How to choose good self-help resources, pt 2

Self help concept.“In recent years, more Americans will seek mental health information from the Internet or attend a self-help group than will consult all mental health professionals combined. Self-help is, frankly, big business. According to recent market research, Americans spend an estimated $10 billion a year on self-improvement products!”

That’s how I started my last post. Today I will be offering four more tips to help you evaluate self-help resources, which for decades have been dominating the market. There is no “magic key” to the self-help kingdom, to quote Dr. Norcross, but by considering the strategies I offer here you are more likely to select something that is actually useful to you. The first four strategies I covered are available by clicking here. I won’t waste any more time, but get right to the content.

5. Find self-help that recognize problems are caused by multiple factors and have multiple solutions

You are a complex human being, that’s all there is to it. Your challenges are not so simple that they have a simple cause and a single solution. We might want to think of things that way, but it’s usually not so. You want self-help that offers multiple causes and multiple sources of assistance. Having more tools has got to be better than having only one technique because let’s face it, there is no one method that works for everyone.

Consider stress and anxiety. Yes, thinking positively may help you cope more effective with stress, but self-help that deals only with positive thinking tends to oversimplify the change process. Stress and anxiety is also helped by rearranging your life, practicing relaxation, exercising regularly, meditation, eating healthy foods, learning assertiveness, training your breathing, knowing your personality and engaging support from others.

For stress alone there are multiple great resources. The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook by Davis, for example, offers comprehensive strategies that actual research has shown positive outcomes for. For learning meditation and mindfulness, Wherever You Go, There You Are by Kabat-Zinn and (for the total beginner) Beginning Mindfulness by Weiss are outstanding because they’ve been actually proven to work.

6. Seek self-help that focuses on a particular problem rather than those claiming to be a solution for all of your problems

This is a dead giveaway. Self help that’s actually effective concentrates on a specific issue rather than promising to cure all of your problems. Materials out there trying to solve all problems are shallow and lack the assessments and detailed recommendations needed to improve an area of your life you are wanting help with. When writers claim their methods will solve all of your problems, don’t buy it.

Let’s look at codependency. This term was originally applied specifically to people who were married to alcoholics. The concept spread so rapidly to so many other things that authors now claim codependency occurs in almost every relationship! Melody Beattie’s two extremely well-known books, Codependent No More and its sequel Beyond Codependency, are both well-considered books in the field. Even they have a mixed reception however, both from mental health professionals and the average reader. While these books are probably helpful, this may simply be a topic for which self-help is not entirely sufficient.

Conversely, take a look at the book Co-Dependence: Healing the Human Condition. The title alone should put the savvy self-help reader off. It’s hard to imagine a broader audience than all of humanity. Love is a Choice, by Hemfelt, Minirth and Meier, is tempting. It’s sold a million copies! It’s written by doctors! Read the back cover though, there’s a claim that “one in four Americans” is codependent. Really? Where are they getting that figure? Do they define codependence specifically, or so broadly it’s hard to determine who wouldn’t be codependent?

7. Choose self-help that clearly explains its limitations and contraindications

A single self-help resource is applicable for only a limited range of disorders and life challenges. We wouldn’t expect a book on pregnancy or a web site on trauma to help with retirement preparation. It sounds obvious, but a lot of self-help out there doesn’t delineate the boundaries of their applicability–who it can help and who it can’t.

Effective self-help materials clearly state their limits. The best books and web sites explain who should not use them and describe a population for whom their book/web site could even be contraindicated (harmful). If you’re trying hard to think of a self-help resource that does this, that’s because almost none do. Nobody wants to limit their sales, right? This is similar to strategy six, the self-help resource should describe exactly who it is intended to help. If a book/web site is bold enough to say who it is not intended to help, take a closer look.

8. Don’t be fooled by psychobabble and slick writing

The term psychobabble came from the book Psychobabble, written back in the 1970’s attacking the psychological jargon that is frequently encountered in self-help books. Unfortunately almost 40 years later psychobabble is alive and well. Want some examples? “Get in touch with your feelings,” “get with the program,” “you’ve got to get it,” “the real you,” “you need high energy experiences,” or a relic from the 70’s themselves, “you’re sending off the wrong vibes.” Some self-help resources try to disguise their inadequacies by using psychobabble or other slick writing. The problem is the resource does nothing more than give one or two basic ideas that could be covered in about two chapters. The rest is just personal anecdotes and case examples that don’t do much to actually help.

I’ll include an example of a book that virtually no mental health professional thinks is any good:  The Secret, by Rhonda Byrne. It started out as a film but a book soon followed, selling 19 million copies and attracting the attention of folks like Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, and Larry King. I suppose we could categorize this book as “Self-Enhancement,” but it commits about every sin possible. There is no research that supports that it actually helps. It doesn’t narrowly describe the audience it’s intended for. It offers one solution to every problem. It’s filled with psychobabble. Try to put this book to the standard of the strategies I’ve listed so far, and see how it comes out.

“Self-enhancement” is an area that is pretty vague by definition. Even here though, there are gems. Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life by Hayes & Smith is the basis for an entire kind of psychotherapy, and far more useful. What You Can Change and What You Can’t by Seligman brings a wealth of scientific thought and scholarly opinions. While the writing isn’t as friendly as most self-help books, for those interested it can be very useful. Finally, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Covey is a classic that has very sound principles, and is anything but superficial.

That’s it for part 2. Follow my blog or check back, I’ll publish the final part soon. If you have any questions about this or would like some personalized recommendations, please feel free to Contact Me by clicking on this link, or the menu above.


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