NZ Herald Column Kyle MacDonald

Does self help actually work?

This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital edition every Thursday...

I believe the key to a good self help book is in the tittle, get that right and you’ll sell a truckload. And there’s also little doubt they’re popular, the self help section in most bookshops is one of the largest.

It’s a strange thing though, when you think about it. How does one help ones self? Is it even possible?

My general view about self help has been that I’m sure it doesn’t work for everyone, but equally it can’t really do any harm to buy a book and see if the ideas and exercises are useful.

But recently I’ve had a growing disquiet, that perhaps we’ve got it all wrong.

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As a culture we locate the problem of “mental illness” exclusively in the individual, make it their responsibility, and try to wash our hands of it. In part, this is stigma – people are frightened – and in part it’s an over-reliance on the medical model. The notion that there is something wrong with you that must be “fixed”.

Everything we know about what helps people in emotional turmoil is that people, connection, acceptance and relationships help. Other people help.

Self help is devoid of other people.

For some, that’s necessary. If you’re anxious, fearful of others, if forming meaningful relationships is the problem, then help that doesn’t involve others might be the only help you can access at first.

But for others, it’s possible to almost develop an addiction to the self help section.

It’s natural to want to understand ourselves, but that desire for an answer can turn into a fruitless, almost obsessive, search for the silver bullet that will finally make us happy.

And of course the search is due to the idea that there is something “wrong with us”. What if there’s nothing wrong? What if this constant drive for “self improvement” some people have, is actually the problem?

Real change starts with acceptance, not that there is something broken, but acceptance of who we are and why. It also needs connection. Ultimately I don’t think it’s possible to mange our lives without connections to others, it’s certainly not possible to be happy or content without them.

Someone suggested to me the other day we need to change “self-help” to “other help”. Maybe if we all focussed on helping each other as much as we focus on trying to fix ourselves, we wouldn’t need all those books.

So next time you find yourself standing in the self help section, buy a novel instead. Preferably with a happy ending.

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Leave a Comment

  • Geoff April 6, 2017, 10:31 am

    Hi Kyle,

    Great article and one I relate to totally. I was a self-help junky. Reason – I need to be like them as I’m not up to it.

    One thing is once you realise that positive reinforcement over a negative self-image is just wallpaper over a broken foundation. Eventually, the foundation will break all that has been used to hide it. The serendipity is that once you realise the books are not the solution through the march of time (you take the weather with you) but that the you, you created is the problem, then indeed you see that you never needed any embellishment to fit in or be worthy of a place on earth.

    So the next time you see someone in front of the self-help/self-improvement stand know that they are hurting for real and the pain they are experiencing will be their guide to hopefully realise the thing they seek is the thing that is binding them.

    This is an industry exploiting pain, yet there do exist a couple of authors who point out the way home; however the conundrum is one must discover the door oneself, it is very difficult to be led as “pigs don’t know pigs stink”. I guess that’s why those who emerge on the other side have to go through personal tragedy/pain and death of their constructed self to see that the Beauty in all and everything prevails over lack, limitation and control as each of us is now, all and one. Unfortunately many don’t make it out of the maze.

    • Geoff April 6, 2017, 10:33 am

      Oh and I am a member of the Nutters Club lol

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