Self-help, self-delusion or self-destruction?


I didn’t use to read self help books. But over the last few years, as I muddle through midlife and try to make sense of aging and come to terms with the fact there is more of my life behind me than in front, I’ve started reading self help books. I’m looking for insights, explanations  and support structures. 

Originally I wanted to ask myself questions but was not sure about what. To be honest, I was alarmed, confused and overjoyed to discover I seemed to be morphing into my 19 year old student self. My mindset had switched. I felt carefree, fight-to-the-death-in-a-debate passionate about big issues and much less concerned about looking the part and following social norms. I felt irresponsible and wanted to play hooky. Suddenly going to see a play or going for a walk in the woods became more important than writing a report or finishing household chores. What had happened to the responsible me, mindful of my role and responsibilities? I frequently felt disconnected and disinterested, especially in my career. 

But did all this mean that the main chunk of my life had been lived in denial or playacting? Was I only now re-establishing the real me? So had it all been a waste of time and worse, should I have lived my life differently? Could self help books help me resolve all this or at least make some sense of it? The answer I discovered is – yes and no. 

Armed with these huge questions I began to explore the world of self help.

Self help book books come in all shapes and sizes from the thoroughly researched perspective of life (Brene Brown and Susan Cain), through the spirtual path (think many of the Hay House authors including Gabby Bernstein) to the personal life story as a starting point (from Kris Karr to Elizabeth Gilbert). I’ve read them all. 

Many I have enjoyed because they let me into the lives and minds of others and several helped me to see other people differently, which I discovered was frequently more helpful and interesting than thinking about myself. I don’t think one book stands out as my bible, though I have a few favourites usually because I warm to the authors. 

It was a revelation that there are a small number of life support mechanisms but an infinite way of communicating them to others and executing them in real life. It is reassuring to be told the same things over and over. The lesson is reinforced by repetition rather than deminished. 
You need to read a lot of self help books to realise what you do and do not know about yourself. You need to read a lot of self help books to learn which ones are for keeps. You need to keep an open mind and draw on a wide range of writers. Treat yourself as a research project. Be prepared to surprise yourself. You may be drawn to authors you least expect, reflect on why, that maybe a lesson in itself.

I realised how easy it would be to become addicted to self help books. It wouls be so easy to become reliant on a suite of platitudes and exercises to navigate life. To be honest that is not a disasterous way to live, assuming the platitudes are not unreasonable and you apply them responsibly. But it is a very passive way to live. Potentially you lose your freewill and become cultlike in your behaviour; more and more susceptible and persuadable but little wiser and probably increasingly gullible. It is no way to resolve your problems or to answer your questions.

I’ve learned a lot about how to read myself, about who I am and my attitude to life. Self help is about the reader not the book and like learning anything new, you need at least one teacher to show you the ropes and stretch your capabilities. But at some point you have to leave school.

Meanwhile I keep reading, dissecting and playing hooky (sometimes).

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