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Madeleine Eames

- Psychotherapist
- Mindfulness Teacher

Why self-help is not always helpful

” You have to go near in order to go far”

Jiddu Krishnamurti


Ever buy a book you think will help or change your life, only to forget it and sentence it to an insignificant life accompanied by all it’s self-help sisters on the shelf? Well, lean in… I’ve figured out why:

Self help gives tons of advice about what we should or could do with our lives in order to feel better, be more productive, or set goals. Big BUT here: there is a disconnect, a gap, between the advice and the change….(no kidding, or we’d all be enlightened 10 times over by now).

Confession: I have browsed self-help sections for hours, I have walls of self-help books, some of which I love and others I have read once and forgotten, some I’ve read the first chapter and ditched.

Take for example, I read that I should give up the belief of what others think of me. Maybe there’s a few touching quotes to go with it. Great idea (trumpets please). However, the disconnect lies between reading it, and coming to know in the moment-to-moment awareness of life, when I am caring about what others think, or who am I and what happens in that split second when I actually do care about what others think of me. Where is that damn quote now??

Unless it is a concrete action step ie. clean out my closet, or go to the gym everyday at this time, it will in fact peter away and be relegated to the archives of unactionable, forgotten goals, with a side order of beating-yourself-up for continuing a self-defeating habit.


So I am boldly suggesting that rather than committing to “I’ll be happier, kinder, more loving,” I suggest you rather commit to a mindfulness practice (gulp). It’s not with lightness that I suggest this. I have been around the self-help circles for many years and experimented with every possible technique and process on myself and others… always looking for what works to help people.

Without an element of mindfulness, we continue to react in habitual ways.  We can think all the positive thoughts we want, but our default mode returns under stress. Alternatively if we cultivate a mindful awareness, we can shift in ourselves so we then begin to notice the negative thoughts as well as the positive and accept the whole package deal with a light heart. It is only then that perhaps a peaceful, happy disposition appears more often as the default mode.

Back to the example of caring what others think. Say you are in a social situation and notice a suspicious look on someones face; “I wonder what they think of me” you think automatically and trot down that familiar route of “what did I say, I shouldn’t have said that” etc. It’s only in retrospect that you can notice that familiar, well-worn path that you have trodden. ie. there is no awareness of having gone unconscious and out of the present moment, and you’ve completely forgotten the commitment to not caring what others think… a recipe now for beating yourself up further.

So let’s look an an alternate route. Let’s say you notice that you care what others think of you. This has given rise to some uncomfortable thoughts, feelings and actions where you side-step your true self in order to produce a self that is acceptable to others. You commit to a mindfulness practice: to be aware of thoughts and feelings as they arise in the moment. Now you’re in the same situation with a group of friends. You say something and notice the subtle change in someone’s face. You notice a slight contraction in your body…and the thought “What did she think of me”. You smile and notice the familiar pattern of caring what other people think, but don’t go into the victim story attached to it. You take a deep breath and proceed with kindness, genuineness and no judgement.


Which route leads to more permanent change? (enter Jeopardy music). You guessed it!


Self -help feels good. It’s comfortable, it’s cozy. It reminds us of who we are. However, when we’re out there in the war zone, where is it then, and how are all those quotes helping you now? Happiness doesn’t ever lie in a destination, it is only ever found in the now.

If you want to silence that critic once and for all, give up the self-help struggle telling you how to do it, and just become aware OF it.

This is why I am now throwing out all of my self-help books unless there is some aspect of mindfulness to it. Well, not all of them. Some of them I love. But, I am going to commit to my mindfulness practice and start reading all of that wonderful fiction out there again.


… and I still love quotes:


“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson







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