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3 Things I Wish I’d Known Before I Bought All Those Self-Help Books

CW: Ableism, Law of Attraction

I know it’s Bridget Jones-esque, but I have bought more than my share of self-help books. Not about relationships, but about health and wellness. I began searching for wellness advice in books when I didn’t get answers from the doctors. There are few challenges I don’t believe I can research my way out of, at least in part. 

In the beginning, in between reading frightening prognosis on obscure internet forums and re-reading BMJ and JAMA journal articles, I also came across a new phenomenon: self-help books. I had seen Men Are From Mars and The Road Less Travelled on the bookshelves of friend’s parents, but I hadn’t actually read a self-help book. 

But what I discovered were stories of hope and possibility. Or at least, I thought they were at the time. I later learned they were part of an industry. As with any industry, it has its marketing, dynamics, stereotypes and smokescreens. But of course I didn’t know that then. I drank in the words of the people who told me they were like me but now were healed. Always fun to find oneself the ‘before’ photo in the before and after pictures, am I right? 

It took me time and work to un-learn much of the programming of these books and their world views. 

So here are 3 things I wish I’d learned before I bought all those self-help books: 

1. We didn’t get or stay ill because we didn’t think positively enough. Humans get sick and suffer for reasons that are often complex and multifaceted. Whether anything you did or didn’t do had any impact, I cannot know. But I can know you didn’t choose to get sick. 

For example, if I don’t floss my teeth and get gum disease and decay, what then? 

Is that my fault for not flossing my teeth? 

Is it not my fault because tooth decay happens to humans? 

Or is it a complex mix of my genetics, struggling to find an adapted tooth floss holder, the difficulty of flossing my teeth with my impairments and fatigue. 

In this case, I’m not sure ‘fault’ is the most useful way to go here. It’s natural to want to understand reasons and assign responsibility. But there are issues we can control and those we can’t even understand yet. 

It’s important to know that new age thinking blames us for wider injustices – seeing this can help us figure out a path through it. 

2. Self-help often fails because humans learn and relearn in relationships; it’s not just about the right information, It’s about practicing change in a community.

Relationships are our blueprint for how we relate to the world. Many modalities of psychology and therapeutic interventions acknowledge the impact of early relationships on adult life and relating. 

There’s a tempting cult of individualism which tells us we can do it on our own, bootstrap it, baby. Hustle like you mean it. 

But all this means we can conveniently avoid the wider relationships which may be impacting our behaviour. 

If a relative always criticises our body, pokes fun when we start moving in an unconventional way – for example exploring hula hooping or dancing to our fave playlists after breakfast – then that will impact whether we keep moving and how we feel about it. 

But acknowledging and challenging the difficult dynamics and relationships in our lives and their long term impacts on us it a tough move. It can require other people to change as we change. Once we’ve seen it, it’s difficult to un-see.

It’s much safer for our family and social systems to believe we failed the system/book we bought and we look out for the next shiny one that promises if we change ourselves, we’ll change our world. 

The issue is, there’s often a little truth in that statement. Change does include internal change, just not exclusively. Notice where our behaviour and lives meets others and how we may need to navigate change there too, as much as it possible and available for us in each moment. 

3. If the Law of Attraction hasn’t worked for you, maybe it’s not because you didn’t manifest or want it hard enough. I don’t believe that you are staying sick because you have resistance to success or secretly benefit from the ‘attention’ around being ill/disabled. 

Let’s just break this down for a second: 

Firstly, the attention we get around being ill is 99% excruciating, ableism, discrimination and micro-aggressions. 

From being accused of being a ‘diversity hire’, being told we are inspirational for existing while disabled and having strangers aggressively and intrusively question us about our internal organs, attention around disability is anything but fun. 

Secondly, surely we can’t simultaneously be resisting the attention of success and seeking the attention of disability. That doesn’t follow. Well, it only follows if you hold a very narrow view of ‘success’ and systemically prevent anyone who isn’t white, non-disabled, het-cis, rich etc from achieving it. Which is exactly what systemic discrimination looks like. 

Of course if you believe being disabled is a tragedy or something to overcome, you will wonder why people don’t ‘get better’ if they are trying as hard as they explain that they are. 

It’s common for wellness books to locate wider systemic issues in the individual. Struggling to live on a tiny benefits stipend? You need to work on your money blocks and manifest more cash. Seriously, what’s easier? Telling people they need to want to be able to afford to eat harder or to acknowledge the white supremacy, classist, sexist, ableist, discriminatory culture you are part of and benefit from and commit to working to dismantle it? 

Obvious answer, so the wellness industry leaders locate the problem in us and they can keep doing their thing. Let’s remember, that doesn’t mean it is our problem, only that it’s convenient for the person telling us if we believe it is. 

We are not failing at making change, the industry is failing us. I’ve never known anyone say they read a self-help book and everything was fixed, but we keep buying books that promise fixes. I promise to no longer hold myself accountable to books based on a flawed premise and to spend time with resources that resonate, rather than ones that subtly but effectively shame me as I try to heal and grow. 

What do you wish you’d known before beginning in the wellness world? Let me know in the comments. 

Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

N.B: I acknowledge I am a part of the wellness industry myself, I am working to hold myself accountable, repair harm, stop perpetuating structural inequity and interrogate the industry as a whole, as well as my own place and work within it. I welcome your reflections on this and own the work I need to do.