The ‘right’ kind of self help

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

So I think the thing the self-help industry consistently forgets 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.

Self-help aims to be empowering and promote autonomy – and of course promises to save money and time. After all – hiring an expert to help can be expensive and may take patience, effort and perseverance.

Unfortunately it also promotes the illusion that we can cope with everything, heal every wound and find solutions to all challenges by ourselves.

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.

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.

If you think about it, assuming we can accurately diagnose ourselves and prescribe a self-help strategy as a one size fits all treatment – is misguided. No self-help strategy is flexible enough to meet all the needs of all the people.

We let ourselves be fooled into the myth of self-sufficiency. And self-sufficiency really is a myth. I actually can’t think of a single aspect of my life that I could manage without other people. I may not know who they are – but someone drove a truck of food to the supermarket for me to buy and someone grew or made the food before that. Someone built my house and installed the plumbing. And it certainly isn’t me who tries to fix the plumbing or heating with only a YouTube to guide me.

We really do need other people in our lives. And that’s why asking for help shows our strength and courage and wisdom.

The ‘right’ type of self-help

When it comes to personal or professional development, 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.

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.

Some of the biggest errors of judgement I’ve made in my life have been when I thought I did not need to tap into the wisdom of others. When I thought I could see everything that needed seeing. Until I found out the hard way how a great big blind spot had lead me right off track from where I thought I was going.

So here’s my suggested pathway for tackling a personal or professional challenge

  • Step one – think everything through as broadly as you can to the best of your ability.
  • Step two – once you have reached your own limits – talk the issue out with someone else. You may choose an informal approach of seeking help from the family, friends, peers, colleagues and mentors you trust the most. Or you may choose to pay a professional – a coach, counsellor, or psychologist to provide more impartial and unbiased support. But talk it through you must. This helps you gain clarity over your thinking. Helps you take something broad and unstructured and develop the ideas into a logical and linear flow. Sometimes just the act of talking it out helps you see more deeply into an issue. Sometimes further discussion is required to think about angles and perspectives you hadn’t considered. You do have to be smart about who you ask for help. You want to 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
  • Step three – come up with an action plan and make sure you know what success looks like – and how you will monitor how you are going.
  • Step four – pause – sleep on it a bit before acting. 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.
  • Step five – get started on carrying out what’s in your action plan and monitor how you are going and make needed changes – in consultation.

So go ahead – buy self-help books, or enroll in online courses 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.

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