The Woman Who Couldn't Stop Buying Self-Help Books

Jean Fain is a Harvard Medical School-affiliated psychotherapist and the author of “The Self-Compassion Diet.” So why is the author of a self-help book criticizing self-help books? Read on... 

By Jean Fain
Guest contributor

At first, I couldn’t understand why this new psychotherapy client had settled on my couch. Sure, Kaye (not her real name) was unhappy with her weight, and yet, she enjoyed an enviably healthy diet. With the aid of self-help books, she had not only taught herself to cook delicious, nutritious dishes, she’d also learned to meditate and eat mindfully. This unusually self-motivated working mother of two not only read each book from cover to cover, she practiced what the most helpful authors preached.

As time went on, I came to understand that as much as self-help books helped Kaye eat more healthfully, they were effectively hindering her happiness. You see, she used self-help books the same way she used food – to stuff her feelings. For good reason. Binge eating and reading brought her enormous comfort, which she desperately needed to deal with a high-stress job and a low-achieving child. Only problem: as Kaye’s self-help library expanded, so did her waistline.

Therapist and author Jean Fain (Courtesy)
Therapist and author Jean Fain (Courtesy)

As we delved into the problem of turning to the dinner plate and the printed page for comfort, the solution became abundantly clear. If she was serious about finding true happiness, she’d have to stop buying self-help books and start asking for a little help from her friends and family.

Yes, I'm a self-help author myself, but since writing "The Self-Compassion Diet," I’ve learned the limitations of the genre. Self-help outsells every other category because it gives people what they desperately need: hope. Which, on a good day, is enough to jumpstart change. But it’s rarely enough to sustain it. (Mostly, it sustains the publishing industry to the tune of $549 million per year, according to the market research firm Marketdata Enterprises.) So if you’ve been blaming yourself for failing to stick to the latest plan, you can stop. It’s not you, it’s the genre.

 I can’t tell you how many clients gained belly fat and weight trying to stick to the "Wheat Belly" diet.

Which isn’t to say self-help books have no benefit. In fact, self-help has become the world’s best-selling genre because most readers start reaping the benefits even before they crack the books. Of the many benefits, consider the top three:

Quick: The simple act of buying self-help books makes people feel better. Whatever you’re struggling with – losing weight, gaining employment, finding true love, getting a divorce, aging gracefully, dying with dignity – just knowing that simple answers to life’s complex problems are within reach gives book buyers an immediate sense of relief.

Cheap: Time- and money-wise, self-help costs a fraction of the cost of individual counseling. Virtually nothing, if you have access to free downloads or a public library.

Easy: Self-improvement, at least according to the dust jacket, is as easy as making Jell-O. Just follow the step-by-step directions and chill. Before you know it, you’re completely transformed.

So if self-help is all that, why do book buyers keep buying the next new book? That’s right, according to publishing statistics, 80% of self-help buyers are repeat customers, which suggests these books aren’t especially helpful. Most recent case in point: I can’t tell you how many clients gained belly fat and weight trying to stick to the "Wheat Belly" diet.

That self-help doesn’t really help is just one of a litany of complaints that critics have lodged against the genre, which, by the way, was launched in 1859 by one Samuel Smiles, a Scottish author, and his aptly titled self-published book: “Self-Help.” Interestingly, self-help criticism has become a genre in its own right. In fact, it was Jessica Lamb-Shapiro’s riveting, in-depth analysis of America’s self-help culture in her new-ish book, "Promise Land," that inspired me to reflect on the genre's inherent problems.

“It becomes almost this kind of addicting, self-perpetuating cycle where you never stop buying self-help books,” Lamb-Shapiro said. “You never stop trying to improve.”

Even if you’re no self-help addict, the genre can be detrimental to your health. To my mind, the top three detriments are as follows:


Failure to tell the whole truth: Because the whole truth doesn’t sell half as well as half-truths, self-help authors traditionally promise readers more than they can deliver. Given that many authors are self-proclaimed experts who don’t have a clue how to help themselves, let alone their readers, it should come as no surprise that some books are full of misleading, incorrect, if not counterproductive advice.

Inability to solve the problem: There are happy exceptions, of course, but, as a rule, the quick-fix solutions synonymous with self-help more often than not perpetuate the very problem they aim to fix. What’s worse, in case quick fix fans don’t feel bad enough already, when they inevitably fail to stick to the presto-change-o plan, they feel even worse.

Over-reliance on the self: Last but not least, self-help books perpetuate the myth that changing yourself, all by yourself, is an effective way to go. A can-do attitude may be the American way, but this do-it-yourself approach inadvertently discourages independent-minded readers from getting much-needed support.

Which is what Kaye, my client who couldn’t stop buying self-help books, finally realized. Slowly, but surely, she unloaded a good number of self-help books and started asking for help from her husband, a neighbor, a women’s support group.

At our last session, a more self-accepting Kaye revealed the secret to her new-found happiness, and it wasn’t what she’d thought. “Don’t believe everything you think,” she said with a knowing grin. More than weight loss, she said in so many words, her happiness depended on losing a little self-reliance and gaining a lot more support.

To be clear, the secret to Kaye’s success as well as yours isn’t as simple as replacing bibliotherapy with group therapy. No? Then what’s the secret to successfully sticking to your best laid self-improvements plans? If you’re the rare reader who made it through the final chapters of "The Self-Compassion Diet," you already know the answer: If self-help books help you, well, keep reading them. But, as independent as you like to be, you gotta have support, from someone who cares. Not from your undermining husband or that drill sergeant of a personal trainer you love to hate, but from one or more compassionate people ready, willing and able to see you through. That’s my conclusion.

I was curious if, after analyzing 100 or so self-help books, "Promise Land" author Lamb-Shapiro reached the same conclusion. So I emailed her.

Here’s her response: “I do believe that care and concern for and from other people is ultimately more valuable than a self-help book,” she wrote. “Which is not to say that social support and self-help are mutually exclusive. Often people use self-help books in conjunction with therapy or a support group. In an ideal world, everyone would have access to and avail themselves of both.”

Hear, hear.

Jean Fain, LICSW, MSW, is a Harvard Medical School-affiliated psychotherapist and the author of “The Self-Compassion Diet.”


More from WBUR

Listen Live