Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Helping Your Self

I think somehow we learn who we really are and then live with that decision.
—Eleanor Roosevelt [1884-1962], former First Lady of the US

The spirit of self-help is the root of all genuine growth in the individual; and, exhibited in the lives of many, it constitutes the true source of national vigor and strength. Help from without is often enfeebling in its effects, but help from within invariably invigorates.
—Samuel Smiles, Self-Help [1859]

Self-help books have had a following for more than 100 years, but have increased in popularity in the last 20 years. One thing that you notice about self-help books is the focus on self-education, self-improvement and self-respect, all of which I suspect are good things. Even so, the narrow focus is on Self, and specifically how to alter it to achieve some goal.

Public disclosure: I know what I speak, because before I was married, I read a number of such books, particularly after some crisis of faith or other existential problem. This was about 20 years ago, when I was in my twenties and early thirties, still searching and forming views on life, and as such was open to the advice of professional experts.

One of the reasons for their increased popularity is that mental-health professionals read such books and prescribed them to patients, says Prof. Gad Saad, Research Chair in Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences and Darwinian Consumption at Concordia University's John Molson School of Business in Montreal. 

Point noted. In my case, not only my therapist, but friends and colleagues, often recommended books they loved and found helpful. The praised the books and the authors, who spoke about achieving happiness and contentment, as if they had the key to the good life. At least that's the way they spoke on talk shows and on radio interviews.

The authors, who often had PhDs after their names, also exhibited great confidence and faith in their knowledge and abilities to transform people's lives for the better. Their claims for success often centred on popular psychology, which often used some of the principles of psychology mixed with religious myth and stories.

Some of the books had a religious basis, others a metaphysical and others secular.  Even so, they shared some common traits All the books had exercises that you had to honestly complete, a type of self-assessment.

You Can Do It: Such is the central message of Self-Help books, which feed the Self, making it a huge market. Photo Credit: Daily Mail:
After reading all the chapters, and completing the numerous evaluative exercises in the book, which is often a mandate for becoming a better, kinder, more whole or spiritual person, for the most part, I still felt and thought the same as when I started the process. Mr. Smiles would have likely been disappointed in my lack of progress.

I found myself not feeling much better than when I began reading the books. So, even  in self-help I was an utter failure, unable to power my better Self to more money, more self-confidence, more mental acumen, more spirituality. If truth be told, I usually found the exercise tiring and draining. Perhaps the intense and prolonged focus on self invalidates the need to focus on others.

Note: I am not saying that self-help books are ineffective in helping people. Quite the contrary. They likely help millions of people through self-improvement of one kind or another, hence their popularity. Even so, such books did not help me in a way that I was seeking.

And there's the rub. Instead of reading a self-help book, I should have been talking to a friend. It would have been much more effective, much more fun, and less mentally and emotionally draining. Besides, I could have used the money I spent on these books for something more worthy.

Like meeting a friend for coffee or, even better, for a good dinner with sparkling, intellectual and intimate conversation.

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