I’m a huge book nerd and average about 10 to 15 books per month. I pretty much limit my reading to nonfiction, but more specifically, I read books on psychology, philosophy, mental health, and everything in that realm. Something I’ve noticed is that a specific sub-genre of self-help books has given the entire genre of self-help books a bad name. The reality is that self-help books can assist you with improving your mental health and overall well-being, but you need to learn about the complex nuances of the genre.
There are just some words like “self-help” that are these umbrella terms, and I don’t like it. For example, I worked at a rehab for a little over three years, and I’d always hear about someone overdosing. Whenever I hear the word overdose, I’m put in the terribly awkward position of having to ask if they survived. Overdose can mean they died, but many times they overdosed and were revived thanks to medications like Narcan. I wish we had more words for overdose, and I wish self-help had more words to explain the differences within the genre.
Here, I’ll do my best to break down the two primary categories I’ve seen from the hundreds of books I’ve read to hopefully give you some insight into the variety in this niche so you can find some books that might help you out while avoiding some of the pure nonsense books.
Note: All of the links are affiliate links, so if you decide to check out any of these books and use my link, it helps support my work. I greatly appreciate it.
Gurus Ruined the Genre
I’m currently reading the book by the Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman called Thinking Fast and Slow. When we hear “self-help”, we have an instant reaction without putting much thought into it. Kahneman refers to this as “system 1” thinking. This is your immediate thinking that’s typically based on emotions and biases without putting much thought into it. Our system 1 thinking gets us into trouble because we make a lot of cognitive errors, and that’s what’s happening when we hear of a self-help book without really diving deeper into the nuances.
I’ll call this first of two sub-genres the “non-scientific self-help” category.
I’m a man of science, and it makes me pretty stubborn at times. I don’t take many things seriously unless it has some scientific backing, and that’s why I don’t like these guru books that become best-sellers that sell people a bunch of snake oil. One of the first nonsense guru books was The Power of Positive Thinking that was released back in 1952, which people flocked to. The claim is, “Think positive and you’ll get whatever you want”. While there is some science that backs positive thinking and changing toxic thought patterns as you would with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, that’s not what this book is teaching.
Over 50 years later, things got much worse. A woman by the name of Rhonda Byrne came out with The Secret. This book promoted the Law of Attraction and matching your “frequency” with things you want to manifest it into your life. Want money? Manifest it. Want a better job? Match your frequency to it. Want a new car, TV, mansion or anything else?!…you get the point.
Not only is this absolute nonsense, and Byrne made millions from it, but Oprah Winfrey endorsed it. Oprah’s endorsement is what every author dreams of, and I find it highly irresponsible to promote a book like this. Byrne’s website even has blank checks you can print out to fill in and “manifest” money.
More recently, a woman by the name of Jen Sincero wrote You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life. While I wouldn’t read The Secret if you paid me, I actually read Sincero’s book and debated putting it in the next category. It’s a great book if you’re looking for inspiration and motivation, but about 10 to 15 percent of the book dives into the Law of Attraction, manifestation and frequency nonsense.
The problem with these books isn’t just the lack of science, but it’s the message they send out. “If you didn’t get what you want, it’s your fault. You weren’t manifesting properly,” they say. The reality is that these books are unfalsifiable. You can’t disprove these people because if it didn’t work, it’s not the program’s fault, it’s yours. From an atheist’s perspective, it’s the whole religion issue. If something good happens, it was God. If something bad happens or you don’t get what you want or need, it wasn’t in God’s plan. They have a weak explanation for everything.
Motivation and Inspiration
Next, we have the sub-category of motivation and inspiration. Although I’m Mr. Science, I think these books are extremely beneficial. Sometimes, what we really need is a kick in the ass. Let’s just be honest for a second. Some of us get into these slumps where we’re simultaneously lazy while also sitting in self-pity. We sit there in the problem rather than thinking of solutions to get out of our rut. Many of us also surround ourselves with enablers who help us throw our pity party.
What we really need at certain points is for someone to remind us that we have the choice of whether we decide to actively work on improving our lives, and that’s where the motivational and inspirational books come in. Some books I’d put in this category include the following:
Now, I’d argue that there is some science rooted in these books, but the authors don’t realize it. Some of them reference some psychological studies to drive a point home, and others are rooted in stoic philosophy. If you’re knowledgable of various evidence-based therapeutic techniques, you can see where some of the advice they give is practical and useful. What separates these from the guru nonsense is they give you actions you can take to improve your life without waiting for the universe to hand you something on a silver platter.
Now, we get to the good stuff.
Since getting sober 7.5 years ago, it’s been my life’s work to help people not only overcome their addiction to drugs or alcohol but to help people with their mental health. When I got sober, I was broke and had no insurance. Rehab wasn’t an option. For years, I stayed broke with no insurance, so therapy or seeing a psychologist wasn’t an option either.
So, should people like me stay hopeless? Hell no. Some of the greatest minds in psychology and mental health disorder science have put their knowledge and wisdom into books. These books are inexpensive, and if you’re really broke, you can go to a library.
Side note: During this quarantine time, a ton of bookstores and libraries are providing free access to books online.
Financial struggles and mental health issues often go hand-in-hand, so I always recommend people who lack resources to start reading self-help books. If we’re being honest, therapy and psychology are self-help. Mental health professionals are there to provide you with tools so you can start helping yourself. They aren’t meant to hold your hand forever. That’s why it bums me out that gurus have given “self-help” a terrible name.
Now, let’s break this down into a few sub-categories as well.
Education / Science / Research
I’m a huge believer that when you understand how your brain works, it’s helpful. When you know what your brain is doing, it can help you sit back and say, “Oh, this is what’s happening, and I know some ways to make my brain do something else that doesn’t spiral me into a depressive or anxious state.” There are a ton of books that are just heavily based in research and simply educate you on different psychological and neurological subjects. These aren’t for everyone, but here are a few suggestions if you’re a learner like me and like these types of books. These books don’t provide many practical solutions for you to use, but they’re educational.
The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty by Simon Baron-Cohen (note: this book blends some moral psychology/philosophy which I think helps us empathize more with others)
Some people learn better with stories. When we can relate or connect to something, it can help us feel less alone. I’ve also found through my own sobriety and mental health journey that seeing how other people cope or improve their mental health gives me some potential solutions. Some of these books also intertwine some great education on mental health and psychological subjects as well.
The Buddha and the Borderline by Kiera Van Gelder (Great insight into a first-person account of doing Dialectical Behavioral Therapy)
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: And Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks (This book has a lot of neuroscience that explains some rare mental disorders)
If this was 5 or 6 years ago, I would have tossed mindfulness meditation up in the first sub-genre of self-help, but mindfulness meditation has a ton of scientific backing. There have been years of evidence-based studies that show how mindfulness helps to decrease symptoms of anxiety, depression, ADHD, and it can also help to manage addiction. Mindfulness meditation is free, and you can do it whenever wherever. There are also some free or cheap apps you can download on your phone. The books below discuss some neuroscience but also provide some simple practices as well.
This is probably my favorite sub-category, and the majority of books I read are self-help psychology. These books are written by some of the best psychological researchers in the world, and many of them also teach at prestigious universities like Stanford, Yale, Harvard and more. Each of these books provides exercises and activities you can use to improve how your brain functions to decrease depression, anxiety, and the impact of trauma in some cases. I could put 100 books in this section, but here are just some of my favorites.
Can’t afford therapy or don’t have access? No problem! Some of the best therapeutic techniques out there are outlined in books. Even if you’re in therapy, knowing about different forms of therapy can help. For example, since I like knowing why things help my mental health, I educate myself on different therapies. I’ve even learned about different therapies, thought they’d be good for me, told my therapist, and we started using it. Recently, I’ve been loving Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT), and I learned about it from reading a book.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Techniques for Retraining Your Brain by Jason Satterfield (This is an audiobook that’s formatted like a college course, but it’s EXTREMELY helpful and provides tools you can personally use)
I feel a lot better now that I’ve laid all this stuff out, and I hope this has helped you see that there’s a lot of different types of self-help books. While I don’t recommend the Law of Attraction stuff, most of these other sub-categories can be extremely helpful for your mental health. I wanted to lay it all out there because everyone’s different, and there’s no one-size-fits-all. We learn and benefit in different ways, so I hope there’s something here that you can find useful for your mental health journey.
If you need help with your mental health, I highly recommend the service I use, BetterHelp. They’re an affordable online therapy service, and by using this affiliate link, you help support The Rewired Soul.