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When Self-Help Doesn’t Help: Doing What’s Best for You

Man Reading

“Your inner knowing is your only true compass.” ~Joy Page

Are you someone who devours self-help books, blogs, and articles?

Do you take pleasure in checking out the latest advice from this “expert” or that “guru”?

Are you someone who puts into play the advice proposed but are still left feeling somewhat unfulfilled afterward?

The Trouble with Self-Help

The trouble with self-help advice is that sometimes it leads us down the path of us not helping ourselves at all. Sometimes we get so caught up in someone else’s vision that we lose sight of our own.

Truth be told, what I consider to be a great life may leave you wanting for more (or perhaps less). What you consider to be extremely ethical I may consider less so. And that’s as it should be.

Our value system, beliefs, ideas, and ideals should be our own—informed by the outside, without a doubt, but we need to process and own them for ourselves.

Part of the problem with self-help type advice is that we can start to lose sight of what we really see as success or a successful outcome. We get so caught up in what we’re reading that we can start viewing it as the Holy Grail.

If I lose weight, then I should feel like this.

If I simplify my life, then I should be immediately happier.

If I run a marathon, I should feel the greatest sense of achievement I ever have.

Sometimes these areas do live up to expectation and leave us with a deep sense of accomplishment. However, sometimes they don’t and can lead us all the way back to square one, or actually make us feel worse than we did originally.

Falling into the Trap

I personally have fallen into the trap of overdosing on self-help and self-development books, blogs, and writers over the years—reading book after book but then not implementing the changes suggested, or implementing them but feeling underwhelmed by how I felt afterward. This often led me in circles.

I take my self-development seriously and I love to read about simplicity and lifestyle redesign, in particular. In fact, left unchecked, I could quite happily bury myself in books and blogs that fall under these categories all day.

However, in my quest for perfection, I have taken paths that were anything but perfect for me.

One example would be trying to be more minimalist than I am happy being. Reading about others living as minimalists, giving away most of what they own, or living with only fifty items, I had envisioned myself leading a similar life.

That vision helped me to a certain point on my own version of simpler living, but then I tried contorting myself a little bit too much.

I liked some of the stuff, even it was just stuff. I like the convenience of a car. I love going away on exotic travels as often as I can afford. I realized a little minimalist suited me, but not too much. Sounds contradictory, perhaps, but hey, that’s me!

Another example would be working on being more mindful. I read the work of people who sound like they live in a permanent state of calm. I liked this as an ideal.

I consider myself a pretty calm and patient person most of the time and see those as personal strengths, but I also have my limits, and I'm not above losing my cool at times.

Rather than accepting this as part of me, I tried to “fix” it. It didn’t work.

We’re human, not robots, and sometimes we lose our cool. I’m perfectly fine with that now but wasn’t for a time, as I saw it as a weakness. My expectations were unrealistic, and the advice, as well meaning as it might have been, didn’t completely fit me.

Although these experiences left me a little dejected at the time, they led me to a better place overall. I came to realize that I am the best master of my own destiny with regard to my goals. I learn and take from external sources, of course, but I own the goals.

I make the output suit me and know that no one person has all the answers. The result is a happier me, and something that I can implement into my own life, making any changes I make more likely to remain lifestyle changes rather than a five-minute fix that then gets discarded.

Through the above process I started to realize the problem wasn’t the books or authors themselves, but me and my own expectations. Sometimes I was guilty of falling into the author’s view of what a good outcome would be rather than being focused on my own needs and wants. I worked on that.

These days, I can still regularly be found leafing through books that fall neatly into the self-development area. And my bookshelves are full of such books. I still love the genre and indeed write in that genre myself.

However, now I am very clear about what it is I want to get from each read. I’m more selective about who and what I read. I’m clearer on the version of my life I’m trying to get to. If someone else’s experience can help me get there quicker, all the better.

What Does Success Look Like for You?

To answer this question, we first need to know:

  • What it is and who it is we value most
  • Who it is we want to be in life
  • What kind of life we want for ourselves
  • How we want to feel when we see ourselves staring back in a mirror

Only we can truly know what that version of ourselves and our lives looks like.

Self-help should help. Make it your own and it just might do that.

Make sure you’re building and supporting your own unique vision of what a great life is and are doing your best to make that your reality. Use what helps along the way, but don’t get caught up in comparisons or in someone else’s vision of what your life should look like.

Set your own compass and live a life very much in line with your own terms.

Man reading image via Shutterstock

About Carl Phillips

Carl writes short books full of big ideas. He is also the proud owner of Frictionless Living which is focused on helping readers find and live their own version of a simpler, good, life.

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  • Peace Within

    Thank you for writing this. I agree with you. What may be good for one person, may not be for another.

  • Nikola Janevski

    Thank you! This is the best article I’ve read so far and o can identify with it a lot.

  • Manuella L Lodewijks

    I read everything and let it settle.
    The words that stay in my mind, are the ones I can work with.
    See what happens, try out the advice. If it doesn’t work for me,
    I’ll try something else. I learn by trial and error.

  • I like the message you’re sending about setting one’s own compass. Self-help practices or advice have their place and are directly correlated to how we utilize the material that is laid out before us. It is best for each person seeking self-help to absorb the information and adapt it to what will work for the type of life he or she wants. In other words, we self-help can work for us if we use it to our advantage rather than following it word-for-word or as an instruction guide. You’ve presented some good ideas to consider and I agree with your point that “Sometimes we get so caught up in someone else’s vision that we lose sign of our own.”

    I tend to think that the key is to figure out what we want first and then find ways to get there, whether that is achieved with or without the outside “help” from third-party experts. Just the task of figuring out what we want is sometimes a huge feat in and of itself. A lot of people may be reluctant to admit it but…many seek the self-help route because it seems like a much easier solution, at least on the surface. It’s like having a life manual for the changes we want to make or the people we want to be. The intention may be good but we eventually get wrapped up in the way someone else thinks or says we should be or live, as you’ve pointed out. Thanks for writing an article that many people can relate to.

  • Reflection

    Loved this read thanks! Gotta tune in to our own inner guidance, after all we have all the wisdom we need inside, sometimes we just need outside help to see it 🙂

  • This came at the right time when I just realize I’m falling into that trap. Thank you for writing this article! At some stages we start mindlessly shopping for self-help, which stops working because intention is lost. Guess I need to slow down!

  • Kaley Laine

    So says the self help article….

  • Glad you enjoyed the post and I couldn’t agree more!

  • Thanks Nikola – high praise indeed! 😉 Glad you enjoyed it.

  • Sounds like you have it figured out Manuella! Life is an adventure so a little trial and error can be part of the fun.

  • Thanks for the message Nicole and pleased you enjoyed the post.

    Your point about “I tend to think that the key is to figure out what we want first and then find ways to get there” is an important one and one that is easy to lose sight of.

    Self-help (books, blogs, advice etc) are tools that can help us but are not necessarily the complete answer in themselves.

  • Glad you enjoyed the post.

    Great point!

    Our inner compass needs listening to and sometimes external advice can help us do that. That’s a great thing.

    To quote Bruce Lee, with external advice we need to:

    “Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own”

  • Hi Melissa,

    Glad you enjoyed the article!

    We can all fall into this trap and it is very easy to do hence me writing this post. At some point we do need to commit to a route and try things out. Reading and researching is fine and often great fun but not if it keeps us in the blocks too long and/or confuses us.

    Recognising you may be falling into this trap is important as it means you can start to deal with that. I hope some of what is in the post can aid that.

  • Hi Kaley,

    Yes, the irony wasn’t lost on me but I thought it was an important message to share as sometimes we think we’re the only ones struggling when in fact we’re not.

  • Kaley Laine

    I don’t doubt that you probably understood the irony and it certainly is important to understand the concept you have shared.

  • Carl, thanks for the insight. The problem with self-help advice is that it can be a bit one sized fits all. What we need to do with the advice is apply it apporpriately. You’ve highlighted values which are a crtical. I think our personalities are also important – for example introverts will want a differnet outcome and approach to extroverts. Lastly, we’re all at differnet places in out lives with differnet resources and goals.

    It all means care and thought and being realistic – there are no quick fix magic bullets.

  • Hi Peter,

    Thanks for the kind words.

    I agree. We have to find our own way to some degree (with help along the way where we can get it). Quick fixes are not always sustainable or suitable to support longer term change.

  • Thank you so much for what you do. It is so wonderful to hear more and more about being a fully integrated human being from you. Being able to have a source to go to for effective, well balanced help has been incredible. I thought I would return the favor – truly.

    Self-help makes you feel worse. Yes, it is supposed too. In a good way. That pain helps us to change. Especially since nobody wants to change. Yeah. Let’s be honest here. If given the choice of whether to change and remain constant – even Newton’s Law says – people will remain in their current state.

    What you focus on expands. If you only focus on what you feel without helping yourself through it then the depression only just gets worse. Focus on feeling your feelings to do something about it instead. Then you get through it.

    If you want to change your feelings, you have to feel your feelings.

    Here is a short process that took forever to figure out.

    The example to start with is that forgiveness cures anger. If someone is angry and they forgive them then their anger dissolves away. It is not repressed or denied. It is simply gone. It takes emotion to resolve emotion. This is the basis of gutap. And the best anger management there is around.

    When someone is angry they naturally direct their feeling of forgiveness into their feeling of anger. The two emotions once connect are resolved. False beliefs often have a couple of emotions that have to work together. This makes the work complicated but not impossible.

    Gutap – The three steps described:

    1 – Feel the feeling of your limiting belief. If you want to change your feelings you have to feel them. (Everyone already knows this step.)

    2 – Insight: Find what the positive answer is that it actually wants you to know. What does your limited belief want you to know that is positive? What is the good thing it wants for you but trying in a negative way? (A slight shift on the insight people are seeking.)

    3 – Connect the feeling of what it wants you to know and let the feeling of that answer flow into the feeling of your limiting belief to change it. The positive feelings change your limiting beliefs – not you.

    That is the simplest way to describe how deep, inner change works.

    Is it even possible to change?

    Everyone who does this has achieved incredible healing and growth.

    The example I like to start with is that forgiveness cures anger. If someone is angry and they forgive them then their anger dissolves away. It is not repressed or denied. It is simply gone. It takes emotion to resolve emotion. This is the basis of gutap.

    False beliefs or negative programming simply has a couple of powerful negative emotions that keep the false concept controlling us. Dissolve them and the false belief is completely diminished.

    So how does it work?

    When someone is angry they naturally direct their feeling of forgiveness into their feeling of anger. The two emotions must connect to be resolved. False beliefs though often have a couple of emotions that have to work together. Complicated but not impossible.

    Gutap – The three steps described:
    1 – Feel the feeling of your limiting belief. If you want to change your feelings you have to feel them. (Everyone already knows this step.)
    2 – Insight: Find what the positive answer is that it actually wants you to know. What does your limited belief want you to know that is positive? What is the good thing it wants for you but trying in a negative way? (A slight shift on the insight people are seeking.)
    3 – Connect the feeling of what it wants you to know and let the feeling of that answer flow into the feeling of your limiting belief to change it. The positive feelings changes it – not you.

    That is as simply as I can put it.