Washington State University
Professor Kara Brown
“What are your thoughts on the use of self-help books to deal with one’s life problems or psychological issues? Can they be used safely in your estimation?”
One can save themselves the read of the rest by just stopping here, no I do not believe that self-help books help, I believe that bonafide love, compassion, joy, and equanimity help, and these are beyond self-image, self-concept, true-self, and any matter of self, other, we, and they. Regarding safety, it would depend on what safety is operationalized as. Is safety that which lessens probability of developing disorders as so described by DSM-V? What was once deemed safe, has turned out to be ecologically, environmentally, and globally tipping this planet to a true, right in the backyards of everyone—a mass extinction event. So no, I do not believe these books have been used safely, for the judgment on a being’s use of its cultural materials is only as safe as the health of an environment highly correlated by findings of Bandura’s reciprocal determinism. If self help truly worked safely, should not the world be a better place than it is today? Or perhaps, maybe, one could argue that it could have been worse without self-help books.
To truly know whether this is or is not the case requires some kind of study, and this is where some literature review may offer assistance. As mentioned in the opening, this is where the casual reader curious as to a position may stop, for what remains is merely attestation and reasoning how the compressed forest, reducing from neural trees, logged, and clear cut, became concentrated pulp, then bleached and sanitized, fit for packaging in a neat and tidy singular paragraph, however as Mark Twain once wrote, “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one,” (Chicago Tribune, 1975, p. 16) however here I had both time to write the long, and then edit to the short, and of one positive note of self-help culture, the books often are often filled with reasons, yet compress quite easily to a few pages of “the ten things, the five this, the twenty that,” which become listicles far removed from their meanings, to be parroted at board meetings, leadership conferences, and used to make hiring/firing decisions without any support from fully trained psychologists in validating or invalidating such terse lines of logic. Can the reader detect some cynicism or disdain for this process of self-help, of course.
HOW TO MEASURE SELF-HELP?
Right at the words of “thoughts… self help”, literature review was deemed safe to consider. According to Bergsma (2007) in a study on self-help books in The Netherlands which accompanied a review of existing literature, Bergsma concludes, “there is some evidence that reading problem-focused self-help books tends to be helpful for people with specific problems” (p. 357). Bergsma also concludes that rigorous evidence of self-help books is lacking (p. 357). There are quite a few studies and opinions on self-help books, Katie Hanson (2019) from Sheffield Hallam University’s Faculty of Development and Society in a study on depression and bibliotherapy concluded, “changes in depression and well-being scores were sustained for 1 month post-intervention with no differences between the two books” and then concludes that the study and conclusion was written from a CBT perspective and that not all patients may benefit (p. 109). This is troubling, because of the challenges Hanson even wrote about in studying efficacy, “generalizations cannot be made to all self-help books targeting depression” (p. 109).
In light of this, the main thought is in the question itself, right there in the concept of “self… help”, and here is a curious marketing activity of supply meeting the demand for helping self, which seems about as incongruous with altruism as it gets. An entire section devoted to helping an ideal called self, worshiped on the altar of the knowledge economy, books stores and libraries, now subsumed by Nouveaux Vaticans of dispensers of idealized religions of economism: search engines. Search engines as cathedrals to this self-worshiping religion, for increasing transaction densities of self-seekers is quite profitable in provisioning the pursuit of self-adornment with goods and services, cognitively interrupted by advertisements as to engender more identity driving consumption. Is perhaps a self-help section proportional to a social manifest ideal-self, ideal-we neurosis?
When considering personally this topic, there are entire arrays of variables out there. How could the concept of self-help books even be studied without locking individuals into strict environments over long durations controlling for materials and tailoring experiences which would most likely be as unethical and fail, hopefully, IRB review. The other problem, is that, as a budding behavioralist, what has self got to do with help? Really? Yes, there is a self-concept, yet perception of self seems inversely proportional with a skilled helpfulness of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 2014, pp. 221-223). Just as balls are helped to a goal in sports, disorders are helped to order in psychology; what does “self” have to do with it? Even Wundt thought self held back psychology (Ryckman, 2013, p. 191). So now as not to hold back in an academic environment, does the author use a Rogers approach in listening to the field of psychology address a social neurosis of self-help? Is this group therapy? Is self-help a bridge to that which is beyond self? If it is a bridge, then surely, there are hundreds of bridges to sell, maybe tens of thousands, or millions, as surely there are as many diet books, magazine articles, and opinion pieces reflective of such behaviors.
A DANGEROUS SELF-HELP
Perhaps the entire concept of self-help is an economism friendly way of continuing the growth of GDP at all costs. Now that this is out of the way, perhaps there is an idea of “change the system from within” under the label of “self-help”, a kind of mutual sharing of helpful ideas. This most likely neutralizes business’s relentless effort at demand generation to stimulate revenue growing neurosis. A social neurosis searching for ways to express “ideal-selves”, undone, would technically un-grow segments of the GDP as beings consume less in trying to figure their “real-selves” out. For if self-help really truly helped, it would set aside self and focus on resolving problems at the cost of self (i.e., flow state), cooling consumer behavior, satiating humanity much like native cultures around the world had seemed to embrace already. Yet, natives in satiation repeatedly seem to be caught off guard by self-motivated, unsatisfied, and privileged imperial-colonialist mentalities activated by self-help attitudes of religions enamored with souls and selves aligned with nation-business interests fully interested in servicing them. Now what could arm a native satiated, once, and for all, against a colonist unsatiated? Now that would be the self-help book to “rule them all”.
These are not my problems. Psychology, theories, and evidence seems to continue to pile on to assert that yes, in fact, these are not mine, it is Bandura’s reciprocal determinism, B.F. Skinner’s environmental conditioning, and a working-memory-concept-of-self filtering behavior like water through coffee. Yes, there are problems, no need to own them—just a call to arms, marketing’s version of call to action, a call to work on them. It is a gestalt of conditioning, and perhaps biological process are lucky coming across environments more willing to help solve problems rather than less willing through cosmetic surgeries on self-image. Is this a personality disorder? Are the behaviors of a neurotic turned psychotic owned by a self? Of course not, yet self-image accompanies these behaviors inversely proportional to flow. I think this all is striking, right down to a fundamental cognition, self-view, and it meets a neurotic and psychotic affair of intelligent beings, perhaps humanity may cross the horizon of said neurosis and psychosis, “one” may hope (hence the long marked delay in actually solving world hunger and inequality).
No I do not think these books can be used safely, just as I do not think sugar and knowledge has been used safely. Sugar plantations destroyed entire cultures and enslaved many and modern slavery to entire economies profits off of self “safely” by obscuring its harm with homogeneous mixtures of minimal effort to help across decades so as to not tip off a suffering’s populous to an elite’s rarified successes built on their backs. This is not safe—it is not just dangerous to an intelligent society, it is dangerous to ecologies, dangerous to numerous beings, and dangerous to environmental continuance.
A small example of discriminatory affairs of “self-help” is the considering of dental care as “cosmetic” where those suffering poverty due to conditioning, more often suffer dental ailments, unable to afford “cosmetic care” are less favorably looked on by employers hiring for professions (Magno et al., 2020). What kind of self-help is professed for these people? People expected to dig out of their “own making” which is not their own at all (so realized by the field of psychology) by paying tens of thousands, sometimes upwards of many multiples of their after-tax incomes reduced by living expenses to fix their teeth which seems the only route to a self-image obsessed, culturally sanctioned professional… job. Yet they cannot afford it, chained by the effects of their upbringing, and unable to achieve social mobility as they cannot afford to be out of work during these invasive surgeries.
Did self-help fix this problem? Did self-help reduce the true problems facing the world? This is a serious question – no, it did not, for if it really worked, the world would be a better place judged by a better set of metrics than GDP. A world’s peoples judged by a better set of metrics than life span and productivity, which by the way are historical metrics used to calculate the return on investments in children reared into slavery (yes, really).
A RELIGIOUS ASSESSMENT
I think that humanity is enamored with self, in fact, it is point-blank: idolatry. It is perhaps a mathematically prime idolatry, where the next prime, just in its infancy, in social revelation, is the enamoration of “we”. Psychological theorists addressed these concepts too. Is this yet another prophetic act of Abraham in the making? Running around and smashing idols of self, smashing entire fields conceiving of self, fields changing goal posts seasonally to encourage more transactions, the golden goose of economics? The very thing that demanded sugar produced from slaves, spices stolen from natives, Jaffa oranges claimed from Palestinians, tobacco raided from natives, cotton picked by enslaved Africans, and silks from arbitrage with Indians, setting off thousands of years of profiting off the great house of cards of arbitrage benefitting fewer and fewer as automation in press and media increased the few’s share of voice greater and greater under protection of stronger and fiercer weapons of steel, pen, press, and the most recent weapon against an already heavily “self” and “we” burdened society—retargeted advertising.
No, I do not believe self-help books help; love helps, compassion helps, joy in the accomplishments of love and compassion help, and equanimity in the understanding of these help. These books only help as far as society has stopped caring, stopped helping, and put a price on help to grow a seemingly new planet-state sanctioned religion of economism. Misattributing the successes of love, of compassion, of joy, and equanimity to a book, to authors of these books, to leaders of companies publishing these books, to organizations of self-help-isms, minimizes the work of billions and billions of years of physical phenomena, and this actual neurology, this actual biology in flight, in the moment… that precious interchange of being to being, human to human, as psychological therapy to disorder, medical doctoring to ailment, spiritual teaching to diminishment, wisdom to foolishness, and prophets to social ills directly through all matter of therapies, beings to beings.
So in short, it seems just as the whole concept of “self” is self-ish, and as so, it implies “they” is they-ish, just as “we” is we-ish. The reader of this essay determines the inflection, the tone, the meter, the rhythm, the phrasing, and the syncopation of how this text is read. Inflection makes all the difference, and perhaps if a “self-help” book is read, and seen directly for what it is, perhaps self pruned, along with they redacted, along with we omitted, along with me forfeited, along with us let gone, seeing problems more directly… without these categories of segregation inducing prejudices, perhaps the “self-help” book devoid of “self” might… be beneficial. However, if this wisdom is held back by a preconceived instinctual need for exponential growth, then any intelligent species doing this will be nothing more than locusts eating everything in their path to satisfy more book sales, profiting off of an environment where more authors compete against each other. An environment of reinforcement contingencies where “we” is judged greater than “me” (companies are people too, to the diminishment of self-significance, thus continuing a more radicalized seeking of it), continually researching more conversion inducing marketing, in order to pay off what used to be short term indentured servitude to pay off five year mortgages, then what became nearly half-life slavery to thirty year mortgages all because of a panic that lead to a policy that was never rolled back for fear of losing the benefits of “inflation” to “deflation”. Continuing to enslave every able bodied being to debt servicing labor in order to force people to work to engender the growth far fewer voices perceive as needing for their survival seems just like the encomienda systems of the Spanish in the 1520’s (Bentley, Ziegler, & Streets-Salter, 2015, p. 548).
Of course that goes without mentioning that this also most certainly forces potentially able bodied protestors into debt so as to keep them busy (like children with busywork), minimizing turbulence to economics by shrinking available time for the gathering of assemblies to converge and draft petitions in search of redressing their very grievances in the diminishment of their significance, just like settlers indebting a native peoples, just like tech settlers upon manufacturing-services natives. Economism’s value of self-help books seems not in the healing or the help but the never-ending growth in a neurotic, and now possibly, psychotic cultural reinforcement of “self”. It is in the very reinforcing contingency of “self” that B.F. Skinner warned so much about. An all powerful, and profitable concept that allows a little healing to liftoff for a bit, like a narcotic, never making it to true freedom (see Horney’s views on a social neurosis proportional to a society’s growth), only to land on another part of the globe to be invited to consume enroute to a new self-image, giving away or repurposing the native-self with the colonizing-self, fueled by new image satisfying goods and services only to end up unhappy, buying the newest bestseller or research paper, only to repeat the process again and again, faster and faster, with more and more transactions, such is a carbon-choked world beholden to “self”, just as with lead, so too with carbon.
Please get off the economy train and start talking to each other — replicating strip malls, technical gizmos, poverty, war, ecological disasters, and yet more dysfunction to other planets is foolish locustation. Or not, it is up to “you” and I have full faith and conviction that intelligence will sort it out, and if not, there will be another that will. If there is want of more detail on this text, please stay tuned for the more corporate friendly self-help versions readily delivered to self-image projecting doorsteps in twenty-four hours or less depending on local privileged adjacency to a logistics-auto-optimized self/we-adornment distribution hub. Clearly, all the self-help books seemed not to halt the cliff humanity is running toward fast, together, over the face, as buffalo, herded by priests of economism, toward extinction as part of a climate emergency, not because of itself, but because of a cosmic plinko machine, of “self” and “we” competition reinforcing contingencies against “others” and “theys”. Please choose wisely, hint, it is not in the book, or this text, or between these very letters, and certainly not in the punctuation. Self-help books, just as “self”, in this author’s informed opinion, most certainly held back progress, and it is time to fix the problems left in the many wakes of “self”, and petition to redress grievances stacked high in the making, and for that, the field of psychology is so challenged.
The blame? It is the very function of blame that is a problem, not the object of blame—did that help? From a martial therapist to a psycho-therapist, in these there are allies: good luck.
Bentley, Jerry H., and Ziegler, Herbert F. (2015). Traditions & Encounters : a Global Perspective on the Past, Volume 2. Boston: McGraw Hill.
Bergsma, A. (2008). Do self-help books help? Journal of Happiness Studies, 9(3), 341–360. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-006-9041-2
Carol Baker. (1975, May). Postcard writing is the vacationer’s art. Chicago Tribune, 16.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014). Toward a psychology of optimal experience. In M. C. (Editor), Flow and the foundations of positive psychology. (pp. 209-226). Springer.
Hanson, Katie. (2019). Positive psychology for overcoming symptoms of depression: A pilot study exploring the efficacy of a positive psychology self-help book versus a CBT self-help book. Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy 47(1), 95–113. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1352465818000218.
Magno et al., (2020). Does dental trauma and it’s consequences influence the professional hiring process? Development, validation and application of an assessment tool. Journal of Dentistry 99.
Ryckman, R.M. (2013). Theories of Personality, Tenth Edition. USA: Cengage.