Why dont self-help books work?

Ok, maybe that’s a little unfair, perhaps this article should be entitled why don’t self help books lead to lasting change? Most people have read at least one self-help book in their lives and many of us have tried out exercises and diaries that they suggest. Quite a few of us might have shifted things around or felt better for a few days. So often though I have clients walking through my door telling me they have read lots of books and they feel as though they have ‘tried everything’, but nothing has quite worked.

In theory they should work - the positive intention is there, the commitment is there, after all you have sought out the book in the first place, paid good money for it and taken the time to read it and possibly spent several hours or even days doing what you think it asks you to do. So why are you back looking for a different book next month?

I’m all for self-investment and I think it is great to read about the different ways that people approach change and problem-solving. However, there-in lies the nub of it. I suspect, this is their way to do it, not necessarily yours. In my early 20’s I once spent months re-reading the same book on ‘how to mend a broken heart’. A year later I still felt the same way. Since training I am now very familiar with some of the techniques described, and have used them successfully with clients, so I know they were perfectly valid. On the surface then, that’s even more confusing, the techniques work, but the book doesn’t! I have pondered and researched and I have two fairly solid theories as to why the books might not work, even if, in black and white, it looks as though they should.

Firstly, the language style that the book is written in will not change. It will be the same if it is read by a forty year old rugby player as it will if read by an eighteen year old chef. The language we personally use to process our feelings though is quite unique to us. Not only the language but the body language, images and sounds that make up our world. A book will find it hard to accommodate so many different styles of representing our own personal worlds. These particular thoughts or words, that often get repeated in the same pattern in our minds and bodies make up the meat of a problem we might be holding on to. They become anchors and trigger off certain kinds of behaviour and thoughts. 

A really good coach will be able to quickly tap into these patterns and the language that a person uses to keep these negative patterns alive. By doing so they can assist the client in getting to the root of the issue and bringing it to the fore, where it can be rationalised, dealt with, busted away, however you like to think of it. So we might use the same technique, but it will be made entirely relevant to you and the way you perceive the issue. In my experience, this is vital for lasting success.

Secondly, although the book serves as another voice of sorts, when we are trying to solve our own problems we usually represent them in the way we have always seen them. This often results in missing out key relevant factors or simply not noticing them, when we are putting the matter on the table. We tend not to ask ourselves pertinent or tricky questions that we might have never thought of or wanted to face - sometimes for the obvious reason that we have never even imagined them! As we are in the issue, it is extremely difficult, especially when dealing with something that we have, thus far, been unable to solve, to have an outside perspective and see the whole picture. This happens even if, deep down, we know that other factors are there.

The key to solving our problem often lies locked within our subconscious. A book has to go through our conscious mind, for us to be able to read it. A skilled coach, however, should be able to work simultaneously with both the conscious and subconscious mind, bringing to the fore the issues, reasons and solutions that the client needs to find to move on. Many times a client will ask me how I know something about them or their situation. I’ll tell, them quite simply, that it is because they have told me. Sometimes though we don’t even notice the solutions that we already hold, because we were probably searching hard in the opposite direction. 

Having that sounding board, the feedback and a skilled (non-judgmental) outside eye can make the difference between years of trying and a month of realisation, relief and change. 

In short, the reason why often self help books don’t really help is, in my opinion, because it's your unique problem, that requires a unique, client-centred solution. They are great for widening our perspective and looking at different people’s solutions. My advice, if you feel you have a book that ‘should’ work but doesn’t, is take the advice or exercise and re-write it in your own words. Tailor it perfectly to you and then record it and play it back. You may even need to ‘learn’ this new version of it and play it back in your mind. This way you will have the best chance of making the solution yours and using it as a tool to solve your problem.

If you can afford it, then find a good coach that you feel can work on your wave-length. If you want them to ask them to give you some exercises or tasks for you to do at home too. This way you get the best of both worlds - just think of it as the ultimate self-help book, written perfectly for you.

Life Coach Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Rachel Coffey

Coronavirus policy: In these unusual times, I'd like to share my policy on Coronavirus
Flexibility: All clients (new and existing) are invited to switch to online coaching if they so wish, for the duration of this outbreak. You can then switch back once the Corona crisis subsides.
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Written by Rachel Coffey

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