Autonomy, self-sufficiency, independence are highly valued in our society. Not only is doing things for ourselves seen as practical, but we think we can save money and get as good a result as if we paid a professional. There’s also a sense of moral high ground about doing things for ourselves – as if people who ask or pay for help are needy, dependent or just plain lazy.
We have whole hardware stores and YouTube channels set up on the idea of DIY. It’s as if a quick video and we are ready to conquer the world. And yes, I confess that I built this website myself (along with associated headaches) using one of the popular DIY platforms – and for professional web designers it probably shows.
When it comes to wellbeing the ‘self help’ industry is worth billions of dollars each year. That’s right billions. It’s hard to find the exact data – but probably at least $10 billion in the US alone if Google can be relied on.
I have contributed to some of that revenue – I’ve lost track of how many self-help books I’ve bought over the years. Each one promising to deliver me quickly and assuredly to some form of happiness – which is the promise many people are really buying when they look to self-help for personal or professional development.
But hands-on-hearts – how many of us really go through an entire book on our own, do every exercise and feel that has resolves all our problems and created real and lasting change? I confess to being a bit of a self-help failure in this regard despite the number of books I own – and I suspect I’m not alone.
Where ‘self-help’ goes wrong
It’s true, empowerment and autonomy are very important for our mental health and wellbeing. The self-help industry of course capitalises on this and sells us the idea that autonomy is all we need. That armed with no more than a book, app or video we can change every habit, fix every flaw, become a kind of resilient and happy superhuman – all from the safety and privacy of our own living room. But it’s just not true.
It’s not true for web building – and it’s not true for personal development and behaviour change. What us self-helpers consistently forget is the need for other people and the wisdom they bring and that’s why it can’t live up to the promises it makes.
One thing to build a bit of a clunky website – I can see where it’s not doing what I wanted it to do – and eventually will call for expert help. But for personal development and change its a different story – because we simply cant see our own blindspots. No matter how well we know ourselves, there are things about our own functioning and wellbeing that we just can’t see.
Don’t get me wrong – independence is a good thing. For sure, that’s what we spend our adolescence and early adulthood learning. But independence has its limits where we reach of the edge of our understanding. It reaches its limits when we suffer in stoic silence for fear of being seen as weak for the mere act of asking for help.
The ‘right’ type of self-help
Asking for help and needing help does not mean we are helpless. But it does mean we are human.
The truth is we just don’t know what we don’t know. And we most certainly cannot see our own blind spots – in fact we are often blind to our blind spots being there. And, being human, we are prone to bias when it comes to assessing our strengths or situation.
We really need the wisdom of others to help us see what we can’t see alone. To hold a mirror up to us so we can see around hidden corners of our psyches and souls. And that’s why asking for help shows our strength and courage and wisdom.
The true task of adulthood is not in learning to be as independent as we can – but learning the art of interdependence – and acknowledging with a growing humility that we cannot do everything by ourselves without input from others.
So here’s my suggested road map for change
First think everything through to the best of your ability.
Then talk the issue out with someone else – friends, family, coach, counsellor, or psychologist. But talk it through you must.
Be smart about who you ask for help. Choose somebody who: you trust; has your best interests at heart, is unbiased and can set their own needs to the side; takes the time to listen to your perspective and understand that with respect and compassion; brings their whole self to helping you – not in a way of fixing – but in way of providing a service to you; can see the big picture and the details; can help you develop your ideas; can keep your confidentiality; will empower you to make your own decisions and truly help yourself
Only then create an action plan and make sure you know what success looks like – and how you will monitor how you are going.
Then pause. Before you get started wait a little, sleep on it a bit. And then think everything through again. Making changes takes commitment and not only changes you – but changes the world. So you want to give yourself the best chances of success.
Now you are ready to get started on carrying out what’s in your action plan and monitor how you are going and make needed changes.
So go ahead – buy self-help books, download apps or whatever … but talk it through with someone first…then you’ll know you’re on the right path to change. Where the thoughtfulness you bring can be seen in your actions. And where all the thought and talk in the world are turned from dreams into reality.