I used to read a lot of very traditional self-help. It wasn’t always the case—but it also wasn’t rare—that I’d close the book feeling a little worse than when I started. Searching for answers outside of yourself can be a desperate cycle of getting your hopes up, being let down, and blaming yourself.
Self-help sometimes hurts more than it helps, to no fault of the author or reader. Here’s what often happens to make that so:
1. A good person has some insight that gives them a new-found sense of freedom, peace, joy, or an easier way of doing things. They feel good and they want to share it with the world. They write a book, assuming that others will have similar insights and benefit in similar ways.
2. Good people read that book. Some see what the author saw and they feel better in some way. Others don’t see it. Not because it’s not true, the author didn’t explain it well, or the reader didn’t read it correctly, but just because not everyone hears things in the same way.
Your current level of consciousness determines what you will or will not see. It’s like that way over-shared video where you’re supposed to count the basketball players wearing black (okay fine, in case you missed it the first few million times). When something isn’t in your consciousness, you’re literally blind to it. This is how a thousand people can read the same book and some have a profound insight and others do not.
3a. Let’s say you’re one of the good people who reads the book and has the insights. You feel better—yay—but you’re often left attributing your feeling to the book. The author is a god or goddess, you could have never done it without them, and you better keep reading/buying/consuming their stuff so as to not lose what you’ve “found” or risk missing out on more.
3b.Or, perhaps you’re the one who didn’t get the insight. You read about the author’s experiences with high hopes of having your awakening but…nothing. On a good day, you might simply reason that although that book clearly helps some people, it wasn’t for you and you go on with your day. Maybe you’re a little let down, maybe not so much.
On a bad day, you wonder what’s wrong with you. I mean, the author’s life changed for the better. Others must have experienced change too—the book is selling well and people are leaving 5 star reviews on Amazon. So what are you missing and why are you missing it? In other words, what’s wrong with you?
Nothing is wrong with you. Nothing is wrong with self-help, either. It doesn’t have to be this way, but it is this way for many people.
It’s a cycle that’s easy to fall into and it manifests as defeated adults searching outside of themselves for answers and discouraged people who blame themselves for not being able to solve their own problems.
It also results in mistrust of self-help authors, which is unfortunate. I’m sure there are authors who exploit others’ pain for their own financial gain, claiming to have “the” keys everyone needs to unlock the happiness treasure chest.
But by and large, self-help authors are well-meaning people who have experienced change and want to share it with others.
I think the real problem is in their delivery. When they say they know the “5 Steps to Change your Life”, what they should say is:
“Listen, here are 5 things that changed my life. I want to share them. Try them out if you feel like it but remember, everyone is different. If they do nothing for you, it’s not your fault. There’s nothing wrong with you.”
If they were really aware, they might also throw in something like:
“By the way, you really don’t ‘need’ any kind of fixing or help with your ‘self’. Things might feel tough right now but hang in there—you have everything you’ll ever need within you. Ask for guidance, learn to get out of your own way, but remember that you know yourself and have your own inner wisdom that can guide you far better than any book or teacher.”
I don’t believe self-help authors omit these things because they’re trying to pull a fast one on you, I think they simply fall for it too. Many of them probably believe they could stand a little “fixing.” They may have been in the self-help cycle for many years themselves.
If these authors believed that the only thing you ultimately need help with is understanding how your experience of life is generated…that your life is thought-created and that underneath all that thinking is the peace you’re looking for…their approach might be different.
Rather than self-help books with prescriptions for how to think or behave, we’d have books that describe how thought and consciousness work. With that understanding would be the possibility for a new experience.
There’s less pressure in a description than in a prescription. Descriptions don’t inadvertently set an author up to be your savior and they don’t give you an easy opportunity to shame yourself when you don’t “get it”.
Self-help may never turn this way. But it’s a nice thought.