Do Self Help Books Really Work?


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On the road of life, you’re going to fall down once in awhile, getting cuts and bruises in the process. When you have a cut, you look for a band aid. But when you have an emotional injury, identifying the proper treatment method can be more difficult. How do you know when your emotional injury is treatable at home or whether you need to see a clinical therapist trained in treating depression?

It’s common to self-treat through a variety of positive and negative means. Self-help books can be powerful guides on the road to recovery. But they can also produce feelings of inadequacy and guilt on readers who are in a vulnerable state of mind. So how do you know if seeking a self-help book for depression is the right choice for you?

Doing a brief search on Amazon for “self-help and depression” reveals hundreds of titles promising relief from depression. Books of this genre promote personal transformation through a wide range of methods, all of which can be done independently. The modern American consumer is drawn to the philosophy of self-help – the industry is growing and does $10 billion per year. As the self-help industry continues to increase in popularity, however, we are often reminded that quantity does not necessarily equal quality.

How does a reader find “good” self-help books?

Self-help is a broad category, and to be fair, not all self-help books are the same. Along with the flashy, quick-fix titles are a number of well-written books offering reasonable advice. Many of these, such as Greenberger and Padesky’s Mind over Mood, come highly recommended by professionals and include practical exercises built around the evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

The search for a proper self-help book should be treated similarly to the search for a qualified therapist. Ask for references from friends, family and medical professionals. Do your research on the author. Some authors may hire ghostwriters to complete their works for them. Or, the author may have been well respected in the past but has since lost credibility. Make sure the author is considered to be a reliable, current source of information.

Try to read a sample of the book before purchasing or borrowing it. This can be easily done on Amazon for most books. Look for a “tone” or voice in the writing that you connect with. Reading a book that feels like work will be incredibly difficult. You need to find one that motivates you to continue progressing through the chapters.

Who are self-help books good for – and who shouldn’t rely on them?

The benefits of self-help books often depend on the reader’s state-of-mind. Does the reader believe they can achieve exceptional results – or do they feel helpless?

Depression can cause individuals to experience feelings of the latter, making it difficult for them to benefit from self-help books in their current mindset. For this reason, some of the most useful self-help books are in the “personal development” category. These books focus on improving one’s mindset and on forming healthy habits of behavior. Once these patterns are established, it becomes much easier to follow problem-focused guides aimed at correcting specific, complicated issues in one’s life. Without a solid foundation of positive thought and faith in one’s abilities, the odds are against the reader.

At what point are self-help books not enough?

The very nature of self-help books requires the reader to be capable of working through logical steps to solve a problem. However, individuals with clinical depression are plagued with irrational thought. Most self-help books will take a logical approach to this problem: replace irrational thoughts with rational ones. This may be helpful to some, but remember that a depressed individual is often incapable of maintaining positive, rational thoughts. This is not a flaw of the individual, but a symptom of the condition. Here is where the paradox begins to unfold. A depressed individual encounters a conundrum when attempting self-help; that is, effective treatment is dependent on the individual’s state of mind. That is quite a challenge to face.

A common theme in self-help is the endorsement of positive affirmations. The individual engages in positive self-talk about themselves; with the expected result that they will be able to overcome their negative self-image. Affirmations are repeated until they are accepted as reality. Unfortunately, people with ongoing depression often struggle with this method. They are rarely motivated enough to follow through with the exercises and generally lack the confidence required to believe they are capable of change. To make matters worse, failure to complete tasks creates further complications for someone who is already experiencing low self-worth.

Try to imagine the frustration that manifests. A reader, desperate for answers, discovers time after time that reading self-help material just isn’t helping. He assumes that he must be flawed in some way, as this is consistent with the belief that his situation is hopeless. You can see how easily this can translate into a self-fulfilling prophecy and further magnify depression.

Can a person overcome adversity on their own using self-help literature?

It’s possible. However, embarking on a journey of self-discovery is anything but easy. A person is often faced with harsh realities and can experience a number of difficult emotions. Some of the strongest held negative beliefs are deeply rooted in past trauma. It is more beneficial to work with someone that can help build self-reliance, rather than attempt to navigate through a series of general exercises. An experienced therapist can help keep the individual grounded in reality so they can avoid the dangers of self-help.

As humans, it is only natural that we are drawn towards the path of least resistance. A quick fix solution is far more attractive to the average person than the reality of what it takes for cognitive restructuring to take place. We are incredibly driven to improve our lives, but at the same time we are emotional and sensitive to criticism. We are often our own worst critic but for some, there is a very real need to seek professional treatment for negative self-thoughts. Often the best course of action is to seek out a trusted therapist in your area, meet with them and ask for a reference list of reading material to help you. This is the safest solution for you and offers the greatest chance at achieving successful results for the long-term.

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