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Why self-help books don’t work as much as we would want to

Updated: Feb 15, 2019

Creating clarity in the mental muddle
Self-help books are a step-up

What do we do first when we have a problem at our hands? We Google. We search on YouTube. We dive into some books. By doing this we get a general idea of what it may be, where it comes from and what can be done. With mental issues, this often provides the first sense of acknowledgment; ‘I am not alone’; ‘There are more people who have it’; ‘There are things I can do.’ This ‘normalizing’ can be hugely healing: ‘I am not crazy!’. And you may feel less criticized and more accepted. You may even find it easier to be more accepting and compassionate toward yourself. It’s one of the perks of modern society.

General information With this information, you will hopefully make some changes for the better in your life. It may give you insights: ‘People, who have been treated like so as a child, are prone to having such and such relationships’. It may give you practical tips: ‘How to be more assertive without feeling powerless and small, and still keep the relationship undamaged’. It may give you things to think about: ‘You always thought the other person was to blame and likely when you change your energy, they will treat you very differently’. This information is general. It applies to most people, as it indicates patterns. It is just like information such as: ‘When you eat over 2000 calories a day, you’ll become overweight’. This is true for most people but not for everyone, as we know.

What’s missing? So what missing then? There are a few things that you will not find in self-help instruments. Let’s say you are very shy; you may even have social phobia. One of the symptoms is, understandably: avoiding social contact. When you only read about it, you will be able to keep your avoidance going. Intellectually you will understand the when, why and how. But if you don't take action, nothing will change. In contrast, when you seek help, you will be talking to someone who understands and accepts you. This can be very healing. You will be able to experiment with relating in a healthy way, without being rejected or criticized. As such you will learn that it is not so scary and you’re not so weird; you're just human. This can be a calibrating new experience.

Blind spot Now when you are talking to a therapist, they will be asking you tons of questions. A book doesn’t do this, obviously. Why is this important? The other person will be able to see and guess things that you don’t. Everybody, without exception, has a blind spot. Some have bigger ones than others, and some may deny it vehemently. But there are really and honestly no people without one, or even a few. So you, shy person, may not be aware that not answering when asked a question may come across as rude. Or that averting your gaze produces the same effect. And you may be unaware that you are speaking so softly that people indeed start thinking you have nothing to say or -worse- you are weird. A (friendly) mirror is indispensable in taking control of your life, and that is what a book can’t give you.

Commitment And then lastly, you can put a book away. ‘Too busy; it’s not working anyway; I can’t do it; it’s all great in theory’ etc. When you have a regular appointment, you will be encouraged continuously. Together you will explore your negative thinking: ‘Where does that come from?’ ‘What is in the way?’ ‘How can we solve this?’ Coming in on a (mostly) weekly basis will help you stay motivated to keep the flow going, so you don't lose momentum. You are invited to report back next time how things are going. Imagine how annoying is it when you can’t say you’ve made progress!

Conclusion So definitely books (and Google and the likes) can be very helpful. You will have to be critical, though. I will not go into the notion that unfortunately, anyone can put up any nonsense on the web. It should go without saying and further detail that this practice is rife, even with books. Some will give you false information or make it all seem too easy. This carries the danger of you criticizing yourself for not being able to make it work. And you may even be worse off, feeling like a failure. Most, however, will get you going on the path and this may be a good step along the way. If you want the real deal that works and lasts; ask for help.

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