Surviving Self-Help Books: 5 Tips

Here’s what happens – you find something in your life isn’t the way you’d like it to be. You become either so upset by it that you buy a self-help book in a state of semi-desperation to make it go away, or, you become motivated and energized by this realization of something missing that you buy the book as a catalyst to making a change in your life. Both scenarios tend to lead you to avidly devour the first part of your new self-help book with rapt attention. Nom nom nom. You eat it up. At least I ate it up when I recently started reading some self-help books, too. I thought these words were Gospel! They were going to change my life! This was it. The magic of having the words go through my eyeballs into my brain was going to change everything. My brain now had new information and bam, my New Life was on its way. Before I authored my own self-help book, I vowed I wasn’t going to read any other self-help book cover-to-cover before I finished writing my own, because I didn’t want my words or thoughts to be coloured by another author. I wanted the work to be original and fresh, so I didn’t want to know what was in the depths of the other books that are out there. Now that I have finished my manuscript, I have started delving into other author’s work, and while I am finding them intensely interesting and often helpful, there is definitely a dark side to consuming self-help books.

The first part of the book is usually awesome. It is compelling and uplifting. The introductions and first chapters of these books are generally written to empathise with your situation and connect with you. They speak to things that you maybe haven’t been able to put words, or you feel relieved that other people need this book too and are experiencing what you are experiencing. The book makes you feel understood. You feel someone is supporting you; you feel validated. Nom nom nom.

Then comes the dark side. The Challenge. The Change. The New Ways of Thinking. This next part of the book, filled with wisdom and advice can, after a few chapters, often leave you feeling like you have been inadequate all these years. Why didn’t you know this before? How did THIS author know? Is this how everyone else lives their lives? Are you ever going to be able to figure all this out?

This part of the book can also intimidate you and make you feel like you will never be “That Person” who can do all of the things mentioned in the book. It can in fact INvalidate you. It can take away that feeling of being understood and even leave you with a vague feeling of being judged. The author makes it seem so simple, and if it was, why didn’t you just “get it” all of these years?

On top of this, the pace of the book then just keeps going, and sometimes you can get left behind, or read ahead of where you are at in your journey, which makes you feel worse. If you’re a fast reader, you could read a book like mine in 2 or 3 days. You keep reading along and then within a few days, you’ve covered material that often takes essentially YEARS to master and perfect. You read, hungrily soaking up the information, and then you get out to the other side of the book and are plopped back into your own life. You disengage from the pages of the book, look around, and wonder when The Change is supposed to sink in. You maybe try out some things you read about, with either some, a little, a lot of, or no success. Often you don’t feel too great about trying out these things without achieving the success you are picturing. The problem is, you now hold a new standard for yourself that you read just about. You finished the book, so you have the end goal firmly etched upon your brain. You hold the “years of development” standard to yourself because you finished the book, and that’s how it ended. It ended with success. Now you are comparing yourself to THAT outcome and it’s only been 3 days.

So reader: beware. There is a good way and a bad way to devour self-help books. Read on below for some tips to make your self-help book reading work for you.

  1. Highlight or mark pages, then re-read later on. If you are reading along in your book and something really resonates with you, mark that page. Highlight it, fold down a corner, or put in a bookmark. You will likely finish your book in a much shorter span of time than it usually takes to grow, change, and develop in meaningful ways in life, so these parts of the book might be helpful to revisit in a few weeks, months, or even years down the road.

The one-and-only self-help book I read before writing my own was when I was in elementary school, and it was called Camy Baker’s How to Be Popular in the Sixth Grade: 30 Cool Rules to Rule the School (Yes, it was secretly the best book ever, and no, I haven’t told anyone until this moment that I read it). I actually re-read that book about 2 years ago at the age of 25 and realized there is still a lot of good stuff in there, no matter what age you are. (After all, as you “grow up” you realise that the workplace is just a thinly-veiled elementary school classroom, with groups, cliques, hierarchies, and “bosses” – new names and new faces, and with a little less hair pulling and spit-balling, but passing notes and bullying all the same.)

So when you find a self-help book that speaks to you, re-visit it later on. You will get something a little different out of it each time, because you will be a slightly different person with new experiences each time. That new person will be able to see things in different ways than the Past version of you maybe wasn’t able to see.

  1. Slow down and take some time to digest. You may be tempted to speed-read a self-help book to soak up all the wisdom you can as fast as you can or maybe that’s your reading style, but sometimes reading a self-help book quickly can make you feel even more disheartened. The lessons or ideas in these books are often rather profound, even if they “seem easy.” They have often have taken the author a rather long time to develop these ideas. Then, after the author has their ideas together, part of their job is to put everything together into an easy-to-read format. This easy-to-read format (and thus the ability to read these books quite quickly) can make them deceiving – they make these topics seem “simple.” Remind yourself that just because you read the book in one week doesn’t mean that you should be able to change your whole life in one week. Lasting and meaningful change takes time – give yourself that time.
  2. Forgive yourself if you don’t finish the book. This trap that self-help books have is a definite dark side. You buy a book to try to help yourself, then you don’t finish it, and then you feel like even more of a failure. You couldn’t even finish ONE book. ONE BOOK. Well, guess what. There could be so many reasons your brain didn’t want to finish that book that have nothing to do with you being a failure. Maybe you got all you needed from it out of the first couple chapters. Maybe you realized the book wasn’t right for you (even though it was on Oprah). Maybe you found a different catalyst to start your journey that had nothing to do with the book. Maybe the simple act of buying the book was all you needed to start making the change you wanted to make. Maybe you weren’t ready for the book yet, but will be later on. Give yourself permission to do what feels right; even if that includes not finishing the book you bought. You will find your own path on your own journey, and the book will always be there if you need it later.
  3. Remember that self-help books aren’t personalised. Whether you read the whole book, or only the first few chapters, you may or may not be able to do or want to do or change all the things that your self-help book encourages you to try. And this is normal. The book is just a book, after all; it is not a person. It is not tailored to meet the unique and specific requirements of each unique person that reads it. What these books do is they paint a general picture of ideas and advice that likely apply to a majority of people – but they certainly can’t apply to everyone in the exact same way. Take from the book what you need, and what works for you, and leave the rest. You are in no way a failure if you don’t do all the little things that each book proposes you do, change, or try. The book doesn’t know you, after all. These types of books are merely supposed to be a starting place to give you some ideas to meet the goals you are seeking. You are in control of deciding what you want to do, try, or change as a result of reading the book. And if the answer is “nothing,” that’s okay too.
  4. Realise your life is a journey, not an outcome. And that journey takes time. It does not happen in a few days or weeks, regardless of how fast you read your self-help book. So when you finish it, remind yourself that wherever you are on your own journey, it is the right place to be, because it is where you are. And you will continue to grow and develop and change on your journey, the book you read can be an interesting and helpful guide as you consider new ideas and new tools for how to get there. But allow yourself the space right now to remember that who you are now is worthwhile too, because without who you are today, you couldn’t grow and change from that person. You are valuable no matter who you are or where you are in life. And wherever you are on your journey, even if you feel like you are not “there yet” (wherever you would like to be in time) – today is an important part of your journey as well, and adds to who you are and who you will be over time and space.

So in short, go ahead and find a book that speaks to you. Read it, or don’t. Come back to it if you like it. Mark pages that speak to you. Take your time and slow yourself down in your expectations. Try some things, or not. Remember that in the end, there is no “right way” to use one of these books – the whole point is that they are supposed to help you, not hinder you. So however that looks for you, whether it is reading it cover-to-cover sixteen times and joining the fan club, or merely buying it and putting it on a shelf as a reminder of your goals, your way is the right way. Don’t let guilt or shame or expectations tell you otherwise.

Happy reading,

Cheryl M. Bradshaw