How to Escape the Toxic World of Unhelpful Self-Help

Shiromani Kant / Unsplash

Source: Shiromani Kant / Unsplash

Many people come to therapy wondering why consuming self-help content isn’t helping them. They ask questions like:

  • “I read more self-help books than anyone I know. It makes me feel inferior because other people don’t seem to need it as much as I do. What is wrong with me?”
  • “My mindset changes with every self-help guru I come across. Because of this, I am unable to follow through on any of my self-improvement goals. What do I do about this?”
  • “I spend a lot of money on self-help events. Sometimes I don’t even want to go, but I have a fear of missing out on valuable tips. How do I pick and choose?”
  • “My Instagram feed is full of self-help influencers who claim their method is the best. How do I know who to trust?”

From how-to books to life coaching seminars, self-help is a multi-billion dollar market. While there’s nothing wrong with seeking out ways to improve yourself, self-help is not a cure-all solution. In fact, it may do more harm than good. For example, one study showed that those who consumed self-help books had higher levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and were more likely to have depressive symptoms compared to those who did not.

Why Does Self-Help Sometimes Go Wrong?

The problem may be that most self-help content available to the masses follows a one-size-fits-all approach to mental health.

Look at it this way. When you approach a mental health practitioner for help, they listen to you, understand you, and offer solutions that work for your unique situation.

On the contrary, when someone writes a self-help book, their goal is to sell to as many people as they can. So, self-help content is often oversimplified and sweetened with a false sense of hope and meaningless pats on the back. This can be why so many people feel they can relate to these books and feel happy while reading them; it’s essentially toxic positivity.

Understand that, when it comes to self-help, it’s easy to get caught up in a cycle of books, seminars, and videos without really addressing the issues in your life. It can become a problem of its own. Often, seeking out self-help content is a symptom rather than a solution.

Here are two ways to achieve self-improvement without being dragged into the toxic world of self-help.

1. Understand that not all self-help is created equal.

In general, the self-help industry loves to promise easy fixes for all your mental health problems. In fact, this is what keeps them selling in such large numbers.

But ask yourself this: If these promises were true, why do so many people rely on qualified mental health practitioners for help with their mental health issues? Although millions of self-help gurus peddle their magic solutions online, why is the demand for mental health practitioners consistently on the rise?

This is because when it comes to helping people with a serious issue like mental health, legitimacy is paramount. Unfortunately, a good percentage of self-help gurus have no qualifications to discuss the topics they choose to discuss.

A classic study published in The American Psychologist has suggested that, because self-help is often laymen helping laymen, the solutions described in self-help books may not take into account an individual’s nuanced symptoms, which a psychotherapist is trained to interpret. The study, which reviewed over 100 studies and case reports, also found that self-help treatment plans were often not easy to follow and were likely to be misinterpreted by the intended audience.

There are legitimate sources of self-help. These are the ones that don’t oversell their mission statements. Keep an eye out for such sources. Always run it by a qualified mental health professional before you commit to a do-it-yourself treatment plan.

2. Understand the importance of setting goals and taking actionable steps.

The business model of many self-help gurus is dependent on two connected ideas:

  1. Sell feel-good content to a wide audience.

  2. Get repeat customers.

This is why you often hear them talk about their exclusive newsletter, ebook, video, or seminar. They’ve built a customer base that is loyal to their framework of “solutions.”

To keep yourself on track, it is important that you think for yourself. Don’t be vague about your goals for self-improvement.

Self-Help Essential Reads

One study published in Current Directions in Psychological Science explained the importance of goal setting in improving motivation, self-esteem, autonomy, and self-confidence. And, as we know, you are more likely to achieve your goal if your goal is challenging and well-defined.

Once you know what you want to improve on, use legitimate self-help sources. Take the tips that you can implement in your everyday life, put them into practice, and don’t get hung up on the next problem to solve. Understand that self-help content needs to stand on its own merit, not your loyalty to the person who created it.

Conclusion

Self-help books can be a great resource for personal growth. However, it’s important to be aware of the dangers of unregulated advice, quick fixes, and one-size-fits-all solutions. When used with caution and critical thought, self-help materials can be a valuable tool on your journey to personal growth and development.

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