Is Self-Help a Waste of Time?

I think it's safe to assume that people will have very different reactions when you mention self-help. To some, it's likely to be viewed as something that weak and gullible people scramble to for answers. To others, it will be seen as a valuable source of inspiration and in some cases, a lifeline.

The big question is whether we can really help ourselves or should we just rely on the professionals?

To be clear and to make it easier, I term self-help as guidance received from outside the health service. This can take the form of books, seminars, life coaches and blogs. That's right, by my definition this site is likely to be considered self-help so I guess I need to be very careful about what I say about it.

Whatever we call it and whatever we feel about it, I think it's essential that we understand it before we judge it. In this post, I'll explore what it is, examine whether it's a good thing and then suggest how you could make it work for you.

The Numbers

Before we begin, I thought it would be helpful to introduce some numbers to put things into perspective:

  • In 2014, the self-help industry was estimated to be worth around 11 billion dollars in the United States
  • It's estimated that around 80% of these purchases were made by repeat buyers
  • The industry grows on average 6% per year, even through recessions

A lot of people seem to use these stats to argue that people aren't getting the help they need, as they clearly need to to buy more books. It's assumed that the ones they have aren't working and in some cases, it seems to be suggested that these authors and coaches may be profiting from others' misfortune.

I don't think it's as simple as that though. In terms of repeat sales, it's unlikely that all the books they buy are on the same subject and we shouldn't automatically conclude that every repeat purchase is due to the failure of the previous title.

If that was the case and repeat sales were a result of poor quality, there must be a hell of a lot of really bad Beatles albums out there.

We can't just assume that all the authors are snake oil salesmen either. That one is easy to disprove, as you just have to look at some of the books I've recommended on the site to see that there are some experts out there.

Let's not write this off as doom-mongering though, because there are some other statistics you really need to be aware of: 

  • The World Health Organisation projects that without an increased investment in treatments, 12 billion working days will be lost because of depression and anxiety disorders between 2016 and 2030
  • Globally, this would have a monetary value 925 billion dollars
  • The authors of the report state that every dollar spent on treatment could lead to a 4 dollar return in health and ability at work

So what does this all mean? I think it's safe to make the following conclusions about the self-help industry:

  • There are a lot of people who need help out there
  • A lot of people are making a lot of money from them
  • It's clearly not solving all the problems
  • Things are getting worse and we can't ignore it

This all seems very odd, so perhaps it's time to look a little deeper.

Where Self-Help Goes Wrong

I think the problem we face is that so much is crammed into the sphere of self-help. If we just look at books for a moment, we can see some staggering contrasts.


Self-help authors can range from TV writers and producers telling us that we can manifest our desires through positive thinking, to academics that show us how to implements effective practices based on numerous studies and experiments.

Let's compare two clear examples of this.

The Secret, written by Australian TV producer Rhonda Byrne, introduces us to the law of attraction. This quite simply allows us to order the things we want from the universe if we match our thoughts and feelings to the right 'frequency'. It's also suggested that this is based on historical teachings.

This book has sold more than 19 million copies.

I'm not going to challenge any of this here, but I suggest you check out Derren Brown's book Happy if you'd like to read a less than complimentary appraisal of The Secret. It's safe to say he doesn't like it, and neither do I. Although I like to be open-minded about things, this is the last book I would recommend to someone who was struggling with stress and anxiety.

Now let's look at another self-help book.

59 Seconds, by Richard Wiseman couldn't be more of a contrast. To begin with, he's a Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire and has a very impressive academic background. When a friend challenged him to sum up his advice, in around 59 seconds (as they didn't have time to hear about academic studies and experiments) he was motivated to write this book.

Each chapter deals with a key area of personal development and he carefully outlines the academic studies, and their practical applications, before reaching a simple and effective conclusion. In short, he breaks down all the academic jargon so everyone can benefit from practical psychological advice.

The big problem for me is that these books are likely to be positioned together in a bookstore.

I know which one you'd like to work, but which one of these do you really think will deliver results? Like many things in life, there are no shortcuts that remove the need for hard work when it comes to personal development in my experience.

The Dangers of Self-Help

Hopefully, we've now established that there can be a huge gap between the quality and the credentials of self-help authors. If we go beyond books and look at the wider industry though, it gets even more alarming.

You need need to ask yourself, what stops people setting themselves up as a life coach or charging for a seminar?

If you visit your doctor, you can be assured that they didn't just put a fancy sign outside their office and write a compelling bio on their website. They have credentials and they need to be qualified.

I actually think there are also some unfortunate parallels between the self-help and the paranormal industry. This isn't a good thing, but it can give us a useful analogy to explore.

Imagine for a moment that someone has just lost a loved one and that they are trying to come to terms with what has happened and deal with their grief. They could choose to visit a psychic, in the hope of somehow communicating with the deceaseased and getting an important sense of comfort from the fact that they are still with them. This is obviously preferable to the stark realities they were facing before.

Putting arguments whether this is actually possible aside, the risk here is that they will be mislead. There's a good chance that they will fall victim to someone using psychological tricks like cold reading, or worse still obtaining the information in advance, in order to deceive them and take their money.

Worse still, they could encounter someone who has been trained by one of these fraudsters who has unwittingly learned these techniques but genuinely thinks they have a psychic ability that allows them to communicate with the dead.

Their first 'reading' could give them a huge sense of relief and may even help them feel better in the short-term. This is unlikely to last though and if they continue the process, things are likely to get a lot worse. Sooner or later, something is likely to said that doesn't make sense and it will all start to unravel. 

When this happens, they are likely to find themselves in worse situation than when they started. They are also likely to feel that they have failed somehow and experience a sense of guilt or anger as a result of being 'taken in'.

To sum this up, I think it's all about desire for quick and easy relief from suffering. The notion of a psychic is obviously a much better option than receiving counselling from a trained professional, as the reality of the situation is still there.

The dangers of self-help

Like self-help, there are plenty of people who offer instant gratification, in exchange for your hard earned money.

This is obviously far more attractive to people than the experts who offer practical advice, that usually requires a lot of effort to implement, and this may explain why a lot of self-help appears to be unsuccessful.

Right now, you probably don't have much sympathy for the people who have taken this route. You're likely to put them into the same category as those who get caught out investing in email scams in the hope of making a huge return from something that seems ridiculous and implausible.

The problem for me is that these people still need help and they're not getting it.

Unlike the fraudsters, the people offering this sort of support aren't breaking the law, so how are people supposed to know the difference? The majority of them are likely to also have good intentions and genuinely believe that their methods are effective.

We may also assume that they have ignored or rejected professional help.

When Professional Options Fail

I think a lot of people naturally assume that access to professional help is available to everyone who needs it. unfortunately, our healthcare system in the U.K. is far from infallible.

From insensitive and bureaucratic reception staff to overworked doctors who simply can't afford to take the time to fully address these sort of problems, I think it's safe to say that some people are likely to feel abandoned.

The fact that mental illness is often stigmatised and frowned upon makes this process a lot more difficult as well. Even if it does work and the patient does feel that they are being listened to and respected, where do they go from there?

I've highlighted my concerns about medication and counselling in my previous post, How The Simplicity System Can Help You Deal with Stress and Anxiety and also suggested ways that people can help themselves.

In this situation, the things we label as self-help can help people regain control, take responsibility and not just rely on an external source to give them all the answers.

This brings an old proverb to mind...  

"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime"

I honestly believe that if it's used correctly, self-help can compliment professional help. It's simply not a matter of choosing one or the other.

Finding the Right Approach

Like a lot of things these days, we need to apply some sort of critical analysis and carefully consider what's presented to us. 

In the same way that we don't stop taking an interest in current events because of the spread of 'fake news', we shouldn't just dismiss self-help because of a few negative aspects.

You just need to to do your homework, read reviews, ask questions and generally trust your gut in terms of what feels right.

If someone just walked into a shop that sold DVD's and simply picked up the first thing they saw, they would probably be very disappointed. You probably wouldn't feel sorry for them though, given the amount of guides and reviews out there.

Like a lot of things, I think it helps to identify what you want out of it before you start. This way, you know where to start looking and are more likely to find something that will deliver results.

You should then take a close look at the credentials of the person delivering the advice.

I honestly don't believe that you need an academic background to deliver effective ideas, but the people delivering self-help need to give their audience a reason to invest their time in them.

This should then put you on the right track.

How Self-Help Can Help

Now we've established that some forms of self-help can be bad for us and the need to be extremely careful, let's look at the positives.

How self-help can help

In my experience, a good self-help book can be the start of an incredible journey.

There are so many great ideas out there and if you're open minded and ready to work hard, they can genuinely change your life. It can also complement any professional help you're recieveing and help to change the way you view life.

I think the main mistake people make when it comes to self-help is presuming you only need it when you're struggling and need help. They often overlook the fact that most of these resources can be used proactively and I think this is a huge mistake.

Learning about stress and anxiety before you're affected by them and putting simple things in place to keep them at bay can really make a huge difference.

Discovering key skills, particularly when it comes to productivity, can also enhance your life rather than fix it. If you're like me, you'll probably develop a genuine interest in a lot of these subjects and you should also get used to spotting opportunities when they arise.

How I Can Help

At this point, you're probably bracing yourself for the inevitable change of direction as I attempt to sell you something. That's what content marketing is all about right?

Don't worry, that's not why I've put this together, but I would like to outline my solutions to the problems I've outlined above.

This is actually the reason why I created this website. I wanted to give people access to what I've identified as the best sources, so they can quickly get the help they need to turn things around and not be mislead.

I honestly think this is essential if people are struggling with anything or under pressure. If someone is in this situation, it can also be hard to find the time and motivation to go through a whole book, let alone several of them. That's why I thought it would be helpful to share some of the most effective ideas to give people a great place to start.

In short, I'm not saying that you have to buy any of these books and resources, just that you're better off starting with them if you wanted to.

I hope this has all been useful and hopefully, you'll adopt a different approach towards self-help in future. You'll see that it's a huge subject with plenty of shades of grey, but it's not all bad. If you take anything away from it though, it's the fact that you don't need to be struggling or in need of help to benefit from it.

Like I say on the site, these are ideas that make life easier and it's all within reach. All you need to do is open your mind, take responsibility and be ready for some hard work. 

You also need to accept that there are no shortcuts and quick fixes, unless you can find that handy universal frequency from The Secret.