in Thinking about psychiatry

Self-help: friend or foe?


There was a page advert in the Metro this week for a three days seminar with TV hypnotist Paul McKenna and pals which promised to ‘Change your life in three days’. 

In just 3 days, you will learn quick and lasting techniques to change your life, allowing you to:

Let go of your old emotional baggage
Have supreme self-confidence
Move past the obstacles to change
Supercharge your creativity
Deal with the past, once and for all
Become the person you’ve always wanted to be

If these claims could be substantiated, then this is pretty impressive work.  As someone who tries to address at least some of these problems with my patients on a daily basis, for me changing someone’s life permanently in three days would be nothing short of a miracle.  Is the self help industry really helping people or merely offering over simplified solutions to complicated personal and social problems?

The wise woman in the cave has been providing guidance since the beginning of time, but the pioneer of the modern self help movement was Dale Carnegie who published his book How to win friends and influence people in 1936.  It sold 15 million copies and continues to sell in an updated version today.  The industry it spawned is estimated to be worth $11bn.  These riches are not surprising; in a world where dissatisfaction is rife and those without personal contentment or possessions are failures, the best self-help materials appear to make the keys to a successful life appear within reach and the world deliciously simple.  ‘Self-help’ and the reward it promises therefore represent an undoubtedly attractive proposition.

Closer scrutiny reveals a more mixed picture.  In order to promote their product, the marketing for self help materials must necessarily engender or at least encourage personal deficit within potential clients which their product then promises to satisfy.  Not only is this (like most advertising) socially corrosive, but represents a circular proposition.  Furthermore the self help industry is the product of, but also fans the flames of, the West’s culture of individualism.  In this way they work so as to discourage people from acting as part of collective movements to solve their problems but to see them as individually based.  Attention and scrutiny is thereby attracted away from gross social inequalities and the myth promoted that health and wealth are largely self generated.

The initial and perhaps laudible aim that one should reach one’s full potential be has been replaced by a continuing demand that maximize oneself as ‘human capital’.  Self help can be considered as colluding in a cultural trap cultural trap whereby people are in endless cycles of self-invention and overwork as they struggle to stay ahead of the rapidly restructuring economic order.  The tacit assumption that people need help, until proven otherwise, is also troubling and can only exacerbate our burgeoning culture of victimization.

In terms of content self-help can be seen as equally wanting and has a tendency to present ancient clichés as revolutionary new strategies.  The majority of the wisdom self help books provide is actually repackaged common sense and platitudes.  This repackaging is necessary as any author is unable to lay claim to ideas that might be considered common property and with ownership in mind therefore seeks sophistication via the appearance of scientific method and intellectual rigor.  Anthony Robbins has, for instance, called one of his most successful books Unlimited power: the new science of personal relations.  As well as the message, the medium is also vital as with relatively little insight to impart, a theatrics will help (just like a brightly coloured sugar pill acts as a placebo).  If your friend tells you something you might not listen.  However if you’ve paid £400 for the honour then the situation may be quite different and large expensive personal development seminars are widespread.  Anthony Robbins is famed for using firewalking demonstrations to illustrate that the main quality shared by those who achieve greatness is the ability to take action.

When the dust settles, my concern about self help overlaps with my concerns about the worst excesses of psychology and psychiatry practice.  It promises to do much more than it can ultimately deliver, the financial motivation behind it is rarely scrutinized and its individualistic focus draws attention from socially based solutions that might ultimately provide more permanent succour.  I would however concede that it is far preferable that people spend their money on McKenna’s show than on, say, a three day booze and drug fuelled bender – an altogether more dysfunctional coping strategy.

I leave you with two further thoughts:

“The only way to get rich from a self-help book is to write one” – Christopher Buckley in God is my Broker

“The part I really don’t understand is if you’re looking for self-help, why would you read a book written by somebody else? That’s not self-help, that’s help” – George Carlin comedian



Wikipedia article – which needs a bit of work if anyone’s interested….

SHAM – How the Gurus of self help made us helpless – Steve Salerno
– the first chapter is available here and this is well worth a read
– he has a blog too

Self Help Inc – Makeover culture in American life by Micki McKee

How mumbo jumbo conquered the world by Francis Wheen has an ascerbic chapter on this subject

Write a Comment


  1. Hi FP

    There is some merit in the NLP techniques which Mr Mckenna uses, however he is involved largely in money making exercise used to attract those who can afford his books and seminars and follow up books and seminars not those who maybe helped but cannot afford his prices.

    This is true of the majority of self-help gurus. Their books offer a psuedo spirituality wherein wealth and the bitch goddess success are deemed to be the highest attainment, where super confidence and thinness of body is all.

    Deep seated emotional baggage cannot be swept away easily, it takes work, there is no quick fix.

    I personally find some NLP techniques useful as I am sure they would be to other disenfranchised people but we are not his target audience.

    My advice would be to order an nlp workbook from the library and make up your own mind if the techniques are of benefit and give the money you would have spent on his seminar to charity, as life is not only about the individual.

    Good article by the way.


  2. The next time I read a blog, I hope that it does not fail me
    as much as this particular one. I mean, I know it was my choice to read through, but I genuinely thought you’d have something helpful to say. All I hear is a bunch of whining about something that you could fix if you weren’t too busy looking for attention.