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If it’s Good for Me, Why Can’t I Do it? Why Self-Help Books are Not so Helpful

When I was growing up, a common message, whether implicit or explicit, was “just pick yourself up and keep going.” I remember thinking at the time, what am I meant to do here? I need help but it looks like I should be able to do it alone. Confusing right?

These sorts of messages that come to us with regularity from our parents and teachers and other adults really seem like they are coming from a good place. And yet, so often we are left feeling like we are working a puzzle with missing pieces. We often try to fill in those puzzle pieces on our own through self-help books and online courses. Perhaps we search for advice on how to find the right partner or make more money or build confidence.

What makes self-help books and seminars so great is we get to stay safely at home under the covers! What could be better that? It’s risky to bring your deficits or failings up with another person. Reading about them makes you feel more in control. Contact and even asking for help can be scary, setting up a situation where the very thing we need or desire feels unattainable.

Self-help books are the #1 genre of reading today. Books and courses and blogs can help. They can introduce us to new concepts or remind us of what we want. Just the titles themselves are so alluring, so utterly promising.


Well-meaning as they may be, these books are meant to hook us.

Current stats show that 99% of people who read self-help books fail to get results. Why is that? According to the experts, no matter how convincing the topic is, once the book goes back on the shelf, we are left with our lives much as they were before reading the book. Real change takes more than discovering someone’s very good argument about what happiness means. Often the missing piece we are looking for is not in a book, but in connection with someone we respect and feel safe around.

There are likely many people out there who are wondering right now how to love. How to be heard. Whether or not to break up with someone. How to cope with the death of a loved one. How to heal a broken relationship. How to know themselves and figure out their purpose. How to create a life of meaning, change the world, cultivate peace, achieve health.

I’m left wondering if we humans have a hard time moving forward in a relational vacuum, at least in ways that are meaningful and effective. Self-help books make us believe everything we want is attainable without help from other people. That all these life things we desire like love, success, and happiness is ours for the taking. All we need to do is apply ourselves. Which brings me back to the childhood messages I received.

In full disclosure, I am a recovered collector of self-help books. “Just pick yourself up and keep going” honestly felt like something I could understand through reading and taking courses. At the time, it hadn’t occurred to me that there was any other option besides understanding myself by myself.

Real change is about much more than understanding and good advice.

Whatever deficits and failings I carried had to do with my relationships with the adults that influenced me. I grew to understand that what I really needed was the company of another person to help me figure out who I was and who I might become. Someone who could help me find some fertile ground within myself, as in, “that’s a good idea and that fits with what you say you want.” I needed another person to help me to cultivate this rich kind of soil, so that I could discover some insights about my purpose, what I love and how that might fit with who I was becoming.

With the right contact, we get to practice who we are becoming. We come to understand that one of the most important missing pieces is contact. Therapists, mentors and teachers all have the potential to help us bring these ideas together. In other words, if we take all the good stuff we get from a self-help book or blog or online course and bring that into a trusted relationship, we actually have a much better chance of getting those cool ideas into our bones.

Cara DeVries

Cara DeVries

Cara is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and an artist with offices in San Francisco and Marin. For over 20 years, she has worked with children and their families in hospitals and is currently piloting a program to help those families find the tools for self-regulation in the aftermath of hospital trauma. She works with individuals and parents specializing in Post Traumatic Stress, life transitions and making a new start.

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