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Why self-help books, well, don't help

We all have that friend who is constantly on the path of self discovery, growth and new beginnings.  Continuously searching for that silver bullet to turn their lives around, bring new relationships into their lives or take on the new life changing project - well this week's one anyway. However, do you also notice how their personality,  behaviours or attitudes may take a shift to the left or the right shortly after reading this month's latest release, always fleeting until the permanency of who they are returns. In general, their relationships continue to remain messy, they are still falling out with colleagues, friends and family members (which, by the way, is why you're never COMPLETELY honest with them) and everything always happens to them, no matter how much they try.

I caught myself pondering upon this phenomenon the other day whilst visiting the local op shop when coming face-to-face with the endless aisles of discarded self-help books and wondering how truly effective they really were. Picking through the selection of various authors and titles, I witnessed how vigorously marked, scribbled, noted and some even worth double highlighting the insight because it was just sooooooo poignant. Every book was just like the last - heavily marked and dog-eared. I could only imagine how they have spent hours pouring over the pages with exaltation, with some 'ah ha' moments and even some high energy fist pumps - according to their notes anyways.  They have then very diligently and of course, very honestly completed all the questionnaires and undertaken all the exercises - in pencil which also seemed to be the tool of choice. Orthodoxically, I found their notes often made more of a fascinating and insightful read then the actual text itself.

Now with all that hard work done, they are going to face the world with a different perspective, full of self-awareness and new found knowledge so people are going to treat them better, their relationships will be more "authentic" and people will WANT to be with them or just be them - RIGHT? - NO WRONG!! How can this be! They've done everything that has been asked of them, so why haven't their lives miraculously changed??????? 

I'll cut to the chase and tell you why - self-help books allow you to cherry pick, at your leisure by selectively perusing and determining the level of importance which you deem appropriate and/or relevant to you.  In the privacy of your own home and alone with your own thoughts, you can skip pages, especially the ones you feel uncomfortable with or deem paragraphs and chapters as "not really applicable to me" etc.  You kind of get away with a lot really or truly believe that this is simply not relevant to you. In other words, short-cutting to where you want to go  - not where you truly need to arrive.

My op shop adventure reminded me of a seminal lesson learnt from my psyche lecturer many moons ago when I was struggling as a young woman with image issues. After discussing my thoughts, she said that I'm allowing myself to being defined as how I think people see me and that's simply not the truth ie  that's my story of me - not theirs.  She then proceeded to give me this piece of advice which has always stuck and I would now love to share with you all here;  "Narelle, you have to understand that we never see ourselves as others truly see us - even in mirrors, our reflection is always reversed so your image will always be distorted". 

In short, where you think you need to focus, is not where others think you need to focus - and others are your relationships.  You see, if I were to ask all of your past bosses and colleagues, your previous and current relationships, friendships, family members for a list of areas for improvement to focus on (anonymously of course for truth purposes), I can guarantee that they would come up with a complete list all of which would have similarities and common themes across all aspects of your life.  In psychology, they are known as "blindspots".  Don't you ever wonder why we keep making the same mistakes, picking the same type of partners, friends, have the same work issues, etc ? - It's because YOU are the common denominator.  Although this can be an incredibly difficult thing to do, looking at our ugly bits, its necessary for true, permanent personal growth and development.

I have spent an extraordinary amount of time with people who have gone through every self-help book available to man, they have chased their zen all over the planet, they have eat prayed and loved all over the place and they have  even attended every seasonal new age speaker in a 100 mile radius but still - no change.  People aren't treating them the way they want, they're still single, divorced or in unhealthy relationships and they are still, privately miserable.

I've always said that when you close the door of your home - you could be anywhere in the world, so you have to be happy with the relationships you have in your life at that time, especially with the most important one -  you. 

Remember - wherever YOU go - there YOU are! 

You can't ever run nor hide from yourself.   So sadly, when you find yourself back where you started, in far too many cases, depression and self defeating thoughts seep in - again.  Your intentions were pure, however, the results were disappointing - certainly not from a lack of trying but absolutely due to your selected strategy being, the self-help route.

To make change permanent here are the 5 steps that I've found to be most effective:

  1. Be committed to working on You and let's be clear I do mean "Work" - hard and often uncomfortably with time spent looking at you.  But YOU are worth investing in.  I have found that the more uncomfortable the conversation, the more accurate the focus and the better chance that real change will be permanent.
  2. Be prepared to look at the ugly side of you by working collaboratively with a qualified professional (please refer to my previous blog in terms of what constitutes a professional - no life coaches thanks) that will work to support your decisions in a non-judgmental and emotionally safe environment.  Looking honestly at ourselves and honing in on our tender spots, is a very courageous thing to do, but necessary for real change.
  3. Acknowledge you can not change or control others-  you can only change and control you.  However, you can learn to manage the people in your life in a healthy way - even the "toxic" ones.
  4. Be prepared to strip yourself bare of "your stories of you" and "talk to the truth of you" ie "I've always been a quiet person so people misread me" versus "I've never been really comfortable in conversations, I don't think I'm very interesting".
  5. Be an open and willing participant in the process.  Let's face it, this is your life.

By now, you're probably recognised the subtext has morphed from your friend to you, so when you're ready to make the commitment, do your research, find a professional that's right for you, commit to the necessary change - make the call to start to embark on your final destination.

When you're ready for change, please email me on or call 0419 264 852 for an appointment.

© Narelle Brigden Counselling Services - October, 2014
No extraction without the direct written permission of the author.

52 Comments to Why self-help books, well, don't help:

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gerry north on Thursday, 23 October 2014 5:54 PM
Narelle, Thanks a zillion for this excellent blog. Self-help books are also like recipes. You read them and forget them. When you need to cook again you look up the recipe. In like finding out who you really are from the inside out means finding your values in life. Once you know this you do not need a recipe for a happy life from a self-help book - you know it. Great article and thank you.
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Usually, when you are in your 20’s or mid 20’s you are probably seeking for the meaning and purpose of your life. This is the age where you are constantly seeking on the path of self-discovery, growth and new beginnings. Typically, we call these people in this age as young adults. And I believe that the books that centers on self-help or self-discoveries will really help these young adults to become prepared and ready in their journey towards adulating age.

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Well it is truth that we all encounter some sort of person in our social circle who constantly searchs for himself in this great universe. I think you have said well enough about this topic. I just want to add one thing though: wherever you go, just be yourself!
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