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Does self help really work?

By
Essay | 13 minute read
Books that promise to 'transform' our lives sell in the millions. But do they work or are they peddling a dream for the sad, depressed and insecure?

There have been times in my life when I’ve found I needed a little help. Help with health issues, or when I’ve found myself floundering, either in my private life or my professional, occasionally both. I’ve needed fresh perspective, new inspiration, a sane voice to counteract the frequently unhinged one in my head.

In such times – times which could last a few days, or far too many years – I haven’t turned to the psychiatrist’s couch (tempting but expensive), and nor have I turned to friends  for fear of unloading upon them that most British of paranoias: too much information. Frankly, I haven’t turned to anyone. Instead, I’ve muddled by and made the best of things, like people used to do between the wars.

By all accounts, I’m missing a trick here. There is help, readily available and easily affordable at all good bookstores, albeit those corners of bookstores to which I rarely stray. I should, I’m told, have turned to self-help. People do, many people, not all of them Americans. I’m familiar with the genre, of course, because who couldn’t be? They’ve long winked at me from display shelves on the perimeter of my vision, each of them in their gaudy jackets coloured like wrapping paper as if to suggest that – look! – priceless gifts lie within. But I’ve always given them a wide berth, like potholes in the road. Perhaps it’s the titles: to name a few – What to Say When You Talk to Yourself, Codependent No More and, a personal favourite, Instant Cosmic Ordering: Using Your Emotions to Get the Life You Want, Now. (“It’s fantastic,” says Noel Edmonds.)

I’ve always imagined such books to have been written by one of two kinds of people: those lucky enough to have seen the light while the rest of us still lurk in the shadows; and dirty great opportunists. But they sell in millions, these books, and some of them, I am reliably assured, deserve to.

I recall conversations with people who have read hundreds of the things, and as a result have now found the kind of inner peace worth boasting about. The smiles on those people I found unimaginably alien, the grins of zealots. I recall other conversations with people who told me that they consider the entire genre nothing but “a dreadful bag of charlatanry”. My largely under-educated guess is that the truth might lie somewhere between the two. But instinct still makes me sneer, a defence mechanism I cling tightly to while, perhaps inevitably, I continue to flounder.

While these books still fail, by and large, to appeal to me, the genre remains in rude health, and if anything is right now enjoying something of a resurgence in popularity. With mental health very much on the public agenda, more and more people appear to be writing books about how all of us can strive towards becoming our best selves. In parallel, more and more people appear to be reading them.

Sophie Hannah is one of them. “There is a massive snobbery against self-help of which I am very suspicious,” she says. Here is someone who knows her self-help – she’s read countless – and so I ask her why the snobbery. “Who knows? It’s just another category of book, and often a very helpful one.”

Hannah is 47 years old and a crime writer of some repute. I’ve not read her crime novels, but she has just written her own self-help guide, and I’ve read that, a funny guide entitled How to Hold a Grudge: From Resentment to Contentment – The Power of Grudges to Transform Your Life. (Self-help must, by definition, have long, unwieldy titles.) Strictly speaking, this is not a “proper” self-help book at all – it’s too knowing, too dry – but at the same time it is eminently serious, and written with the conviction that it can indeed offer assistance. Hannah is someone who has always harboured grudges, and has come to the belief that a universal recognition of them – an embracing, even – might just be good for all of us. Accept our grudges, she writes, and we shall be one step closer to accepting ourselves.


Hannah has been a self-help addict for the past two decades. This peremptorily makes me think that the poor woman must have had all sorts of issues over the years, but she is quick to disabuse me of the assumption. “No, no, I didn’t particularly need an awful lot of guidance, but I would just see these interesting titles and think to myself: hmm, I wonder how that could apply to me?”

Had she had serious problems, she would likely have sought professional help. But therapy focuses on one specific situation, and what Hannah likes about self-help is that they are not addressed to the one but rather the many. “This means that when you read the book, you get a more general insight into the entire human condition.”

Sophie Hannah (Photo by Colin McPherson/Corbis via Getty Images)

For a crime writer, this is important. Crime writers spend most of their time concocting deeply flawed individuals, and we have to believe that this comes from research rather than psychopath tendencies. The more Hannah reads about human beings and their idiosyncratic flaws, obsessions and needs, the more she can create believable characters on the page. And if they help her in her own life, too, then that’s a bonus. “There is no reason to believe that books designed to encourage people to help themselves, to make their lives better, should necessarily be bad books,” she tells me.

Yes, but that, I argue, is precisely the point: they don’t really make people’s lives better at all, do they? They just peddle a cod philosophy with all the depth of a children’s paddling pool. No?

At this, her voice raises an octave.” Oh yes they absolutely do help! They’ve helped me, personally, enormously, in all sorts of ways.”

Talk to anyone with even a passing interest and knowledge in the genre, and Eckhart Tolle’s name comes up. Hannah mentions him to me now, and his multi-million-selling book, The Power of Now. Tolle, 71, is a German living in Canada who, several years back, found himself in complete and utter despair, and seriously contemplating suicide until he underwent a spiritual transformation. As a consequence, he now lives happily ever after as a modern enlightenment guru. (It is perhaps worth pointing out that his book runs to 192 pages, so my retelling of it here is somewhat succinct. Nevertheless, that’s its gist.) Hannah loves this book. “It changed my life,” she says.

I myself bought Tolle’s book, with its tranquil blue cover and plug from Oprah Winfrey, several years ago after receiving endless hectoring recommendations from people I met once and never again, people in meditation classes, on yoga retreats. Truth was, I bought it largely because I found it in a bargain bookshop for £1.99, and I have difficulty walking away from a bargain in a bookshop. “For my mother,” I told the sales clerk. (My mother died in 1999. You can’t defame the dead.)

At home, I hid it amongst my bookshelves, forgot all about it, and effortlessly returned to my dysfunctional self. I eventually read it at a low point earlier this year – ill health relapse; long story – and struggled to fully digest it. While a great many self-help titles can feel like they have been written by someone who inhales incense while under the profound conviction that the colour lilac has magical properties, Tolle has a far saner sensibility, and his outlook is difficult not to admire, and aspire to. He writes well. His book’s entire essence can be summed up by its catchy title: don’t dwell on past failures, don’t fret about the future. To paraphrase Noel Gallagher: be here now. But his ability to detach so successfully from the messiness of life (Tolle’s, not Gallagher’s), and elevate himself onto a cloud of his own creating, is completely beyond me. He has located his own private utopia; I still struggle daily with internet buffering issues.

To my surprise, Hannah is in agreement. “Yes,” she says. “I don’t pretend to be as enlightened as him either, and I’ve read lots of other self-help books by others who seem to exist on that higher plane, and I do wonder whether ordinary people like most of the rest of us can ever put such teachings into practice. But what we can take from them is inspiration, we can think more positively, we can learn to watch out for negative thought processes, and how to stop them. We can pick and choose what works for us, basically.”

Despite its ongoing popularity, self-help continues to be widely derided, or at least viewed by many with an arched eyebrow. Expert advice dispensed so plainly, and authoritatively, on the page will, and perhaps always should, prompt the reader to wonder who the hell this purported expert is, and who appointed them as such. A psychologist I speak to tells me that a certain scepticism is indeed required: “Make sure the book has a strong evidence base, or credible evidence behind the assertions, and don’t let the author, whoever they are, impose their ideas on you. You should only read those writers who encourage you to think through an issue by yourself.”

The purple prose that tends to dog so many such books often comes from Americans. At the risk of generalising, their British equivalents write slightly more tangible prose burdened with fewer exclamation marks. In the early noughties, the genre was dominated by lifestyle coaches like Paul McKenna with their exhortations on that holy triumvirate – stay slim, be rich, sleep well – until, mercifully, writers like Matt Haig and Cathy Rentzenbrink came along with warmer, more inclusive books that merged memoir – on anxiety and depression, and heartbreak – with sage advice, and which helped further the national conversation on mental health.

In their slipstream came the celebrities, people with cheekbones like Ruby Wax and Russell Brand and Fearne Cotton, each brave enough to confess that, despite their fame, success and riches, they too struggled with issues like depression and anxiety. If they are suffering, goes the prevailing logic, we can suffer, too.

And now the genre is extending its tentacles, producing not just yet more books on self-help, but also books about self-help. Marianne Power’s memoir Help Me! is merely the latest example. Reading a little like What Bridget Jones Might Have Done Next…, Help Me! details a period in Power’s life – her 30s – when she realised that by focusing so determinedly on her career, she overlooked more personal goals. While friends were conspicuously settling down and obtaining husbands, children and wine collections, she could only manage parity with the wine, which she drank rather than stored. She became increasingly despondent, and so did what any self-respecting jobbing writer in her position would have done: she wrote about it, spending a year road-testing a series of self-help books in the hope that they would either improve her lot, or else provide an entertaining chapter. Ideally both.

She was 36 when she started writing it, and is 41 now, freshly philosophical and a little battle-scarred. It turns out that following the “expertise” of modern day gurus doesn’t always turn you into Eckhart Tolle, but instead helps you to come to the grudging conclusion that no one is perfect, life is complicated, and we should try to accept who we are. Of course, if we all managed to attain such lucid thought, self-help would be killed stone dead in an instant.

Despite this hard-won wisdom, Power remains addicted to the stuff. But until recently, she would read them in secret. “I’d stack them under the bed, on top of the fridge, sort of all over the place, really. I’d hide them as much as possible,” she says.

Why?

“I was embarrassed about being so unhappy and lost while everyone else seemed to know precisely what they were doing. I felt like a failure. By reading these books, in private, I was trying to figure things out for myself, and fantasising about how great my own life could be if only I, too, could learn to figure things out the way everybody else had.”

It was only when she began to read the self-help books of the rich and famous that she felt a little more comfortable in her literary habit. Immersing herself in the travails of, say, Russell Brand made her realise that it was okay to feel shit, effectively because we all do, at some point.

I ask her what she makes of the way so many of them are written – not Brand’s, perhaps, but those with titles like Anybody Can Be Cool…But Awesome Takes Practice or, for that matter, Paul Mckenna’s improbably over-confident I Can Make You Happy. (Can you, Paul? Can you really?) Doesn’t she bridle at all that cringing empowerment talk, all that bold print? She laughs and swiftly puts me in my pretentious place.

“Well, I’m afraid I don’t have taste as discerning as yours. But then I’m someone who will happily watch the Kardashians on television even though I have a degree and should know better.” She does concede, however, that many of her friends continue to sneer. “They find them unbearably cheesy and unreadable, but to be honest that’s what I like about them. I’ve always loved the tone of voice, I love how American they sound, and the sheer enthusiasm they have. It’s so different from my own internal monologue, you see…”

Paul McKenna (Photo by Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images)

 

Self-help, then, represents a very low-cost investment way of getting into the subject of helping ourselves. Professionals seem to agree. Sherylin Thompson, a South African counselling psychologist based in the heart of London’s financial district, explains that such books do indeed have the ability to help, to affect change. She, too, is less concerned with how well they are written than the messages they strive to impart.

“I’d steer clear, for example, of those books that over-promise, or make sweeping claims such as the diet book that tells you you will lose 10 kg in six weeks because 85% of people do,” Thompson says, “because if you find that you are one of the 15%, then you will feel like you have failed. And that’s hardly therapeutic, is it?”

Only by reading about the suffering of others, she says, will we convince ourselves that suffering is normal. “When you read self-help, you are reading other people’s voices, lots of voices, and that’s good. There is a universality to that that can be very freeing, and which you don’t get in one-to-one therapy sessions. Reading them can be like group therapy.”

Part of her own therapy strategy is to recommend books to those she believes might prove willing readers. Given her location, Thompson sees many clients in banking, in positions of power. A title she frequently proffers is Professor Steve Peters’ The Chimp Paradox, which essentially dresses up all the tropes of self-help in the form of a masculine management manual, and which consequently resonates significantly with her suited clients.

“I always think that a dose of scepticism is useful, but finding the right book for you is about getting the right blend of subject matter, a match in style of author and reader, and whether the book has the right blend of science and anecdote to suit what you find credible and enjoyable,” she says.

It’s bibliotherapy: healing through reading. Books really do have their place here, even ones with shiny jackets and overly declarative sentences, bullet points and exclamation marks.

“I think that there might be a book out there for everyone. Do your research,” Dr Thompson says, “and you will find the right one for you.”

Perhaps she’s right. And perhaps, one day, I will.