I Was Obsessed With ‘Self-Help’—Until I Realized It Wasn’t Helpful

As a mom of four school-aged children and wife to an adventurous serial entrepreneur, trying to get work done while completing my graduate degree means there is never a dull moment.

To best manage my ever-changing and often chaotic schedule, I have read dozens of self-help books and amassed a treasure trove of tips and tools on how to live better and tap into my potential. I adopted high-performance habits, witnessed the life-changing magic of tidying up, embraced my imperfections, joined the 5 a.m. club, tapped into the power of now, and stopped apologizing. To say I “put in the work” would be an understatement.

In the midst of the pandemic ups and downs, I was grateful for the survival tips and life hacks that helped keep me stay sane while navigating uncharted territory. I shared many useful tools and life hacks on my blog and adapted them to help my clients move closer to their intended goals.

What happened next came somewhat unexpectedly. I went from “self-help junkie” to “self-help skeptic.” I discovered that what worked for me often didn’t work for others. In fact, tips that worked for some clients were sometimes detrimental to others and accomplished the opposite of their desired outcome.

I realized how important it was for me to understand the narrative beneath a particular individual’s desire for change before digging into which tools and lifestyle hacks are best suited for them. This was the most sustainable way to pave a path toward alignment between their core values and building the life they truly wanted.

Instead of looking for answers, we started digging for better questions. The tools are great, but are they great for you? Why do you want this change now? For example, facing fears can be a good thing, but does the notion of facing your fears apply in all situations?

Here’s another example: The often quoted “If it’s not a hell yes, it’s a no” has resulted in people saying no because it simply doesn’t “feel” good to say yes. Perhaps there are certified people-pleasers out there who can benefit from this approach, but if we adopt this view without deeper questioning, we run the risk of becoming narcissists, looking out for our own interests at the expense of others.

Un-Selfing Help

I have no doubt that the many self-help books I read have had a profound impact on my life and helped change it for the better. I feel a deep sense of gratitude to Brene, Eckhart, Dale, and all the self-help gurus who have made it their life’s mission to help us tap into our potential.

Despite having experienced tremendous growth from the self-help tools I adopted (I still wake up at 5 a.m. and get loads of stuff done before the kids take over) and from my graduate studies in psychology, my endless curiosity about the human condition helped me identify missing components of the puzzle that I previously wasn’t aware of.

The Spiritual Approach

In his best-selling and widely acclaimed book Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks shares a profound truth that completely altered the way I understood self-help and self-care.

While the willpower and desire for change come from us, for most of us it is the quality of our relationships that give us meaning and fulfillment, and it is in our ability to love and care for another that we can go beyond our “self.”

Sacks proposes we shift from “I” to “We” and become concerned with the welfare of others as though it were our own. Sacks argues that “the only people that will save us from ourselves is ‘We’ the People.”

While this concept isn’t new, we have seen a lot of new research on the link between taking responsibility and doing for others and improved physical health, mental health, increased happiness levels, and so forth. In a survey of people in 136 countries, people who had donated money to charity were happier than those who had not, and today we see the direct health benefits of helping others and volunteering.

The interdependent nature of our society is perhaps more evident today than ever, and in a post-COVID world, we will have a rare opportunity to re-examine the role of self-help and self-care and recognize the inescapable link between the “self” and the “other,” which will hopefully lead us to a place of greater connection, fulfillment and increased joy.

I have always loved looking to research for guidance on best practices for more wholesome living, and so I continue to share tips with my clients and on my blog. My hope is that you might do the same and adopt what works for you while remaining curious and having in mind that there is no one size fits all formula for success.

As a recovering perfectionist, I can tell you that when success is measured on someone else’s barometer or defined by external forces (e.g., standards of others, validation, results) as opposed to internal ones (the inherent value of what we are doing or want to do), not only do we become more likely to “cheat” the system (like using that oh-so-tempting Instagram filter that makes us look flawless), but we also begin to cheat our systems—the one inside ourselves that is left feeling continuously depleted, as though we are never enough.

Finally, time is a precious, unrenewable resource, so use it wisely. How are you spending your time? Take note of what you can change to move closer toward your intended goals and not someone else’s. I couldn’t think of a better quote that beautifully encapsulates this principle than this verse from Hillel the Elder: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me. If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, then when?

Originally published November 2020.