Posted February 10, 2014 by in Bibliotherapy

Anti-Self-help Books

You’ve heard of self-help. How could you not have? Especially in the United States, it’s a multi-million dollar industry, supported by Evangelical Christianity and secular psychiatry alike. But what about anti-self-help? (Alas, I thought I might have coined that particular phrase, but then I found an article discussing its existence as far back as 2007.) There may be thousands of enthusiastic self-hope advocates out there, but there are also some who dare to express some skepticism or downright cynicism about the ideas of self-help and positive thinking. Do these philosophies really merit such a cherished position in American culture? Might they in some cases be more harmful than helpful?

Last month Jessica Lamb-Shapiro released her first book, an amusing memoir about her explorations of the self-help culture entitled Promise Land. That terrific book prompted me to go back and look again at one I’d read a few years ago, Bright-sided, by investigative journalist Barbara Ehrenreich. I’d highly recommend both of these; they are passionate, informative, well-researched, and also very entertaining (though if you’re looking for humor in particular, I’d stick with Promise Land). I’ve reviewed them both below.



Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, Barbara Ehrenreich

(The book was published in the UK under a more provocative title, Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World.)

Ehrenreich brings her piercing journalist’s eye to the burgeoning positive thinking and self-help industry, exposing all the hypocrisy, manipulation, and general quackery you might expect. She opens with a chapter about her experience of having breast cancer, when she found that a patient cannot express a single note of skepticism or pessimism without being branded a bad apple. Fellow sufferers insisted that without a positive attitude she was unlikely to beat her cancer; one even pointed her towards counseling when she admitted she was angry that more was not being done to identify and eradicate environmental carcinogens.

From motivational speakers’ conferences to Christian Science and megachurch theologies, Ehrenreich traces the history of the idea that a blithely optimistic outlook will get you everything you want in life, including health, wealth, and happiness. The problem is that in the meantime you have to ignore anything that could possibly threaten your mindset, including the news (she highlights a few preposterous websites that only offer “happy” news), science, and the gospel.

Of course it is important to have hope, but denying reality will do nothing but damage. I think Ehrenreich’s conclusion would be that it is best to be critically realistic – approaching life with eyes wide open – rather than thoughtlessly optimistic.



Promise Land: My Journey through America’s Self-Help Culture, Jessica Lamb-Shapiro

(The subtitle on my Edelweiss e-galley is a bit more evaluative – if also a bit sillier: A Journey through America’s Euphoric, Soul-Sucking, Emancipating, Hornswoggling, and Irrepressible Self-Help Culture. [Hornswoggling! What an incredible word! Apparently it means cheating or swindling.])

Like Ehrenreich’s, this is a cynical journalist’s take with some personal commentary. Lamb-Shapiro has more of a personal stake in things because her father (the kind of man who would pick her up from school wearing a gorilla suit) is an upbeat psychologist and published self-help author. His specialty is parenting and child psychology; he once accidentally got himself branded the expert on “the choking game” (mimicking the sensation of choking to briefly induce fainting) when he was asked to comment on it on national television. (Lamb-Shapiro’s account of the producer trying to convince her father into pronouncing the game “addictive” is just hilarious.) Thereafter she referred to her longsuffering Pop as “Dr. Choking Game.”

The story goes deeper, though. Self-help sometimes means self-deception, and for nearly 30 years Lamb-Shapiro didn’t know the full truth about her mother’s death. Jessica had always been told her mother died in a car accident when she was two years old, but in the course of the book she reveals that the cause of death was actually suicide. For all his therapeutic wisdom, Dr. Lamb-Shapiro had been unable to discuss the truth about his wife’s death with his daughter. One of the major plot threads here, then, is starting to come to terms with her mother’s death: her father coming clean about the family’s history and then working to create an app that might prevent future suicides; and father and daughter together journeying to a Maryland cemetery to see the grave. The gates were chained and they had to break in, but they managed the group hug Jessica had been wanting for three decades.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. This isn’t just a personal memoir, but also a wide-ranging survey of the self-help world past and present. Lamb-Shapiro skims through the history of self-help books, from the Greek philosophers to Victorian England to a close reading of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and how it is emotionally manipulative (a dead puppy is involved). It’s often assumed that bibliotherapy refers exclusively to self-help books, though really it’s a much broader principle of using books to heal, teach, amuse, and inspire. This section of the book covers some of the same ground as Susan Cain’s Quiet (discussed in my article, “Is Reading Selfish?”), although that one is more concerned with the ways introverts have been forced to play by extroverts’ rules.

Over the course of her research for Promise Land, the author attended: a pricey conference for would-be self-help writers, led by Chicken Soup for the Soul founder Mark Victor Hansen; a seminar on The Rules, an old-fashioned advice book on securing a husband through playing hard to get; a positive thinking teen camp in upstate New York where participants walk on hot coals; a fear-of-flying support group at an airport (she herself is mildly neurotic about any number of things, but flying is a major phobia); and a grief camp. She also helped a friend make a “vision board” to see if the law of attraction could make her greatest desires (generally financial and/or material) come true. You’ll learn many surprising facts, including that The Science of Getting Rich was a title from 1911, and there is such a book as Grieving for Dummies.

Lamb-Shapiro fully acknowledges that “Self-help’s rules can be comforting. They promise us control, a defense against loss.” On the other hand, “Positive thinking can look an awful lot like old-fashioned denial.” Americans, especially, love to think they can make it on their own. The culture so emphasizes independence and self-reliance that admitting you need help is sometimes tantamount to admitting failure. “The best thing about self-help is that it frees you from needing other people; the worst thing about self-help is exactly the same,” she argues in her characteristically matter-of-fact style. Even if self-help tactics are harmless, or simply act as placebos, both authors are cautious about endorsing them. As Lamb-Shapiro concludes, “Ultimately, affirmations and believing in the power of one’s mind should be used as only part of an arsenal of tools against despair, an arsenal that includes admitting despair.”

Lamb-Shapiro describes her adventures in such witty, sparkling prose that I would be interested in reading anything else she writes in the future. Promise Land is just my kind of nonfiction: it crosses genres (I have a whole Goodreads shelf I call “uncategorizable”) and manages to be both touching and laugh-out-loud funny. I daresay it will also make you rethink some of the clichés and excuses we rely on every day.


If you’re interested in reading further on the subject, here are some other titles you might consider:

(And then, of course, there’s Just Stop Having Problems, Stupid! The Anti-Self-Help Guide, by Dr. Matt.)

Rebecca Foster

American transplant to England. Former library assistant turned full-time freelance writer and book reviewer. Check out all my articles.