Self-help Books Do More Harm Than Good

Who are they really helping?

Motivational self-help books have become a popular reading choice for Australian adults. In a study analysing 38,000,000 Australian library loans between April 2019 and March 2020, self-help books dominated the non-fiction category. Michelle Obama’s Becoming took first place, followed by The Barefoot Investor and Any Ordinary Day by Leigh Sales. Interestingly, The Barefoot Investor, a manual on financial investment, took second place in the non-fiction category and even ranked as the fifth most borrowed book overall. 

Origins of Self-Help Books  

As someone who restricts herself to fiction, I was curious as to why so many Australians are drawn to the world of self-development. Through my research, I found that the concept of self-help is nothing new. The Ancient Egyptians enjoyed instructional literature – known as Sebayt, meaning ‘teaching’ – for the development of their knowledge. Interestingly, the contemporary genre’s name comes from the 1859 book Self-Help by Samuel Smiles, which followed a series of working-class men who overcame adversity to find success in their personal lives. 

While instructional literature has been popular for thousands of years, the invention of the printing press in 1455 marked a watershed moment for self-help. After mass printing became possible, more people could publish books sharing their advice on how people should live. This brings us to the present, where the barriers of entry to self-help publishing are so low as to encourage even the most questionable celebrities to release how-to guides. 

Are Self-Help Books Helpful? 

While there is some evidence indicating that purchasing self-help books can make people feel better in the moment, it is not always the case. The seemingly endless supply of motivational speakers and self-help authors raise a pressing question: What are the consequences of the self-help industry on the rest of society? 

How Words Shape Meaning

Since the 20th century, there has been increased interest among academics in understanding how our everyday actions, conversations and our subconscious minds are the product of written and spoken words. This kind of critical approach can be used to understand how language, power and culture are inextricably intertwined in the growth of self-help literature. One of the most famous theorists is Michael Foucault, whose critical analysis focused on the production of knowledge, norms and conceptualisations of the ‘Self’ through cultural forces. In describing literature in 1963, Foucault claims: 

“Words, their arbitrary encounter, their confusion, all their protoplasmic transformations are sufficient in themselves to bring into being a world that is both true and fantastic.”

Language thus shapes new kinds of existence. It fundamentally impacts how we perceive and behave in the world. Gabriele Schwab, a professor at the University of California, argues that books “write culture” (2012, Imaginary Ethnographies). They do this via language that “redraws the boundaries of imaginable worlds”, as well as through “thick descriptions of the desires, fears and fantasies that shape the imaginary lives and cultural encounters of invented protagonists”. She argues that literature‘s transformational powers are beyond the immediate act of reading, as seen in an individual’s altered behaviour after finishing the last page. In the case of self-help books, this could mean learning a new skill or setting new personal goals. 

While it’s an individual’s choice to enact change after finishing a self-help book, the explosion of the genre has far-reaching consequences for broader society. 

Girl Boss Guides 

Given the performative nature of gender and womanhood, it’s interesting to consider the popularity of motivational ‘girl boss’ literature such as Lean In and the eponymous guide to female capitalism, Girl Boss. These types of books may seem empowering, but in the long run, they can actually do more harm than good. The adulation of corporate competition, as well as the growing emphasis on profit-focused entrepreneurship, reifies existing capitalist structures and puts additional pressure on women to conform to capitalist modes of being. 

By encouraging female readers to modify their speech, dress or behaviour to acclimatise to the current workforce, these books burden women with the monumental task of tackling structural discrimination alone. Individualising sexism makes women may feel responsible for structural inequality that necessitates a collective, not individual, response. More than provoking anxiety and isolation, girl-boss guides are irrevocably opposed to meaningful change, because at a fundamental level, social progression requires a subversion of the current system.

As Jessica Lamb Shapiro writes in Promise Land: My Journey through America’s Culture, self-help is “a world full of charlatans and good people, one where it’s not always easy to separate the dross from the gold”. It’s not just about the exploitation of insecurity; an emphasis on individual self-improvement obfuscates wider social problems such as sexism. By promoting a hyper-individualistic response to external issues, people are made to feel responsible for failing to succeed in a system stacked against them.

My tip is this: be mindful of what you consume. Don’t put unnecessary pressure on yourself to control aspects of your life. In most cases, it’s probably not you that needs to change. 

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