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In defence of self-help

Self-help is a maligned genre. And, for a long time, I was one of its detractors. 

I convinced myself that self-help was a guilty pleasure: such books deserved to be buried deep inside my bedside drawers, rather than proudly displayed on my shelves. Whenever I picked up a self-help book I’d find myself thinking, “Pull yourself together and read some real literature! If you need insight into the human condition that badly then for the love of God woman, just read Dostoevsky!” 

Training myself out of the shame associated with self-help is an ongoing process. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I’d sooner be caught on the bus reading Fifty Shades of Grey than a volume entitled, Get your Shit together and Stop Being Insecure (FYI this is not a real book, but if you fancy writing it, then I’ll be the first to buy a copy). Both genres – erotica and self-help – feel uncomfortably personal, as well as inextricably linked to self-gratification. God forbid that some rampant narcissist might combine the two and read a self-help book about sex! (of which there are, incidentally, many good ones). 

In my mind, self-help had become synonymous with self-indulgence, and this belief was making it harder for me to benefit from the ‘help’ these books had to offer. I decided that it was time to unpack my relationship with the genre.

Beyond the fact that reading them involves confronting personal problems, I’ve worked out that my discomfort with self-help books boils down to two things: the elitist assumption that they are ‘lowbrow’ and the sexist idea that self-help which focuses on any subject beyond material success is for women.

First, elitism. To understand the snobbery directed at self-help, it’s worth considering where the modern self-help movement originated. Forms of self-help literature have been around for millennia, from ancient Greece to Tang Dynasty China. However, it was in 1859 that Scotsman Samuel Smiles published Self-Help: the book to which the commercial genre of today owes its title. 

Comprised of lectures that Smiles had delivered to working men in Leeds, Self-Help was “a primer for the poor in self-education and upward mobility”. Smiles certainly believed that he was empowering the working classes; but the book spun a pernicious narrative. Its emphasis on the individual responsibility of the poor to transcend their circumstances, minimised the duty of the state and fuelled a harmful distinction between the ‘deserving’ versus ‘undeserving’ poor. No wonder that, over a century later, Margaret Thatcher wanted to give a copy ofSelf-Help to every schoolchild in the country… 

It makes sense that self-help is deemed ‘lowbrow’. The genre’s very name comes from a manual for the ‘lower’ classes: literature designed for the aspirers rather than for the aspired towards. It was inevitable that those who could afford to lounge around reading Ovid in their private libraries would look down upon self-help. The genre was not for them, and I think that this downward-looking perception of self-help has been absorbed into our cultural milieu, which has always been defined by the tastes of the elite.

In an ideal world, self-help would not be necessary. Some even argue that its existence perpetuates a system whereby the government offloads its welfare responsibilities onto individual citizens – a phenomenon that has become more apparent than ever in the time of Covid-19. But we should not ridicule something that has served not only as a means of therapy, but of survival for people when the state fails to uphold their interests for them.

This is what the ‘self-care’ movement of the late 20thcentury was all about: survival. In her 1988 essay, A Burst of Life, Audre Lorde penned the now famous phrase: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.” As a self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”, Lorde recognised that she could not rely on a white patriarchal society to promote her basic health and wellbeing, let alone her prosperity. Self-care was adopted by various black civil rights, queer and feminist groups who made the same realisation and sought to rally against their systematic disempowerment. 

Given the influence of feminist activists like Lorde on the self-help and self-care literature of today, it is all the more disconcerting that the genre is often mocked and belittled as a ‘women’s thing’. Though, of course, it’s not for all women: only the desperate women, the sad women, and worst of all, the unstable women – the ones who are somehow failing to thrive in today’s society. 

Was I just imagining the pitying expression of the bookseller when I picked up a copy of Chidera Eggerue’s What a Time to be Alone the other week? “It’s for a friend,” I wanted to lie. “Bad breakup. She’s feeling very… *whispers* unstable.” “Ah yes,” the bookseller would grimace back at me, “we get a lot of those in this section.”

Something that occurred to me while reading another self-help book (Florence Given’s Women Don’t Owe You Pretty) is that people often attack self-help because it’s something that others use to empower themselves, to proactively tackle the challenges that they face. The best way to stop this process of empowerment in its tracks and preserve the status quo is to ridicule and invalidate the tools that people use to care for and better themselves. 

As long as self-help is portrayed as an inherently feminine and superfluous genre, there will be no winners – not even men! Laughing at guys who use self-help as a means of exploring their emotions, dismissing their attempts as ‘girly’, simply fuels the stigma surrounding men’s mental health. Men are likely to restrict themselves to the self-help stereotype that is The 7 Habits of Highly Efficient People rather than considering self-help books that could help them to look inwards. Meanwhile, women who read self-help books about material success are at worst, shamed, and, at best, shoehorned into the one-dimensional trope of the ‘strong, independent woman’. 

I should have prefaced this article by pointing out that there is a lot of self-help out there that is complete and utter bullshit, and that there are certainly exploitative patterns within what has become a huge money-making industry. Self-help is not a replacement for therapy or for the care owed to us by the state, and we should be wary of anyone who tries to tell us otherwise. The purpose of this article has been, quite simply, to decode the mockery of self-help books, to consider why we are laughing and who we are laughing at.

It took my own experience of trauma to recognise that maligning self-help can contribute to disempowerment, and to think non-judgmentally about the traumas which might have led other people to seek self-help and self-care. For now, my self-help books are still stowaways in the bedside drawer and you certainly won’t find me reading them brazenly on the bus. However, I can say that I’ve learnt to admire individuals who, for whatever reason, choose to take their wellbeing into their own hands. So, think twice before judging someone who uses self-help, because there may come a time when you, too, could benefit from it.

Artwork by Sasha LaCômbe

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