Self-Help Books: Take Them With a Grain of Salt

This is an essay by Elizabeth Simons.

I wish I had more discipline. Or more specifically, I wish I was better at directing my attention to things I want to do but avoid, anyway.

Enter self-help books, the darlings of the publishing industry and surely the answer to my dilemma. There’s a writer out there who has written a book about how to become more efficient, the reading of which will tell me why I put things off, and then offer ten easy steps to becoming more productive.

Easy enough. I set out to find just the right book. The library and book stores are filled with volumes that will not only help me break out of my lethargy but improve my relationships, teach me to parent effectively, provide me with techniques to meditate and get in touch with my inner self. There are books that will show me ways to budget and increase my wealth. There are books that will provide me with recipes for a nutritional diet that will guarantee weight loss and cure my (fill in the blank). There are books that outline an exercise program that will improve my fitness level. There are books that promise to help me overcome my shyness. There are books that explain the ins and outs of starting a successful business. I could go on, but you know the drill.

But who writes these books, and what exactly are their credentials? If you want to learn about finances, there are many writers who can give you tips on how to save money and get out of debt. They’ve been down that road and can offer practical suggestions on how to be money wise.

Let’s say you want to be more assertive. You find a book on how to stand up for yourself. It’s full of practical suggestions on how to react (or not react) in situations where you want to be heard. It’s written by a practicing psychotherapist. You take down another book on that topic from the bookstore shelf. It’s written by a life coach who sees several clients a week. Leafing through the two volumes, you notice there’s a lot of similarity between them.

Or you want to be more healthy. You can read about a specific exercise program that will increase your energy and tone your muscles, written by someone who knows about and explains exercise physiology. You can find authors that extol the virtues of a raw food or low carbohydrate or plant-based or autoimmune diet. For example, let’s say Vita cured her autoimmune disease by eating only fruits and vegetables and drinking dihydrogen monoxide. She’s delighted with the results and wants to share her success story. If you follow her regimen, you’ll be healthy and disease free, guaranteed. She has no academic credentials, but she has read several books on diet and nutrition.

So how do you know which book to buy? Which author will fit your needs?

I confess to a love/hate relationship with people who want to give me advice. I naturally recoil from anyone who wants to tell me what to eat and when, or what supplements to take, or what I should say in certain situations. Who gave them the authority to regulate my life?

I did! Talking with someone who offers advice I haven’t asked for is one thing. I can then practice what I learned from the book I bought about being assertive and tell them thank you and change the topic. Or walk away.

The important thing to remember here is that I bought that book. I bought it and read it. The advice wasn’t unsolicited. I trusted that I would learn strategies that would help my situation.

But it’s important to understand that writing and publishing a book doesn’t necessarily make a person an expert. But then, neither do academic credentials. In today’s fast-paced world we need to learn to be our own experts. We’re learning that we’re the authority figures we’ve been looking for. Self-help books are guideposts along the way. Don’t believe everything you read, but don’t discount the contents of a book because you may not agree with what it says. You have to find what works for you. You may dismiss Vita’s miraculous healing or it may have the ring of truth for you. Either way, what worked for Vita doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll work for you. A physician friend once told me that what we eat is as personal as a fingerprint. There is no one-size-fits-all diet.

The same goes for all other aspects of our lives.

But hey, this is only my opinion. Take my advice with a grain of salt, and wash it down with a tall glass of dihydrogen monoxide, otherwise known as water.

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