To self-help or not

21:07, Dec 09 2013

This was quite a while ago, and I was going through a particularly tough stage of my life. It started with my reading He's Just Not That Into You (though god knows why, as I was living with a serious long-term boyfriend at the time). 

Something about the book, perhaps because of its poorly-written, trite advice, its plethora of clichés, and its pat, well-worn stories that seemed to come straight from the "reader confessions" section of women's magazines - was irresistible to me. Like a moth drawn to flame, I sought out the self-help department at Borders (R.I.P), and spent many an hour ensconced at the cafe, sipping hot drinks and reading.

My self-help drug of choice went from romantic advice, which I got sick of pretty fast (although to this day, I still read Carolyn Hax from The Washington Post every now and then), to basically...advice on how to be a human being.

I can't remember all the titles now, mainly because I have tried to erase that time out of my mind, but I was devouring everything from how to keep your man happy, to how to colour code your clothes and feng shui different corners of your home. 

I lapped up and loved all the tips and platitudes, the false syrupy tone that many self-help authors adopted. It felt like being stuck in a room full of well-intentioned middle-aged relatives.

It took a while for me to kick the habit. And I did it for several reasons, one of the biggest being that I realised, at the end of the day, that no-one was going to be able to solve all my problems for me.


I'm not saying self-help authors are snake oil merchants. Many of them genuinely believe in what they are writing. In that respect, they're no different to writers of any other genre.

The advice you find in self-help books are often similar to what you'd get reading a novel. The writers just took two different routes to reach the same point. I did find something sinister about self-help though, and it's the expectation in some quarters of the "genre", if it qualifies as such, that readers must become followers. I don't know about you, but any kind of encouragement of cultish behavior makes me immediately suspicious of anything.

There is, and I'm going to play devil's advocate momentarily here, something quite sinister about the shape and format of some self-help books. The repetition of phrases, the use of "positive" words or "positivity", it's almost like being brainwashed. I can imagine that if I hadn't kicked the habit, I would probably be some kind of benign love zombie by now, walking around parroting such gems as "it's not you, it's him" and "put a plant in the eastern corner of your home to bring good luck".

I suppose that is the danger of the self-help culture. At its worst, it can suggest not just that there is something inherently damaged in you that must be fixed, but also that there is such a thing as a normal way to be, or to live. Comfort in uniformity is something I don't believe works.

These days, I still indulge in a bit of self-helpery, but I try not to over-indulge. Much like smoking or any other vice, the key is sustaining the willpower to stay away, even during your vulnerable moments. I haven't managed to completely wean myself off, but I can read things with a much healthier, balanced and objective eye now.

What do you think about self-help books?

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