How Self-Help Books Suck the Life Out of You

Self-help books can be full of advice that can have a positive impact on our lives. However, there can also be hidden negative impacts.

As a freelancer for 20 years, I have read more than my fair share of self-help books. Some have genuinely helped me along the way, and some have left me feeling worse off after reading them. So, I asked myself, what are the major differences between these books?

Quality wise there is nothing to separate the books I read that had a positive impact on me, and those that had a negative impact on me. They were equally well written and going by their Amazon reviews; they were equally well received by other readers.

Which left me feeling the problem was me. Perhaps I was incapable of taking on board these ideas and I was lacking in some way.

I’m in the fortunate position of knowing a couple of authors of self-help books, so I sought their advice. They both came back with the same response – “it is impossible to write self-help books that works for everyone”. It would be like trying to write a book, film or song that everyone liked – an impossible task.

They explained that any claims in a book’s marketing, that anyone could make a success of its contents, is a marketing white lie. Many people will make a success of it, just not everyone. It may not work with people for lots of different reasons. It could be as simple as the reader not liking the author’s writing style or that the reader’s circumstances making the book inapplicable.

So even though there are genuine reasons a self-help book might not work for us, why do we beat ourselves up over it?

The aim of this article is not to put you off reading self-books, far from it – if a book works for you, milk it for all its worth. This article is to make you aware that it’s okay if a self-help book doesn’t work for us, and it doesn’t make us a failure.

Self-Help Books Make Promises They Can’t Keep

If you ever browsed the self-help books in your local bookstore or on Amazon, you will be familiar with phrases like; “Anyone can follow these easy steps”, “A fail-safe system” and “Change your life forever”

It doesn’t matter if you are looking at books for business, health, mental wellbeing or any other topic, you will find similar claims and over promises.

For some readers, these promises will come true and they will benefit greatly from reading these books. However, not everyone will be able to follow the “easy steps” because of their circumstances. Similarly, not everyone will be able to apply the book’s lessons to their entire life, because of life’s changing circumstances.

When this happens, it becomes all too easy for us to blame ourselves. It must be our fault we can’t follow the “easy steps” or that we break their “fail-safe system”. But the truth is, the book is not keeping the promises it made, and our expectations have not been met as a result.

The only thing we have done wrong as a reader is fall for the book’s hype and marketing. It is not because we have failed to follow the author’s system – the author’s system just wasn’t workable for everyone.

Self-Help Books Only Provide Carefully Selected Anecdotal Evidence

Finding a self-help book that backs up their claims with scientific evidence is very rare. I don’t think I ever recall finding one myself, and I have shelves full of self-help books.

However, they are often heavy on anecdotal evidence and “real-world” examples. None of which should be considered scientific evidence.

Anecdotal evidence and real-world examples can be especially miss-representing. No author is going to include anecdotal evidence or real-world examples of when their teachings failed. Instead, they will curate examples where things worked extremely well.

One of my author friends wrote a self-help book about marketing for micro businesses and freelancers like me. In it was a real-world case study of a photographer that used the author’s lessons to market their business.

The photographer was also a friend of mine, and he often commented on how well it worked for his business. However, for me, as a freelance programmer, it generated zero results. It wasn’t because I was applying it differently or less vigorously than my photographer friend. It was because the author aimed the lessons at local businesses marketing locally. My clients are dotted around Europe, so marketing locally was useless.

However, the photographer’s real-world example had been framed in such a way to back up the author’s claim that anyone could make use of his teachings.

There is nothing wrong with anecdotal evidence and real-world examples in a book, but as a reader we must be aware of how they apply to us.

The Placebo Effect and the Downward Spiral

Self-help books can have a placebo effect that will leave you addicted to self-help books. It then becomes a downward spiral of negative effects. If you have multiple self-help books by the same author, or on the same subject, you may already suffer from this effect.

If you are looking to buy self-help books on a particular issue, it shows that you are fully aware of the issue, and you are fully focused on it. So, if you buy the book and then resolve the issue, can you really be sure it was down to just the book? Could an alternative conclusion be that you resolved the issue because you were so focused on the issue?

If you resolved the issue by focusing your efforts on it, you could end up falsely associating your own success with the book. This creates a placebo effect around the book, and you could be tempted to buy more books by the same author or on the same subject.

For some people, this can become a bit of a problem. As soon as they face any issue, no matter how big or small, they place an order for more self-help books on Amazon. In the examples I have seen of this happening, it is not down to them not having the ability to resolve the issue on their own. Instead, they saw self-help books as some sort of shortcut.

This seems to happen a lot in sales environments where people are constantly looking for an edge over their competitors.

Self-Help Books Can Be a Form of Avoidance

As I mentioned above, some people will go straight to the self-help books when they face an issue, even if it is just a minor issue. There appear to be three main reasons for doing this.

  • They see it as a shortcut to resolving their issues. They want simple steps to follow, with the promise of resolution at the end.
  • To avoid dealing with the issues directly themselves. Instead of working out how to do things for themselves, they are looking for someone to tell them how to do things. At this point, the effects of the self-help book are acting in reverse. The reader is not evolving new skills; they are devolving existing ones.
  • They are trying to avoid dealing with a deeper problem of which their current issue is just a symptom. They believe a self-help book will let them easily navigate around the big problem without facing it head on.

This is problematic on many levels. Bigger issues are being ignored or hidden, new skills are not being learnt, and older skills are being forgotten.

The Takeaways

Hopefully, I have not put you off self-help books as that is not the purpose of this article. If you are getting results from reading self-help books, keep reading them.

There are two things to remember when reading self-help books.

First, forget any claims that a book will work for everyone and is foolproof. These are nothing more than unsustainable marketing claims that will lead you to think it is you at fault if it doesn’t work.

Second, if you read a self-help book that didn’t produce results, it is important to forget any notions that it was down to you. The author would have created their book based on their own experiences and circumstances, and the chances they have experienced your set of circumstances are very slim.

When a book cannot produce results for you, you have no reason to beat yourself up over it. Instead, try to work out why it didn’t work for you or what was missing. This will help you understand your own needs better so you can select a better, more relevant book.

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