Jean Fain is a Harvard Medical School-affiliated psychotherapist and the author of “The Self-Compassion Diet.” So why is the author of a self-help book criticizing self-help books? Read on…
By Jean Fain
At first, I couldn’t understand why this new psychotherapy client had settled on my couch. Sure, Kaye (not her real name) was unhappy with her weight, and yet, she enjoyed an enviably healthy diet. With the aid of self-help books, she had not only taught herself to cook delicious, nutritious dishes, she’d also learned to meditate and eat mindfully. This unusually self-motivated working mother of two not only read each book from cover to cover, she practiced what the most helpful authors preached.
As time went on, I came to understand that as much as self-help books helped Kaye eat more healthfully, they were effectively hindering her happiness. You see, she used self-help books the same way she used food – to stuff her feelings. For good reason. Binge eating and reading brought her enormous comfort, which she desperately needed to deal with a high-stress job and a low-achieving child. Only problem: as Kaye’s self-help library expanded, so did her waistline.
As we delved into the problem of turning to the dinner plate and the printed page for comfort, the solution became abundantly clear. If she was serious about finding true happiness, she’d have to stop buying self-help books and start asking for a little help from her friends and family.
Yes, I’m a self-help author myself, but since writing “The Self-Compassion Diet,” I’ve learned the limitations of the genre. Self-help outsells every other category because it gives people what they desperately need: hope. Which, on a good day, is enough to jumpstart change. But it’s rarely enough to sustain it. (Mostly, it sustains the publishing industry to the tune of $549 million per year, according to the market research firm Marketdata Enterprises.) So if you’ve been blaming yourself for failing to stick to the latest plan, you can stop. It’s not you, it’s the genre.
Which isn’t to say self-help books have no benefit. In fact, self-help has become the world’s best-selling genre because most readers start reaping the benefits even before they crack the books. Of the many benefits, consider the top three:
Quick: The simple act of buying self-help books makes people feel better. Whatever you’re struggling with – losing weight, gaining employment, finding true love, getting a divorce, aging gracefully, dying with dignity – just knowing that simple answers to life’s complex problems are within reach gives book buyers an immediate sense of relief.
Cheap: Time- and money-wise, self-help costs a fraction of the cost of individual counseling. Virtually nothing, if you have access to free downloads or a public library. Continue reading