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Debate: Is the practice of self-help helpful?

It's a multi-billion-dollar industry churning out more than 2,000 books every year in the US alone, with a growing list of webinairs, workshops and retreats. But can self-help really help, or is it simply selling us false hope and subjecting us to an unhealthy dose of self-scrutiny that could be a recipe for unhappiness?

Aquarius magazine
1 Jul 2012 | 12:00 am
  • Debate: Is the practice of self-help helpful?

    "Self-help is a source of empowerment to make the changes you want and leave those you like intact," says Life coach Shana Kad.

    Source:Supplied picture

YES

Kate Birch

A sceptical friend thinks I'm a sucker for self-help literature - I admit, I can spend hours in Kinokuniya perusing the ‘improve your mind, job, memory, moods, relationships' aisle. Whether it's finding inspiration, discovering ‘eureka' moments or following actionable steps, I think self-help rocks - what's wrong with improving yourself?

Plenty, say the cynics who tar us self-help enthusiasts with the touchy-feely brush or brand us ‘gullible'. I'm neither, I'm simply more inclined towards self-reflection. To the cynics, who either think they're perfect (they're wrong) or only fix problems when they're broken, I say... give it a go. After all, according to studies, around 75 per cent of people who improve their psychological state do so by themselves.

Life coach Shana Kad has an equally grown-up attitude to self-improvement. "Self-help is a source of empowerment to make the changes you want and leave those you like intact."

That said, I do realise that a book entitled 7 Ways to Get Rich isn't going to make me a millionaire (only writing a self-help book could probably do that). But while the cynics say self-help offers false hope, I say, what's wrong with hope?

Shana agrees. "Having hope gives us the will to carry on striving towards a better life. If there was no hope of things getting better and you didn't think you could do it by yourself, many people would simply stop functioning."

I also recognise that reading a self-help book isn't enough. Poring over the pages of Skinny Bitch is not going to make me a size eight if I don't get off my backside. "Whether you see a professional or read books, the buck will always stop with you. Attitude is everything, making the difference from positive change to falling at the first hurdle," says Shana.

I'll be the first to admit that I've got a few first-hurdle bruises, but it's about picking yourself up and learning to tackle the next obstacle life puts in your path. Right?

Wrong, according to my cynical friend - a high-achiever in the ‘ignorance is bliss' school of thought. She believes the more self-awareness you have, the unhappier you are. "Analyse yourself too much and you may find you can't stand yourself," she once told me while I was wandering the Chicken Soup For The Soul aisle. I disagree. You can never know enough. We swot up on nutrition, why not our emotions?

"I am constantly learning about myself," admits Shana. "It is what keeps us alive and engaged. Just like we service our cars to ensure we can get from A to B, we need to service our thoughts and behaviours to ensure a smoother journey."

My friend also thinks too much navel-gazing renders one self-obsessed at best, a narcissist at worse. But the happier and more positive you are, the happier your family, children and friends will be - it's selflessness, surely?

I admit there's a lot of unrealistic, cowboy advice among the treasures. There's the good (offering realistic, practical guidance), the bad (those suggesting I manipulate others to be more successful) and the ridiculous (those promising me eternal bliss in just six easy steps). But I'm smart enough to know what works for me. Bottom line: I don't want to be like that friend who is still waiting for life to come to her. She may be cynically smug in her own little ‘I'm perfect' world, but I guarantee she's ‘sweating the small stuff'. Show me a person who says they don't need help and I'll show you a liar.

NO

Louisa Wilkins

My attitude to self-help is the same as my attitude to many other controversial things in life - I am pro-choice. Whether I read them myself, or not (I have been known to, but I'm more of a fiction girl by nature), who am I to tell you that your self-help books won't help you?

But I remember when The Secret came out and everyone was going doolally, writing love notes to their newly discovered fairy godmother, The Universe, who would grant them their every wish just because she's nice like that. And they were popping wish lists under their pillow expecting to wake up and find their Ford Focus had been swapped for a Ferrari. Smacks a little of leaving teeth for the Tooth Fairy, doesn't it?

Basically, there was a lot of witchery and hocus-pocus in the air. As much as I believe in the power of positive thinking, I cannot - and do not - believe that notes under my pillow will bring my desires winging to my door. I tried it once and Johnny Depp was most certainly not there in the morning.

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe in meritocracy and hard work. I don't think it does anyone any favours to think there is a short cut to success, health, a size-ten body or the perfect marriage. And if it was as easy as telling Ms Universe that you want it, I think our ancestors, who were on first-name terms with her, might have worked that out.

American sociologist, author and self-help expert Christine Whelan says, "We want three easy steps to overhaul our financial life, or washboard abs in 60 seconds a day. But here's the unpleasant truth: behavioural change is hard and any book that promises you instant changes is selling you snake oil."

Steve Salerno, author of Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless, says, "Anybody who thinks that you're going to reach a new nirvana in life as a result of a phone call, or a book, is badly misguided. Which is why the stuff never works and the same people keep buying the same books year after year after year."

Not only is the self-help industry riddled with BS (baloney sandwiches), there is also research (published in the journal Psychological Science), which shows that positive affirmations can actually have a negative effect on people with low self-esteem. Oh dear. But it's obvious… we all know happiness can't be bought and applied like an SPF. Hence why the enforced merriment of Christmas can make so many people depressed - you can act happy, but you can't dupe your own head (and if you can, perhaps read up on denial).

I'm not out to slam self-help, I'm just saying that a bit of discernment is required. In 2008, Americans spent $11 billion (over Dh40 billion) on self-help. While I am sure there are some altruistic self-helpers, the cynic in me feels the majority are quick-buck seekers who have jumped on the most lucrative bandwagon du jour. (Amazon sells self-help books for people who want to get rich writing self-help books. No joke.) And if we allow them to, these endless streams of ‘gurus' with dollar signs in their eyes will be sending us out on parade, like the Emperor with invisible clothes, telling us that happiness, success and confidence can be found within our fabulous selves. But that if we're a bit pushed for time, they'll reveal all to us in 260 pages. The perfect life for only Dh60. What could be more helpful than that?

WHAT YOU SAY

"It depends on how open you are to allowing it to make a difference. I know many people who it has helped enormously and it couldn't do any harm."

"We owe it to ourselves to take responsibility for our own wellbeing. Some self-help is empowering, some is just silly."

"It doesn't work alone. You have to want change and take action."

"I've started reading self-help books and I'm experiencing tremendous positive change in my life. We all set limitations, lose confidence and find we can't move forward and self-help encourages us to ‘help' ourselves in making change happen by setting goals and taking steps towards it."

Next month's debate

Is it OK to have a secret crush on someone?

 

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