Self-help or self-harm? A surprising look at personal transformation

-Oct 3, Sarah Alexander, Mind -

In this thought-provoking piece, author Sarah Alexander takes a deeper look at the self-help industry and wonders if it does more harm than good...
In this thought-provoking piece, author Sarah Alexander takes a deeper look at the self-help industry and wonders if it does more harm than good…


Self-help or self-harm? We all have periods in our lives where we turn to outward sources for help and guidance. Indeed, over the past few decades, many of us will have at least flicked through one best-selling self-help book which promises that after a quick read our lives will change quickly and with very little effort – if only we start manifesting and thinking positively, no matter what life throws our way. But what if true self-help means taking 100% responsibility for yourself, and positive thinking simply isn’t enough?

Starting right back in the 1970s, the self-help movement has become a phenomenon touching the lives of many. Searching Google for ‘self-help advice’ will throw up millions upon millions of pages of free downloads – internet sites and YouTube Channels are all jostling for position to promote their own brand of tips and techniques.

Self-help books have also flooded the market – many currently proffering variations of ‘The Law of Attraction’ as a panacea for human unhappiness. Bestsellers have proliferated through claims that we can do anything just by seeing ourselves as invincible and capable of unlimited success. And for those of us who have tried and failed to awaken the giant within, there are more books to help us to piece back together our shattered self-esteem, and maybe start generating a little compassion towards ourselves for falling short.

For those seeking self-help advancement from a reputable source, today’s modern sales techniques can blur the distinction between the genuine and the fake. Glowing testimonials, name-dropping, YouTube self-promotions and a plethora of other subtle and not-so-subtle sales techniques combine to shift more and more courses and materials. Some people will spend a fortune on a ‘leading light’ because it ‘feels right’, but their gut feeling is likely to have been engineered by some promise to fill a gaping desire – usually, to live that ‘dreamed for’ life.

Given all this hype and branding, one thing is essential to realise: true self-help means taking 100% responsibility for yourself. It means recognising that only you are accountable for your mindset, attitudes, words and behaviours. And the only one who can heal your life is you.

Taking 100% responsibility is a lifetime of focused commitment, not just positive thinking. It requires consistent, daily, minute-by-minute observing and training of the mind, letting go of the actions and reactions of the personal self and aligning with our ‘Higher nature’, unfailingly.

Being 100% answerable to ourselves also means letting go of our victim mentality: the desire to make life ‘all about me and what I want’; the wishing that ‘this wasn’t happening’; the complaining; the avoidance of taking meaningful action; the avoiding of issues either through running from them or numbing ourselves out of them; the blaming and shaming of others for our problems; the passive aggressive reactions that we subtly do deliberately; the unwillingness to consider ‘what am I doing that has contributed to this issues?’ and ‘what can I do to move beyond it?’ This cannot be taught in a weekend workshop and it is wrong to suggest that it can. It takes practice to observe the facts of a situation free from our personal filters and preferences. It takes equanimity to be able to allow and accept what’s happening and recognise we do not have control. And it take a determination to make a conscious choice about how we are going to react from a mindful perspective, free from our emotional responses.

Of course, we all want the quick fix – to be free from pain, a difficult situation, a life challenge. And we want it now. But quick fixes don’t exist. And thinking positive is not enough, What most gurus won’t tell you is that personal evolution requires consistent dedication. People from various spiritual traditions have indeed attained such an enlightened place – but often by renouncing life and living in a place of solitude that enables them to sustain such a pledge. Most of us are not able to do that. Even a prolonged retreat will not give people the enlightenment they desire.

So, what can we do? Persistently, one step at a time, move towards that liberated place. We do it amidst our 21st century lives of busy-ness, information overload, personal and professional pressures and despite the darkness we witness in the world around us. And we accept that the journey is long-term. The peaks are hard-won and difficult to sustain. Importantly, no one can do it for us.

Can self-help really help? The answer lies in our ability to recognise that achieving and acquiring won’t bring long-term happiness. And accepting that all the positive thinking in the world will not stop bad things from happening in our lives. As adults, we have to acknowledge that life is often not as we want it to be. That our likes and preferences are not met, however brightly we think. Yes, thinking optimistically has its place. Yet, it can prove very unhelpful if we focus purely on the life of our dreams, the outcomes we desire and our goals and objectives and do not face our darkest moments head on and seek realistic solutions to life’s problems.


To be guided through life by a coach or mentor with a wealth of experience can be valuable. But all the very best self-help counsellors, training courses, books and DVDs are of scant benefit unless they convey that the answers lie within. And most ‘leading lights’ won’t tell you that because it might put them out of business.


By Sarah Alexander


Do you agree or disagree? We’d love to hear from you!

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