Self-help: I’m a big fan, but…


Gemma Rose bids a fond farewell to the world of self-help.

Self-help is just rigged with negative connotations. As soon as an enthusiast mentions the term, you can just feel the groans or alarm bells ringing inside the poor soul that is lumped next to them. Unleash the Giant Within (groan!) Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway (shudder) and I Can Make You Thin (call the crazy police). With such great titles as these, why is self-help ridiculed?

Sometimes, self-help techniques just don’t work: research has shown that positive affirmations make people feel worse when they don’t believe in their affirmations. Other times, it’s demanding: writing out lists, repeating mantras, dieting or setting goals. Moreover, some of these self-help gurus come across as dubious characters. My favourite non self-help guru Oliver Burkeman writes in his often-quoted book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking about attending a Get Motivated! seminar by Dr. Robert H. Schuller, an American Christian televangelist and author of over 30 books on positive thinking (six of which made the New York Times bestseller list). Burkeman describes with comedic effect how surreal the seminar is – participants jumping around, barking out positivity, eradicating the word ‘impossible’ from their vocabulary and dancing to rock anthems. Not long after the seminar, Dr. Schuller filed for bankruptcy…

Despite the above, I’m a big fan of self-help! I did “feel the fear and do it anyway”, I walked “the road less travelled”, I discovered “the secret” and I said “fuck it!” plenty of times in my life. And it did me a lot of good!

When I think back on my self-help journey, the different types of self-help books marked different vulnerable stages of my life: grieving romantic loss (The Road Less Travelled by M. Scott Peck); low self-esteem after finishing university (Instant Confidence by Paul McKenna); dating emotionally unavailable men (He’s Just Not That Into You by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo); and unloading what is expected of me and just saying “fuck it!” to it all (F**k It: The Ultimate Spiritual Way by John C. Parkin). Yet, self-help also marked the empowered stages of my life: meeting the right man (Get The Guy by Matthew Hussey); embracing insecurity (The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts); and having enough of self-help (The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman).

Despite my fluctuating feelings towards self-help, there is one great strand of this world that continues to enlighten me: philosophy. My first fling with philosophy happened when my Dad handed me Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder in my early teens. I remember skipping the bits about philosophy, which I found complicated (and boring), and being enthralled by Sophie’s story. When I stumbled across the book again in a second-hand shop, more than a decade later, this novel astounded me. Thus, my journey into philosophy began.

Funnily enough, at least in western society, philosophy is the forefather of self-help. As highlighted in a post On Self-Help Books on Alain de Botton’s philosophy website, The Book of Life, the philosopher Epicurus wrote many books on love, justice and human life. He said: “The highest good is pleasure, the greatest evil is pain.” A notable stoic, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote Meditations (intended purely for himself), thoughtful, reflective and full of spiritual guidance. Aristotle frequently asked what it means to live the good life.

Perhaps it is philosophy that has helped me most: by understanding that the worst can happen and it isn’t so bad after all (stoicism); that it’s important to contribute to civic life (Aristotle); that it’s the intention that counts (Emmanuel Kant). Philosophy, whether overtly or covertly, has most certainly been a great source of inspiration for this column for the last two years.

Whilst I’ve been recording my self-help journey in this column, I’ve been following with great interest Help Me, the blog by the Irish journalist Marianne Power. She set herself the challenge of reading and applying the principles of a well-known self-help book every month for a year. At the end of her quest, she writes: “When I look in the mirror now I still see chunky thighs and wonky teeth – but I also see a lot of other things. I see a woman who has done crazy, brilliant things this year. Someone (who) is kind and strong and brave and powerful. Someone who is alive and vibrant. Someone who, in good lights and on good hair days, can look quite beautiful. Someone whose smile is kind and genuine and open.”

In the end, I think that’s what self-help is about: making us realize that we are who we are all along, with no fancy gimmicks, no mystical powers and no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – just us.

After two years writing for this column, it’s time for me to put the books back up on my shelf. I will always be on this journey of self-improvement. But for now, like Marianne, I think I’m done. Thank you for coming along with me.