Life is a relentless challenge. No matter how entrenched in routine our lives may be, unexpected challenges which push us to our limits somehow manage to elbow their way into our days. It makes sense to aspire to improve ourselves so that we can meet these challenges powerfully, raising our chances of success. But what if our efforts at helping ourselves improve fall flat? What if we’re incapable of raising ourselves out of a ditch of ineffective powerlessness? This article will discuss why self-help doesn’t work.
To make a long story short, self-help does work, but we must believe in our ability to make it work. We must have a “self-image” that believes we are worthy of improving. Only then will we make the consisten effort required to improve oursleves.
This article will make this clear.
What Is Self-Help?
Self-help is the process by which a person raises their power. So what is power? In another article I relied on the following quote by mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russel to define power:
“Power is the ability to produce intended results”
I love that definition of power. It ties power to intention. Our intention is our will. So a powerful person is one who can manifest their will. The more powerful a person is, the greater the manifestation of their will.
Self-help is how we can raise our personal power.
Today, many people react with skepticism when the topic of self-help comes up in a conversation. I use to include myself in that category. It seems like the concept of self-help has become polluted with the image of charlatans peddling fake solutions to people’s problems. It can seem like people who desire to help-themselves and are willing to pay people to teach them how to do so are schmucks who are wasting their money.
Yet, who else is going to help us, if not ourselves? The best help we can get is self-help! In my view, it’s a shame that self-help has gotten such a bad rap, because it can discourage people who have the genuine desire to lead better lives from even beginning the process of self-exploration.
Self-Help Is A Nobel Endeavour
Wanting to help ourselves is the pinnacle of maturity. A person who embarks on a quest of helping himself/herself has to have the honesty to admit that he/she wants better in life. Such a person has observed their life circumstances and decided that he/she is capable of better.
It takes courage to undertake such a process.
To admit that our life circumstances are improvable can be scary. It means admitting that we don’t know things, we must accept that we’re ignorant so we may be open to learning more; about ourselves and the choices we make.
According to this article by Jessica Lamb Shapiro, self-help has been around for thousands of years, since the time of the ancient Egyptians. Their version of self-help was called “Sebayt”, it was instructional literature on life.
The ancient Greeks also had meditations and aphorisms on how to live a good life.
Fast forward to today where the self-help industry is a billion dollar affair. Love it or hate it, the self-help industry is alive and well.
How I Started Helping Myself
It was 2017 when I suddenly realized I had made choices which had led me into my own personal ditch. I hadn’t known what I was doing while making those choices, but the fact of the matter is I made them and had to confront the consequences of having done so.
Reading literature on self-help, ranging from emotional intelligence to the power our habits have over our life circumstances, allowed me to begin to make choices which increased my power.
It was in 2017 when I started realizing that there was a ton of useful, actionable information that I had never been exposed to in my life. Like how to manage our emotions in positive, constructive ways. Or how to arrange our environments to increase our chances of following through with exercise routines or nutritional goals.
I realized that there was actually science and logic behind self-help. It wasn’t all woolly, hand-wavy, pie-in-the-sky nonsense. There was empowering knowledge to be gained from reading self-help literature.
My curiosity was peaked! I read these books thinking, “Wow! If I read this book and apply its teachings consistently I’ll be able to live more effectively. I’ll increase my power.”
And you know what? It worked!
I can honestly say my life circumstances have improved since I started reading self-help books and applying their knowledge. I’m talking about books like “Think and Grow Rich”, “Atomic Habits”, “Psycho-Cybernetics”, “The 5AM Club”, “Rich Dad Poor Dad” and “Becoming Supernatural.” Not a day goes by when I don’t apply something I learned in those books.
And applying the knowledge has made me more powerful.
Why (Most) Self-Help Doesn’t Work
Like with everything in life, the self-help industry has its light side and its dark side. Just like there are self-help authors who write from a place of knowledge and experience, who seek to serve, there are authors who are just in it for the money and have no interest in helping others.
So it’s up to us to focus on the light and do our best to learn from the dark. That’s what I do, at least.
That being said, I believe there are at least three reasons for why most self-help doesn’t work for most people. They all stem from “user error”:
- People don’t know how to apply what they read.
- People quit too soon.
- People try to change from the outside in, rather than the inside out.
Here, I expand on each of these reasons.
1. People Don’t Know How To Apply What They Read
When I was studying chemistry and physics in college I noticed something. I learned more from reading the textbook than I did from lectures. I went to all of my class lectures; my family was paying good money for me to attend university in the United States, so I would have been crazy to skip classes.
But as I went through college, I realized that most of the applicable knowledge I gained came from reading the textbook and solving the problems they contained. I learned that it was my own reading which formed the basis of my knowledge, the lectures were bonuses; opportunities to meet other students, ask the professor questions and see what topics would be covered in the exams.
But lectures weren’t where I learned the most. I learned the most by reading deeply and patiently.
Another thing I noticed was that even though students claimed to have read the textbook and that they understood the material, when the time came for them to show what they knew in an exam they were unable to do so.
They believed they knew enough to apply the knowledge in an exam, but when the time came to do so it turned out that they actually didn’t fully understand the material, so they couldn’t apply it. I saw this happen over and over and over again. These students wanted to get good grades, but when faced with the reality that their study methods were ineffective at achieving the results they wanted, they just kept on doing the same thing, hoping for different results.
They then blamed the professor, the exam, the textbook; everything else but themselves.
I believe that’s what happens to people who believe self-help doesn’t work. They don’t fully understand the knowledge and then fail in its application.
A Cursory Read Is Not Enough
It could be that people who believe self-help doesn’t work aren’t reading the material deeply enough. Then they are surprised when they fail at applying the knowledge in their lives.
The rule is: if you are going to apply knowledge you have to internalize it. You have to live with the knowledge, make it your own. All the physics professors I’ve had use to say that sitting with a problem and struggling through to its solution is essential to the learning process. You need to stew with the problem, to give your mind the time it needs to expand and come up with its own application of the class material.
The same goes with self-help. It’s not enough to read a self-help book once, close it and expect our lives to change. We need to understand the material; to embody it. We need to learn how the author arrived at his conclusions, to perceive the benefits we would receive when we apply the material. To believe that applying the knowledge would improve our lives.
If we aren’t convinced that the application of the knowledge will improve our lives then we are sure to fail in its implementation.
(However, some people struggle with chronic depression and other psychological disorders. They might need professional help to heal from that. But I believe most people can figure themselves out).
Once we’ve made the effort to understand we can then apply. If we succeed, great! If we fail, we have to consider that rather than the knowledge being faulty, it might be that we don’t understand something fully. And try again and again and again.
Which takes me to the next point of failure
2. People Give Up Too Soon
We live in an instant gratification civilization. The combined knowledge of our entire species rests at our fingertips, the moment we have a question we can ask it and receive hundreds of different answers from as many qualified individuals.
Want some great food? Order it online and it arrives at your doorstep in 30 minutes or less.
Want some fantastic entertainment? Log into a streaming account and access multiple lifetimes worth of entertainment at the push of a button.
On the one hand, the explosion of technology-driven convenience that we are experiencing is a wonderful thing; ideally it allows us to focus on the parts of life which matter. On the other, our patience has collectively eroded because of this instant convenience; many of us have forgotten that good things take time. Mexico City wasn’t built in a day.
The consequence? People give up too soon when they set out to achieve something. Because so many of our needs can be instantly gratified, we expect the same in areas which cannot be rushed; self-help, relationships, education and business, for example.
And once people have tried and given up after not seeing immediate results they throw their hands up and start believing that such an idea “doesn’t work” or “isn’t possible.”
When in reality they’ve given up before their actions can bear fruit.
Things follow a natural process of change. Can we force a rose to bloom by pulling its petals apart? Can we make a stalk of corn grow faster by pulling it out of the ground? No!
So why expect for the same thing to happen when we improve ourselves?
3. People Try To Change From The Outside In, Rather Than The Inside Out
This final reason for why most self-help doesn’t work is more subtle than the previous two.
It has to do with our subconscious mind. Look at this diagram.
What I’ve noticed is that most of us believe that in order to change our lives we have to focus on changing the world outside of us. But that’s an ineffective way to change.
The first expression of our spirit are our emotions.
Lasting change starts with our emotions! True change starts with our beliefs; about ourselves and how the world works. In order for self-help to work we need to embody the knowledge. We need to believe in it.
By focusing on changing our beliefs/subconscious mind/emotions then we are working to change from the inside out.
Change Your Self-Image, Change Your Life
This is exemplified beautifully in the book “Psycho-Cybernetics” by Dr. Maxwell Maltz. Dr. Maltz was a renowned plastic surgeon who noticed something extremely peculiar in his patients.
People would come to him to fix cleft lips, hooked noses, protruding ears and other things. He would “fix” them up.
After the surgery some of his patients would report that their entire lives changed for the better, they felt happier and more confident in their ability to achieve their dreams. By fixing their outer selves, their inner selves were fixed.
Other patients would report that after their surgeries their lives remained the same. The surgery hadn’t changed anything.
Dr. Maltz concluded that these patients were lacking in self-esteem or self-love. They attempted to “fix” the problem by fixing the outer parts of themselves. But that didn’t help them, because their inner world remained the same as before the surgery.
Dr. Maltz established that every person has a “self-image”, a set of beliefs about themselves which they take to be true. He wrote that a person’s actions are always in alignment with their self-image.
If a person has a positive, loving self-image, their actions will reflect that belief.
If a person doesn’t love themselves too much, that they aren’t worthy of a wonderful life, their choices will reflect that belief.
So the question then becomes…
How Can We Change Our Self-Image?
It is possible. I know because I’ve done it. I didn’t use to believe I was worthy of doing work I loved and living an abundant, physically fit and free life. Now I do, and every day I make the choices which manifest this reality more and more clearly.
It has taken me years of trial and error to arrive at a system of self-help that worked for me. I’m grateful for this journey, because in the process I have expanded my knowledge about myself and the world tremendously.
So how do we change our self-image?
The way we change our unconscious self-image is by communicating with it.
And how do we communicate with it?
By engaging our emotions.
Humans have many superpowers. One of them is that we can imagine ourselves in any situation we choose to. When we imagine ourselves living our ideal life we also imagine the emotions that we would feel. This is how we communicate with our subconscious, emotional mind.
In this way we change our self-image from whatever it is now, to one in which we deserve success and love and health.
And when our self-image changes in that way, so do our choices, and thus our results.
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Another Way Of Changing Our Self-Image
There is another mechanism I have learned about to change our self-image. It takes longer than the previous one, but it’s just as important.
It turns out that every choice we make is observed by our subconscious mind.
Every time we make a choice we are voting for the person we want to be and the life we want to live.
By choosing to exercise rather than sit on the couch watching television we are voting for the version of ourselves who is fit and strong.
By choosing to study a subject which would improve our work rather than scroll through our social media feed we are voting for the version of ourselves who constantly upgrades the value of their work.
The same goes for every choice we make. Our unconscious mind sees each of our choices and our self-image changes in response to them.
There’s a saying in Spanish: “Hay dos a quienes no podemos engañar; a nostros mismos y a Dios.”
Which means: “There are two whom we cannot fool; ourselves and God.”
Each choice we make changes our self-image in the direction of the choice. So if we want to change our self-image, we must make the choices which lead us to the self-image we want. And we must do this every single day.
This takes us back to the first two reasons for why most self-help doesn’t work: people don’t understand the knowledge and they give up too soon.
Change does happen, but it’s not enough to make the choice once. We have to do it over and over again before we see the results we want.
Therein lies the challenge.
So Self-Help Does Work, If You Have The Desire
In the end it comes down to how much we want it.
I dream to live a life of freedom and plenty. To be able to share my wealth with those I love and to serve those who want better for themselves, too. I am willing to learn and apply as much as I need to in order to make this dream a reality.
It’s my goal, my calling and mission. It gives my life purpose.
So, like I have written before, all achievement starts with desire.
Do You Know What You Desire?
The truest desire starts in the heart. We know when we’re working to make our heartfelt desires come true when we focus like a laser on our work and stop at nothing to complete it.
If we’ve given up on something it means we don’t really desire it with all of our heart. I’ve been there, I know what that’s like. Believing we want something but giving up and realizing we didn’t want it as much as we thought we did.
I’ve noticed that most people play small with their desires. They believe they aren’t capable of achieving their deepest desires, so they settle. Instead of working on their deepest, most driving, awe-inducing desire, they choose a frail, weak one.
Imagine a person who wants to own a sailboat and sail around the world while still being young and healthy. Conventional wisdom would tell us that’s not possible, that a person has to get a job, work for 40 years until they have enough money and time to sail around the world.
If the person believes that story they’ll never even start working towards achieving their dream.
But, if a person truly desires to sail the world while young with all of their heart, they will do everything required to make it happen; they will learn, they will train, they will grow, until they achieve it. It will take years and it will be a lot of work, but it’s the best work we can do. It’s the work which brings out the best we have to offer the world.
But, if the person believes their dream is impossible to achieve, why will they embark on the quest to make it happen in the first place? They won’t! So they will settle for a lesser desire and waste all of their potential.
All because their self-image was one of unworthiness.
And before you write to me saying that everyone is born with different opportunities and not everyone can achieve their dreams, bear in mind that people who have been born with very little have defied the odds and achieved their dreams.
Because they first believed they were worthy of achieving them.
Do you see how it works?
In Conclusion: Play To Win
Be grand with your desires. We let the opinions of others set our personal limits to our detriment.
Our desire powers our achievement. Lose the shyness! Lose the belief that getting what you want is “selfish.” You are a human being! You are here to grow into your best self and express yourself to your fullest!
Puny desires won’t allow you to do that. Only your biggest, boldest ones will. What do you desire, truly? What kind of life would make you get out of bed excited to live every single day?
Is it working 40 hours a week until you’re 60 and then retiring to live off your pension? There’s nothing wrong if it is, more power to you if you know it to be that.
But what if you desire something else? What if your desire is that little feeling in the back of your mind, the one that is begging for your attention? Something so exciting you believe you can’t make it happen, so you ignore it.
That’s where your heartfelt desire lies.
So I invite you to self-help yourself and rise to the level of your genius. We have one shot at doing so. It’s called “life.”
So how will you improve yourself to achieve your desires?
To our wealth and success.