Is Self-Help a Waste of your Time?

Before I start this post, let me first make a confession – I’m British. I was born and raised in a culture that is inherently cynical. As a result, when I first became enthused by self-help literature, I was met with muffled laughs, raised eyes and comments like, ‘not that cheesy American nonsense.’ There was a general sneering attitude towards self-help and an understanding that it was low brow, gimmicky and largely ineffective.

I railed against this negativity. God forbid that someone suggest we could have happy, exciting and purposeful lives! Shoot that man or woman down before we crack a smile or experience a little warmth in our souls (that would be thoroughly un British!). However, as I’ve delved deeper into the field and become an expert myself (both through practicing hypnotherapy and writing my own book), I’ve been forced to explore the critical view.

Why does self-help have so many detractors?

What do they object to?

Are there any substantiated claims for a self-help book having changed someone’s life?

If they really work then how can people succeed without ever having read a self-help manual?

These are questions I will now answer and in the process, reveal whether you’d be better off saving your money and time or whether, once you cut through the multitude of titles and personalities, there’s something profoundly powerful in the principles they espouse.


Some Psychologists are keen to attack the self-help industry. Interestingly enough, this usually coincides with them having a book of their own to promote. Perhaps they see the huge sales of some self-help titles, compare them with their own relatively meager numbers and feel aggrieved that someone without the title of Professor or Doctor dares to speak on the human soul and mind. But that could just be me being cynical about the cynics.

Whatever the case, it would be foolish to ignore what some psychologists have to say. An interesting study conducted back in 2001 tested commonly held self-help wisdom with scientific research and discovered that some of the cornerstones of the genre didn’t hold up. For example, venting your anger, thinking happy thoughts when depressed, visualizing your goals, repeating affirmations and using active listening to communicate with your partner were all ‘proved’ to have little value and in some cases, leave the subject unhappier.( For a more in depth breakdown of the study click here).

Some journalists also love to join the battle. Those great purveyors of negativity (whoops, I meant ‘the truth’) are quick to label popular self-help figures as ‘guru’s’ or, if they’re feeling particularly spiteful, charlatans. Their main gripe is typically centered on two arguments.

  1. The self-help figure has not first achieved something in the world. Essentially, they have acquired their money and fame through telling other people how to acquire money and fame. A fair argument it seems, until you consider the fact that the best players don’t always make the best coaches. Steve Redgrave, gold medalist in 5 consecutive Olympics, has written a self-help book, but given the choice of having an hours coaching with him or Tony Robbins, who would you choose?
  2. They have no academic training. In a world where science is God (and could never be open to manipulation or be in need of reassessing or updating!), those without qualifications or letters to their name or are not fit to offer ideas on how you might improve your life. It reminds me of the treatment Lionel Logue received when helping King George VI with his stammer. Logue, a brilliant speech and language therapist, didn’t have a qualification to his name and as a result, advisers to the King attempted to terminate what proved to be an incredibly effective therapeutic relationship. Fortunately, the King overruled them, as what Logue lacked in academic training, he more than made up for in experience and a proven track record of getting results. Is it implausible to think that some of today’s self-help figures, although not prefaced with the letters Dr, might have these exact same ingredients that are so fundamental to being an effective teacher?

But can it REALLY change your life?

Even as a fan of the genre, I have to admit that self-help can make some lurid claims. With titles like Change your Life in 7 days and Achieve Anything in just one Year, anyone would think that self-actualization and the realization of your dreams is something that can be attained with the click of a finger.

Is it all just marketing propaganda or is there evidence to suggest that self-help actually works?

For me, the most powerful proof that something works is when you have a successful person tell you exactly what it was that enabled them to achieve their success.   

I now want to present you with two such examples. Although both of them were, and are, in the public eye, they had no ulterior motive in revealing the secret to their success.  There was no course to sell or book to promote, just a frank explanation of what is was that propelled them to super-stardom.

  1. Phyliss Diller. For 35 years Phyliss Diller lived a largely uneventful life. She married at 22 and worked a series of jobs she had no real passion for. That all changed, though, when she read Claude M Bristol’s classic The Magic of Believing. After studying the book for 2 years, she embarked on a new career as a comedian. Friends told her to keep her day job, industry insiders told her to ditch the laugh which she went on to become famous for and more than once she was boo’d off stage. However, none of that stopped her because, through reading the book, she’d formed an unshakable belief in herself. Watch this fascinating interview for more information and hear Diller clearly state, on at least 3 separate occasions, that The Magic of Believing was the reason for her success.
  2. Jim Carrey. Although Carey doesn’t credit a single self-help book with his success, he does talk at great lengths as to how a few self-help practices helped propel him to Hollywood fame. Back in 1987, while struggling to make it as an actor and comedian, every night he would park on Mulholland Drive and imagine being a successful Hollywood star. He would visualize directors being interested in him and people he respected congratulating him on his work. Audaciously, he wrote himself a cheque for $10,000,000 and dated it thanksgiving 1995. You can see him here, talking on Oprah about how he realized that dream with the money he received for Dumb and Dumber in, you guessed it, 1995.

Final Thoughts

My belief is that self-help books and principles absolutely DO work.  However, believer that I am, something has always bothered me.

If the principles of self-help work then how can anyone achieve success without them?

Were Richard Branson, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs leafing through the pages of Think and Grow Rich and How to Win Friends and Influence People in their late teens and early twenties? Probably not. Instead, they were spending endless hours learning their craft and experimenting with new ideas. How could they then go on to create billion dollar companies without first training themselves in the importance of self-belief and self-image, developing an ability to raise their emotional state and learning the best way to process failure?

It’s not inconceivable that some people unconsciously follow the principles of self-help without ever having read a book or attended a seminar. Either through nature or nurture, Branson, Gates and Jobs perhaps had the perfect mind-set to succeed without needing to work on it.

There is another factor to consider as well – The great self-help principle of FOCUS. This principle states that whatever you routinely focus on, you will bring into your life. Therefore, if you are spending over 20 hours a week actively working on your dream and thinking of ways that you, or your product, can be successful then your mental (and spiritual) immersion will bring about astounding results.

This, perhaps, is the greatest lesson of all and one of the easiest to put into practice. Focus on what you want and watch your life transform.


Want the Best Self-Help tips that are Guaranteed to Improve your Life?

Then head over to my website and get your free copy of 50 Reality Changing Insights. Also check out my critically acclaimed book Escape the System Now. I work as a writer, hypnotherapist and tennis coach and have a passion for helping people discover their greatness and live lives of greater freedom and authenticity.



Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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