Content Warning: I am not a mental health or medical professional of any kind. The content given in this article contains mention and some light descriptions of symptoms that can occur in those with specific mental illnesses.
A lot of the books that I've worked on in the past have been self-help or related to self-help. People want to help others improve their circumstances. They want to share their personal experiences and what they learned. A professional might want to share some ways that people in their field can improve.
These are all good intentions, but there are too many failed executions.
Rather than telling people to stop reading self-help books altogether, I would like to explain why I take a personal interest in this subject and give reason as to why self-help has gained such a negative reputation.
I will often tell my writers the consequences using the terms, "depression" or "depressed" flippantly. People who have been diagnosed with depression or care for someone who is might experience a negative reaction that might cancel out a healthier and more positive message that the book can give. Representations of those with depression in some popular works of fiction come off as contrived or exaggerated. If a self-help book does the same thing, even a little bit, that can validate existing stigma even if intentions weren't there.
I also tell them to try and limit their use of the word "trigger" if they are not using it appropriately. It is a medical term that, to some, has been adopted as a joke. Others might use it as a replacement for the word, "catalyst." When using "trigger" in a self-help book, especially a book that discusses mental illness, I always advise people to relegate the term to its medical use.
More recently, I've had a conversation with a writer as to why "be happy" was not appropriate advice to give in the context of what they were discussing. The reasoning for this is more complicated and I am not allowed to share specifics, but I can provide an allegory.
Here is an excerpt from a book that is on several publications' "Worst Self Help Book" list.
"Ask once, believe you have received, and all you have to do to receive is feel good" (Byrne, 2006).
What's harmful about reasoning like this is that thoughts and feelings aren't always under our control. There are people who believe in the "just feel good" philosophy and can change their outlook to positive quickly, and that's a good thing.
That's not a reason to put those who can't genuinely feel that way in a position where they make enemies of themselves. That's not motivation. That's only going to drive people to feel worse about their circumstances. There are moments where people might experience a change in mood due to overstimulation or they might not know where the change comes from at all.
A book or a collection of books can and has pushed the narrative that "just be happy" can be universally realistic. This is harmful reasoning.
Not all self-help is based in scientific research or practical and measurable solutions. In addition to giving possibly harmful advice, the text and the marketing of that text can create unrealistic expectations. More simply, it often does not acknowledge its own limits.
Someone's personal story and takeaways from that personal story can help others feel less alone. They might be able to relate or apply the takeaways in their life. This is also just one person's story. They won't be able to speak for every person who has gone through something similar. That doesn't make the story useless. That just means that it was composed by humans.
Someone who is writing a book about anxiety is, without question, tackling a multifaceted subject that should be written about in greater depth. If advice is given, there might be an acknowledgement that the advice isn't something that works for everyone with anxiety and might encourage them to speak with a professional.
A book might also encourage people to scrutinize the professionals they talk to and learn more about the kind of help they should be receiving, ensuring that it meets their needs. This is a text with excellent potential, but there are possible pitfalls. Books like this can validate and foster a distrust or unwillingness to seek help if it's needed. While these feelings are allowed, it's important that authors are aware of the narratives they push and the effect that they can create.
Another strategy for people who aim for self-help is to pair their self-help with something else. One go-to is the memoir. Some people use fiction. The Phoenix Dance by Dia Calhoun is a young adult novel adaptation of The Twelve Dancing Princesses that features a young woman named Phoenix with a passion for making shoes. Neither she nor her society know what bipolar means. The medical community in the period where this book is set have another name for it and different methods by which they expect people who present with symptoms to manage it. The very end of the book is a brief audience-friendly explanation of what was being adapted. It's not strict self-help, but it does acknowledge both its limits and intentions.
Self-help books don't need a guru. They just need work.
A big shout-out to the mental health professionals and those who came forward and spoke about their perceptions and experiences.
Thank you to those who have continued to give feedback to Purposeful Prose, specifically those who suggested that I expand on this subject. If you have a suggestion, you can contact me through any means available on this website including the live chat. You do not need a source immediately available, but if there is one that you would like for me to evaluate, I will.
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As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!
Byrne, R. (2021). The Secret (2006, November 28). SIMON & SCHUSTER UK.
Calhoun, D. (2005). The Phoenix Dance. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Kamal, N., & Breeding, J. (2017, May 4). 5 Self-Help Books That Got Very Popular Being Very Wrong. Cracked.Com. https://www.cracked.com/article_24683_5-famous-self-help-books-that-are-complete-bs.html
Kraaijenbrink, J. (2019, July 5). Why Self-Help Books Don’t Work (And How To Nevertheless Benefit From Them). Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeroenkraaijenbrink/2019/07/05/why-self-help-books-dont-work-and-how-to-nevertheless-benefit-from-them/?sh=6fa4a51e5f91
Manson, M. (2021, November 7). 5 Problems with the Self-Help Industry. Mark Manson. https://markmanson.net/self-help