How Self-Help Books Are Actually Harming Men and Society
Self-help books are becoming increasingly popular. The U.S. self-improvement market alone was worth $9.9 billion in 2016. As a life coach in London, I regularly have new coachees recommending yet another new self-help book I haven’t heard of.
“Oh you should definitely read it — it’s life-changing,” my coachees say. I smile every time I hear this. If self-help books work so much, how come several of my life coaching clients are stuck when they come to see me? Answer: because most self-help books don’t work. I know this because I have been reading them from a very young age and it wasn’t until I actually started getting outside help that my life started to change.
My concern is that self-help books provide the idea that you can change your life by intellectualizing it and without reaching out for help. This could be damaging for men in particular for a few reasons:
1. Men already avoid asking for help.
Men seem to be predisposed to avoid asking for help, whether this is socialized or genetic. The Men’s Health Forum reports that men far less likely than women to seek professional support; only 36 percent of those referred to psychological therapy services were men.
The classic image of a man who is lost whilst driving comes to mind. He is so determined on not asking for help that he would rather stay lost and get frustrated than to admit he is lost and ask a stranger for directions.
Self-help books may be unintentionally reinforcing “toxic masculinity,” i.e., the belief that men need to just suck it up, be strong, “get on with it” and fix it rather than encouraging healthy behavior, such as reaching out for help, sharing the problem with friends and family, etc.
2. Men are socialized to intellectualize solutions.
Secondly, many men are socialized to use their rational thinking above all else. This makes self-help books potentially lethal as they provide intellectual stimulation but do not actually facilitate real change, all whilst giving the illusion that the reader has changed their life. As a result, self-help books are creating an army of men who know too much, but do too little.
One case of a coachee comes to mind here. Rather than take onboard my feedback and take action, they instead seemed to be paraphrasing advice they had read in a book. After they had finished their long intellectualized explanation, I asked them, “So if you know the answers already, what made you come to me for help?”
After a long pause, they sheepishly replied: “I don’t know.”
3. Men are socialized to be experts or face rejection.
Another issue is the “expert syndrome.” Traditionally, men have been socialized to become experts or to face expulsion and rejection from the tribe. Thus, self-help books can mislead men into believing they are experts and do not need outside help.
The impact which self-help books can have may seem trivial when we’re talking about just one person. But now imagine an entire society of men who believe they are experts on their own problems and can fix them all by themselves by simply reading books and intellectualizing the solution. Particularly where addiction is concerned, many found they could not recover on their own.
We are social and relational beings by nature. I believe we were not designed to heal or change in isolation. In fact, loneliness is linked to physical and mental illness, as shown by several studies.
I am not saying all self-help books are useless. In fact, I may even write one of my own. But if I did, the core message would be to stop reading self-help books and go and take action.
Some books which I have found very enlightening include Pia Mellody’s books, “Facing Codependence” and “Facing Love Addiction,” which highlights unhealthy behaviors which lead to toxic relationships and provides guidance (namely that both are so powerful that joining a 12-step recovery is a good idea because it is extremely difficult to overcome on your own).
Another helpful book is “Fear of Life” by Alexander Lowen, the founder of Bioenergetics. In that book, he describes how many fears relate to the original fear of castration as a child from the same-sex parent. This fear creates chronic tension in the body and creates feelings of anxiety and restlessness. The author shares how the solution is to do specific Bioenergetic exercises to release this trapped trauma in the body.
“A problem shared is a problem halved,” as the saying goes. Many of my coachees have insights from life coaching that books could never give them, because a book cannot challenge your assumptions, beliefs and behaviors in the same way a human being can, nor can it empathize with your struggle. A book also cannot keep you accountable for the actions you commit to in the same way another person can.
Knowledge is power. But action is far more powerful.
So go and get help, whether that’s seeing a therapist, a life coach or joining a 12-step recovery program. There’s absolutely no shame in admitting you cannot do it alone.
Follow this journey on the author’s blog.
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