8 Ways Self-Help Can Hurt You

by Melissa Karnaze

not listeningSelf-help is all about persuading yourself.

To make positive changes in your behavior.

Presumably to make your life better.

It sounds easy and straightforward. And it’s usually well-intentioned.

But self-help can actually harm you. Backfire. Dig you deeper into failure. Solidify denial.

Self-help can hurt you when:

1. You’re wrong about where you need to go

Self-help means choosing a course of action (e.g. a particular reading list) based on where you want to end up. Where you end up is supposed to be a better place. A good place. A healthy place. A happy place.

But you could be dead wrong about what that place needs to be. Maybe you think your dream home is on the island of Oahu — but after living there for six months you end up getting island fever. Maybe you think your dream job is with a nonprofit — but after working at one for six months you realize you need to start your own.

You could also be focusing on getting to “that place” as a means of avoiding a current challenge. Maybe you think you’re wired for a polyamorous relationship, but that’s just an excuse for avoiding intimacy with your partner. Maybe you’re practicing mindfulness meditation to feel inner calm, but in a way to subtly avoid your negative emotions — that when worked with actually help you to create inner calm.

The problem: If you don’t get clear on what you want to do with your life and why — you can end up going a path that’s dangerous to your health and well-being. Because it either takes you to a place that’s actually not in your best interests, or it distracts you from finding solutions to your actual problems.

The solution: Create your life as a mindful construct. Remain true to your emotions — they alert you the problems in your life.

2. You’re right about where you need to go, but wrong about how to get there

So let’s say you do know where you need to go. Well, just knowing where you need to go doesn’t get you there. You could be dead wrong about how to get there.

Maybe “where” you want to go is a state of mind where you’re happy with your life. If you stuff your anger for the sake of fake smiles, it’s going to backfire.

Or maybe “where” you want to be is feeling good about your physical health. If you diet and compulsively exercise for the sake of pleasing a scale, it’s only going to backfire.

The problem: If you don’t get clear on defining what success means to you, you can end up following advice that contradicts success, and leads to failure.

The solution: Get really clear on your goals. Spell out what they mean. And make sure they’re founded upon genuine self-love. You can’t succeed if you’re your own enemy.

3. Your mind is already made up

Self-help is all about self-persuasion, and persuasion sure is:

“Ultimately, nobody can get more out of things, including books, than he already knows. For what one lacks access to from experience one will have no ear.”
–Nietzsche

If your mind is made up that anger is the evil stepchild of emotions, you won’t go near the self-help materials that teach you how to work constructively with your anger, let alone express it.

Obviously, there are definite things you need to make up your mind on. Otherwise, you’d have no identity.

But for the major decisions regarding personal development, it’s important to keep an open mind. Especially in regards to what can be of value to your on your self-help journey.

And especially when it comes to turning something bad into something good. Or seeing the potential bad in something good. Like in transmuting something negative (like anger) into something positive (like genuine gratitude). Or spotting out the pitfalls of being empathetic.

The problem: If you’ve already labeled everything as inherently good or bad, you won’t be able to grow from pain or find light in the dark.

The solution: Have an open mind, while keeping your discernment. Don’t assume you have this self-help thing all figured out. You’ve admitted you need help. You’re seeking resources to make your life better. Be ready to learn.

4. You tune out what you don’t want to hear

There’s a lot of good advice out there. But just because it’s out there, doesn’t mean that you’ll hear it. (Or that you’ll take it.)

Mindful Construct is about creating your life as a mindful construct. Which means using your emotions as powerful tools for self growth and personal development. But even with all the articles here, not to mention the comment discussions that follow, and the free e-class — some people still don’t get it. They still judge emotions as the enemies.

They don’t want to take response ability.

Because it’s too scary — for whatever reason. Because they don’t want to.

The problem: You tune out what you don’t want to hear. You make up reasons not to believe it. You argue against it. You ignore it. You come up with stories for why it’s not true. When you tune out what can actually help you — what you absolutely need to hear — you’re in trouble.

The solution: Be mindful of what you tune out and why. Don’t just do it — watch yourself doing it. Don’t just argue against what you disagree with — be confident enough in your beliefs to really own them without being compulsed to defend them. Have an intimate relationship with your belief systems, so that they’re not dysfunctional and so that you don’t tune out what can actually help you.

5. You’re taking bad advice

There’s a lot of bad advice out there. You’ll attract it like a magnet if you’re searching for false safety rather than real growth.

The self-help industry is full of people, books, and systems that dish out bad advice. About getting rid of problems rather than actually solving them. About quick-fixing your moods rather than changing them from the inside out. Or about glossing over the small stuff instead of being aware of what’s going on in your life.

If you’re looking for things which don’t last — “Eternal Joy,” “No-Conflict,” “The Perfect Relationship” — you’ll lap up that bad advice without even thinking.

The problem: If you don’t have enough discernment to sort out the false promises from the worthy goals, you’ll take advice that gets you nowhere fast.

The solution: Forget about the buzzwords. Forget about the stuff that sounds good. The point is not to feel good all the time. Look for the insight that’s realistic. That talks about working diligently and consistently at concrete, long-term goals.

6. You conveniently avoid working on your “deeper issues”

While self-help is often well-intentioned, it’s usually superficial-level stuff. Like losing weight or keeping your house pretty or making a good impression on everyone you meet.

Self-help will hurt you when you focus on superficial gains at the expense of working on your “deeper issues.” Issues like having tolerated an abusive boss for ten years, compulsively arguing with those your spouse before bed every night, or suffering from dysfunctional religious programming.

Those deeper issues are scary. And painful, and dark. But they’re your issues. You have to take charge or they’ll run your life. You are the only one to work on them constructively.

The problem: Self-help can serve as a convenient distraction from working on your deeper issues — the real barriers to getting what you want out of life. Self-help is commercially situated to dabble on the happy, feel-good, no-hard-work-or-sweat-or-tears-required stuff. This puts you at odds with actually doing anything meaningful with your life.

The solution: Recognize that self-help is only good to you if it arms you to work at those deeper issues. And pay attention to your emotions — they’re the links back to those deeper issues.

7. You mistake short-term for long-term change

One reason why self-help is a multi-billion dollar industry is that it sells quick-fixes. How to lose ten pounds in only one week. How to transform your life in an eight-week program. Or how to make twenty friends in less than a month.

If you’re looking for short-term success, you won’t understand the merits of the long-term kind. Short-term success is about feeling good — or at least slightly better about yourself — right now. It has nothing to do with going through the hard work and tough times that come with really getting physically healthy. Or transforming your life for good. Or making true friends, and letting go of everyone else.

Self-help in the short-term isn’t a fix. It’s a quick-fix. And it won’t last.

The problem: Most of self-help is built around the quick-fix, feel-good-now mentality. It avoids hard work like the plague, and most certainly avoids working with your negative emotions. If you consume this type of self-help, you’re bound to suffocate on pink teddy bears and glitter, instead of actually get your life on track.

The solution: Realize that long-term change requires commitment and sacrifice. And that sometimes it means failing first to succeed — for real — later.

8. You believe positive change should always feel good

Self-help is supposed to be about change. Changing your bad life into a good one.

But most of self-help ends up being about feeling good. This makes no sense whatsoever. Considering that change rarely comes about until something is so painful you can’t go on the same way anymore.

You learn from mistakes — from pain. You have to feel the pain — feel uncomfortable — before you can create positive, lasting, life-long change for the better.

You have to feel the pain
.

Not try to get rid of it — but feel it. And learn from it, work with it.

The problem: If you’re following what the majority of self-help prescribes — feeling good right now — you’re going to feel bad later. Because all your problems will remain and nothing of significance will change.

The solution: Get comfortable feeling your pain. Allow yourself to feel it. Give it permission to exists. Then start looking at why it’s here, and what you can do about it.

Practice safe self-help

Avoid these eight dangers of self-help by staying true to your emotions, being willing to learn, and getting clear on your long-term goals.

Self-help can help you blossom if you can detect the bullshit from the helpful. And when you’re doing it all alone, that’s a lot of hard work. But it’s well, well worth it in the end. I know because I’ve been there.

How do you practice safe self-help?

Are there any other ways you’ve experienced that self-help can actually hurt you?

What about other ways to practice safe self-help?

Do tell! Let us know in the comments below!

Looking to take your self-help program to the next level? Consider the free e-class, Your Life is Your Construct. Through ten powerful lessons sent straight to your inbox, you learn how to get clearer on your life goals, view your emotions as powerful tools for growth, and commit to self-love and long-term success. Learn more about the class and sign up here.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Haider June 19, 2010 at 9:58 am

… And the 9 way self-help can hurt you is:

“Thinking self-help is the destination, when it’s really the sign-post.”

Self-help offers guidelines on how we can improve our lives, but we shouldn’t turn that into an obsession, where we’re only concerned with getting through more books, audio programs and seminars, and forgetting to apply what we learn in our lives. After all, it’s much easier to read a book about relationships than to face your partner and deal with a sensitive topic.

OK, I have to be off and tend to an injured neck after nodding so much in agreement. :)

Krishna June 20, 2010 at 12:42 am

Hi Melissa,

This post is spot on.

There are so many ways “simplistic” self-help methods can hurt you. Forcing yourself or artificially psyching yourself up can cause irreparable harm and cut yourself off from the greater wisdom in your body and mind. Thats too great a loss…

Coincidentally, just a couple of weeks ago, I attended a class given by a yoga master (DR N.C.) visiting Melbourne from India – he has started up a movement called “Yoga Therapy” that looks at modifying classical yogic postures to suit the peculiarities of our individual health and physique. In most yogic texts, we are supposed to confirm to the classical pose, Dr NC’s approach respects the greater wisdom of the body and modifies the postures accordingly. It was very interesting how effective this approach was…

I am on the lookout for a method that leads to positive change, while at the same time respecting the wisdom of my mind and body. Tall order, but I am sure there is something out there or maybe within :-), that leads there…

Cheers,
Krishna

Aileen June 21, 2010 at 10:46 am

You have an interesting argument. It is common for people to become attracted to personal development from a place inside themselves that feels broken and wants a new and better reality.

It can be quite a process before we reach a place of self honesty and real awareness. Some may turn to mediation as an escape before they find it to be a place of personal awareness. Sometimes we land on lily pads to keep us from drowning, but it might be the only way to cross over.

Melissa Karnaze June 21, 2010 at 11:46 am

“After all, it’s much easier to read a book about relationships than to face your partner and deal with a sensitive topic.”

Definitely, Haider. A lot of self-help books are written in a way that encourages everything to be “okay” rather than taking real risks in your relationships to be true to yourself and work through sensitive issues. Reading the book is the easy part!

“There are so many ways ‘simplistic’ self-help methods can hurt you. Forcing yourself or artificially psyching yourself up can cause irreparable harm and cut yourself off from the greater wisdom in your body and mind.”

Krishna, exactly. There’s a good amount of “fitting yourself to the happy mold” that goes on. Great parallel with Dr. N.C.’s approach!

“I am on the lookout for a method that leads to positive change, while at the same time respecting the wisdom of my mind and body. Tall order, but I am sure there is something out there or maybe within :-), that leads there…”

I think what it mostly comes down to is learning about all that’s out there, noticing patterns, using discernment, and hand-picking the advice that works for you. It’s hard work because “respecting the wisdom of your mind and body” is so personal. Who knows though, maybe there will be more systems that help with the process in the future? :)

“It is common for people to become attracted to personal development from a place inside themselves that feels broken and wants a new and better reality.”

Yes Aileen, I would say this is very common. The danger is that when people are in a vulnerable state, they can take on “advice” that actually leads to long-term negative consequences, rather than arming them with the tools to create their own new and better reality.

“It can be quite a process before we reach a place of self honesty and real awareness. “

Indeed, which is why it’s really important not to use self-help in a self-harmful way, because that will only delay the process of becoming more self honest and aware.

Some may turn to mediation as an escape before they find it to be a place of personal awareness.”

For some people this can transition, or they don’t buy the escapism to begin with. But it’s a great potential for meditation to continually reinforce the avoidance of negative or unpleasant emotions, which only hampers personal awareness. And that’s how meditation is largely pitched by the mainstream self-help movement.

Audrey June 23, 2010 at 11:32 am

These are really great points. I agree self help is not a feeling, but an active choice for real change. Surrounding yourself with like-minded people who are moving in a positive direction is also key. I recently finished a really great book, which focuses on taking the initiative and being proactive called, “Streetwise Spirituality.” You should check this one out!

Chris Edgar June 23, 2010 at 12:16 pm

Hi Melissa — thanks for this piece. Because it seems to me that you are focusing on the danger of repressing anger, sadness, and so on, my sense is that you are targeting Norman Vincent Peale-style positive thinking. I think this is certainly a strand of the self-help genre, and I think it’s also important to recognize that there are self-help books/workshops that focus on letting go of the tendency to label certain emotions as bad or unhelpful.

Melissa Karnaze June 23, 2010 at 3:35 pm

Audrey, developing a supportive social network is excellent self-help!

Chris, actually, I’m focusing on general trends in the field that I’ve found from personal observation and experience, and noting what many key players in the mainstream promote.

“I think it’s also important to recognize that there are self-help books/workshops that focus on letting go of the tendency to label certain emotions as bad or unhelpful.”

Certainly, and I consider this site to be of this vein.

Leave a Comment

By clicking "Submit" you understand that your submission may be edited or rejected at my discretion, and/or used in upcoming articles or publications. Unconstructive criticism, personal attacks, and requests for personal advice likely will not be published. Please refer to my Disclaimer if you have any questions.

{ 3 trackbacks }