Photo by Florencia Viadana on Unsplash

Why I Love Self-Help Books So Much

People’s least favorite genre is the one that can change their life the most

Megan Holstein
Aug 18, 2020 · 5 min read

I’m an intelligent person. When people find out I’m a writer, they ask “what do you write about?” When they find out I write about self-help, they are disappointed. Intelligent people write about science, or politics, or philosophy. They don’t write self-help.

Sometimes their disappointment is palpable. Sometimes they even say “ugh, I hate self-help.” I’ve been told self-help is nonsense, that it’s all a sham, and that everything self-help has to say is obvious and shouldn’t need saying (never mind that those are contradictory statements). Even computer scientists don’t think self-help is rigorous. When college student Liam Porr created an AI that wrote it’s own blog, he chose for the AI’s topic productivity and self-help because they don’t require rigorous logic.

Computer algorithms aside, I think people who criticize self-help haven’t read much self-help. Or at least, not much good self-help. They probably picked up one of the duds out there, realized it was a dud, and concluded that all self-help must be duds.

Having read hundreds of books, mostly self-help books, I can tell you that while a great deal of the books are duds, some of them are not. The ones that are not have the power to transform your life.

I read hundreds of self-help books, mostly duds, because the ones that are not duds have transformed mine.

You see, when I first started reading self-help, I was in grave need of some help. I was 14 years old and beginning to feel the first pangs of what would prove to be a lifelong struggle with mental illness.

Nearly overnight, for what felt like no reason at the time (it would take ten years for a therapist to help me unearth the reasons), I became intensely depressed. I ate 200 calories a day, laid on the floor all day because I was too depressed to get in the bed, started wearing nothing but camouflage, black, and hard-toed boots, and started drawing pictures of guns when nobody was looking. I ought to have been identified as a possible school shooter. (I never had any intent to harm anyone other than myself, of course, but school authorities had no way of knowing that without talking to me).

In any case, I was a ridiculously depressed 14-year-old, but I also happened to love reading manuals.

  • When I was 8 years old, I read and reread What To Expect When You’re Expecting at least four times, not because I was eager to have my own babies, but because I loved something about this manual. I don’t remember what it was, but for some reason, it soothed me.
  • When I was 12 years old, I found a copy of The Seven Principles Of Highly Productive People and devoured it in two days. I immediately started using the Getting Things Done method, which was a welcome relief, because even in middle school my mental illness was beginning to assert itself in the form of constant overwhelm and poor executive function. My calendar and priority-indexed to-do list made it possible for me to function like the other students.

My love for self-help picked up slowly. At first, I started devouring copies of Chicken Soup For The Depressed Soul, Chicken Soup For The Teenage Soul, and any other related Chicken Soup books. I bought a handful of “how to deal with depression” books and read those too.

None of those cured my depression, of course. My mental illness ended up being tremendously more complicated than mere depression, and it would take me more than ten years to even get a proper diagnosis. But those books did teach me skills to cope, and those skills worked well enough to get me out of that skid. Instead of killing myself when I was 14, I ground through the second-worst depression I’ve ever experienced in my life and survived to make it to 15.

This taught me to turn to books when I was facing a problem I couldn’t solve. Trying to start a company and couldn’t seem to get marketing traction? Read a few marketing books. Suffering from anxiety and panic attacks for the first time in my life? Read a few books on coping with anxiety. Can’t seem to build a healthy relationship? Read a few (dozen) books on what makes for a healthy marriage.

Save for the book on dealing with panic attacks, which did literally cure my panic disorder overnight, none of these books have produced overnight and instantaneous fixes. What they did was teach me something I didn’t know about the world before or give me some new way to understand (and therefore cope) with what I was experiencing. Combined, the knowledge from all these self-help books has transformed one woman who was so mentally ill she probably would not have made it to 25 into one woman who has started several businesses, written hundreds of self-help and productivity articles, secured a traditional publishing deal, and will probably make it to 50.

For most of my life, this progress was invisible. After all, mental illness is still an invisible disability in our society. As a result, my progress was measured not in terms of the prognosis for my own mental health, but in comparison to my peers. And like any severely mentally ill person, I am in a lot of ways behind my peers.

My constant desire to read self-help books was seen, I’m sure, as a manifestation of this. After all, self-help is only for people who can’t get it together, like drug addicts and the mentally ill and the chronically lazy. If we would just get it together, we wouldn’t need all of this fucking self-help. No, that’s not just me projecting: I’ve been told that before to my face.

I cry for those people. It pains me to imagine what heights these “stable” neurotypical people could reach if they read as much self-help as I do. Could they become the top performers in their company? Could they finally travel to Bali just like they’ve always wanted? Could they become world-class dancers? I think so. But because they won’t try self-help, we won’t ever know.

That’s why I love self-help. Because whoever you are, wherever you are, self-help makes your situation better. Whatever problems you’re facing, no matter how complex or intractable they seem to be, the answer lies somewhere in a book. You just have to be determined enough to find it.

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