The Complexity of the Self-Help Book Genre

The Rewired Soul
Apr 3, 2020 · 9 min read
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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’ll call this first of two sub-genres the “non-scientific self-help” category.

The Gurus

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

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:

Unf*ck Yourself by Gary John Bishop

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson

The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday

Crush It or Crushing It by Gary Vaynerchuk if you’re an aspiring entrepreneur.

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.

Scientific Self-Help

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

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Good Reasons for Bad Feelings: Insights from the Frontier of Evolutionary Psychiatry by Randolph Nesse

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)


Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, HER Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb

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)


Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius

The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love — Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits by Dr. Judson Brewer

Mindfulness for Fidgety Skeptics by Dan Harris

Self-Help Psychology

The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time by Dr. Alex Korb

The Happiness Advantage: How a Positive Brain Fuels Success in Work and Life by Shawn Achor

Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By by Timothy Wilson

The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It by Kelly McGonigal

Self-Help Therapy

How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything — Yes Anything by Albert Ellis (REBT)

Mindfulness for Borderline Personality Disorder by Blaise Aguirre and Gillian Galen (DBT)

A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Toward What Matters by Steven Hayes (ACT)

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.

Follow me on Twitter and Instagram@TheRewiredSoul. For more mental health blogs, check out


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The Rewired Soul

Written by

Psychology/mental health/philosophy. Stay up to date by following me here & on Twitter/Instagram @TheRewiredSoul. Books available at


A collection of things or people. An object made of pieces fitted together. A work of art made by grouping found or unrelated objects. A publication on Medium.

The Rewired Soul

Written by

Psychology/mental health/philosophy. Stay up to date by following me here & on Twitter/Instagram @TheRewiredSoul. Books available at


A collection of things or people. An object made of pieces fitted together. A work of art made by grouping found or unrelated objects. A publication on Medium.

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