How Much Do Self-Help Articles Help?

Published by Marty Nemko Ph.D. in How To Do Life

Question mark of books
Almost a year ago, I wrote a PsychologyToday.com article on how to lose weight.
I myself should lose 20 pounds so I decided to use everything I wrote in that article to try to do it. Part of that was to, every day, post my weight in the comments section for that article. I hoped that the pressure of not wanting to fail in front of my readers would motivate me.
I have posted my weight daily for nearly a year – and I haven’t lost any weight despite being someone who is, in almost everything, unusually disciplined. I simply have a predisposition to gain weight – Although I’m 5’11 and exercise vigorously daily, my breakeven point is 1500 calories. So to lose weight, I must be virtually perfect all the time, despite the ravenous appetite that comes from exercising so much.
Obviously, one takeaway is that it’s not enough to know what to do to lose weight. There’s a Grand Canyon of difference between knowing what to do and actually doing it.
A much broader possible implication is to question the value of self-help writing. Advice can be solid but unless the reader is unusually motivated and has the ability/skills, self-help writing won’t achieve its goal: getting the reader to improve.
Indeed, a 2014 review of the literature (link is external) on bibliotherapy’s effectiveness reports a lack of good studies. It merely said that there was some anecdotal evidence for its effectiveness. And remember, bibliotherapy isn’t just a matter of reading self-help articles but therapist-guided reading.
There’s a reason that acceptance therapy – accepting the relative immutability of ourselves and others – seems to work better than other modalities – It’s harder to change than we’d like to believe: whether it’s our intelligence, tendency toward depression, or yes, overweight.
The converse is also true – If you’re naturally good at something, you’re likely to do well without inordinate effort. Although I was born to very poor immigrant parents who spoke no English, Holocaust survivors, and I spent my first five years living in a true slum in the Bronx and from age 6 in blue-collar Queens, by the first grade, I was reading on a 12th grade level.
Similarly, I was a professional pianist by the time I was 12. I was able to play in full arrangement any pop song I could hum. No lessons (except those classical lessons I refused to practice for) or self-help books.
Yet in that other artistic sphere, drawing, I am useless – I can’t draw more than stick figures.
The takeaway
The older I get and the more career and personal coaching clients I’ve worked with, the more I believe that few of us can make more than modest changes in our basic nature. So, it’s often wise to focus on using and building on your natural strengths. Regarding your weaknesses, after modest effort at self-improvement, figure out how to reduce those weaknesses’ importance in your life, and then accept your basic self, beauty marks and warts alike. After all, even a rose has thorns.

 

Published by Marty Nemko Ph.D. in How To Do Life

Question mark of books
Almost a year ago, I wrote a PsychologyToday.com article on how to lose weight.
I myself should lose 20 pounds so I decided to use everything I wrote in that article to try to do it. Part of that was to, every day, post my weight in the comments section for that article. I hoped that the pressure of not wanting to fail in front of my readers would motivate me.
I have posted my weight daily for nearly a year – and I haven’t lost any weight despite being someone who is, in almost everything, unusually disciplined. I simply have a predisposition to gain weight – Although I’m 5’11 and exercise vigorously daily, my breakeven point is 1500 calories. So to lose weight, I must be virtually perfect all the time, despite the ravenous appetite that comes from exercising so much.
Obviously, one takeaway is that it’s not enough to know what to do to lose weight. There’s a Grand Canyon of difference between knowing what to do and actually doing it.
A much broader possible implication is to question the value of self-help writing. Advice can be solid but unless the reader is unusually motivated and has the ability/skills, self-help writing won’t achieve its goal: getting the reader to improve.
Indeed, a 2014 review of the literature (link is external) on bibliotherapy’s effectiveness reports a lack of good studies. It merely said that there was some anecdotal evidence for its effectiveness. And remember, bibliotherapy isn’t just a matter of reading self-help articles but therapist-guided reading.
There’s a reason that acceptance therapy – accepting the relative immutability of ourselves and others – seems to work better than other modalities – It’s harder to change than we’d like to believe: whether it’s our intelligence, tendency toward depression, or yes, overweight.
The converse is also true – If you’re naturally good at something, you’re likely to do well without inordinate effort. Although I was born to very poor immigrant parents who spoke no English, Holocaust survivors, and I spent my first five years living in a true slum in the Bronx and from age 6 in blue-collar Queens, by the first grade, I was reading on a 12th grade level.
Similarly, I was a professional pianist by the time I was 12. I was able to play in full arrangement any pop song I could hum. No lessons (except those classical lessons I refused to practice for) or self-help books.
Yet in that other artistic sphere, drawing, I am useless – I can’t draw more than stick figures.
The takeaway
The older I get and the more career and personal coaching clients I’ve worked with, the more I believe that few of us can make more than modest changes in our basic nature. So, it’s often wise to focus on using and building on your natural strengths. Regarding your weaknesses, after modest effort at self-improvement, figure out how to reduce those weaknesses’ importance in your life, and then accept your basic self, beauty marks and warts alike. After all, even a rose has thorns.

 

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