Self-help books sometimes send wrong message


Self-help books are selling like hotcakes, better in fact because many of them will tell you that hotcakes aren't that good for you. According to an article in the Christian Science Monitor, Americans spend about $2 billion a year on self-help books and Amazon can sell you about 400,000 of them in hundreds of topics. These books have become the bread and butter of today's publishing industry.

Ok, I've read a few self-help books in my lifetime, including the most helpful self-help blockbuster of all time: the Bible. However, with a few exceptions, it's a genre I try to avoid like the plague.

Self-help books are defined as “books written with the intention to instruct readers on a number of personal problems.” Do you want to be a better parent, lose weight, become less boring, get what you want, build a better business, survive the Zombie Apocalypse, stop growing older (how's that working for you?) or any number of other desires? Well, there's a (few dozen) book(s) for that (and probably a few apps, too).

As a genre, self-help books, also called “self-fashioning” and “self-improvement,” have been around awhile. The Egyptians had codes of conduct and several famous Romans wrote about how to make friends, fall in love, find success and other topics that resonate with today's self-help market.

There are good self-help books, written by experts and backed by science, but a lot of them are written by the pop-psychologist/troubled-celebrity of the week. Do we really need Jessica Simpson's advice on dream weddings, Whoopi Goldberg's book of manners, parenting tips from Britney Spear's mother or anything from Shirley McClaine? Do you think Janet Jackson has found herself well enough to tell you how to do it?

There are things we can't change about ourselves. We can't pick our births, our parents, our genes, heck some of us don't even get to pick our pets; we inherit them from our kids but despite all that, these books often overestimate our ability to change. And even with the disclaimer that “this book was not written to replace the need for therapy or counseling…,” many of them also give a sense that change will be easy and nearly instantaneous. When that doesn't happen, we blame ourselves rather than the writer.

Here's good advice from Psychology Today about that: “If a self-help author's advice doesn't ring true, this doesn't mean that you're the one with the problem.” This is true even if you did spend $30 for the book.

Don't get me wrong; there are plenty of things we can change about ourselves but the motivation to make those changes usually comes from within. As motivational speaker Denis Waitley said: “There are two primary choices in life: to accept conditions as they exist, or accept the responsibility for changing them.”

For advice about picking the best self-help books, check out “Five Things You Need to Know About Self-Help Books” at


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