PsychologyThe 'Me' Project

Self-help: can it really work for personal development?

I was never a big fan of self-help until I read some of it. As a psychologist, and author of a self-help book, I am fascinated by how people perceive the concept of self-help and the results they get from it.

Until I read ‘The Road Less Travelled’ by Scott Peck, I was dubious about following life advice given in books – like a cheap dress, somehow they never seemed to quite fit my problem areas. Although it is grounded in psychoanalysis and provides case studies that are a little outdated, there is a particular paragraph in the section about love that resonated with my soul. It made my inner self say. ‘Ah yes, of course, somewhere deep inside I knew that’.

Similarly with ‘Women Who Love Too Much’. Again, some of the case studies have not stood the test of time, yet many women who have read it, myself included, have recognised some of the behaviours in that book. The, ‘step guide’ it provides is derived from the twelve step guide developed by Alcoholics Anonymous for addiction; yet in this case it is addiction to romantic love that is the problem.

I’ve read a lot of self-help book over the past ten years and now I prefer to call them personal development books. The context of these books, written by people who have undergone trauma, come to a solution, and passed it on via the medium of written word, is indeed to help people. Although I admit that I have not followed every single exercise in every single book to the letter, I have gleaned a little bit of magic from each.

There is, however, a danger that in reading a plethora of self-help books you may become a developmental butterfly, flitting from one technique to another without ever effecting any real personal development. There are so many books out there, some of them based in spirituality, some based on pop psychology and some on physical aspects such as yoga and meditation. Like the famous scene in Bridget Jones, where she throws all her relationship book in the bin, it’s easy to build up a library of self-help yet not actually develop.

The reason for this is that self-help means helping yourself! It means going out and doing something about your problem, taking personal responsibilty This might mean changing your behaviour (easier said than done), changing you thinking (again, difficult), or, if you find that you are depressed or anxious, seeking professional help. But, at the root of all this, is the belief that something needs to change, and the belief that you can do it.

Belief is a very abstract word, and it’s something that self-help, or indeed professional help, cannot give you. You have to do it for yourself. So it’s like a contract for personal development, you supply the need and belief for change, and self-help provides some hints and tips that have worked successfully for other people.

I have met many people who say that self-help doesn’t work and that it’s a waste of time. Whilst I respect their opinion, perhaps they consider that they have a fully developed life that needs no tweaks (unlikely) or maybe they are unable to take in another person’s point of view empathetically (more likely)? Or they have so little belief in themselves, or their personal responsibilies and possibilities, that they have handed over their personal wellbeing to an external source? This is not so as to judge anyone who does not subscribe to self-help texts; rather to invoke common sense and ask for consideration in the context of admission that life is an inperfect, ongoing project that we are all experiencing and taking part in, so why not share?

One symptom of an under-developed mind is the fear that someone else knows more, or is better in some way; this alone quashes any belief that standing in another person’s shoes, even vicariously through written word, is valuable in the human condition. Sharing experiences, by whatever means of communication, is an essential tool in learning and building belief systems for ourselves, and self-help is part of this spectrum of sharing.

Like any change, life change must be preceded by a recognition that something is amiss. Those who fear that admitting something is imperfect is weakness, that personal development or self-help is some kind of surrender of status, will rarely allow themselves to recognise the need for change in their defensive state. Symptoms such as dissatisfaction, stagnation and melancholy have propelled my to the self-help section of Waterstones and, for me, self-help has been hugely successful, once I conquered the fear of admitting that my life was not perfect and that there was room for improvement. Not everything I have read has applied directly to my own life, but I have been able to collect pieces of wisdom from each book and apply them to make my own step-change.

My view is that with the belief that things can change and the help of others experience, self-help can contribute to continuous personal development, a lifelong project for those able to empathise.

What do YOU think?

One thought on “Self-help: can it really work for personal development?

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