Why I Don’t Think The Self Help Industry Works

I haven’t brushed my teeth in four nights.

Don’t worry. I brush my teeth every morning (I mean at least there’s that, right?). But somewhere along the way in life I got into this bad habit of going to bed without brushing and, well, for some reason it’s just been a hard one to kick.

My dentist and I have conversations about this often. Basically every time I see him.

It goes like this:

Dentist: how’s that brushing and flossing going?
Me: oh, you know… it’s pretty good. I brush often. I mean, it’s basically every morning… and I flossed like five times today since I knew I was coming here… can I have my free toothbrush?
Dentist: well…

And every time he does the whole spiel where he tells me about plaque and build-up and “the gum disease gingivitis” and how important it is to brush and floss multiple times each day—preferably after each meal—and then he sends me on my way with my new toothbrush and tiny samples of toothpaste.

Then, that night, without fail, I lay awake in bed thinking about how I should probably get up and brush my teeth.

But I don’t do it.

This whole thing has me thinking about the self help industry.

I know, it’s a leap, but go with me. See, the self help industry is built on the assumption that people want to change their lives—they want to get fit, get happy, get out of bad relationships and into great ones, get going with positive habits (like brushing their teeth, for example)—and they just don’t know how to do it.

And, I mean, at first, it seems like that’s the gist of it, doesn’t it?

Who can argue with helping people make positive change in their lives?

But the major problem with the self help industry, as I see it, is that, for the most part, people don’t need to know what to do in order to change their lives. They don’t need to know the 10 steps or 7 strategies.

self-help-does-not-work

For the most part, people know exactly what they are supposed to do.

The only problem is they aren’t doing it.

We have some friends who are going through a tough time in their marriage. We get it. We’ve been married almost four years and we’ve had a few of these times ourselves. We’ve mentioned to them, several times, how helpful marriage counseling has been for us, and each time they’ve nodded their heads in agreement, as if they’re going to call the next day and make the appointment.

But then we see them again a few weeks later, and we ask how things are going, and they get this nervous look on their face because they haven’t called the therapist yet.

No judgement here. It took us three years to get the help we needed in our marriage. Things had to get pretty bad before we were willing to admit we needed any help at all. But although I have no judgement, it does leave me with a question.

What is it that takes us so long to do the things we know will really help us?

In college, I dated a guy who treated me really poorly.

He was an addict. And honestly, when he was sober, he was a really sweet guy. But then he would go on these binges and be gone for days at a time, without much explanation. Or he would say things to me that were hurtful and mean, only to come back and apologize a thousand times later.

I put up with that shit for years—YEARS—before I finally decided to leave him. It wasn’t that I didn’t know what I should do. It was always so obvious. My friends would beg me to walk away and I would promise them, this time, I would. But knowing what to do, for some odd reason, didn’t help me do it.

Every time I would go to break up with him, I would chicken out at the last minute.

Why didn’t I break up with him sooner?

What’s getting in our way?

And I guess that’s the question I want to linger on for a minute. Because while I do think, at times, self-help can be helpful, I also know that once we know the ten tips and sevens ways and twelve “hacks” and fifteen strategies that can get us unstuck, the next question we need to answer is:

Now that we know, why aren’t we freaking DOING something about it?

If you’re anything like me, chances are the obstacles standing in the way of you and your goal are not physical obstacles, although these are always the first things we name: we need more money, more time, a nicer house, a more luxurious schedule, a better toothbrush—one of those fancy electric ones.

The obstacles standing in our way are almost always invisible obstacles.

Our greatest obstacles are most often things like fear, insecurity, self-loathing, guilt, a bad attitude, complaining, etc.

And to discover these invisible obstacles, we have to pay very close attention to ourselves.

So, for example, when I pay close attention to myself at bedtime, here’s what I see: I watch myself fold laundry, do dishes, take the dog out, sweep, check Twitter, and not leave any time for my nighttime rituals. I don’t wash my face or brush my teeth. I don’t use my essential oils or take my vitamins. I basically just collapse into bed.

And then I think about what I would tell a friend who was struggling to make time for herself at the end of the day, or the beginning of the day, or any time of the day; and it all snaps into place. I wonder why that woman I’m watching doesn’t value herself as much as she values other people and things.

Bingo. There’s my answer.

Not to mention a more productive place to start than trying to strong-arm myself into brushing my teeth every night.

Are there obstacles you’re facing that you can’t seem to overcome?

Maybe it’s an addiction. Or a bad relationship you need to leave. Or maybe you have been waiting to quit your job, or to stand up to someone who is bullying you. Or maybe you have a creative project you’ve been putting off with a thousand excuses. We all have something.

Whatever yours is, I have a challenge for you.

Put aside the articles and the listicles and the self-help books for just a minute. Stop trying to figure out what you are supposed to do next. You already know. Let go of excuses like money or time or better connections. Those excuses are no longer serving you. In fact, they’re distracting you from the real obstacles.

Instead, watch yourself. Pay attention. And when you see yourself from the outside, in, look for signs of fear or insecurity or self-loathing or a bad attitude. When you find it, take a deep breath. Withhold judgement. Give yourself a radical dose of grace and hope and love.

It won’t fix your problems right away. But in a roundabout way, it will give you what you want.

56 comments on “Why I Don’t Think The Self Help Industry Works

  1. This is so true! I’m out of a job so I have a to do list of job searching and applying that will hopefully lead to an interview and a job. But I’ll read so many articles about job searching and being your best self that make me feel good for a second but then I’m left with my fears, insecurities, and shame. When I feel that way it’s hard to write anything positive about myself in a resume or cover letter. So that is a good point we need to acknowledge the invisible obstacles. Maybe I can start the job search with a little hug for myself and an acknowledgment of grace, hope, and love.

  2. Thanks Allison,
    Great article, the self help books have been moved slightly off center.
    It’s identifying the monster in the cupboard, acknowledging it, and then changing the context. Yes & grace & hope & love in abundance goes a long way!!!

  3. I think you have come the closest that I have seen anyone come to the root – root cause.

    One thing I’m not clear on is that I agree that many people, especially mothers, value others far more than themselves and won’t “invest” in themselves adequately.

    As our poor kids, and now grandkids, keep hearing from us is that it’s all about your decisions and priorities in life.

    On the other hand I see that addicts are over invested in their addiction and can’t/won’t invest in themselves or their loved ones. A different issue I realize but related. If anyone can help me sort that out and understand it better, especially helping the addict look outside their addiction to the collateral damage, I would appreciate it.

    • I think in order to be our true self and to give our best self to others, we have to be selfish. Selfish in the sense of taking care of yourself first. Our external world reflects that of our internal world. The very thing most people need to focus on is the one thing they are neglecting entirely. Themselves. We MUST make time, it MUST be a priority to have solitude with ourselves. To develop a sense of self awareness and mindfulness. When we live our live through ourselves, by taking care of ourselves first, the external world operates in a glorious harmony. I firmly believe, to truly GIVE we must first take care of ourselves, emotionally, spiritually and psychically. Not to promote, but I write about taking care of yourself here: http://unlessyoucareproject.com/

    • Keith—I wish I could do this question more justice but I don’t know that I have an answer, other than what I can reflect from my observations and personal experience which is that women face an uphill battle in terms of seeing themselves as worthy of making space in the world, unless that space is with their physical appearance and/or being a mother. It’s certainly cultural. It may have other factors too. I’m not sure.

      As far as addicts are concerned, again, I don’t know, but in my (very small) experience with addiction, there is usually some trauma to be dealt from the past with and the addict rightly perceives there are very few safe spaces in this world to face their trauma and work through it. So they turn to numbing, etc. But again, I don’t really think that answers your question.

      I think they’re great questions, though, and I’m really thankful you added to the conversation. Maybe some other readers have more insight. Either way, keep questioning and wrestling. Great thoughts.

    • Hey Keith!

      I love your comment. Those are some powerful questions you’re asking. As soon as I see the word “addict” I now know to first think: 12 Steps.

      I’m married to an addict, my father is an addict, my aunt is an addict, my grandfather is an addict. But the problem was that I didn’t see the addiction around me. I was blinded by having grown up in that dysfunction.

      As a result, my life became unmanageable. Meaning, I was a bad manager at my own life.

      Al-Anon is a 12 step support group for friends and family members of addicts and alcoholics. It is only thing that has ever given me the tools to break free from the insanity that was all around me. There is nothing else that has stood the test of time.

      There’s no need to struggle alone. Please reach out to me anytime and I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have!

      Thanks for sharing,
      Brianna
      briannalamberson.com

  4. Hi Allison!
    Love, love, love it! Your post is so timely! It was also very affirming, as I often shy away from long lists of steps of change strategies. I prefer simplicity. Mostly, I can’t remember long lists of steps! Whereas I do enjoy spiritual reads, I hear you about specific self-help resources. Give me something that makes me dive into myself and I will most likely emerge with the answers. Currently, I am reading Singer’s “The Untethered Soul.” Some might view it as a self-help book. I view it as a deeper journey into exactly was your post shares. That is to “pay attention to and watch me!” I I would watch me as much as I watch others, I might learn something about myself and decide to shift a view things. 🙂

    • Kelli—yes! It is so much more comfortable to stay on the surface with tips and tactics, but that is not where the real change takes place. Keep doing what you’re doing. Appreciate your thoughtful comment.

  5. What a powerful article Allison! Too many times, self help becomes shelf help. One after another, these books are lined up on your shelves as you search for the “secret” … the “breakthrough” …

    Another book is not the answer. Turning knowledge into being and doing is the answer. Choosing in every moment to be conscious of your thoughts and feelings and actions. Easy to do and also easy not to do.

    • Yes! You said “turning knowledge into being and doing” and I think you hit the nail on the head. I have more thoughts on how exactly we do that. I may write more about it in the future. Thanks for reading, Trisha.

  6. I have been struggling with many things. A job I don’t like and causes me massive amounts of stress, I have put weight on and desperately need to make changes to my diet to help loose weight. Like I know these things, I should be more active on my pursuit of another job, I should work harder on my diet and excerise routine but it doesn’t happen very often.

    • It’s really hard Denise. You aren’t alone in that struggle. Keep pressing and paying attention and noticing. Keep giving yourself grace and love. You’ll eventually woo yourself to make the changes you desire. I believe in you.

  7. I don’t like to use the word hate, but I hate the term Self-Help, for many reasons. But I agree with you, people don’t need 7 steps to a better marriage. In fact, I don’t believe in any steps. I think they are all different for everyone. Each path to discovery and change is unique, because it’s foundation comes from within. The thing standing in your way of such change isn’t part of those 7 steps, it’s deep within you. Our lives are lived through us, not the other way around. Meaning, life transcends from our inner selves into our external world. Those who’s external world lacks harmony is due to a lack of awareness for their own self. We’re always looking outward for answers, our truth, solutions and change. It’s not out there. It must stem from within. When we’ve established a deep sense of awareness and have exercised our mindfulness muscle, our external world slowly comes into harmony. (we start saying no to things, we surround ourselves around people we love and cherish, etc.) This is such an interesting piece, one that can be discussed at length. For me, my personal transformation came at a low point in my life. All of a sudden, I saw my life and didn’t like what I saw. I didn’t like who I was or who I was becoming. I didn’t like how I was treating others. Ultimately, I didn’t like how I felt. So I set out to try and change how I feel. I wanted to feel enjoyment and pleasures in the simple instead of having a heavy chest filled with stress and anxiety. As much reading as I did, true change came from when I dove into those deep pockets within myself. Who am I? Who do I want to become? How do I want to feel? What’s my purpose? Chasing these questions unlocked many parts of myself. Searching for these questions through writing started to draw out the truth within me and chiseled away the layers upon layers of facade that I became. In short, we know what we need to do, but when we don’t do those things, we need to confront and explore those unseen obstacles. LOVE this piece. Thanks for sharing.

    • Yes! Eric, so many people fail to ever discover this. And it took me a REALLY long time (not to mention, I would say I’m still learning to live this out in practice). But change happens from the inside, out. Not the other way around.

      Beautiful thoughts. Thank you so much for sharing.

  8. Praying attention! It too id a regular discipline of noticing, similar to brushing our teeth. We will still struggle to do it. But if we do this ONE thing – many of the other disciplines will find their place. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Kathy, not sure if it was a typo or intentional, but I loved that you wrote “praying attention” 🙂 It does kind of feel like that.

  9. THIS! This is what I was talking about when I said I knew you could be more real, more vulnerable, more…YOU. When you spoke at TW I saw a whole different side of you. THIS was THAT side!!!
    Thank you for making me cry this morning. I’m so excited to see where you will go with your words, with your heart. Because what I see in this post is that you CARE. You care enough to drop the facade and really tell me how you feel and why you feel that way.
    Go forth and be awesome chick. Because, YOU ARE!

  10. So true. The knowledge of what to do is one thing. And the action is another. The inaction is a killer and keeps us stuck in the same place. There can be unconscious forces that want us to remain stuck. These are probably different for everyone, but they could include things like guilt, self-punishment, etc where our unconscious dictates that we don’t deserve an improvement in same area(s) of our lives.

  11. I’m beginning to not like the term “Self-Help,” either. The problem I’m finding with it is that a lot of books that might be classified as such come from these celebrity psychology experts who often present these formulas on how to supposedly get better at something. And because we’re all different, there will never be a one-size fits all formula on how to address and cope with relationships, addiction, and so on. I’m learning that I prefer stories; stories are what motivate me and give me hope.

    I’ve realized that the possibility of getting what I want is actually a lot scarier than the possibility of NOT getting what I want. The more risks you take, the more you have to lose. From relationships to job-searching, getting something dangled in front of my face becomes exhausting after a while. But realistically, there’s no other option; and if I stay close to God in the process, I believe that everything will work out as it should.

    • “the possibility of getting what I want is actually a lot scarier than the possibility of NOT getting what I want”

      Alyx, this is HUGE. It’s taken me such a long time to see how this takes place in my life but it’s finally starting to come to light for me. Self-sabotage is a real thing. Thanks for pointing this out.

  12. Great reminder, Allison. Paying attention to how we’re feeling in the moment and cutting ourself a little slack is super helpful. And you’re totally right, a lot of times we do know what we need to do. It is the invisible stuff that holds us back.

  13. Honestly, we all do want help.

    We want our problems solved, our marriages perfect, our homes in tip-top shape, our bodies as well. We want health, wealth, and comfort.

    Oops, did I say comfort?

    That’s what we’re looking for. We’re not looking for a number of steps to take. We want one, maybe 2, quick & easy & stress-free & automatic steps that will provide instant, permanently maintained success in all of these areas, so we won’t need help ever again.

    Those silly “self-help” books make us work at it, constantly. That’s no help at all.

    Seriously, I think that’s where we fall short. Sometimes we need help just to read the self-help books. A friend once mentioned that she hated procrastinating. The following day I came across a very short book on dealing with procrastination. I bought it & gave it to her. Just like the classic joke — except this was real life — she never got around to reading it. (Over the years she found that her Asperger’s made reading difficult, so don’t laugh too hard.)

    We don’t want real help. We want instant relief.

    We need patience, but God forbid we should go through the trouble and time to get it. 🙂

    • “We don’t want real help. We want instant relief.”

      This is so, so true Joe and probably the reason the self-help industry does as well as it does. Because self-help books tend to promise instant relief or perfect results, without much effort. Reading the books is a great place to start putting in the work. When it comes to living it out, it gets even more complicated than that.

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. Appreciate you.

  14. I often wonder how I can “hold hands,” with both thoughts:

    1) I want to change
    BUT
    2) At the end of the say I don’t

    While I’m waiting for this amazing Oprah-esque “Aha!” moment, it just comes down to making the right choice. A lot of the reasons why I don’t is because I’m too comfortable. A recent sermon by JR Vassar (Idol of Pleasure) recently kicked me in the teeth.

    Ironically, as convicting as it was, I still haven’t made the choice to change.

    • Andrea, I think comfort plays a huge role. We usually don’t face the things that give us anxiety (the ultimate discomfort).

      Thanks for sharing. Great thoughts.

  15. Hello.

    I have been thinking about this some as well. In fact I was struggling with something (co-dependency) for the longest time. I read books about it and understood what it was that I was doing but still could not get out of my way and truly get rid of it. It was a tough year of battling this thing and getting no where. My mental life was off. My emotional life was off. And my spiritual life was off. Then one morning I woke up and it was gone. Just gone.

    The only thing I can think of was that for most of the year I was running away from God. A few days before this breakthrough I let myself worship God, truly let go and worship. It had been quite a while since I was this open to God. Anyways that night was a break and the following days things shed but still much of what I faced lingered. And then less than a week later I woke up early in the morning and there was this absence of what I was facing. Crazy. And in its place clarity.

    Anyways. Sorry if this is long but I just wanted to kind of build a case. Let me just say this. I’ll give books to people who are struggling with the same thing that I did but I always have to add something to it and say “all this is pointless without God.” I learned so much from reading and listening to others and am glad I did cause I honestly love this sort of stuff but it wasn’t until I let God start to move things around in my life that something actually changed. So I guess all I’m really saying is skip all the steps and start with spending time with God and watch Him do all the work in your heart and your life. You may try to extend yourself grace, and hope, and love and find you can’t because you don’t know how! What to do then!? Read a book on it or instead turn to God; isn’t He the best teacher in love, and grace, mercy, compassion, strength etc.? And He wants so badly to Father us through these difficulties. Forget extending love to yourself, that will come later once you receive it from God, let the Father love you, heal you, and help you through these difficulties. Next thing you know you will have compassion on yourself, the fear will hold less sway, courage will grow and beat out procrastination or co-dependency or an addiction. Spend time with Him because everything else without Him is useless. (Well maybe not useless. Don’t like absolutes. But I can say for certain that in my life it is the only thing that has worked.)

    We’re smart. Wise even. Have had great experiences. But sometimes we are ill equipped to help ourselves or others. Or others encouragement can scarcely rouse us and help move us forward. God never falls short. Rest in Him. Come to Him first.

    Later buds!

    • Thanks for sharing your story, Daniel. I hope it is an encouragement to readers here.

      In my experience, there is often a long period of learning, learning learning (head knowledge) and then what seems like a lightning bolt moment of that knowledge moving from head to heart (ah ha!) It almost seems magical or mysterious. Not sure I have the words to explain it, but sharing our stories with each other certainly gives us all hope.

  16. Oh, Allison! I’ve loved having you as my teacher this past months via Author Launch–but thank you for entering my home as a friend today! For YEARS I’ve been sure I was the ONLY one who didn’t get her teeth brushed. Every. Single. Night. Not to mention all the other stuff I’m supposed to do to start/end the day if I were a “good-person-committed-to-taking-good-care-of-myself.

    There’s nothing I love more as a reader than hearing from someone who gets me.

    I am thrilled to add that I took a decisive step forward in the “taking care of me” front and got a facial today. (Historically, my skin care regime has been even more pitiful than dental hygiene.) It felt SO good to act like a “good-person-committed-to-taking-good-care-of-herself.”

    As one who has turned to books of every description to solve every challenge, I agree there comes a time to stop reading–and start DOING.

    Thank you for this!

    • Pam—so happy to share this odd hygiene quirk with you! Haha. Glad I’m not the only one. And love that you got a facial today. Hope you soaked up every moment.

  17. So much truth here! This is exactly went I’m not sure I can find success as a nutritional therapist. When a person decides to eat and live a nourishing lifestyle, it’s their personal choice. I can’t make the choices for them.

    So much happens when a person starts to truly love and appreciate their life, their body, and their mind. They become free, and more alive than ever! ♡♡♡

    We are here for a purpose, I believe in many cases, you have to learn to love yourself in order to find your truest calling.

    • “We are here for a purpose, I believe in many cases, you have to learn to love yourself in order to find your truest calling.”

      This has been so true for me, Natalie. Sometimes I have tried to circumvent learning to love myself, trying to bypass myself in order to find my calling. And what I’ve learned is that there is really no way to do that. We have to go inside ourselves, learn who we are, learn radical self grace and self love… and then one day we look up and that mysterious “calling” is just… right there.

      Thanks for sharing. Sending love and hugs your way!

  18. Yes! So I too have the same excuse with brushing my teeth sometimes 🙂 Usually I say to myself “oh it won’t matter if I don’t brush tonight”, the issue is that most problems build up over time (think gaining weight, losing fitness etc etc). Just from us excusing our behaviour by saying “not tonight, I’ll do it tomorrow, or I’ll start next week…” That’s why what we do daily is what makes all the difference. And we have to value ourselves everyday and make it a habit! Small steps right?!

    • Shirley—what a great point! Thanks so much for adding that. Far too many things slip away in our lives because we say, “I’ll deal with that tomorrow.”

  19. When I found myself in an unhealthy, emotionally abusive, rebound relationship, reading Melody Beattie’s daily meditation book for co-dependents, The Language of Letting Go, helped me gain the confidence to get ready to leave. Books like this are one set of tools in a tool box, along with prayer, talking with friends, therapy, and support groups. I guess it depends on the person, but I do know that when the discomfort of staying the same outweighs the discomfort of changing, that’s when things we start to take steps to change. In 12 step meetings they have a saying: It works if you work it. I think that applies to “self-help” books or any kind of program.

  20. Wow Allison,
    Finally someone said it! I couldn’t agree more with everything you’ve said in this article. There are so many of us that are the proverbial horse that’s been lead to the water, but for some reason we refuse to take the leap to change our lives. We end up feeling guilty and ashamed, and because of it, we refuse to do anything. It then turns into a vicious little circle. I was actually considering an article on this topic, with the same viewpoint, but I think you’ve hit the nail on the head better than I ever could.

    Keep up the good writing!!

  21. You’re right. We do know what to do next!
    Sometimes, that knowledge expresses itself as judgement that we point towards others.
    We could come up with all kinds of solutions and suggestions for people we read about online, see in the news, or even our own friends and family. It’s easier to give out the medicine to others than take it ourselves!

    Thanks for the encouragement and permission to put down the books and just go with the gut. It’s a very timely reminder in a world filled with ‘advice’! Thank you 🙂

  22. This is fantastic! At first I was thinking, “don’t trash my self-help books, I love them!” But your post makes so much sense. It’s not necessarily the “what” it’s the “why” that really needs to be examined before we can make permanent, lasting change. Great article! And best of luck with those pearly whites 🙂

  23. I think that the issue has nothing to do with self-help books; the issue is ME. There is a reason these books are called SELF-help, not HERE’s-help. A book, a counselor, a friend, a relative, a loved one, a spouse can only be a sort of mirror to a person. No matter how much a person “sees” a problem, that perons must DO something to solve it. And therein lies the issue: most people are like you and me and SAY we have a particular problem. But then we don’t have the resolve to do what it takes to solve the problem ourselves. You used the word “hidden.” The problems are seldom hidden. We simply don’t want to deal with them. We become blind to them. As long as that remains true, self-help books cannot change someone and are never the answer just like a mirror cannot change your appearance.

    I appreciate your bringing up this issue. From the numerous responses, you seem to have hit a nerve. Good for you!!

  24. Allison,

    Really great and insightful post.

    Have you ever read a book titled “Mastering the Art of Quitting”? There is this really helpful section on being stuck, and what causes us to be stuck in jobs and relationships that we know are no longer of service to us, but we just can’t seem to quit.

    They frame it as goal conflict without goal disengagement. Using that terrible relationship you mentioned as an example, one goal you might have had was to be connected to and known by someone, or not to feel alone, or not to be perceived as single. Some goal that staying with this guy was satisfying. You also had another goal, which was to feel valued, or surround yourself with healthy people, or some other goal that could only be satisfied by you leaving your boyfriend. Where you might have been stuck was that you held two conflicting goals, but could not disengage from either of them. You were not willing to disengage from the goal of being known or not being alone, so you couldn’t leave him, but also couldn’t disengage from the goals of being valued, so you were unhappy staying.

    What happens for many of us is that we stay in this space for a VERY long time, and until we can disengage from one of those goals, we will remain painfully so.

    I expanded on this a little on my own blog in a post titled “How People Get Stuck,” which you might enjoy. http://www.thelittleyes.com/blog/2015/6/26/why-people-get-stuck

  25. I’ve watched you for years Allison and this is one of your finest pieces yet. I wish I had written it 20 years ago … my excuse was my wife died and it does take a bit out of you! So, please listen to Allison and do whatever it is you ‘think’ or ‘wish’ you would do! INdeed all we have is today. More urgently needed is realizing the most important thing on this earth is each other … Truly! You’ve outdone yourself Allison and I pray it continues! =) Rick =) Blessings!

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