I’ve Read 394 Self-Help Books And This Is What I’ve Learned

Photo: Patrick Tomasso.
To be a woman is to be in a perpetual, critical state of dissatisfaction. The big downside of knowing you can do anything, go anywhere and be anyone is it leaves a lot of room for disappointment. You can end up swamped by feelings of unrealised potential and of not measuring up (cheers, Instagram), and the gnawing worry that you could be much happier. The quest for self-improvement leads lots of us to books which promise to change your life forever. There’s nothing self-help can’t advise on, whether you want to de-stress or double your energy, seek out a new relationship or fix an existing one, achieve your goals or let go of unrealistic ones. As part of my job editing a magazine about personal development I’ve amassed a self-help library so big it suggests an advice fetish. I’ve read hundreds of self-proclaimed "transformative" books and, as an incorrigible sceptic, I’ve been critical of many and laughed at others for their unintentional hilarity (usually pseudo-psycho wangings-on by privileged, middle-aged, white Americans who you quickly realise are full of shit). What’s really struck me is the contradictory advice. One bestseller says go with the flow and be in the moment; another demands a life plan. Try to have it all; but appreciate what you've got. Self-help is a multimillion pound industry full of "answers", which flourishes precisely because there is no one "answer" for everyone. If there was, we’d have all helped ourselves to it long ago. However, among all the dross, I have read some books that offer considered advice and wise words that are worth remembering: Be completely honest with yourself
This is the only way to start any process of personal growth, say Persia Lawson and Joey Bradford, authors of The Inner Fix: Be Stronger, Happier and Braver. “Sweeping troubles under the carpet doesn’t make them go away – in fact they will get worse and more unmanageable,” they say. It takes courage to share the more exposing parts of your life, but the things that make us uncomfortable need to be worked through. Otherwise they’ll just keep cropping up. So be your own best friend, talk to someone you trust, and ask for help if you need it. De-clutter every area of your life
How To Simplify Your Life is a must for anyone with a "to do" list that never seems to get to "done". Tiki Kustenmacher describes seven ways of letting go of "burdens" to live a happier life. By visualising your problems as a pyramid (sounds basic but go with it) you work through them in stages, which makes big things you’ve put off (such as burying unopened bank statements) feel manageable. Once you’ve sorted finances, time management, health, work, and relationships, you really will feel sort of lighter, more in control, and – quite possibly – happier. Reframe your thinking
You don’t sell 19 million copies without somehow connecting with people, and millions of people swear by Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret. At the book’s core is the belief that everyone can transform any weakness or challenge into strength and peace through how they think about it. The affirmations and visualising can feel a bit happy-clappy, and many people rightly despise The Secret for its ideas about how thought can affect health. But basically, Byrne teaches you to get out of negative thought spirals through positive self-love and improving your thoughts, because if you believe something can be done, your mind can find the ways to do it. Focus on the things you can do something about
Beloved by aspiring business leaders, Stephen Covey’s bestseller 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is just as applicable to your personal life. He argues persuasively for being proactive, starting a task with the end goal in mind and putting first things first. There are also lessons on general communication skills (which Tinder should include as date guidelines), which teach you both how to listen and be heard. But arguably the most valuable message is how to collaborate, foster teamwork and learn to work only on the things you can do something about. Which is a pretty unbeatable basis for any relationship. Learn not to take things personally
It’s one of the hardest but most helpful lessons you can learn. In The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, Miguel Ruiz writes: “Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves.” Basically, you do you. Let them worry about themselves. Especially if they’re a negative influence. Stop trying to win the unwinnable and do what you need to do to take care of yourself. The other "agreements" are to be impeccable with your word, don’t make assumptions, and always do your best. This is the book I buy for friends. Abandon the pursuit of happiness
Similar to The Secret in its belief that every problem is the result of getting caught up in our thinking, in The Space Within, author Michael Neill says we need to accept problems, rather than try to "fix" them, or medicate ourselves. By abandoning the pursuit of happiness we’re less hypnotised by life’s highs (which we dread ending) and less frightened by the lows. No one said life was meant to be endlessly happy. By accepting the bad times and pain we can “sob without suffering; your heart can break without you breaking apart”. Not every problem has to be reframed in a positive light. Some parts of life are rubbish. They will pass – and it’ll leave you stronger. Stop criticising yourself and others
You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay was first published in 1984, and Hay (who recently turned 90) was way ahead of her time with her principles of ownership, action and positive thinking. The core belief is that everyone is responsible for their life. You’re not helpless, and you must consciously use your mind to give yourself the best chance of success. That starts with the way you talk to yourself – so stop slogging yourself down or nothing will change. As Louise puts it: “You’ve been criticising yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens… I do not fix problems. I fix my thinking. Then problems fix themselves.” It’s a truism that everyone's main goal in life is to be happy – but working out what makes you happy, and eliminating what doesn’t, is a complex and deeply personal ongoing challenge. We all feel uncertain about a million different things, and we’re all just doing the best we can. A human lifespan is less than 1,000 months, so it’s valuable to make some time to think about how to live, and self-help books can be part of that. But, when looked at simply, they basically all boil down to the Cub Scout law: help other people and do your best.

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