Self-help books are big business, but Clare Finney argues that you should leave them on the shelf...
On the face of it, it’s a no brainer. Spend hundreds of pounds – and hours of your time – on therapy sessions that may or may not work for you, or spend £6.99 on a book that claims – nay, guarantees – to have the answer. What would you choose? Well, if you’re anything like the 35 million people who’ve read You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay, you’ll choose the book route. Now worth well over £9million, the self-help book genre has grown from a niche sub-section buried in the back of some of the larger book stores to a global phenomenon: socially acceptable, even encouraged, and complete with its own name: “shelf-help”, a slightly dismissive term that many of its devotees reject. “I think some people just assume the books are laughable when some of them are very thought-provoking,” says Ann. Belle agrees with her. “To read others’ perspectives is valuable. Sometimes you agree, sometimes you disagree – but there’s no harm in seeing how others have approached life’s concerns.”
I myself am of a different school. Though passionately pro mental health concerns being discussed openly, I am nonplussed by self help books. I’m happy they work for some people, but they don’t work for me. I have neither the patience nor the inclination to spend what little spare time I have navel-gazing, buried in the pages of a tome that, far from taking me out of myself (the primary purpose of books, to my mind) takes me further in still. My reading is for pleasure. If I want help – as I in fact have, several times – I’ll see someone, with professional qualifications. In short, I’ll have therapy.
And yet, and yet – and yet my friends Belle, and Ann, and some billion people around the world, swear by these manuals. In the case of the people I know I see the difference: some books really do work. These friends are more contented, more reflective, and more confident than myself, and indeed perhaps other naysayers. Benjamin Bonetti, a self-described ‘speaker, author, columnist, father, husband, ex military and human’ is the best-selling non-fiction author on Amazon. “As far as I can see, if someone is able to ‘positively’ change his or her life and gain a better understanding of how they think, it doesn’t offer a negative,” he says simply. “For me providing the internal questions are improved, the approach isn’t relevant.”
Dr Sherylin Thompson, an integrate psychotherapist practicing in Tower Hamlets, agrees with Bonnetti – up to a certain point. Beyond that, she says, books can be “helpful but not an effective substitute” to therapy. They are affordable and often insightful ways of “introducing people to the idea of reflecting deeply on their lives.” “Anything that helps you reflect more, that encourages that reflection on your self, and helps you see things for new angles should be encouraged,” she continues. “As an adjunct to therapy, they work well.” Yet actually finding a book that is well written by someone who knows what they’re talking about is no mean feat.
Belle, like most self-help devotees, has her favourites. “Lauren E Miller’s 5 Minutes to Stress Relief,” she recommends, immediately. “She talks about her experience with battling cancer and divorce. She actually refers to the Bible. Most importantly she reminds us that we have a choice – we can wash away the ‘truths’ we’ve held on to as we grow up, which become the writing on our walls – and we can remember we are worthy of love, perfect just as they way we were born,” she concludes. It sounds highly enticing – but what of those seeking books without a religious bent?
There are chaps like Benjamin Bonetti, for one, whose Easy Way books pull no punches and pack in plenty: Weight Loss, Original Gastric Band, Confidence, Self Esteem shout their titles in bold, bright colours. “Probably the biggest ‘gripe’ for me is those preaching but failing to follow their own advice. The fitness, health and self-help industry has lots of those. Being-The-Message to me is more important than textbook therapy.” Indeed, if you look closely at the rippling man on the cover of Abs for Dad, you’ll see this model is the author himself.
The principle Practice what you Preach doesn’t come much louder than this. Bonetti is a bona fide hypnotherapist who founded the DNA coaching programme. “Within the programme we uncover the restrictions in our life, how we’ve attached emotions, both positive and negative, to past events, and clouded our own visions based on another’s beliefs. Deep down we are all the same,” he continues. “We want to be happy, fulfilled and crave love and affection – it’s innate within us!” His Easy Way guides stem from this principle. So how do you know if they are for you?
After all, his invitation, to “utilise the energy [of past lessons] and use it to create abundance in the future” is tempting. The thought has broad appeal. So, too, does being less stressed within five minutes of picking up Lauren Miller’s book. So does The Power of Now, Ann’s favourite manual, together with The Road Less Travelled, which promises a level of self-understanding few thought possible. Indeed, if you run your eye along the spines in the self-help section in Waterstone’s, and it’ll look like the whole shelf is speaking to you.
Because it is speaking to you: to you, and to me and to anyone else living in our age and coping (or struggling to cope) with its attendant challenges. Thanks to seismic changes in society and technological advances, ours is an increasingly complicated time. “The more that environmental pressures are applied, the more people will encounter tension and find the need to reach out,” says Bonetti. “We’re moving a lot faster,” Dr Thompson adds, “and families are more and more complex.” Separated, single and same-sex parents are increasing, while the ‘2.4’ household becomes a rarity. Meanwhile, the rise of stress and anxiety and the concomitant wane of religion and patriotism has left psychology –or, in some cases pseudopsychology – to fill the void. And the greater the void (see: the Western world) the more space there is on the bandwagon of self help for charlatans – and standards start slipping. “A huge amount of literature out there that makes my toes curl to look at it – but is confusing to someone who doesn’t know much about psychology,” Thompson says. It’s rare to find a book by someone who is embedded enough in ‘real life’ to be able to talk about their subject in a way that resonates, but with the relevant skill set to advise. The self-publishing industry has its plus points, but it does mean that anyone can be a ‘life expert.’ This can be disheartening and downright dangerous in the case of serious mental health conditions like eating disorders, where following a guide not vetted by professionals can have disastrous results.
“Look for authors who are qualified in the area they are writing about, yet who also have a statement explaining how that particular area has touched them,” advises Thompson. Books with outlandish claims – I lost 8 stone in just 8 days! Make a million TODAY! etc – should sound an immediate warning. “You need examples, case studies, and an invitation for you to engage.” You also need an open mind. According to Belle, a good self-help book challenges you to think about things differently. “It will give you something you’d have found it hard to think of on your own, and something memorable that you can share with others – only when required or requested, that is,” she adds. As an often time recipient of her advice, I can testify to its efficacy: perhaps I consume self-help books after all, albeit second hand. Maybe self help books work when inspire a connection: between the author and Belle, and from Belle through to me, her friend.
“You can work and work on something with a therapist, then read something somewhere in a book that just hits home,” says Dr Thompson frankly. ‘You are immersed in it. If that book draws upon anecdote, and you can feel compassionate toward the person in that anecdote, that is a good step toward feeling compassion toward yourself.”
‘It’s sometimes easier to cry for others than it is for ourselves,’ is her argument. It’s one many people relate to. Another condition of a good self-help book, by Belle’s measure, is one that “tends to not put you (ie the reader) at the centre of the universe!” A bad self-help book “will tend to indulge the reader in the things they want to hear... and won’t shake up their perspective,” Belle continues. Sound familiar? You’ve probably read The Secret, a ‘self-help’ book so awful it consistently makes it into “Least Helpful Self Help Book lists”.
You may not have come across Mindfulness, the book that both Belle and Thompson recommend as offering “an entirely new way of thinking and feeling,” in Belle’s words. Subtitled A practical way of finding peace in a frantic world, it’s jointly authored by a professor of clinical psychology, Mark Williams, and a journalist, Danny Penman. Williams provides the expertise; Penman the wordsmithery and case studies necessary to render it readable. “It’s full of practical exercises to help embed the lessons, and it’s about mindfulness: that helps with a range of difficulties, from depression to eating disorders,” says Thompson. What’s more, it’s based on Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), which has been clinically proven to be at least as effective as drugs for depression and it is recommended by the UK’s National Institute of Health and Care Excellence, NICE.
“In other words, it works” concludes one reviewer – and for a moment I ‘m tempted to agree. A book based on MBCT sounds far more convincing than one based on ‘a secret’. I remember the conditions of self help working, as told to me by those who know. “Applying the advice, whether it’s a step-by-step process or, remembering the advice in times of worry – this is where the books really come into their own,” says Belle. Dr Thompson reiterates: “Your ability to deeply reflect on the message and on your own life, and how it can be applied – that’s what makes them work.” Racing through them on the hoof, as I would Sebastian Faulk’s Birdsong, say, does not cut it. “You need to read them slowly,” says Ann, “and reflect.”
Though there’s no denying its recent growth, looking back in time it seems we have been obsessed with self-improvement since the dawn of civilisation. What were the Greek stoics, if not early adopters of mindfulness techniques? In response to my question, ‘how much can we really get from books’, self-help author David Allen counters with “how much have people been able to gain from these self-help books: the Bible, the Koran, the Tao Te Ching?” Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help, published the same year as Darwin’s On The Origin of Species, outsold it by millions. It says a lot about human nature that we care more about where we could go than we do our beginnings.
Belle is right: “We all either consciously or unconsciously go through life experimenting with how to be, and how to approach life’s challenges,” and for as long as basic survival is not our first concern this will continue. In the west at least, there seems little chance of shelf help waning. “I can’t see how it would. We’re healthier, living longer, and we’ve more time to think because we’re not worried about the next meal. That leads people to self discovery and self improvement,” confirms Dr Thompson. You need a fine tooth comb to find them, but provided you read reliable authors, and read with the right attitude, it seems this is only a good thing.