Are self-help books useful?
My conclusion about many of them is that their impact might not be as great as their jacket blurbs suggest. A view partly supported by a 2015 study on individuals with mental health issues who read self-help books, which concluded that for the most part their symptoms worsened on doing so. Partly because readers did not follow through on the advice offered, partly also because they did not have the support of a trained professional to show them how to use the advice provided in the book.
On the other hand, the evidence suggests that clearly written self-help books offering specific advice on life skills, such as time-management, mindfulness, stress relief, communication skills and problem-solving benefit most.
I believe that self-help books are more likely to be effective when used with psychotherapy or coaching, a conclusion also borne out by research. So I continue to recommend books to my clients as an assignment when I want to reinforce the work we do in-session.
What to look for in a self-help book
This is not a list of ‘best’ self-help books. Rather, it is a list of books I have found useful for myself and clients. My criteria for recommending books are that a) the book should have a few simple ideas, clearly explained, or b) should be well written, with good stories and examples, or c) be inspirational or profound in some way, or d) contain well thought-out practical advice when dealing with life problems.
Ten self-help books that make a difference
In order of publication date, here is the list.
Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. Susan Jeffers 1987.
In the late 80s this was the No. 1 best-selling self-help book in the world, and it is not hard to see why. Susan Jeffers writes in a compelling, personal style with plenty of stories based on her own experience with an anxiety disorder. In fact her book should really be called ‘Feel the Anxiety and Do It Anyway.’ Her main idea is simple: that anxiety is not a reason to stop doing the things that are important to you. That giving up when you have anxious thoughts will only reinforce their hold over you. This important idea is a staple in Acceptance & Commitment therapy.
Divorce Busting. Michelle Weiner-Davis 1992.
This book is a compendium of techniques from Brief Solution-focused therapy for relationship problems. I frequently recommend it to my clients in couple therapy. Michelle Weiner-Davis writes in a punchy style with a lot of humour, and her stories about her own relationship troubles, and those of her clients are worth reading for their own sake. Michelle Weiner-Davies insists that divorce is often worse than the alternative, and couples shouldn’t give up too easily on their relationship. This book shows them how to stay together.
The Four Agreements. Dom Miguel Ruiz 1997.
This is a short book by a Toltec Indian writer who identifies the root of our suffering in attachment to thoughts and the illusions which arise from them. The most harmful illusion is that we are bad because we can never match up to the illusions of others. Practice in self-observation frees us from this illusion and opens the way to acceptance and self-forgiveness. The four agreements we then make with ourselves give us the integrity to handle life more effectively: A. Be impeccable with your word; B. Take nothing personally; C. Don’t make assumptions; and D. Always do your best. The Four Agreements has been a best seller for 25 years and repays reading more than once.
Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff. Richard Carlson 1997.
This book contains 100 tips on improving your life, each suggestion given in one or two easy-to-digest pages. Containing advice on acceptance, thought-control, connecting to others, reducing stress, expanding awareness, and letting go of bad habits. It is a book to dip into, but also a reference book you can turn to when you are stuck on one of life’s problems. It is currently free to buy on Amazon Prime.
The Power of Now. Eckhart Tolle 1999
The book that single-handedly created the boom in mindfulness books. However, there is far more to this book than that. Grounded on the insight that we over-identify with our thoughts and with the ego, Eckhart Tolle urges us to develop present moment awareness in which we become free of thoughts about past and future, and the ego based on them. Himself a long-time sufferer from anxiety and depression, Tolle describes how these problems vanished when he had a moment of enlightenment in which he became an observer of thought, rather than their subject. This is another book that repays careful reading.
There Is Nothing Wrong With You. Cheri Huber 2001.
A book about how to overcome self-judgments written by a Zen Buddhist teacher. Identifying the paradox that many people go in search of self-improvement but never find it, because starting out with the premise there is something wrong with you dooms you to suffer. Thus, the real problem is conditioning, which persists through our habitual thought patterns. When we learn to say: ‘there is nothing wrong with me except for the conditioning I have received’, we open the door to genuine self-progress. Written with a wealth of examples of common self-hate statements and meditative ways to bypass them.
The Inside-Out Revolution. Michael Neill 2013.
This book explains Sydney Banks Three Principles approach, based on the premise that Mind (i.e. universal mind), Consciousness (personal) and Thought (individual) constitute the whole of reality as we experience it. Michael Neill does a terrific job of simplifying this material, using the trope that instead of reacting to experience as if it is happening to us (i.e. from the outside in), we should instead respond on the basis that we are happening to it (i.e. from the inside out). From this position of choice we can decide which thoughts and which experiences we want to use, and which of them we don’t. This is another book to read more than once.
F**k It: The Ultimate Spiritual Way. John C. Parkin 2014.
This may have been the first work that used The F-Word in the title for a self-help book. In John Parkin’s case he invites his readers to use it on any and every thought that doesn’t serve them. Worries, self-judgments, catastrophic visions, anxious thoughts, depressing thoughts, limiting thoughts – they all come under the hammer of foul-mouthed rejection. It works, too.
Boundaries. Henry Cloud & John Townsend 2017.
The sub-title is ‘When to say Yes, and when to say No’ and it might surprise you to know how many people struggle with this simple decision. The first chapter is an amusing day in the life of Sherrie, a harassed human resources director (!), mother, wife, daughter and church organiser, overwhelmed by other peoples’ demands. Defining a boundary as the property line between your responsibilities and someone else’s, Cloud and Townsend, both Christian ministers, show how we become confused about them in early life, and what to observe, say, and do in order to shift ownership for tasks from ourselves to others, respectfully.
Atomic Habits. James Clear 2018.
This is a great example of a simple idea explained clearly, and applied to multiple life problems: personal weaknesses, work, fitness, relationships, self-improvement and long-term ambitions. Based on the simple premise that if you want to change your behaviour you have to replace your old habits with new ones that work better. The new habit will stick if you practice it for long enough, and if you observe four simple rules: a) link it to a cue, b) make it satisfying, c) make it easy, d) link it to a reward. As James Clear observes, when you change enough of your habits over time you will create a new identity.