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Self-help books vs. therapy (or, Do self-help books really work?)

Updated: Sep 5, 2020


I can read a Do-It-Yourself book (or these days, watch a video on Youtube) on how to repair an electrical problem or add a new line. These videos are often created by experienced tradesmen who know exactly what they’re talking about and have been doing it for years. They correctly tell you how to fix the thing. You may not have all the tools you need, so you go out to the hardware store to pick up what you might be missing. In the video, they tell you it’s a 15-minute job. Well, in the best-case scenario, you might finish it in 20 minutes. More likely, it might take 30 minutes, or even an hour. Something might go wrong. You may realize halfway through that you’ve got a bigger problem that you didn’t realize when you started the task, and now you have to call the electrician anyway. You may even have found that you’ve made the problem worse! It’s not to say that you can’t fix the problem-- I have done things this way and successfully finished the task. But, I will admit, even when I have fixed the thing that needed fixing, if someone else came along later and looked at my handywork, they might be less than impressed at the quality of the job. Yeah, it was good enough to get it done, but it might be a little messy, or might be a little more likely to need repair in the future. But, you saved a call to the electrician and $200.


Are you an electrician now though? Not exactly. You’ve fixed one problem, yes. If a new problem comes up in the future, you might have to look up that one too. Will you be able to fix it on your own? Will you have the tools you need? Do you know the correct safety precautions? Maybe, maybe not. You might not want to break through that wall or reconfigure the main circuit breaker. You might even (perish the thought) electrocute yourself if you don’t know what you’re doing. Some jobs are just better done by a professional with the right tools and experience.

So it is with self-help books. As with Do-It-Yourself books and videos, they are often written by real experts. Yeah, there are some hucksters out there; but if the person has been doing research or been in practice for many years and has the proper credentials, you can probably trust that what they’re saying is based on evidence or clinical experience. Many self-help books are in fact written by therapists. I have great respect for a therapist or behavioral scientist who can articulate the problem and the solution clearly to the non-expert. They have no doubt actually helped dozens if not hundreds of people with the advice they are now writing in the book that you’ve picked up. But what starts out looking like a simple problem may in fact be more complicated than you realized (often, problems in therapy are more complicated than electrical problems!) You may feel like you’ve learned something new, and then you try out your new perspective or skills, and it falls flat. You haven’t fixed the problem. If it’s marriage problems, you may even have made things worse. Sometimes our problems have developed over many years, and it takes quite a while, with the help of someone else, to disentangle the threads and straighten them out (in a way that’s frankly really hard to do alone with your thoughts in your head!), and see the path forward.

To be clear, I think there are many good self-help books out there. In fact, there are too many for me to name here. They are worth your time. (Better yet, see if they are at the library and you can save some money too!) But they are like one video on how to fix a specific electrical problem. In comparison, the professional therapist has many more tools in their toolbox, and they are experienced at using them. Not only that, they know other therapists who are also very good at what they do, and they can consult them to find you the best possible approach to whatever your problems or concerns are. They can help you when things don’t go as expected. They are an experienced teammate who is understanding of your concerns, encouraging, and who keeps you accountable to induce maximum change.

Sometimes it helps to reframe problems in order to move forward in a way that you’re happy with, like whether to start seeing a therapist. For example, taking a new perspective can in certain situations make things that once seemed big now seem small. So here is the pitch. If you look at your life, you have many years ahead of you. Your happiness and your rewarding personal relationships are at stake, or you wouldn’t be considering a therapist. Think of the ways that you could spend time and money. Paying for therapy, whether it is a few sessions or a few dozen sessions, is truly a small expense compared to the likely decades of life you still have to live. What you can gain is a life where you are more optimistic, you laugh more, you feel happy, you feel less stressed each day, and you are closer to others. The return on your investment is arguably more meaningful to your life satisfaction than anything else you could do.

I think reading books about how to improve your life is an important component in anyone’s life, whether you are seeing a therapist or not. If I didn’t think therapists were able to facilitate change in a way that went beyond what you could do from reading a book, I wouldn’t be in this job. In fact, I’d think those authors of the self-help books would agree, or they wouldn’t be therapists either! I’d invite you to see what therapists have to offer.


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