Self-help book authors/life coaches/motivational speakers: Seriously trying to help?

Just readthis article that pretty much states that self help books are ‘worse than useless’ due to the fact that ‘positive self-statements cause negative moods in people with low self-esteem because they conflict with those people’s views of themselves.’

So naturally, it got me thinking of the people who write self-help books as well as life coaches and motivational speakers. Their audience, of course, is made up of people with problems (otherwise why would they pay?) and most probably self-esteem issues, so do you guys think that most of them are genuinely trying to help or are they just [insert your choice of adjectives here]?

Would make a poll but it seems pretty clear cut: yes/no/maybe so.

Me? I think most know that it’ll probably help themselves to much more happiness than their audience. In America it’s a multi billion industry and most of them are wilfully conning their desperate readers/followers and taking their hard-earned and probably much-needed cash. Buggers. All they do is promise trite, platitudinous one-size-fits-all solutions to pretty much everyone and they actually have the temerity to ask people to cough up? Puh-lease.

Not all self help books are about positive self-talk. A lot of them are about changing habits (financial, relationship, etc).

Actually it seems to me the positive self-talk self-help genre was a very 80s thing. Is it still quite common? I don’t know. But most of the popular self-help books I’m aware of are about changing practical things in your life (Suze Orman, Dr. Phil stuff).

I see a number of problems with the self-help industry:

  1. It’s easy for anyone to make themselves look like an expert. There is no PhD you can earn at living life.

  2. The people reading these books don’t know what is practical and what’s not. Chances are they never really faced their problems and avoid them by reading self-help books. When they read the advice in the book, it can sound neat and practical, but once they try it in the real world it turns out to be unworkable.

  3. The best part of a self-help book is the opening chapter. That’s where the author describes your problem and tells you the benefits of having it solved. That’s about as far as most people get with these books. They can only bring themselves to buy a book about their problem and read the opening chapter. Once it comes to actually doing something to solve their problem, they can’t go through with what it takes. That means an author of a self-help book can get his book sold without offering any practical advice on what the person buying the book needs the most.

As an example, the key to losing weight is ridiculously simple. You eat less and move around more. However, accomplishing that goal is difficult. Most diet books will offer long complicated theories on how to eat less food, but won’t offer advice on how to mentally accomplish that task. The result is that an overweight person will buy the book and waste time reading advice on how to eat less food because it’s easier to read than to take action.
As for the question in the OP, I think because everyone assumes they are an expert on life, they really believe that their books are helping people. But sadly most authors don’t have a degree in psychology and don’t know how to deal with the psychological road blocks that prevent most people from tackling their problems.

Dale Carnegie really wants (well, wanted) you to be successful in life, I think.

I remember seeing a Louis Theroux documentary where he goes to see a self-help guru promising ‘I will make you a millionaire’. I don’t think the documentary established that the motivational speaker was even a millionaire before he started to ask people for money for coaching them. Also, when asked whether or not any of his ‘pupils’ had ever become millionaires he became all evasive and stuff and refused to answer.

Now that’s unqualified.

Yeah, I guess Suze Orman does give practical advice, but Dr. Phil? Seriously? I couldn’t have picked a more self-righteous, asinine prick. All he does is basically say ‘get real’ over and over again. Any good friend with half a brain would and could give the same if not better advice. All he has is a catch phrase.

On another point, I reckon you’re right about the types of self-help books that are out nowadays.

Yeah, I wasn’t saying Dr. Phil gives good advice. But he definitely isn’t an “you’re so awesome! Tell yourself how awesome you are! You can do anything with the power of you!” positive self-talk cheerleader. He’s pretty much the opposite, asinine though he may be. His catchphrase “how’s that working for you?” directs people to be self-critical, wouldn’t you say?

Hello again Yep, I do agree with you on that. Now that’s got me wondering if saying self-positive statements kill moods for people with low self-esteem what will saying (basically) “you’re an idiot, do something else” affect them.

You know what? I reckon some people really do get something out of these so-called experts, but… I don’t know, they just seem so sincere that I always suspect an ulterior motive. If that makes any sense.

That study seems odd for a variety of reasons. The only affirmation used was ‘I am a lovable person’, and rating happiness was determined by how they answered a question on relationships.

Either way, the study did find that those with high self esteem got a boost from the affirmations. So claiming the study finds affirmations harmful isn’t really true, since people who actually believed it and repeated it did better than those with high self esteem who didn’t. So affirmations did have an effect, just not the desired effect in those with low self esteem.

If cognitive dissonance and maintaining the integrity of the self are the factors then a study on low self esteem people with a different affirmation may find different results. Affirmations like ‘all humans are worthy of basic levels of kindness and love despite their failings and mistakes’ might have gotten a different result since that is more in line with what a person with low self esttem would probably already think and would not be seen of as much of a threat, but which could slowly change a person’s psychological integrity.

Looking up on wikipedia, there are some studies which show self affirmations which are considered valid by the user make them less defensive when presented with unhappy news.

So what happens if people with low self esteem perform affirmations they actually believe before doing the ones they do not believe? Do the ones they believe make them less resistant to the ones they do not believe?

Also the article speculates that the individual is cementing their worldview as someone with low self esteem. Seeing how the study was done once with no follow up (as far as I can see) I don’t see how you can make that argument. All in all it is an article with an agenda that doesn’t go in depth enough to throw out an entire aspect of psychology.

As far as are they seriously trying to help? I’d say yeah most are. Either way, self affirmations are a small part of self help. I have no idea how effective self help is, but I would assume most people do it because they found something that works for them and they believe it works for others too. Whether that is the case or not though, who knows.

FWIW your OP seems to be confirmation bias of your pre-existing beliefs. Go stand in front of a mirror and say “self help is a tool selfless people use to help people help themselves” for 10 minutes and give us the results on your mood. Are you more depressed or less?

I am an avid reader of self help books myself (probably because I am quited messed up myself). The one that seems to ‘work’ are those which emphasis taking responsibility for yourself and challenging your world-view. Most of those seems to be variants of CBT, EQ and mindfulness meditation. The one that I found are sound usually mirrors the advice of my counselors.

I believe that most self-help books do contain techniques that work; just like those health magazines which feature models with stunning figures and six packs really do have tips on achieving those fabled body shapes.

However, reading is one thing, and putting it into practice is another. It’s hard going, especially for people who are already depressed or facing other problems and when every evidence says otherwise.

A self-help book is also inflexible, it can’t take the place of a real person.

Lastly, not all self-help books are about positive thinking. For example, I have a book on managing anxiety. Understanding anxiety and correct breathing methods are more useful than any sort of thinking.

Maybe I am re-affirming my own bias. I’m not depressed at all, I’m probably just too cynical and pessimistic for my own good. :frowning:

It seems as though the consensus is that self-help books do help people, regardless of the intentions of the author. I can concede that that is probably true. I personally can’t see the point but that doesn’t mean that their authors are disingenuous.

What about those motivational speakers/life coaches? From the few that I have seen, it seems to me that some of them are little better than cults. I don’t have much experience of this but for the amount of money some people put into these things it seems as though there aren’t that many concrete benefits.

Not necessarily - a significant component of their audience is probably also made up of corporate drones, who are part of the audience because a manager somewhere feels the corporate need for some kind of ‘magic bullet’.

I think they are a little like gym memberships. People who choose being a “life coach” or a “fitness expert” as their career really are motivated to help others. People willing to pay to get that help fall into two categories.

  1. Folks who need guidance and are really motivated to change. They get every dime out of their gym membership and the proper life coaching can help them be a more satisfied person. But they aren’t, for whatever reason, motivated to change without the outside accountability - i.e. self help books and aerobics DVDs aren’t going to get them there.

  2. Folks that aren’t motivated to change but try to push accountability onto someone else by paying for it. “I had a gym membership, but it didn’t really work.” “I went to Weight Watchers but the program didn’t work for me.” and “I paid for a life coach, but he just told me to do stupid things I already knew and didn’t give me anything that was going to work for ME.”

My high school sent an entire cohort for self help talks too, so most of the audience are probably ‘normal’ too.

My comment was a joke about seeing if saying something you don’t believe makes you more depressed like it did in the study. If saying “I am a loving person” when you don’t believe it makes you depressed I wondered what saying ‘self help works’ would do if you don’t believe that.

Life coaches are off putting to me because life is messed up with tons of gray areas, and I get the impression that life coaches seem to want to bypass that and offer solutions which probably won’t work in real world situations. We are monkeys designed by evolution to survive, and our behaviors and motives revolve around that agenda of survival on both the micro and macro scale. Happiness and contentment within our subjective consciousness are largely irrelevant to nature’s design, so any philosophy that puts human happiness and contentment as the pinnacle is pretty much doomed to fail IMO, we aren’t designed to function that way or for that to be a realistic goal. It is like a philosophy that tries to help microwaves learn how to play music like a radio. It is doomed to fail, microwaves aren’t desgined to play music, they are designed to cook things. And humans (IMO) aren’t designed to be happy, fulfilled and deeply secure. You need discontentment and insecurity as warning signs and punishments to avoid non-life affirming behavior. The parts of our brains that regulate emotions are far older than the newer cognitive parts.

Did everyone like that metaphor about the microwave & radio? I went to college you know. I need to stop making metaphors when I am hungry and tired.