The self-help market is currently a billion-pound industry. There are thousands of new books, courses and retreats churned out every year and yet little seems to change for the majority of people. Does this mean that it is all a scam or is there real value in this ever-growing industry?
I wanted to write this post because so many people have spoken about wanting to get off the whole self-improvement cycle and just go back to living their life. They are tired of trying to get somewhere and tired of trying to manage, improve, or fix themselves. Unfortunately, many admit to being self-improvement junkies who have spent a fortune searching for that magic bullet, only to go from one false dawn to the next.
I am not here to bash the whole self-help market, as there are some genuine people out there, and there is a lot of good information that will have helped many people. In saying that, the internet has also created a lot of charlatans who prey on people’s desperation with clever marketing and unrealistic claims.
All I would suggest is that if someone wants hundreds of pounds off you, demands you buy it now before the price goes back up, claims to have some kind of ‘secret’ or is pumping out new courses every few weeks, then I would be highly suspicious.
Even when a person does have other people’s best interests at heart and truly wants to help them, that information still has to resonate with you. It has to wake up some understanding inside of you so that a genuine change can occur, otherwise, you may as well discard it.
A good therapist for me should be able to work with you, rather than the traditional teacher/client relationship. So as to help you to come to your own conclusions, as the real change eventually has to come from you, no one out there can FIX you.
When I write, it is not because I want you to follow what I say blindly while having no idea of the true message behind it. My words are there to help you to see something for yourself and to fully understand the reasoning behind what I am saying. When something truly resonates with you and makes sense, you feel it on a much deeper level and this is where a real shift can occur.
My Journey into self-help
My initial experience with self-help happened in a different era than today. It did not serve me well and, in a lot of cases, only increased my suffering. I was given techniques to do, mantras and sayings to repeat, homework to fill out and I found it all incredibly exhausting and counterproductive. I could not relate to any of it and it certainly did not help.
I also bought every book out there; saw numerous so-called specialists; took prescribed medication; had a bunch of sayings and techniques that I carried around with me, and all I managed to achieve was to end up feeling worse.
Then one day I just had this huge insight where I said to myself, ‘What if I no longer try to feel any different than I do, what will happen then?’ To this day I have no idea where those words came from or why they hit me with such power. Maybe something inside me snapped with exhaustion while also knowing deep down that the path I was on wasn’t working.
After contemplating those words for a few moments, I realised with great clarity that all my attempts to escape my suffering and all my attempts to manipulate my current experience were the main cause of it. I was unknowingly doing this to myself.
The worse I felt, the more I battled and the more I battled, the worse I felt, and so the never-ending cycle from which I could not escape went on. I had totally given up on living, my whole life now revolved around me and how I was feeling. It literally became a full-time job trying to manage my inner state.
Letting go of traditional self-help
It was at this point that I decided to turn my back on all of the traditional and outdated advice, threw all my self-help books out and decided to find my own answers. I did not want to spend the rest of my life managing or suppressing symptoms and that is all these previous books and therapists seemed to point towards. I wanted to find the source of why I was suffering, cease doing what was causing it and then go through a process of healing.
Due to me looking in a different direction and relying more on my own insights and intuition, I was then able to understand more of what was causing my suffering, rather than constantly trying to get rid of it. Everything now pointed towards allowing myself to experience my emotions, rather than to continually run away, avoid or attempt to manipulate them.
I no longer had any interest in following someone else or any technique, I could now see that any technique was a refusal to accept how I was feeling at that particular moment. It was just another form of resistance to not have my current experience and it is this very resistance that creates so much extra suffering.
I mentioned in my first book ‘At last a Life’ that I only found one helpful therapist in the early days and the first thing he said to me was “Paul you will never get better until you stop trying to get better”. At the time I had no idea what he meant, years later, I now knew exactly what he meant. It was as though I had to go through years of struggling with myself to eventually see how this struggle was creating so much of my suffering.
Of course, I had to educate myself on anxiety and panic to overcome it, but apart from practicing non-avoidance, I didn’t have to do anything to recover. In fact, all the knowledge I built is what led me to doing far less and why it was so beneficial. It was all my attempts to manage and fix myself that became so utterly exhausting and counterproductive.
Trying not to feel uncomfortable, just makes you feel more uncomfortable
Allowing yourself to feel uncomfortable emotions helps to free them up. It keeps you from obsessing and ruminating about how you feel, giving your brain a much-needed rest. It also helps you to become more present, as you are no longer spending most of your time stuck inside your head, trying to solve yourself.
The best saying I ever came across stated: ‘Don’t try and solve yourself, you will just break yourself further’. Never has a truer word been spoken. Ironically, it is all your attempts to escape your suffering that usually increases it. The attempted cure often becomes the cause.
This is why I am against any type of self-help that promotes managing or trying to get rid of suffering, and as many of you will have found out, this approach never works. This is because you need to understand what is causing your suffering, so that you no longer create it, and not learn 101 techniques to manage or get rid of it.
Self-help, in its truest and most helpful form, should only serve to help you come off the whole cycle of self-help, it should not be a means to keep you on it. It should help guide you to lessen your suffering and get you back in touch with the real you. It should never be about trying to manipulate how you feel or change who you are.
A lot of people use self-improvement as a means to change themselves, rather than to help remove the fake personas and masks, so they can finally express their true personality. For many, self-improvement boils down to, “I am not happy with who I am, so I will change myself for the acceptance of others”.
Again this will not bring you the inner peace and change you are looking for. Try presenting yourself as someone you are not, try maintaining it and see how much extra suffering it brings. If you attempt to do so, all your interactions will end up feeling false. You will waste immense brain energy trying to maintain a character and have a constant feeling of being a fraud, which only drags down your self-esteem further.
Learn to let go of the need to fix yourself
Just remember, we are not here to spend a lifetime in self-help, trying to improve ourselves or get somewhere. The end goal is to be able to stand on your own two feet and to just go out and live again. Constantly working on yourself is exhausting. It keeps you stuck inside your head, constantly reinforces that there is something wrong and pulls you away from living.
As previously stated, I am not against some form of self-help for the right reasons. Most people do need help and guidance along the way, but it should never become a lifetime pursuit or a reliance on someone else to herd you around or tell you how to be. At some point, you have to let go of it all and just go back to living your life.
In fact, letting go of it all and going back to living my life is where my biggest improvements came from. This helped me to regain my confidence, change old habits, improve my social skills and rebuild my battered self-esteem.
I am not saying that change was easy; it wasn’t at times and there was still some inner work to do. I had to feel emotions that I had suppressed for so long, put myself in situations I felt uncomfortable with, take responsibility for things I had blamed others for and learn to let go of all the fake masks and personas I had hidden behind for so long.
Confidence comes through being comfortable with yourself
The more confident someone is, then the more comfortable they are in their own skin. They don’t have to work on being confident, change who they are, or use any technique; it happens naturally. A lot of social anxiety is built around not being comfortable with who you are and then constantly feeling judged. If you were comfortable with who you are, so much of your social anxiety would disappear.
I realised that, for me to feel more comfortable in my own skin, and to feel more confident around other people and within myself, then I had to find the true me beneath all these masks I had hidden behind. I had to rediscover the real me beneath this negative, false self-image that years of anxiety had created.
This is not to say that we should feel a failure if we aren’t as confident as others, or set any goals towards perfection. Some people are naturally shy; most of us do have some hang-ups and insecurities and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. I believe that a lot of the self-help market promotes that all of these things can be fixed and that we should be happy and confident all the time, which only sets us up to feel like we have failed or are defective in some way.
We were never meant to be perfect
The truth is, we are all human beings whose moods and self-image fluctuate on a daily basis. I am the same. Some days I feel great, confident and with a positive self-image, whereas other days I can feel the complete opposite, and I am totally fine with that. I don’t feel the need to run out to the nearest bookstore and fix myself every time I feel down or don’t feel great about myself.
I realise that I am human and no mood is static, and what continually fluctuates cannot be real. Seeing this on a deeper level helped me to no longer identify with any passing mood. It is just something that comes and goes of its own accord and I attach no real meaning to it.
So don’t feel the need to hit any kind of perfection, stop comparing yourself to others and stop striving to be any different than who you are. Just go towards discovering your true self and embrace and live through that, rather than trying to create another fake version of yourself. The truth is, you can’t change your core personality. If you are an introvert then you won’t be the life and soul of the party and nor should you try.
If you keep trying to be someone you are not, you will spend the rest of your days acting your way through life and, trust me, most people can see straight through this charade, including yourself.
A journey to discover your true self
Looking back, I can see that I needed to go on my own self-help journey to realise that I needed to end the search, return to my default setting and rely on no one but myself for my inner peace and happiness. I had to once again touch base with that person who had got lost in a maze of suffering and who lost himself further through trying to manage and improve himself.
I remember a famous musician saying “I would rather be hated for who I am than loved for who I am not”. That line always stuck with me as most of our journey of self-improvement is about wanting acceptance from others. When we stop searching for that, all we are left with is who we are. And the truth is, who we are has far more chance of being accepted by others than any fake version we present and, if not, then that is not our problem; at least we are being true to ourselves.
To finish, I may have eventually turned my back on self-help but I certainly did not turn my back on self-care. I understood the need to look after myself even more now, physically and mentally. I learned to be kinder to myself and others; to accept that I am human and have my flaws like everyone else. I also let go of a lot of negative people around me, moved towards a much healthier lifestyle and pursued new hobbies that reflected more of who I truly am.
Loving yourself is not about creating someone you think others will like; it is about accepting yourself just as you are. The truth is, you can never fall in love or be comfortable with a fake version of yourself; reality will always keep knocking with a sense of suffering and unease. The best way to find inner peace is to rediscover your true self and then to love and nurture that
So rather than self-improvement, lean far more towards self-care.
I hope I have given a balanced view of self-help. There is certainly a place for it when used in the correct manner and everyone needs that extra help and guidance at times. Just try to make sure it doesn’t become a crutch, a way of life, or a means to change who you are. Also, be clear of the person’s intentions, make sure it resonates with you and ask yourself if it is truly helping. If it sounds too good to be true, then it usually is.
Finally don’t rely too much on others to herd you around by telling you what to do or how to be. As you can see above, a lot of the changes had to come from me, nothing outside of me could bring that change and no one could truly fix me. So as well as receiving guidance from others, learn to do your own reflecting, rely on your intuition and become your own teacher because no one knows you like you do.