Why Self-Help Bores Me

Tell me a story.

In this century, and moment, of mania, tell me a story.

Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.

The name of the story will be time,

But you must not speak its name.

Tell me a story of deep delight.

Robert Penn Warren

On my desk sits a stack of books.

It’s been there for the better part of a year, growing larger each month. First it was merely a small manageable pile; now it’s a precarious Leaning Tower of Pisa, threatening to collapse at any minute.

Now and then I stop in front of it, pick up a book (or two), thumb through it, perhaps opening it to a page and letting the words rise up to meet me.

But almost as soon as I’ve opened the book, it quickly finds a way back to its spot on the pile.

This puzzles me. Here I am, a helping professional. It makes sense that I have a stack of books that promise insight, life improvement, self discovery, professional enrichment, and personal development.

So why don’t I read them?

Why do I feel a creeping apathy each time I pass these books?

I’ve been pondering these questions for a couple of months now, and a few things have occurred to me along the way.

The most obvious is that there’s not much that’s new. Many self-help authors have been around the block a few times; they have a track record, and lots of them have ascended to celebrity status. That’s often what gets a book published these days. But I’ve noticed the theme of the first book can be strangely similar to the second, or fifth. It’s like they’ve been fitted with fancy new dresses, and sent to the ball all over again for another coming out party.

I do realize that we need to read and hear things over and over, though. We human beings usually don’t get it the first time.

But the redundancy can be awfully dull.

Maybe that’s because the writing shows up looking more like advice than insight. Sometimes I get the feeling that self-help is talking at me rather than to me. A bequeathing of knowledge from a person who has arrived, hinting that they have their act together, and if I’m very good, (and follow the prescribed remedy), can get my act together too.

I know. You might be thinking, “I WANT to get my act together! I WANT the advice!”

But do you really? Isn’t advice like a prescription? A one-size-fits-all for what ails you? And when you think about it, are you really sick? I don’t think so. I think most of us are just fine.

Maybe we’re just looking for something quite different.

Maybe what we’re yearning for is not so much the quick fix of a medicine, but rather the gradual inspiration of a muse. Which is exactly what the wisest teachers have been doing for generations, by speaking the language of story.

They understand that story allows us to take what we need, what is particular to us. Story softens us up, giving us air to breathe below the surface. Guiding us to our own inspiration. Surely lighting the way, but letting us carve out the path on our own. Helping us get comfortable with paradox, by reminding us that the more we know, the more we don’t know.

Telling me a story does one more amazing thing: it creates a relationship between us.

It’s how I know that you’re not just talking at me, but actually listening to me. Because through story, we connect. It’s a marvel of two-way communication, even if I’m not in the room with you.

And that’s the missing link for me in much self-help: story and wisdom and connection.

No wonder I’ve lately looked to art, poetry, music, and fiction for instruction on how to live life.

In fact, I’m currently re-reading Jane Austen. Although it may seem like a huge leap to consider Pride and Prejudice a primer on personal development, there is abundant wisdom to be found there.

It’s a veritable compendium of how to’s:

How to stay true to yourself in the face of adversity. How to be independent and unique when others expect you to conform. How to be healthy and vibrant by walking vigorously each day. How to find humor and joy in life. How to refrain from making snap judgments about other people. How to forgive yourself when you make mistakes. How to advocate for people and ideas you most care about. How to get excited at the prospect of dancing.

All that from a book that was written in 1813. Who knew?

So I’ll stick with Jane for the time being.

But about that stack of books on my desk? I’m sure I’ll get to it one day. Although if I could, right now, I would appeal to those who wrote them:

Please, tell me a story.

Tell me what it means to you to be real.

Tell me as much about your doubts as your certainties.

Tell me how your world has been rocked by love and fear.

Tell me of both delights and disturbances.

Tell me that we’re in this together.

Tell me a story.

49 thoughts on “Why Self-Help Bores Me

  1. Wow! I am looking at your appeal to those authors and just thinking how great the world would be if we used these items as we built relationships in our lives.

    • Thanks, Nicki. I never thought of that, but you’re absolutely right. If we could speak to one another like that, telling and hearing each other’s stories, it would be quite amazing.

  2. Hi Patty!
    Wow! I hear you!!! How many times can the same basic premise be regurgitated? I have a HUGE library – I used so many of the “self-help” books looking for journaling tid-bit themes, you know? There are so awesomely creative ways to get to “the path” etc. but always there is the same basic thing – walk. Do it.

    I’ve read so many I could have written myself. I KNOW you could have too! I think the sheer volume of them all being on the book shop shelves is almost sad – are there really so many people out there who are not getting the message with one book that they need so many?

    The power of a story – oh you are so right!!!! Let me experience that person, that situation, that ressolve, result and let me take away what I NEED from that. You are so right, one size fits all – not so much! In stories we are given the seeds to plant our own garden after having tasted the fruit. Does this make sense or should I have more coffee this morning? ha! Feeling a bit unfocused here but I DO love this post!!!!

    Hugs
    suZen – albeit groggy

    • No, SuZen, you are making perfect sense. I mean, more coffee might be nice, but you don’t need it to get your point across. To you I say, Yes, Yes, Yes! Love the garden metaphor. And what you say about the sadness: perhaps we keep buying simply because the information comes to us in a neatly packaged prescription that we’re brainwashed to believe will work quickly. But as you and I both know, starting to walk isn’t that simple. It’s a few steps forward, one back, a day or two wandering on the hill, back on the path, resting, giving up, starting again. And there is some research now that suggests that if we don’t succeed with self-help the way we’re “supposed” to, it undermines our confidence and ability to take that walk. Thanks so much for your insights – hugs to you!

  3. Hi patty good stuff as usual 🙂 here are a few thoughts that occurred to me while reading.

    First a story: When i was in high school i was wander aimlessly through a small town art gallery and heard the proprietor talking with a patron about an artist. She said “he once created a peace that had god in it and has been trying to recreate it ever since.” I think this holds true for the accomplished teacher in the field of self help. They do something get praised for it and want to receive that praise successes again so rather then develop new thougths and risk failing they rework what they already have.

    Second thought: I think the struggle for knowlage is more relatebul then the advise. That is why i find I get more from blogs then i do from books. I can see the shared struggle of day to day life, i can sit at the teachers feet in a digital scents and ask questions or some times just touch the teachers robes for reassurance.

    • Wow, very wise, Quinn. Thank you. Not only do I think the authors are trying to recreate what they had because it was a transcendent experience, but also because they reached a level of success that they are desperately trying to hold on to. I recently heard one author, who’s written many books in the same genre, say, “I was on Oprah with this book.” But it turns out the book was written 13 years ago! Maybe it’s time for her to move on. And yes, I do agree with you that the struggle for knowledge, in ALL of us, is infinitely more helpful than advice. And the wise teacher knows that she or he is on the path along with the rest of us.

  4. Beautifully put Patty. I must admit I too have turned to fiction lately, not jane austin 😉 but some of Nicholas sparks books. Gotta love a good novel.

    Stories are definately what intwines us altogether. I remember back when I used to attend church, man i must have sat through thousands of meetings and heard countless people preaching at me

    Yet the ones I remembered the most were the stories, the personal stories, the no pretense… im placing my ass on the line here stories.

    Its those ones i remembered and its those people I admired.

    Thanks again for reminding me

    • Thank you so much, Jon. Nice to have you visiting. I agree – nothing like a good novel! And oh, those personal stories you speak of, how wonderful it is that you have those in your back pocket, you can take them out and look at them, remember what you need from them. That’s fantastic!

  5. Oh Yeah. We are so into ourselves these days. We do want a grand adventure, but make no room in our lives for one.

    The Lord Of The Rings movies were made from stories that were written 70 years ago, yet people ate them up and couldn’t get enough. They told a great story, and one we all want to hear. One about a greater cause, middle earth, mankind and sacrifices made for that larger purpose. A hobbit, from an agriculturally based society and a simple time who is quite ordinary, just like us. Yet digs down to find the gifts he is born with and utilizes those special gifts (many of us also have the resilience, the resourceful thinking, the ability to stand against greed and injustice.

    To travel light, to change the course of history, and to do the right and best thing because we are able to rise above. Tell us a story of all that is good overcoming all that is not. I love a good story.

    • Zowie, Erin, I got goose bumps from this one. My husband is a huge Tolkien fan, and has managed to bring me over to his side. I loved the LOTR books and movies. You’ve said it perfectly: they galvanized people because they spoke to our inherent resilience and resourcefulness. (And depth, I would add). They spoke to us on a level that only story can.

      And here’s something interesting (well, to me at least). Six years ago, when the movies were in full swing, I wrote an article for the Sacramento Bee about living your dreams in the New Year. And I put a quote in it from LOTR. But it got cut! Darn. Too woo woo I guess. But, now I have a blog. So I’ve unearthed it, and here it is:

      Remember, your story is waiting to be told. You have the ability and resilience to identify your dreams and make them come true, one step at a time. Just like the characters in stories and myths, you can forge ahead. Indeed, you can become one of those “wonderful folk of the stories” that Sam talks about in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. In remarking on the courage and adventures of the people in stories, Sam says, “I expect they had lots of chances…of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten.”

      Don’t let your emerging story be forgotten. Take the opportunity now to listen for it and nurture it. After all, it’s a New Year. What better time to start?

      THANK YOU, Erin, for reminding me of this. Reading Sam’s line again is the best self-help I could get today.

  6. You are so right on this. I too have low tolerance for “self-help” books not because they are not valuable but because as you said there is nothing new. We do get so much more from stories and there are not enough new ones out there. Great post!

    • Thank you, Mark. Seems there are a lot of us who are on overload with self-help. You’re right, there are a few gems out there, but most of it is very redundant. Appreciate your comments!

  7. Hey, Patty! I totally hear you on this. I’m a huge fan of extracting my own meaning and life lessons from all sorts of places, like stories, and movies, and the games kids play. These sources are overflowing with symbolism and nuance that will be meaningful to different people in different ways.

    I could tell you the story of how I turned down an offer to fly for the airlines in another country in order to stay with the boy I loved at the time. Oh, it would be a great story, full of emotions and passion… dreams fulfilled and shattered… sacrifices, rewards, all that good stuff.

    In the end you might be left with the feeling that I did the right thing, by following my heart and making some sacrifices for love (especially if I said I ended up living happily ever after with the guy, which I didn’t). But someone else might think I sacrificed too much of myself in pursuit of a mere fantasy, a childish illusion (which, in hindsight, is closer to what happened).

    But without knowing every single detail of what happened, or what the end result was, you would be left with a story that you could project yourself into, so as to extract any meaning you find helpful at the time.

    Have you ever noticed that you can re-read a book you read 10 or 20 years ago and it is a completely different story? The book is the same, but our framework for deciphering it has changed. I love how that works!

    • Hi Lisis – I love how that works too! And I love that you’ve brought your voice over here to the conversation. It’s a very welcome addition. Your story perfectly illustrates the power of narrative to open us up to deeper wisdom. To put our own spin on it. Make it ours. Feel it in our bones. The mini-story you’ve shared has such universal themes, but I can take exactly what I need from it. I might even find things there that aren’t universal, but speak to some quirky thing about me. And in that there is such validation. Perhaps the best tonic for self-esteem and the courage to be ourselves. Thanks so much for bringing this here.

  8. I LOVE everything you’ve said here, Patty!

    Here’s a story, or maybe more factoids. In 8th grade, I picked up a self-help book to help me deal with a death in the family. It was helpful in framing loss and grief and all that good stuff that go with mortality. But up until that time, I had not heard of the term self-help. It didn’t sit well with me. So, I didn’t venture into that world. I kept to my little library of teenage romance books.

    Then, in my early 20s, I had a job where my boss bought everyone a copy of a famous self-help motivational book. To put it mildly, I didn’t take to it. So in my entire life, I’ve read two self-help books. Three if you count Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project.

    These days, I read more non-fiction which I often find packed with inspiration.

    Thank you for another great post!

    • Oh, Belinda, your factoids could never be anything less than a great story! I’m chuckling at the images of your romance library and your 15-year-old self wrinkling her nose at that strange self-help stuff. “Ick,” I imagine she’d say. Just goes to show that your ability to sniff out rubbish (which some of it is) was turned on at an early age. It’s taken me much longer to get there. And to be fair, I have gotten some insights from it. But it’s interesting that you mention Gretchen Rubin. I thought a lot about her as I wrote this. I haven’t read the book, but I do follow her blog, and she’s simply a great story teller. She never takes the role of expert, but rather courageously shares her own story and struggle, and ensuing insights. And, she gets other people on there to tell their stories. Plus, you gotta love that video she did about riding the bus with her daughter. Oh, and she feels called to tweet Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves.” Now that’s a special person in my book, and someone who understands the power of story. Thanks for reminding me of that, Belinda.

  9. We often run to self-help but as you say, we are all fine, indeed we are perfect. The problem is the beliefs we create, and so thoroughly believe. Self-help is often the chase for more beliefs–we hope that this next new set of beliefs will trump the others and energize us. Maybe it’s about letting go, more than accumulating.

    Yes, stories are wonderful! They connect us, helps us share experience, entertain and fascinate. Can’t go wrong with Jane Austen.

    Thanks, beautiful article, fun to read.

    • Hi Kaushik – Welcome! So nice to have you join the conversation. What a great segue from your current post about beliefs. Yes, we do go looking for more beliefs in self-help! Brilliant point. But what we need is actually less, that letting go you speak of. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and wisdom here.

  10. Patty,

    This post goes under the category of “SO TRUE.” Like you, I have a ton of “self-help” books in my library. There are a few that I turn to when I need a push or a literary hug. These look very dog-eared and worn.

    Actually, I tend to prefer mysteries. As a kid, I read the old Charlie Chan mysteries that my grandfather had saved:~)

    I have so many favorite mysteries and these are the books I will read and re-read over and over again. I also like Jane Austen, as well the occasional historical romance novel written today.

    Speaking of books, I have a good one. It’s called “Drawing in the Dust” and is by Zoe Klein. It’s kind of a love story and a mystery rolled into one. She writes her words like music…at least to me. Check it out some time:~)

    • Hi Sara – Love that: a literary hug. I’m with you on that one. A few much-loved books. One in particular I’ve written about before: The Adult Years, by Fredric Hudson. No surprise…it has lots of stories in it. I like mysteries too, although haven’t read many lately. I was on a mystery binge for awhile. And I’m always hunting for book recommendations, so I looked up Drawing in the Dust. Sounds great! I will put it on my list. Thanks so much for that, and, as always, for bringing your warm and wise comments my way.

    • Now that’s fascinating, Amanda, seeing as how he’s one of the kings of self-help. Seems like a nice guy, but I’ve never read any of his work. Although I’ve had clients who are absolutely gaga for him. Thanks so much for letting me know that!

  11. Hi Patty, I can sort of connect with you on this. Although I personally enjoy reading self-help books, sometimes I do get frustrated if the writer is just talking about general stuff. Other times, I may become bored of it if I read the same concept from a previous self-help book. I like reading them though because I like discovering something new that I didn’t know before.

    When it comes reading a novel though, it can be totally different from another novel. And a lot of the times, novels can teach us lessons that self-help books teach us. It’s just that we have to “dig them out” ourselves.

    So they’re two different writing styles. Some people want straightforward answers, others like to read a world of creativity. This is just my opinion.

    Finally, at the end of your article, you wrote, “Tell me a story.” I wrote a story about how I almost joined a pyramid scheme but I can’t post it here because it’s too long for this comment box. If you would like to read it though, the story is on my blog. 🙂 Thanks for sharing this.

    • Hi Hulbert – I hear you. I don’t mean to bash self-help unilaterally, and there are some books that have given me profound insights. However, there are an awful lot of actual or self-professed self-help gurus, probably because we live in a celebrity-focused culture. And I do get awfully tired of guru-speak, which is different from speaking from the heart and telling stories and understanding that truth is relative. For me that’s the best self-help, but it’s not necessarily fiction. Such stories can be memoir, biography, or even traditional self-help. So I’m thrilled to hear that you wrote a story about your experience and are sharing your own voice. That’s fantastic, and I’m looking forward to reading it. And thanks so much for adding your thoughts to the conversation.

  12. Spot on. I’ve been thinking similar thoughts myself, but you have told us a story…

    One of my favourite sayings is ““Personally, I’m always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught.” by William Churchill. So often the subtext of self help books is “do things my way and…” – this is not advice, it is teaching by rote. Self improvement usually needs an emotional change to take place; stories engage the emotions.

    • Beautifully said! You’ve managed to distill what I struggled to say in 1000 words in just a few sentences. I love this: “self improvement usually needs an emotional change to take place; stories engage the emotions.” Yes! Thanks so much for this.

  13. You’re right: every journey, every story is different. When you recognize that, self help books can teach you a thing or two. In my experience, there’s at least one word of wisdom in every book (and it will be different for each reader). But one recipe fits all? I think not. Telling our stories binds us in our human-ness. Telling stories means sharing our inner journey with the world. There’s power in that too. The choice is personal; it all depends where you are on your path.
    Love,
    Maryse

  14. I like that, Maryse: “there’s at least one word of wisdom in every book.” I so agree with you about the humanity of stories. They tell us who we are; they deepen our experience; they elevate our understanding. It’s quite a beautiful thing. Thanks so much for your comment.

  15. I have a pile of books also, but mine seem to sit due to lack of time. Well, lack of me dedicating time to reading anyway.

    Story telling is such a great way to share lessons. I’ve been reading a lot of Dr. Seuss with my daughter lately, and it’s amazing the lessons put forth in those wonderful children’s books.

    I’ve been experimenting with some stories on my own blog, one of which is currently at the top of my most popular posts. Hope you don’t mind me sharing the link. The Shoveler and His Golden Shovel

    • I don’t mind a bit, Eric. In fact, I think you know I loved that story! You’re a great story teller, and it’s such a delight to read the stories you share on your blog. Plus, another thing I love about you is that you’ve got a “fantastic books” button on your blog and you’re pointing us to Hemingway and Steinbeck and Verne. And the Little Prince! From the first moment I visited your blog, you captured me just with that. And then I got to know you. What a delight. So thanks Eric, for sharing your stories.

  16. I love how you end the post with tell me…

    I just finished reading for the third time “Broken Open” by Elizabeth Lesser. She’s the one who began The Omega Institute.
    The book is filled with examples of the people she has worked with over the years…the stories that broke them open and how she helped them heal.

    I do like self-help and the stories together in the same book.
    I will save them in my journal and answer them as needed. I love doing the exercises I’m struck with so for me it’s both. Great post and I think Wayne Dyer is one of the guru’s who’s books repeat themselves over and over. I guess that’s for people who need to hear it a few times to get it or they like to be reminded of the same stuff.

    • Hi Tess – Sounds like an absolutely beautiful book. A book like that sounds like something different altogether. I’m glad you brought it up…it’s almost like there needs to be a new category of book that provides inspiration, story, and support. Beyond self-help. I don’t know what it would be, though. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, and your very kinds words.

  17. Dear Patty, I LOVE this post. I will be honest here. I read NO self-help books. They bore me to tears. LOL!! 🙂 I know, I know…BUT I do spend that time living, experiencing and connecting with people, nature and all of Life. Self-help books slow me way down in an unhealthy way and put me ONLY in my head. And that is not a place I’ve lived for a very long time. I live from and think with my entire being.

    When I went into the rainforest years ago, I consciously gave up ALL books so that I could discover for myself my own intimate relationship with life, free of all conditioning. EVEN IF, that meant making mistakes, I KNEW without doubt that Life would teach me everything I needed to learn and more. I had to only keep an open heart and mind and embrace all experiences as Life teaching me about Itself and myself. One and the same.

    I lived such an experiential life and grew so much over the years that I found self-help books boring when I tried to pick them up and read them. And I found most to be the same old same old. So any I had I gave to my friends who wanted them. I STILL trust and KNOW that Life will teach me all I need to know…and my mind doesn’t get weary. Lol!! 🙂 And I remain uniquely me.

    There is a video on this blog that you might like especially the last 1/3 or so of it. It uses some terminology that I don’t use or even think, but there are some cool points in it. Here is the link: http://blog.dreambuilders.com.au/journal/2010/1/29/experience-the-heaven-of-now.html

    I also LOVED your hummingbird post. And the questions at the end of it are stellar!! Good job. I wrote down the questions and am going to answer them sometime just as fun thing to do. You are a innately wise soul. VERY wise. Trust your gut or heart, Patty. You really do know. This post reflects someone who is willing to think outside the box. I LOVE that! Yippeeeeee!! Hugs, Robin 🙂

    • Thank you, Robin. You have a such a gift for affirming and validating people. And what an exciting way to frame it: trusting that life will teach us everything we need to learn, and more. There’s such an abundance of faith, hope, and optimism in that philosophy. Interesting, because I do think that self-help often calls to us because we are not feeling particularly hopeful or optimistic. And we’re frantically looking for something to fill the void. But if we were all to take your cue, trusting life and putting ourselves in the hands of nature, I have a feeling we would soon be full to the brim with possibility and enthusiasm. Hugs to you, and I very much appreciate your comments.

  18. Great post and I couldn’t resist the title so I had to read through every single word … Certainly a story would be nice. Hence the reason I integrated personal shared experiences or stories into my concept of personal development/self help.

    • Hi Fatima – Welcome! Thanks much for visiting. Sounds like you are fully plugged in to the power of story. That’s wonderful. Love hearing that, and I so appreciate your comments.

  19. Hi Patty.
    History never spoke to me until I read a book with stories about how people lived in that time. Then I would remember effortlessly.
    I do read self help books but when there is no story- telling in them, I forget the message as soon as I close the book.
    Stories allow me to ‘feel’ the message, they can go past my brain to my heart where it connects with my inner wisdom and of course any story can do that as all stories are about life.
    Thanks Patty, that explains a few things.

    • Ah, Wilma. Such an important point you make. It’s the story that helps us to remember! Absolutely, you are right on target. I think there have even been studies about this. How story helps people to learn and retain information, at a much deeper level. Lovely that you pointed this out. Thanks!

  20. Hi Patty! Yes, yes, and YES! I feel the same way! Many self-help books are indeed prescriptions for this or that, and beside boring people to tears, these “scripts” don’t always fit our real lives or needs.

    There is nothing like the power of narrative. Stories are how we learn, and how we relate. Not only do they have the most impact on our thinking, they’re also the things that captivate, that we remember. Really, truly remember.

    Cheers,
    Miche 🙂

    • Hi Miche – Love that word you use: captivate. That’s exactly it. (And a word I’ve used in my next blog post about another kind of story). Your comment has made me think of something else too. Those scripts you speak of don’t fit because they’re not of our own creation. If we don’t write the script and score for our own lives, then it’s like being in someone else’s movie. Hmmm, maybe I’m throwing around a few too many analogies, but you probably get my drift. Thanks for the comment!

  21. Pingback: Meaning Mondays: The Singing Blog Edition « Why Not Start Now?

  22. Great post!

    I think it is true that most of what is found in self-help books have all been done before. You’re absolutely right about story telling. I think that is why blogging is so appealing. You get the story and the insight for a person and the reader gets to follow them on their growth journey.

    Thanks for sharing

  23. Here’s the thing: no amount of self help has ever helped me to help myself when it comes to besting the black dog of depression, grief and loss. I have only ever felt lethargic whenever I’m given advice on what to do or how to be. Not good.

    Here’s another thing: no amount of story telling has ever helped me to help myself when it comes to besting the black dog of de… well, I think you see where that sentence is going. However, there is one critical difference between advice and a good story. Advice will leave me feeling drained of hope whereas a good story will help me to at least WANT to face the world.

    That’s what stories do. They help you to imagine the possibilities, and inspire you to get out there to at least see if the possibilities can come true. Advice is just a stone at your feet. Advice can’t fly like stories can.

    And I’ll stop there before I mess up too many more metaphors. 😛

    • Good metaphors, Tony. I love them! That black dog you speak of, I agree stories won’t cure it, but they may help us WANT to face the world as you say. Thanks!

  24. Thank you Patty! I needed to read this tonight so much 😉 I have been writing heart stories the last while and changing my approach.. 😉 a second chance at life for me is more living and less talking,..and when I do share to speak from what stirs my heart rather than too much boring advice. Many blessings to you for this extra confirmation here tonight!xx ~Jenn

    • Thank you Jenn, and welcome! I’m so glad to hear that you are moving away from advice and into your own heart. Someone said to me today: “all we really need to do is trust our hearts and open them up.” How wonderful to have you confirm that!

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