Wednesday 3 November 2010

Help Yourself: The value, or otherwise, of self-help books.

I was recently involved in a discussion on this topic on the Dave Fanning Show (30th October, 2FM), and I thought it would be useful to share some thoughts here. I often recommend and make use of self-help books, but I am also wary and critical of them, as they aren’t all helpful, and some may even be damaging.

First of all, I am a fan both of self-help (in fact, I think therapy should ideally be a kind of facilitated self-help) and of books (as anyone who knows me will know), so “self-help books” sounds like a match made in heaven. However, I think real self-help books need to be distinguished from those that are just inspirational, and self-help books which are based on sound psychology need to be distinguished from those that probably aren’t. And, of course, even the best self-help books need to be used, and their suggestions practiced, not just read and admired (sometimes, I think, they are not even read, just bought with the proverbial good intentions and left on a shelf to be examined thoroughly “someday”).

The best self-help books are concrete and specific, challenging as well as supportive, not overly “dumbed-down”. And they don’t claim to be earth-shatteringly new; on the contrary, any plausible self-help book should claim to be in line with current best practice in the area it addresses (e.g. improving confidence, healing relationships, achieving more career-wise, reducing anxiety, or whatever).

More specifically, many of the best ones are based on some version of CBT principles. Positive Psychology and affirmations, for instance, are not enough on their own to effect real change in most circumstances. And changes in our thinking can only change our behaviours and emotions, it can’t directly change objective reality. And there are limits in life - many things are impossible. Any other view can just raise false hopes, leading to increasing disappointment rather than positive change, and often to guilt and self-recrimination for not “getting it right”.

I should finish by making some helpful suggestions…

Here are some self-help books I think are amongst the better examples of the genre, including some that go way back:

Weekes, C. (1995) Self Help for your Nerves. Reissued edition. Thorsons.

(First published in 1962).

Scott Peck, M. (2008) The Road Less Travelled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth (Classic Edition). Rider.

(First published in 1978).

Jeffers, S. (2007) Feel the Fear and do it Anyway. 20th Anniversary edition. Vermilion.

Burns, D.D. (1998) Feeling Good – The New Mood Therapy. 2nd edition. Avon Books.

Burns, D.D. (1989) The Feeling Good Handbook. New York: Plume.

Davis, M. et al (1995) The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook. 4th Revised edition. New Harbinger Publications.

Neenan, M. (2009) Developing Resilience. London: Routledge.

A couple of good Irish ones:

Tubridy, A. (2008) When Panic Attacks. Gill & Macmillan.

(Burns, incidentally, has a book with the same title).

Bates, T. (1999) Depression: The Commonsense Approach. Newleaf.

And here are some that I currently recommend to clients:

Kennerley, H. (2009) Overcoming Anxiety: A self-help guide using Cognitive Behavioural Techniques. London: Robinson.

Gilbert, P. (2009) Overcoming Depression: A self-help guide using Cognitive Behavioural Techniques. London: Robinson.

Davies, W. (2000) Overcoming Anger & Irritability: A self-help guide using Cognitive Behavioural Techniques. London: Robinson.

There are many others in the Overcoming series which may be useful depending on the issues – check them out

That’s all for now. There will be no blog next week, as I will be on holidays. In the meantime, help yourself, read a book…

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