The Self-Help Paradox


The Self-Help Paradox

Gloria Chan


As the middle of the year approaches, I’m sure many of us are reflecting on how successful we’ve been in sticking to our new year’s resolutions so far. And for those of us who don’t seem to have been successful for yet another year in a row, we might seek ways to improve ourselves. Some of us may have even turned to self-help books or listened to a few Ted Talks to get inspired.

Capitalism traditionally emphasises productivity and work ethic as the main drivers of success. It seems natural that this sentiment would open the opportunity for the self-help industry to rake in billions through the consumption of self-help books and inspirational seminars. However, the belief that hard work leads to success and personal fulfilment is a dangerous fantasy and the self-help industry only aggravates this toxic mindset of “hustle culture.”

Self-help or self-improvement advice delivered by our favourite industry leaders or lifestyle gurus seems to be well-intended. They offer guidance and remind us to find a genuine purpose so that we can lead a fulfilling life. But how effective is their advice really?

Readers of self-help experience one of three effects: a negative effect, a placebo effect, or no effect. Self-help books may bring to the surface insecurity and set unrealistic expectations and may serve as an avoidance to seeking professional support. For those that find that they benefit from self-help books, it is usually not a direct result of the advice offered but rather from having their attention directed to an area that was neglected before. Those that experience no effect and have just picked up the book out of curiosity, find that the advice seems too simplistic, almost common sense. Simply reading the words makes the advice seem detached and impotent as it is not applied to their personal situations.

Zooming in on the negative effects of self-help books:  

  1. Unrealistic expectations

The nature of life is that it is unexpected. Emergencies or last-minute plans can suddenly derail your perfect daily routine. Overall, the monotony and routine that self-help books typically promote, detract from a feeling of wholeness. Besides, hustle culture isn’t for everyone. Individuals have different priorities and lifestyles. The fallibility and toxicity of hustle culture are continuously being pointed out by growing awareness of other social factors such as the significance of mental health, to which hustle culture often negatively contributes.

  1. Avoidance

The idea of using your time to gain knowledge through self-help books appears empowering. But instead of ‘wasting time’ on Netflix or scrolling through social media we are allowing our insecurities to be pointed out and perceptions of inferiority and shame to be reinforced. Self-help books then preach simplistic advice or suggest a routine as a temporary fix. It paints this image that self-growth and improvement are infinite, only waiting for us to access them when we buy the next book. We become addicted to the feeling of improvement, but not the actual process.

With this in mind, how can we still extract value from these books?

I like to think that rather than selling a “how-to-live” manual, self-help books are selling a mindset. While I’ve mentioned how it can cultivate a harmful mindset extensively, I still think there is a lot of value in the self-belief and focus they can inspire. Readers are prompted to see themselves and the world more positively, which in turn, inspires them to make better choices and take positive action more often. Self-help presents a method that breaks down daunting personal goals into logical step-by-step phases.

The paradox is that self-help books remind us of making life purposeful but at the same time can detract from what it sets out to achieve, even having negative impacts. Self-improvement can be gained from genuine experiences and being present in the moment rather than submitting to hustle culture that inevitably leads to anxiety and burnout. Casting a critical eye over self-help culture, and considering if that next book or youtube video is actually going to be helpful may be just as significant as the notion of improving oneself. 



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