Much of learning apart from formal education is a type of self-help. When put in those terms, we all probably have one or more of these books. On my shelf right now I have “how to wire a model train”, “how to raise chickens”, “mandolin exercises for dummies”, and a whole bunch more.
But I want to get a little more specific than improving physical skills. I want to look at our efforts to improve our confidence, identity, self-worth, emotional freedom, motivation, resilience, happiness, stress management, decision making, and a host of others. Are these self-help books worth it? The short answer is “yes” and “no”. Let’s take a closer look.
What is self help?
According to Oxford Languages,
Self-help is “the use of one’s own efforts and resources to achieve things without relying on others.”
The origin of Self-help
The self-help movement began in the 1930’s when Alcoholics Anonymous was formed. Whether in a group or on your own with a book, self-help is an effort to personally improve without the aid of professionals. To put it another way, it is “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.”
Self-help in psychology
According to Psychology Today, “Self-help doesn’t necessarily mean going it alone. Mutual support groups … not only provide like-minded companionship and encouragement but also knowledge and direction from peers and professional leaders.”
Many individuals go to a dedicated professional after trying self-improvement on their own. The truth is that without some kind of encouragement from others, self-help books often leave many floundering.
“Lasting change is difficult to achieve because many of our habits are deeply ingrained, and certain core personality attributes may be immutable. But all habits and character traits can be altered to varying degrees. ” (1)
There are reasons that people fail at self-help. Sometimes they don’t understand the many contributing factors that have led to something they want to change. Their goals also may not be realistic or need to be broken down into achievable shorter goals. Additionally, they may not have the necessary resources available to achieve realistic goals.
Another reason that individuals fail with self-help books is that they don’t have a clear picture in their minds of the benefits of change. Thus they lack motivation when the hard work sets in.
Examples of self-help goals
- lose weight
- quit smoking
- reduce alcohol consumption
- manage stress better
- be a better listener
- eliminate procrastination
The difference between self-help and self-care
Self-help acknowledges that there is a problem to solve, or that there is something lacking that needs to be improved upon. It may be physical, emotional, or spiritual in nature.
Self-care is more about preventing problems by making sure our core needs are met. These needs also fall into the physical, emotional, and spiritual categories.
The pros and cons of self-help books
Self-help books often oversimplify reality. How we got to where we are today is usually not a straight line from birth to the present. Past family dynamics, school experiences, the culture we live in, failures, friends, religious beliefs, and a host of other factors influence our present situations in both positive and negative ways.
Much of what is contained in self-help books is common sense. For that reason, you can probably learn many of the same things from a trusted, more experienced friend. You can also use a search engine such as Google, Yahoo, or Bing to find information on what you want to know. When you type in your question in the search bar, the most useful information will be on the first page or two of your search results.
To find out more about a self-help book that looks interesting, go to Amazon and read the top reviews- both positive and negative. You can save yourself the price of a book if it really is not worthwhile. Many books have a few new ideas woven into a lengthy text which leaves you buying paper, not strategies.
When self-help books are appropriate
- When you are part of a self-help group, people with similar problems. A couple of examples are divorce recovery, widows recovery, and weight reduction. Just knowing you are not alone goes a long way, along with mutual encouragement.
- When you are desiring spiritual growth and are following God’s principles for what you are seeking to change. But the term “self-help” in this arena is a misnomer as you will read further on.
When self-help books could be detrimental
Many people have problems that are too complicated to try to overcome alone.
- Trying to overcome addictions
- Trying to treat your medical condition when you are not a medical professional
- Trying to stop self-destructive thinking
What does the Bible say about self-help books?
I don’t want to burst your bubble, but here is the answer in a nutshell. Then I will get more specific.
“Vain is the salvation of man.” Psalm 108:12 ESV
“Psalm 108:13 reminds us that even though we do valiantly with God, He is the one at work.” (Tara-Leigh Cobble in Bible Recap, p. 305)
We can do all we want to improve ourselves, and that is honorable. We should want to be better. But when it is all said and done, the improvements that matter come from God, not ourselves.
God must be a part of our personal improvement plan
“The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.” Proverbs 16:9
Whenever we embark on a journey of personal improvement, we need to make sure that God is at the center of our plans. Sometimes we need more help than we realize and God can direct us.
“Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” Proverbs 3:5-6
Personal improvement is not impossible
Sometimes the behaviors that people want to change involve temptations: overeating, drugs, pornography. These problems can be overwhelming, seem insurmountable, and appear impossible to overcome. But God wants to help.
“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation, He will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” 1 Corinthians 10:13
“I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength”. Philippians 4:13
“We were taught in Him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” Ephesians 4:21b-24
Much of needed personal improvement requires changing the way we think. This can be a battle and often requires accountability partners, Biblical reminders, and sometimes professional help.
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:2
What is our responsibility in personal improvement?
- Love and Delight in God (Psalm 37:5)
- Confess our sin (1 John 1:9)
- Ask for attitude adjustments (Psalm 51:10)
- Request discernment and wisdom (James 1:5)
- Talk to God about our dreams, fears, and disappointments (1 Peter 5:7)
- Trust that God knows what is best (Proverbs 3:5-6)
- Give thanks for all of God’s gifts (1 Thessalonians 5:18)
- Not taking revenge into our own hands but leaving it to God (Romans 12:19)
You will notice that what is listed here are not physical actions. They all happen in our minds. They all relate to our thoughts.
What is God’s part in our personal improvement?
- Developing in us a love for others as we learn to love Him more (Mark 12:30-31)
- Giving us joy as we delight in Him (Psalm 16:11, 37:5)
- Surrounding us with peace as we trust in Him (Philippians 4:6-7)
- Giving us courage, confidence, and identity in Him (Ephesians 2:1, Romans 8:17, Hebrews 4:16, Philippians 4:13)
- Giving us wisdom (James 1:5, Proverbs 2:6)
- Developing our spiritual maturity (1 Peter 2:2, 2 Timothy 3:16, Hebrews 6:1)
Final thoughts on self-help books
“The desire to improve oneself is laudable inasmuch as it recognizes that we are imperfect creatures living in a world that is less than what we were intended for. However, self-help aids miss the point. Humans are not in need of self-improvement. We are in need of a Savior. This is not to say that all self-help methods are inherently bad; simply that anything that emphasizes self to the exclusion of God is off the mark.” (2)
So the question is, who are you putting your hope in? Are you trusting in what you can do for yourself? Or are you trusting in God who wants to help you improve in the best possible ways?
The first step in improving oneself is to have a personal relationship with Jesus. If you do not know Him and have questions you can call, text, or chat with the people at www.chataboutJesus.com.
You may also like to read:
- Self-care for women from God’s perspective
- Christian faith for beginners
- How to be still and know God in a busy world
- (1) Psychology Today
- (2) GotQuestions.org self-help methods