Once upon a time, in the not-too-distant past, self-help was a niche category. It was a small section of the bookstore, a fringe movement in the education world, a subculture that people would dip in and out of, and rarely advertise to the outside world. In fact, there was a lot of shame about turning to self-help — like that episode of Sex and the City where Charlotte goes to Barnes & Noble to pick up a book about divorce, only to get so embarrassed that she pretends she’s lost and flees to the Travel section. (If I remember correctly, that’s how she discovers Amazon for the first time, which says a lot about how far we’ve come.)
Things, of course, are different now. Celebrities walk around clutching The Power of Now, everyone and their mom posts photos of Mark Manson‘s books on their Instagram (as they should, because they’re terrific), and social media is basically one giant billboard for the memes that speak to our innermost truths.
All of it points to one huge shift: Self-help is no longer part of our lives. It is our lives.
And, look. I’m not hating on that. I think it’s amazing that people want to get better, that they’re seeking out answers to their important questions. It’s definitely better than the alternative, even if it means that every yoga class I go to these days includes a litany of banal affirmations. (Namaste? Nah, I’mma go.)
But the flipside to the mainstreamification of self-help is that it’s now dominating our lives. Which brings us to the first major pitfall of self-help: the fact that there’s just too much of it.
1. Self-help has taken over your life.
These days, the self-help industry isn’t designed to give us new tools, mindsets, and concepts to live our lives. It’s becoming our lives.
We carve out time to read psychology books and attend wellness retreats, we measure our experiences against those of other self-help junkies, and we judge our progress against an ideal self celebrated by professional life-, body-, and mind-hackers. “Getting Better” seems to be our one true job now, whether we like it or not.
When self-help becomes an end in and of itself — rather than one aspect of your life — you’ll eventually run into some serious risks.
Some of those risks are physical. Exhaustion. Illness. Over-exertion. Perceived dysmorphia.
Some of them are mental-emotional. Burnout. Anxiety. Depression. Shame.
Some of them are existential. Lack of meaning. Fear of failure. A sense of alienation — both from others and (ironically enough) from yourself.
When we elevate self-help in this way, we build our lives around living up to it. We subjugate our instincts, needs, and values to this secular religion, instead of taking the elements that work for us and leaving the rest. When we suffer as a result, we then turn back to self-help for answers — forgetting that the self-help might be the reason we’re suffering in the first place!
Interestingly, this pitfall applies to self-help experts, too. Coaches, experts, and leaders whose job it is to focus on self-improvement 24/7 suffer in ways you rarely hear about.
Many of them suffer privately, knowing that acknowledging their problems publicly would signal weakness (or, to put it bluntly, become a huge marketing problem). Some refuse to suffer at all, and suppress their experiences through greater and greater acts of self-help. (More on that in a moment.)
But if you pull back the curtain, you usually find that self-help experts struggle as much as anyone, and often more. That’s why they’re so obsessed with this stuff in the first place — the questions bring them to the work. The fact that self-improvement plays such a huge role in their lives only magnifies their issues, all the ways they’re falling short, and the pressure to continue mining their self-development for more and more professional opportunities.
That was definitely true for me for the better part of a decade, when I was still working as a coach in addition to podcasting. Every week, I found myself advising dozens of people on how to live their best lives, while I was trying to figure out mine. It took me years to see that my best life didn’t really exist outside of theirs — and definitely didn’t exist outside of the world of self-development, which is all-consuming. Almost every waking moment was dedicated to some aspect of the industry, and it was hard to accept that it was making me miserable, because it was also making me curious, connected and — on a professional level at least — quite successful.
Eventually, I began to see that my life didn’t just intersect with self-help. It had become self-help. I lived and breathed this stuff on so many levels — as a consumer, as a student, as a professional, as a journalist, and even as a friend, partner, son, and colleague.
So who was I, outside of those roles? And what was my life about, beyond those ideas? And did self-help have to run my life in order for me to be a fully actualized human?
Those questions eventually forced me to get in touch with the person all that self-help was supposed to be serving. The moment I decided to live my own life outside of the industry — which meant more time spent with friends, doing non–work-related reading, exercising for fun, traveling for pleasure, and, you know, actually living my life — my experience and relationships instantly improved. Including my relationship with self-help.
Most of us have inherited the idea that self-help needs to be the centerpiece of our lives in order to be useful. It doesn’t.
It needs to be part of our lives, and only to the extent that we need it. The moment it takes over everything else, as soon as we start twisting our minds, bodies and decisions around it, we’ve lost something important. We’ve lost the “self” in “self-help.” I think that’s where we are right now as a culture. And that’s where we need to pull back and recalibrate.
Because of all the pitfalls of self-help, losing ourselves in the pursuit of excellence is the most tragic — and the most avoidable. It’s the keystone of the larger self-help struggle. If we get this one right, then we usually get the others right, too. But sometimes, we need to home in on more specific struggles — which brings us to the next common pitfall.
2. You’re not enjoying the process.
A great deal of self-help is goal-oriented. I want to lose weight. I want to become happier. I want to rise up in my career. And a lot of self-help celebrates this kind of goal-setting, which orients self-help around tangible results.
What we miss along the way is the journey toward those goals — and the journey beyond those goals — which is the process of becoming a happier, more fulfilled, and more dimensional human being.
Interestingly, a lot of top performers fall into this particular trap. And most of them never realize it, because they get massively rewarded for their accomplishments. They develop themselves in order to hit those targets, instead of developing themselves to become the kind of people who hit those targets. They hit their milestones, but lose themselves.
I know this because I was one of those people. For years, I focused my self-help on my coaching, speaking, and broadcasting skill set, determined to become outstanding in my field. I wanted to become a great host, to hold an audience’s attention, to articulate my thoughts in the best possible way. Nailing a speech, reaching new listeners and creating strong material became the objects of my self-development. It wasn’t about my identity, my experience or my relationships. It was about how I could use those assets to achieve. And achieve I did.
Over a few years, though, I began to see that I was missing something essential. My relationship with my audience, for example. My sense of excitement, passion, and conviction in what I was talking about. My point of view. My presence — my simple ability to just be there, speaking or coaching or podcasting, in the moment. Even my basic enjoyment of the process of getting better.
These aren’t “goals” in the traditional sense — in fact, most coaches would push their clients to define them more specifically in order to make them achievable — but the truth is, they’re actually the best part of getting better. It took me a while to understand that the real meaning of self-help was in these experiences, not in the more tangible achievements by which we measure them.
I still want to do a great job, of course. I still take my commitments seriously. And I definitely still work toward new goals each year. But I don’t measure the value of my growth just by their completion. If I succeed, it’s not because I’m running toward those goal posts, but because I’m connected to the process of getting better. And if I’m connected to that process, then I have a much better chance of succeeding. I find that that model works best. It also feels best.
So as you navigate your self-help journey, notice if you’ve lost sight of the larger process at work. Check in with yourself when you’re measuring your self-worth and sense of meaning by the completion of your goals, rather than your evolution as a human being.
As the old saying goes, the map is not the territory. Goals are not the journey. The journey is the journey. The goals are just an interesting route — one of many, and never the ultimate point of the ride.
3. You struggle to apply self-help to your own life.
Studying self-help gives you a ton of insight into your own life — how you operate, what you believe, how you interact with the world. It also gives you a ton of insight into other people — how they behave, what makes them tick, how they relate to you. As you get more curious about yourself, you usually end up becoming curious about the people around you, too — and wanting to help them with their self-development. That’s when self-help can tip over into other-help.
In some cases, focusing on other people’s growth is appropriate, productive, and important to your self-development journey. Maybe you want your spouse to take up meditation. Maybe you want your employees to take their clients more seriously. Maybe you want to help your parents see their patterns the way you do. Sometimes, other people’s development dovetails with your own, and you can reasonably spread the benefits of self-help across your life.
But in other cases, focusing on other people’s growth becomes toxic. Instead of sharing your experience with your spouse, you start demanding that they change. Instead of inviting your employees to learn from your example, you start requiring them to follow orders. Instead of helping your parents see themselves more clearly, you start blaming them for their mistakes.
Suddenly, what started out like a healthy concern for other people’s development turns into dysfunction, coercion, and displacement.
That process usually works like this.
We know there’s something we need to work on — depression, disorganization, anger, lack of motivation, or whatever the case might be. Instead of addressing that quality in ourselves, where the work really happens, we locate that struggle in another person. We then spend time and energy trying to help a depressed friend, create a system for a disorganized colleague, or motivate an apathetic family member, not realizing that we’re trying to work something out about ourselves through them.
We justify this by saying that we’re investing in their growth, deepening our relationship, being generous with our resources. And in many cases, we are. That’s what’s so tricky about this phenomenon.
But if we dig deeper into our motivations, we often find a whole new layer of dysfunction: a desire to avoid doing the hard work ourselves, a resistance to holding ourselves accountable, a fear of acknowledging our own shortcomings. And so we displace our growth onto someone else, so we can simulate the work we should be doing, but through another person’s life, where the risk and pain aren’t as high. For a period of time, we might actually feel like we successfully resolved those things. But of course, we haven’t. We’ve just projected them onto someone else, like a voodoo doll, where the process is safer, easier, less consequential.
Obsessing over other people’s growth at the expense of your own almost always creates more problems.
It creates resentment and hostility, assigns unconscious roles to you and the other person, and rarely succeeds in producing meaningful change. Meanwhile, fixating on the other person only compounds the issues you’re cleverly avoiding. Whether it’s a few months or a few years, that false sense of accomplishment eventually wears off, and you’re left with that extra weight, that money problem, that lack of motivation, that persistent depression. And usually, they’re worse than they were before.
Self-help experts fall into this pitfall more than anyone else, because their job is to help other people. I know I used to be incredibly tough on my students as a coach when they struggled to change. I’d catch myself judging them for their lack of progress, blaming them for not wanting to grow, obsessing over their improvement. In reality, I was just beating them up because I was angry at myself for not doing the same work in my own life. It was my job to hold them accountable, but by holding them accountable, I was also displacing my own journey onto them.
Once I saw that clearly, I realized that I had to embody the changes I demanded of my students (and now my listeners) before I could expect them to grow. I had to be responsible, kind, organized, fit, ambitious, dedicated, generous — all the qualities I talk about on the show — if I was going to lead with authenticity and integrity. Otherwise, I’d just be trying to achieve those qualities through my students, which never really works. Unfortunately, that’s how way too many coaches operate.
This is an especially difficult dynamic for self-help experts to confront, because that passion for other people’s growth is what draws them into the field. But to truly be effective, we need to separate ourselves from other people, live up to our own expectations, and make sure we’re doing self-help and other-help — and not confusing one for the other.
Ironically, self-help is hardest to apply to yourself. It’s much easier to apply it to other people.
So as you move through your self-help journey, check in with yourself periodically, especially when you find yourself discussing self-development with the people in your life.
Are you sharing your experience with others and inviting them to be a part of it, or are you trying to change them in order to satisfy your own desire to become better?
Are you helping someone confront their own goals, needs, and limitations, or are you projecting your struggle onto them so you can resolve it?
You’ll almost certainly catch yourself doing this at one point or another. It’s perfectly normal. The important thing is to bring more self-awareness to this tendency, and to take a step back when you notice it. Remember that you’re only responsible for your own journey, and that taking on someone else’s — whether they want you to or not — usually violates a crucial boundary. Because at the end of the day, you really can’t change anybody.
There’s freedom in that discovery. Freedom to not spend your life working out your own stuff through other people. And freedom to experience the only self-development that ultimately matters: your own.
4. You’re using self-help to build your ego.
A lot of self-help ends up becoming more about the “self” than about the “help.” In the quest to get better, you start to use the “help” to enhance your ego, your identity, and your sense of self. Getting better fuels your narcissism rather than your self-actualization, which takes you further away from the growth you were seeking.
You see this very clearly with the goal-oriented aspects of self-help, especially around professional accomplishments.
For example, you do the hard work to earn a promotion, get a raise and manage a team, all of which took a lot of meaningful growth on your part. But in working toward that (excellent and exciting) goal, you’ve also changed your identity.
Now you’ve got a fancier title, a bigger bank account, a stronger reputation, a lot more authority. You think of yourself as a more important, powerful, useful person. People start to view you that way, treat you accordingly, and create dynamics that reinforce that identity. So you continue to pursue self-help with the general aim of building and protecting that sense of self. How much more power could you accumulate? How much more money could you make? How can you look and feel even more important? Before you know it, self-help goes from being an open-ended journey to a tool for egoic enhancement.
What you miss along the way is the more meaningful accomplishments that your self-development brought you. Greater opportunity to do high-quality work. A stronger relationship with your colleagues. A richer skill set to capitalize on your talents. A deeper passion for your work, your ability, your environment.
By pursuing the egoic rewards of your self-development, you miss the deeper fulfillment that self-development brings.
Getting better — whatever that means for you — then becomes a means of acquiring more, rather than a way to create a deeper relationship with yourself and with the world around you.
That was another lesson I learned in my early days as a coach.
Back when I was teaching, I decided I wanted to be known as a leading coach in the field. I thought that having a strong reputation would make me feel better about myself, enhance my standing, and clarify my purpose. The other coaches I knew at the time were also interested in their images and reputations, so I modeled that obsession. Every client, every media opportunity, every product became an opportunity to become (or at least be seen as) “the best,” rather than a chance to deepen my appreciation for the work.
Over the years, I began meeting coaches who had a much healthier relationship with their growth. I saw that by focusing on their clients, their curriculum and their craft, they built strong, meaningful, organic reputations. They didn’t conflate growth with self-enhancement. They didn’t confuse gratification with narcissism. They didn’t allow self-improvement to slip into self-comparison. That mindset was far healthier than the one I had been clinging to, and it helped me step out of this toxic mindset.
The truth is, there will always be some degree of healthy narcissism in self-help. We wouldn’t want to get better if we didn’t have a certain regard for our own needs and success. That narcissism isn’t dangerous on its own. It’s actually essential. But when we work to satisfy that narcissism, it tends to warp our relationship to our growth. And that’s when we need to be super vigilant, to make sure that we’re not trying to improve ourselves to fill the bottomless hole of that narcissism, which is a losing game.
Instead, we have to consciously choose the right reasons to improve — reasons that are bigger than just identity, ego and self-gratification. That means taking a step back, taking stock of the reasons for investing in ourselves, and deliberately choosing and focusing on the ones that bring us joy and fulfillment and connection — the ones that truly matter.
5. You’re using self-help to mask deeper problems.
Just as self-help can be used to enhance the ego, it can also be used to ignore deeper problems — or, in many cases, to cover them up.
I hear this all the time from listeners who, high on a self-help kick, fixate on one goal as a way to solve all of their problems.
“I’m broke,” a guy will write me, “and I don’t know what I want to do with my life, and I fight with my parents constantly, but if I just had a girlfriend I know everything would fall into place.”
Well, sure, maybe a girlfriend would bring you some happiness. But in all likelihood, a girlfriend will only distract you temporarily from these other issues, and ultimately magnify the fact that you haven’t gotten your life together. Yes, you might feel less lonely. Or maybe you’ll feel more lonely once you’ll realize that getting a girlfriend had nothing to do with building a successful, purposeful, peaceful life.
Or, to give another common example, a woman will write me and say, “I’m miserable in my finance job, and my husband tells me I should hit pause and get in touch with my real passion, but if I just got my Series 7 license, then I’d finally feel respected and fulfilled.”
Again, sure, maybe a Series 7 will give you a boost. But you’ll probably struggle to find the motivation to study for something that obviously doesn’t fulfill you. And once you do get it, you’d still have to show up to a job you hate every day, and wonder why you doubled down on a field that makes you unhappy. And even if you succeed in getting that respect you want so badly (a classic narcissistic drive), it won’t paper over your deeper need to find truly meaningful work.
Human beings are very clever at using self-help in this way. We know we need to resolve a problem or meet a need, and instead of doing the work to fix it or meet it, we pin all our hopes for fulfillment and resolution on a single goal.
That tendency hooks into the kind of “if only” thinking that permanently keeps us one step away from fulfillment. “If only I had a girlfriend, my life would be complete.” “If only I had my Series 7, I would care about my work.” But when we look a little closer, we realize that there’s no guarantee that those goals will secure the result. Oftentimes, they actually have nothing to do with each other. We just linked them together in our minds, because they gave us the best hope.
And that phenomenon pops up in all sorts of ways. The entrepreneur who goes to CrossFit religiously to get ripped in order to be confident. The artist who masters public speaking to give a killer speech in order to be liked. The parent who decides to have children in order to feel more complete.
The list is infinite, because there are endless ways to mask our deepest needs. And it’s a tricky phenomenon to diagnose, because it often looks like good self-help. After all, we’re supposed to be chasing these ambitious goals. And life often rewards us for achieving them.
That’s part of the reason we see so many insecure leaders, dysfunctional therapists, anxious parents and miserable entrepreneurs. Because instead of using self-help to address their true issues, they used it to chase external goals, believing that achievement will resolve their underlying psychological needs. But it never does. It might mask the issue for a while, it might even make it easier to cope with, but sooner or later, the jig is up. We’re left with ourselves, and our achievements only seem to highlight the lack, need, or wound beneath the surface.
Does this mean we shouldn’t strive to get better?
Does it mean that all self-help is actually a thinly-veiled excuse to avoid doing the real work?
What it does mean is that we have to be very clear and intentional about why we choose the goals we choose, and how those goals connect to our deeper wants and needs.
We have to catch ourselves avoiding the necessary work on ourselves by fixating on arbitrary or unrelated goals (getting a girlfriend, getting licensed, getting swole).
We have to notice when we ascribe to those goals a function or outcome they can’t possibly deliver (gaining inner confidence, being liked, having a purpose).
And we have to understand how our minds use those goals to avoid the suffering and uncertainty involved in doing meaningful self-help (resolving old wounds, rewriting patterns, confronting flaws).
When you catch yourself doing any of the above, you can be sure that what you’re doing isn’t self-help, but denial.
It’s a way to avoid or deny the more urgent need, or a way to sublimate that need through another activity. With enough awareness and understanding, sublimation can be a healthy coping mechanism (think about artists who channel their pain into their work, or therapists who draw on trauma to create empathy). But if we’re not aware of how that process works, then we end up using self-help to chase goals that ultimately let us down, lead us astray and compound the problem, rather than using self-help to become the best possible version of ourselves.
What we need to self-help the right way.
At the end of the day, the key to avoiding these pitfalls is intention.
If we approach self-development with the right intentions — healthy reasons, productive approaches, careful balance, a clear desire to become a better person — then self-help will naturally occupy the right place in our lives.
If we don’t, then we tend to approach self-help willy-nilly, without discipline or direction, which is how it ends up dominating our lives, dictating our values and compromising our sense of self.
So as you explore your self-development journey, come back to a few key questions.
- Why do I want to get better?
- What am I learning along the way?
- Am I trying to get better or trying to change someone else?
- Am I trying to enhance my ego?
- Am I avoiding something more important?
And most important:
- Who do I really want to become?
Because the answer will always be a more equipped, interesting, fulfilled human being — not, as the self-help industry often suggests, a person who lives to consume more and more of its product to get there. We have to remember that in order to truly get better — and to self-help without feeling terrible.
[Featured photo by Blake Cheek]