Self Help or Self Sabotage? Here are some ways to tell!

“The only way to get rich from a self-help book is to write one.” — Christopher Buckley, God is my Broker

You know, I could have easily taken this advice to heart. There is indeed a billion dollar market out there where you could profit off readers’ hunger for inner change and uniqueness. If you consider yourself a creative, opportunistic person who wants to rise above mediocrity but dislikes research, you could easily weave together a vague message of hope while hoping to act as a life-changing catalyst.

Now a lot of the gurus, self-proclaimed or not, would probably give a more noble or humble presentation of their intentions. Well-meaning and genuine people in this industry do exist. Also, I may have sounded unfair by suggesting that these authors ‘dislike research.’ This was in reference to pieces built mainly on anecdotal evidence and broad generalizations.

That being said, self help is one of those categories where anyone with a story and some charm can claim to have the answer and break in. Even I myself have written things that could arguably be considered self-help pieces. While I tried to emphasize actionable and useful suggestions to address specific areas of concern with minimal fluff, I could sort of see the temptation to become overly poetic and preachy.

In some cases I could sense the flowery aura of an armchair expert counting the money they collected from a batch of impressionistic souls. I could also sense the gleam in some of the more opportunistic among the batch. These opportunists would soon go off to sell their own spinoffs of the answer. Why, it’s almost like a pyramid scheme that throws pseudo-religion and guru worship into the mix! Ugh.

Self help isn’t always such a sleazy thing to approach, however. The charged language of self-help that’s meant to jolt you back into action works well on those who have lost their fighting spirit in a moment of weakness. It certainly worked a few years ago on an exhausted and terrified college sophomore. It gave her the nudge to change majors and take up something she genuinely liked, even if it meant a little more uncertainty and hustling.

But beyond that? Imagine coming out of burnout with more solid plans. In spite of setting those plans into motion, you would likely still encounter setbacks, moments of fatigue, and difficult circumstances out of your control. Ever tried returning to a self-help book after reaching that point? You would probably encounter dreamy, diabetes-inducing language. Alternatively you would be figuratively slapped for complaining and being stuck. Not very helpful.

So, do you still want to dive into self help? If your answer is yes, keep in mind these various questions to determine how helpful or unhelpful your sources will be.

Are you creating a fantasy world?

Be wary of self help that strongly emphasizes aspects of visualization, manifestation, or whatever magical terms they’re using nowadays. I’m not trying to be a dream-crusher or discourage spiritually; it can be uplifting! But the longer you’re stuck in a state of visualization, the longer you’re waiting around and fidgeting around under the illusion of progress.

Of course, not all self-help books that overemphasize manifestation are trying to freeze you in place. Oftentimes the reasoning is that if you could clearly visualize something, you’ll somehow gain all the motivation and knowledge you’ll need to make things happen. This unfortunately implies that people fail because they can’t visualize something or they lack dreams/ambition. In the worst cases, the self-help piece reprimands you for being (gasp!) lost and in need of help. They fail to account for personal issues or external circumstances that complicate what you want to achieve.

It takes two to tango. Sure, you’ll need the right combination of subject authorities and sources to help you out. But in order to gather what you need, you will have to clearly define your problem spots. Be honest. Simply saying that you lack happiness or life sucks may be too general of to tackle well. What life events or habits triggered those thoughts?

Regardless of if you’ll need a friend, a hobby, ideas, expert advice, or a counselor, resolving each issue head-on beats visualizing the aftermath (while still being stumped on how to get there).

Are they siphoning away your time and money?

Are you being drawn to something that regurgitates simple points with pages of elevated purple prose? Does processing everything take so long that you’re actually wasting time instead of applying what you learned? Beware!

A fluff-filled book is a definite time and money-sucker. Even worse are the self-help books or programs that insist that you buy the next installation of fluffy-wisdom. Your time, mind, bookshelf, and money definitely deserve better.

Do whatever you can to resist a self-help splurge. Only invest in titles that address what you really need help on. If you can, preview what you’re getting yourself into. Look for summaries and critical reviews that cut through the hype. If everything is hyped, you might want to run!

Choose a quick read with a few takeaway points that will help you in the moment. If you’re creative and the advice is truly valuable, you could take what you learned and apply it many times in the future. If you don’t end up doing that, that’s fine too, so long as whatever you chose wasn’t useless.

What are you expecting from it?

Spoiler alert: vague expectations tied to some sort of general bliss or absolute truth only lead to disappointment. Admittedly, chasing those things can make you appear really cool and ambitious. Perhaps your fascination with self-help started because the more you tried to reach for something specific (like a group of friends, lifestyle or lover), the more failure and dissatisfaction you felt. And perhaps the more you read, the more vague your goal became, especially if you were looking into spiritually-charged self help that discouraged you from focusing on more “material” things.

But here’s the thing. Whether you’re chasing after self actualization or some “material” thing, you’re bound to become dissatisfied when you:

a. fail to confront realities and pains that come with failure or sudden change,

b. lose sight of why you wanted or needed to achieve something, and

c. follow a way of life too closely. Save the procedure-following for when you’re dealing with measurements and time, producing something tangible, or perfecting an action.

Prevent unfulfilled feelings and vagueness by setting clear expectations before diving into any type of self-help or advice. Reading Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up may not turn you into a minimalist. But you’ll discover ways to clear up an important room, fold your clothes, and hoard less things.

By outlining your needs, your plan of action, and realizing it at your own pace, you’ll be helping yourself more than any vague guide on its own can. The emerging criticism and counter-culture to yesterday’s stash of self help books may just be what ultimately creates the desired changes in the end.