When Self-Help Doesn’t Help

This may sound strange coming from a therapist, but I’ve come to resent the notion of “self-help” — at least the kind you buy in a bookstore or see on TV talk shows. My primary gripe is with the self-help industry’s emphasis on “how to.” “How can I feel better?” Or, “How do I learn to be more rational?’ These are perfectly reasonable questions, but they don’t address the fundamental errors in thinking that bring about most problems in the first place. 

These sorts of errors include faulty logic, minimizing or denying important facts, or holding on to mistaken premises or assumptions. People are often rushed or stressed, and never get around to developing clear thinking habits. As a result, their mental states become chaotic. Rather than buying a book or taking a seminar on how to convince yourself to feel better, people can best help themselves by improving their thinking.

Admittedly, it sounds more motivating (and easier) to say, “I’m going to make myself feel better” than it is to say, “I’m going to uncover my errors in thinking.” The latter, however, will actually lead to your feeling better, while the first can be futile and sometimes expensive. I’ve stopped counting the times people have said to me, “I read ten (or seventy-five) self-help books. They all made some sense, but nothing is better.”

So what’s the point? The point isn’t to search for “tools’ to make you happy. The key is to take control of your environment. And it all starts with logical thinking. Let’s take the ever-popular subject of romance: If your goal is to find the love you want, you first ask yourself, ‘What kind of person do I want to love?’ Then you ask yourself, ‘What kind of person do I have to be in order to earn that person’s love?’ The chaotic thinker will stop after the first question and start making a list of what they’re seeking in a romantic partner. Sounds reasonable, but then the challenge becomes the open-ended (and seemingly endless) process of finding that person. Depression and anxiety can set in, and life becomes hostage to compatibility issues that you can’t control.

The logical thinker who proceeds to, ‘What kind of person do I have to be in order to earn that person’s love?’ places him or herself in control of the process; identifying, in concrete terms, how to become a more desirable person.  They are motivated to earn the admiration of the kind of person they idealize. “Becoming a better person” now includes an even bigger payoff.

Sometimes it starts with baby-steps — little ‘subgoals’ along the way. Real-life examples could include, “My ideal will love someone who has more interesting hobbies.” You then identify and pursue more interesting hobbies, rather than defaulting to couch-potato status. Or, “My ideal will love someone who reads good books.” So you start reading more of the great books. Another example, “My ideal will love someone who’s willing to have fun and relax, etc., etc.’ See? You know the drill. As you shape yourself into more of a ‘catch,’ you’ll also build self-esteem. Nobody ever rejected anybody because they had healthy self-esteem.

Conventional self-help seeks ends without means. It skips right to “feeling better about yourself” rather than engaging in the ‘baby steps’ for directing the process of achieving what you desire. This is why most self-help doesn’t help.

In his book, ‘SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless,’ Steve Salerno writes, ‘We all want so badly to believe in miracles. That’s what makes us vulnerable.’ A miracle is something that happens ‘to’ you; it’s something that someone else engineers for you. That’s what many are seeking when they look for self-help. But in all honesty, this isn’t self-help — it’s ‘help me!’

You don’t need the mental health industry (or daytime TV) to encourage you to wallow in the past or to blame your biological make-up for whatever has happened to you. Twenty-two years of talking to people professionally has convinced me that most problems reside in how people think and how they approach the task of improving their lives. Once you get into the habit, it’s surprisingly easy to identify and change your thinking. A good psychotherapist or even a skilled life coach can often provide an objective viewpoint; not with justifications to “make’ you happier, but by guiding your thoughts toward building a meaningful life worth remembering.

Give it a try! You have nothing to lose but those tired excuses and self-help clich that will never make you feel any better.