Our Reading Lives

Mocking Self-Help Books Didn’t Help – Maybe Reading Them Will

Embarrassingly, self-help books have always been a synonym for “books for people who are desperate” for me. Until this year, I scoffed at anyone who even browsed the self-help section at the book store – but then, I needed help and I realized that my scoffing was much more serious than simple mockery.

In the media, the self-help industry is not very well represented. In most movies and shows, the only people buying self-help books are lonely, single women who need to learn how to catch a man and get married, thus avoiding perpetual singlehood. Of course this is a major turn off to any reader: no one wants to admit that they are having trouble in their journey to not be a cat lady.

I’ve been in therapy for depression and anxiety for a couple of years now but for three months of 2015 I could not stop crying. This was a direct result of something that happened in my personal life – something that is not directly relevant to the conclusions I came to make about self-help books – and I could not see a way out of being so sad and broken inside, despite already having some psychological support. I felt weak and defeated, destroyed by my own flaws – flaws that I didn’t want to have any more, flaws I wanted to fix.

This is when I came across the book The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You by Dr. Elaine N. Aron. I was very skeptical at first because of the reviews I found online: “The self-help tone of this book is irritating,” one of them read. Another said that Dr Aron would benefit from being less patronizing and “self-help-y” to her readers and that while all the data within the book was helpful, the tone was less than appealing.

Despite my initial skepticism, I was surprised to find that this book helped me a lot. I started understanding large chunks of my personality that I usually judged myself harshly for. Enjoying a Friday night at home is not wrong, not liking bars with loud music is okay and staying in to watch a movie with friends is perfectly acceptable. I managed to mostly silence the voice that said: “You’re 24! You should be out getting drunk and meeting people!” I didn’t feel weird any more and my anxiety over social interactions considerably diminished because I comprehend the way my brain works now. Sometimes, I just like a quiet environment.

In therapy, I started to pinpoint the behaviors I have that I am less than happy with. Whenever I slip and do something I don’t like, I discuss it with my therapist and we come up with ways that I can catch myself before I snap at someone or act impulsively in unhealthy ways. This is when I came across another self-help book that has been very useful to me: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Workbook For DummiesI like this book because it actually gives you homework so you can actively work on yourself whenever you have the time. “Working on yourself” can be such a vague thing to attempt but this book makes it pretty straightforward.

A few months after reading and researching self-help books, I have come to the conclusion that they receive a lot of unwarranted scoffs because we, as a society, are terrified of getting help. While the self-help industry has its issues – it’s not like all of them are written by trained professionals like Dr. Aron, so there are some dangerous and appalling books out there – I can’t help but come to the conclusion that we find emotional flaws an embarrassing thing to own up to.

Here’s some pretty wonderful things about self-help books: they are more accessible than paying for a therapist. The single act of reaching for a self-help book means you are accepting that you need help of some kind. Reading a self-help book is a direct act of radical self-care. And if you don’t agree with what you are reading and think it is counter -productive, you can just abandon it and try something else.

Let’s be real for a second: we all have issues. We all do things we regret. Nobody is perfect. We all snap at loved ones or neglect a part of our life that shouldn’t be neglected or have some kind of problem with our parents. The essence of humanity is that we all have something inside us that needs fixing. But in a world where perfection and success is what everyone aspires to, admitting you have a problem and finding literature to help is looked down on, scoffed at, mocked, and stereotyped as a desperate single woman trope.