Self-Help Books Aren't A Quick Fix — But They Helped Me In Unexpected Ways

by Kerri Jarema
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The self-help industry is a massive money-maker. Marketdata Enterprises, Inc., a leading independent market research publisher since 1979, released a study in 2017 that tracked the U.S. Market for Self-Improvement Products & Services from 2003 through 2022. That study found that the U.S. self-improvement market was worth a whopping $9.9 billion in 2016. And one huge part of that industry — which includes informercials, personal coaching, motivational speaking and more — is the self-help book.

But despite the fact that readers are buying these books in droves, self-help has a complicated reputation. Articles questioning the efficacy of self-help have popped up everywhere from Medium ("Do self-help books really work?") to HuffPost ("Why Self-Help Usually Doesn't Work ... and What Always Does"). And societally, reading self-help can still be seen as embarrassing and even shameful, something to be purchased incognito and perused in secret.

Admittedly, I approached self-help that same way for a long time. I doubted whether they would work for me, I rolled my eyes at some of the more cringe-worthy titles, I wasn't exactly thrilled at the prospect of browsing the shelves at my local bookstore. So, why have I read my fair share of self-help books, on everything from anxiety management to career advancement? I shifted my expectations about what self-help would provide me: I don't expect a step-by-step solution to all of life's problems, but rather, a better set of tools for tackling them. Self-help books have helped me in these four unexpected ways. They might just help you, too.

The Best Of Self-Help Books Can Actually Mimic A Good Therapy Session For Me

A study conducted by University of York psychologist Rachel Richardson and colleagues in 2010 found that a reputable self-help book should follow the principles of good therapy by establishing a "therapeutic alliance" between you and the author.

While self-help books are certainly no substitute for professional help when it comes to more serious mental health concerns, my favorite self-help reads have helped me in the many of the same ways that therapy does: They have assisted me in identifying negative thought patterns and self-talk, establishing coping mechanisms, setting goals and so much more.

If you're in therapy, self-help books can be a wonderful supplement to what you're working on with your provider. And if you're not? Finding good self-help books for you (with authors whose messages feel relatable to you) can be a wildly impactful addition to your mental health journey.

Self-Help Books Helped Shift My Overall Perspective Toward Positivity

While this is surely not true for all self-help books, the vast majority of them are overwhelmingly positive, which may help harnass what clinical psychologist Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps calls "compassionate self-awareness" in an article on Psychology Today.

Using self-help books as a method of identifying your thoughts and feelings, and choosing to quiet the critical mind and view yourself with acceptance and understanding is one of the first, and most important, steps on the road to whatever you're working toward: less anxiety, a more fulfilling creative life, an improved self-esteem, whatever.

Becker-Phelps maintains that coming from this place of self-support will have help you "relate positively toward yourself through the ups and downs of life; remain on the path of self-improvement; and take on the challenges of life with a deeply grounded can-do-it attitude."

They Helped Me Focus Less On Specific Goals And More On Overall Growth

One of the big reasons that self-help gets a bad rap is because there are an undeniably large amount of books within the genre that make big claims with little back-up. Read this book and you'll become a millionaire! Read this book and you'll find your soulmate! Read this book and you will CHANGE YOUR ENTIRE LIFE!

Whether this is an accurate assessment of self-help overall, I can't be sure, but I do know that all of the reads that have most helped me look past my own very stringent performance goals — those that can add unwanted stress, envy, and negativity into my life — and instead focus on development goals.

Championing development goals (attaining new skills and knowledge) over performance goals (focusing on a specific end result) is what, I believe, successful self-help should do. Books like Elizabeth Gilbert's creative tome, Big Magic, and Amber Rae's Choose Wonder Over Worry don't claim that you will sell a manuscript or overcome your anxiety completely after reading — instead they choose to shed light on relatable experiences and offer encouragement.

They Helped Me Find A Community Of People Going Through The Same Things I Am

According to an article on Quartz, 62.5% of the reviewers of the most popular self-help books on Goodreads were women. Clearly there is no shortage of like-minded readers out there who are looking for the same advice, struggling with the same ups and downs, and just might want to start a self-help reading book club with you.

Just like a good self-help book can mimic therapy, reading these books with others and discussing them can be something like a group therapy session. Again, there is no replacement for the real thing if you are need of professional intervention, but according to an article by Ryan Howes, PhD on Psychology Today, sharing one's problems with others going through something similar can be highly valuable.

From improving our ability to relate with others, increasing vulnerability or having better boundaries, understanding one’s feelings and sharing them, or being more assertive, reading self-help might not just make your friendships stronger, it can give you a whole new lease on life.