Whining & Get A Life by Larry Winget, “the pitbull of personal development” (personal development is what self-help calls itself).
The heavily Americanised industry is ripe for satire. 1998’s best seller Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way To Deal With Change In Your Work And In Your Life by Dr Spencer Johnson, (which features two mice and two mini humans called Hem and Haw who live in a maze and run out of cheese) spawned a parody title, Who Moved My Soap: A CEO’s Guide To Prison. People actually buy this stuff.
And sometimes self-help books can actually be quite the opposite, especially if everyone around you is blindly praising them. The Secret, for example, suggests that anything bad which happens to you - ill health, poverty - is all down to your own negativity.
Another favourite theme of self-help is that nothing is your fault, that you are a victim. Poor you, it’s everyone else’s fault.
So who to read instead? (Apart from proper books, I mean). Ariana Huffington’s Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Happier Life seems to have been reasonably well-received.
Eckhart Tolle is good on more esoteric stuff, as is anything properly Buddhist, like Matthieu Ricard.
For knowledge rather than self-help, read books like Dr Robert Lustig’s The Bitter Truth About Sugar. Read science, read facts, read proper psychology, read rational enlightened stuff. Because it is knowledge - and not airy-fairy faux-healing pseudo-scientific pop-psychology pap - which gives us power.
Everything else is just unhelpful.
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