Self-help or not self-help?

I recently read a great new book by my colleague, Scott Cherry, called How to Stop Reading Self-Help Books. As well as being an entertaining read it presents some serious problems with self-help books and the self-help industry more widely. The book ends with a programme for weaning oneself off self-help books, written in a self-help book style of course!

But of course I am in a bit of a strange position in relation to criticising self-help books because haven’t I recently written something which looks very much like a self-help book myself? Here I want to summarise some of the reasons why I agree, with Scott, that it is worth being very cautious about such books, and also to explore some possibilities for engaging with this genre creatively (and, as Scott emphasises, critically) rather than wishing for its total demise.


In the introduction to Rewriting the Rules I call my book an ‘anti-self-help’ book. The reason for this is that in the very title ‘self-help’ there is an implication that there is something wrong with you (the self) which requires help.

So most other relationship self-help books locate the problems that people have with relationships (either problems getting together with someone, or difficulties in relationships) in the individual who is reading the book. There is a suggestion that the reason that we have problems with relationships is due to something within us such as being too needy, not understanding the ‘opposite sex’ well enough, failing to be enticing enough, or being poor at the art of seduction. The answer, of course, is to be found within the pages of the book: we need to change ourselves in order to fix our problem.

Similarly self-help books on other topics identify a flaw in the reader which can be addressed through following the advice in the book in order to create a more successful self.

In Rewriting the Rules I take a different perspective and suggest that the reason that we (all) struggle with relationships is mostly to do with something outside our selves: the messages that we receive about the way we should do relationships. And that it is these that could do with changing.

Furthermore I locate a lot of the problems that people have, in relationships with other people and with themselves, in the very way of seeing yourself that self-help books encourage. I argue that self-help books are part of a wider culture (reality TV, celebs, advertisements and so on) which encourages us to constantly monitor ourselves, to compare ourselves to other people, and to judge ourselves, whilst trying to present a perfect image to the world.

Striving to be a perfect self and to have a perfect relationship puts a great deal of pressure on people which paradoxically makes it much harder to be kind to ourselves or to be content in our relationships. Body ideals leave us feeling miserable about our bodies, constant critical comparison to others is linked to depression, and trying to have a Hollywood romance leads to relationship distress.

So Rewriting the Rules is an anti-self-help book in that it doesn’t suggest that our problems can be located in something that is wrong with us, as individuals, and it also tries to work against the mainstream self-help industry which I perceive as generally part of the problem rather than the solution.

So can’t we help ourselves?

In one way Rewriting the Rules is arguing that culture is the thing that needs to change, not us as individuals. For example it would be good if culturally we stopped having such narrow ideals of beauty, or seeing people as to blame for their problems, or telling them that there’s only one way of having sex or doing relationships.

However, it wouldn’t be a terribly helpful book to read if it just said ‘culture is to blame, not you!’ and left it at that. For one thing we all have to operate within culture as it currently is, and for another thing culture is us, and can shift, so it’s worth thinking a bit about how we can be part of that (and who already is doing that). For that reason, in the book, I explore other ways of doing things that are out there (aside from the most prevalent messages about relationships) and ways in which we might navigate the culture we find ourselves in – resisting it, opening it up, creatively engaging with it – to find other ways of relating to ourselves, to each other, and to culture itself.

So I do offer lots of suggestions in the book which might sound a lot like conventional self-help. For example, in the chapter on relationship conflict I offer some guidelines that we might follow when we are fighting. In the chapter on attraction I suggest some ways in which we might learn to treat our bodies, and the bodies of others, more kindly. And in the chapter on sex I draw on sex therapy and sexual community ideas about how to tune into, and communicate, our desires.

Critical thinking is the key

Scott Cherry’s book is subtitled some simple steps and a dash of critical thinking. This is really the key for me. Most self-help books do not include much in the way of ‘critical thinking’ whereas that is what Rewriting the Rules is all about. I’m inviting the reader to think about what those messages are (about how to have relationships, and how to treat ourselves) and then think critically about those, and to consider what we often take-for-granted and bring that out into the open to think critically about as well.

Thinking critically might involve looking at the research evidence, or asking questions such as ‘is this useful for me?’, ‘what about the people around me?’, ‘who is excluded from this?’, ‘how might it be for them?’ and ‘what alternatives might there be and what would they be like?’

Of course once we’ve had a good critical think we might decide actually this is just fine for us and to keep on subscribing to those messages or ideas. The thing is to have them available for thinking about, rather than just believing that we have to go along with them, and to open them up to critical reflection.

Self-help books of the future?

Scott’s analysis of self-help books is very useful because it helps us to see what self-help books have tended to look like until now. Unfortunately the publishing world is quite resistant to anything that looks different to those existing books, as I found during my long search for a publisher. They know that those books sell and it is daunting to take a risk on anything different (and for this reason I will always be grateful to Routledge for taking a risk on my book).

The majority of self-help books propose individual internal causes for problems and offer the words of wisdom of the author as the solution for everyone. What if we challenged both of those ideas in books of the future?

First, we could move away from internal causes. Instead we could embrace what most academics now accept as a better way of understanding difficulties (from depression to relationship troubles to pain) which is a biopsychosocial model. We need all of those levels of understanding when making sense of our experiences, and they are inextricably interwoven in complex ways. Most self-help books neglect the latter part (the social) so we need to bring it back in.

Second, we could recognise that different things work for different people at different times. My book would have been very poor indeed if it said ‘here is the one true way of doing relationships and everyone should follow it’. Clearly people think about, and manage, their relationships in all kinds of ways. People like to live alone or with others, to combine finances or to keep them separate, to have one main person in their life or many, and all sorts of other differences.

So I would like self-help books to recognise this and to be more of a jumping off point for people’s own explorations rather than providing them with a single, universal, destination. It would be particularly useful to give examples of lots of the diverse things that people find helpful (as I’m hoping to do in a book I have in mind on all of the different things that help with depression). Also I would think that a good self-help book would be about asking questions more than it was about providing answers.

There are examples of self-help books that I would advocate, so I can’t criticise the whole lot of them. Dorothy Rowe‘s books (on depression, friendship and the like) are a great example of books which include the social aspect and question taken-for-granteds. Whilst I don’t subscribe to all the theories that Paul Gilbert draws on in The Compassionate Mind, this book is both biopsychosocial and encouraging of a more compassionate (rather than critical) way of treating ourselves. Books like Esther Perel‘s Mating in Captivity and Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy’s The Ethical Slut challenge conventional rules of relating and explore how we can manage our relationships in different ways. Both books embrace diversity rather than offering one universal way of doing things.

Every book is imperfect and limited, but it seems to me that it is possible to write a self-help book that opens things up more than it closes them down and which, rather than offering some final point of ‘self-fulfilment’ (which, as Scott points out, should mean that we no longer need any self-help books), more humbly offer itself as an invitation into critical thinking on an area: a starting point for the reader’s own continued explorations, and an encouragement to change the world rather than fixing our selves.

Find out more

Scott’s book is available here, and soon on Amazon.

There’s a helpful history of self-help books, with consideration of the ways in which they are valuable and potentially damaging by Laura Vanderkam here.

Petra Boynton asks ‘self help or self harm?’ on her blog about relationship books.

Micki McGee has a Self Help, Inc. blog on the topic.

There’s an interesting post about the possibility of scientific self-help here.

There’s a more positive take on the subject by Alain de Botton here.

Other books which critique the self help industry, listed in Scott’s book, include:

  • Kaminer, W. (1992). I’m dysfunctional, you’re dysfunctional: the recovery movement and other self-help fashions. New York: Addison-Wesley.
  • McGee, M. (2005). Self-help, Inc. Makeover culture in American life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Pearsall, P. (2005). The last self-help book you’ll ever need: repress the anger, think negatively, be a good blamer & throttle your inner child. New York: Basic Books.
  • Peele, N. V. (1995). [1989] Diseasing of America: how we allowed recovery zealots and the treatment industry to convince us we are out of control. San Franscisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Salerno, S. (2005). SHAM: Self-help and actualization movement. London: Nicholas Brealey.
  • Simmonds, W. (1992). Women and self-help culture: reading between the lines. New Jersey: Rutgers.
  • Tiede, T. (2001). Self-help nation: the long overdue, entirely justified, delightfully hostile guide to the snake oil peddlers who are sapping our nation’s souls. New York: Atlantic.

Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).



  1. Tam Sanger

    28 April

    Really looking forward to reading Rewriting the Rules (the book!) Meg – just pre-ordered it in fact 🙂 I’m currently writing a book chapter about rethinking the intimate self and these kinds of posts are really useful in thinking about the complexities of that. I’ve also been reading about class and the making of the self and how it’s a very privileged middle-class exercise, which is really interesting (Liz McDermott’s chapter in Classed Intersections is great). But yeah a lot of what I’m saying is about challenging norms (of course) and rethinking the self through encounters with the marginalised ‘other’ but that brings plenty of difficulties which I’m working through 🙂
    Thanks for another great post 🙂

    • megbarkerpsych

      28 April

      Thanks Tam! It should be coming down in price a little from the Amazon price that is currently up there as well (£16.99 RRP so will hopefully be under £15 once Amazon have added their usual discounts.

      The class point is a good one. Self-help books tend to have been aimed at a specific (generally white, middle class, heterosexual, female) audience, and all of those elements are worth reflecting upon. Another way forward for the self-help book of the future is to address this exclusivity (both the implication that this group particularly needs to work on the ‘self’ and the suggestion that others do not!) In Rewriting the Rules I very explicitly tried to speak to all genders and sexualities. However, I’m less convinced of how open it is in terms of class and race and would find it very useful to engage with others about how future books and projects might be more inclusive in these areas.

      I guess it is interesting to compare the self-help book to the TV talk show (Oprah and the like) – which is more aimed at a working class audience. Might talk-shows be re-imagined in similar ways to self-help books? What would that look like? Another interesting arena would be the make-over show. There’s some great stuff about this (explicitly related to class) in Ros Gill’s most recent book on femininities.