The Poise and Perils of “Self-Help”

When all things in the physical world fail to fulfill a deep inner need, leaving an emptiness that cannot be explained, the quest to find one’s sense of self is often embarked upon.  Similarly, when the pain of life gets too great, be it loss, illness, divorce, financial struggle or all of these together, the quest can also begin with the journey inward.  When we cease to blame the world or others around us for our own life experiences, we are finally left looking at ourselves.   It’s at this fork in the road that millions of people turn to self-help books and programs to make what is wrong, right.  We begin looking for tools and strategies to make life better and to lessen our pain.  This is a great, celebratory day when we stop reaching for something outside the self to fulfill us and we begin a transformation via the journey inward.

The words of wisdom gleaned from self-help work cannot be underestimated.  While scholars and scientists provide immeasurable information about the world, self-help authors are changing millions of lives.  It’s here that wisdom gained from trudging the depths of pain in the physical world brings priceless knowledge.  Then there are the scholars and scientists who bring pragmatic information in the form of self-help as well.  The plethora of aid in this genre cannot be underestimated and the real-life benefits not overlooked.  People grow and change into more stable beings through what they learn in self-help.  People become healed of deep wounds, begin healing their families and transform in ways we don’t always understand.  Quite often the journey becomes one of a life-long quest with layers and layers of positive growth undertaken.  The engagement of inner-work, inner-healing and helping the self becomes part of the personality and of everyday life.  A change in compassion, understanding, and a willingness to help others becomes apparent, but with a word of caution, another level of change can begin to grow.

The parallel pattern of growth can act as a great peril when embarking on self-help.  One detriment can be the loss of common sense because intellectualization takes over.  When this occurs, basic life skills can be put aside such as working for a living or securing a home for one’s self.  The basic needs of life, as were described by Maslow many years ago, seem to be lost, yet are necessary for survival in the physical world.  Food is needed to keep the body alive.  Medical attention can decrease pain and suffering.  A home of one’s own (whatever that may be) provides a grounding and safety in day to day life.  Self-help was never meant to deprive anyone of the basic needs of human life.

Another peril of working on one’s self is the notion of “detachment” which does not mean letting go of the love we have and feel for others.  Loving our family, our friends and others is another basic human need. If we detach from our children believing this is somehow necessary, we deprive them of parental love which can harm them for life.  If we detach from our friends in need, this lacks compassion and love, no matter how we try to justify it. In the end strong bonds will be broken and more pain will result than joy.  Self-help was never meant to damage or deprive anyone of secure, loving bonds, be it partners, family or friends.

Our own inner work does not mean pushing a friend in pain to look at themselves, causing them more pain.  Our self-help is just that, help for the self.  If we become out of balance with inner work we may begin to think we have to push, prod and cajole others into doing what we think is best.  It’s a good reminder to ourselves that we do not know the path of others and we should respect that by focusing only on ourselves.  Sadly, it’s the people who believe they know best who are often the most wounded and project their own suffering onto others.  Self-help was never meant to make anyone an authority on someone else’s life.

The last (though there are more, I’m sure) parallel peril is that self-help, when taken to the extreme, brings many people out of touch with true joy.  Life becomes one of grasping for the struggle and the challenges, constantly looking for pain and trouble.  If there is no trouble and life is peaceful, chaos may be created so there will be opportunities to live in the never-ending cycle of healing.  What is being missed is the great fun of life.  The great waves of joy that arise when we are sharing time with others are unheeded.  Laughter, light-heartedness, and all things deliciously good on this planet are overlooked.  Self-help was never meant to be a commitment to constant suffering.

So for the millions of people engaged in self-help in the way of books, movies, workshops and groups this can certainly lead to empowerment and composure.  Life begins to change for the better and though challenges still arise, these are faced with new strength and attitude.  If working on the self is balanced with fun and pleasure, then perhaps this is the point where life can best be lived.  Perhaps it’s here that ultimately, we will be living life with poise and a deep sense of inner joy that is rarely shaken because self-help combined with boundless joy can eventually lead us to self-love.

In reflection,


Photo is courtesy of Ava Clark of Toronto, Canada

Teresa L. DeCicco, PhD is the author of “Living Beyond the Five Senses” available at the BUY NOW button at the top of the page and in bookstores everywhere.  See more of her work at






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