5 reasons behind the rise of the anti-self-help movement

My friend James held up a copy of Simon Sinek’s book “Start with Why” that he grabbed from my table and remarked matter-of-factly, “You still read this self-help garbage?”

James’ isn’t alone in feeling this way. Self-help has gained somewhat of a bad rap in recent years and I can kind of see why.

The rise of blogging platforms, video-sharing websites like YouTube, self-publishing services, and the availability of online marketing funnels spawned a whole new generation of self-help “gurus” rushing to get their names out there in order to package and sell their expertise in the form of $3000 seminars.

Many of them deliver unique insights and wisdom harvested from years of struggle, research, and experimentation. Others simply parrot what’s already been repeated a thousand times in the market and sell it to you as fresh, life-changing advice.

But setting aside whoever’s delivering the message, is there a case to be made that self-help is more often than not, of no help?

Here are 5 reasons why the self-help genre sometimes suffers from this perception, and how you can make self-help work for you instead of letting it lead you by the nose.

1. It can make you feel worse about yourself

Self-help is supposed to motivate you and give you the tools to do better, think better, look better, relate better. But for some people, it can often yield the opposite effect.

You read Steven Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, only to realize you are currently highly ineffective.

On YouTube, self-help experts exhort you to:

“Spend 10 minutes meditating when you wake up, or your day won’t begin on the right note,” and to “surround yourself with 5 successful people, or risk being forever mediocre.”

Everything you read or watch guilt-trips you into feeling as though if you don’t do anything to improve yourself or your situation, you’re shortchanging yourself.

And the more you read and watch self-help content, the further your “ideal self” seems to be getting away from you.

You very quickly feel overwhelmed with all the self-help techniques needing to be implemented to get your life “back on track”. You get all hard on yourself for being imperfect and begin to entertain the thought that you’re a loser.

At its best, self-help can inspire you to transform your life. At its worst, it can lead you to new depths of self-condemnation.

What to do instead

“There’s nothing wrong with self-improvement, as long as you recognize that at some point you’re going to have to accept yourself in all your imperfect glory. What’s wrong with liking yourself the way you are?” 

Jessica Zafra

Are you into self-help because you want to reach your full potential, or are you doing it only because everyone else is into it and you have FOMO?

If you’re the former, it is important to remind yourself that you’re fine, as Bruno Mars pleads, “just the way you are.”

Learn to practice self-acceptance and self-compassion because if you don’t, you can very quickly become overly critical of your progress. Remember that self-improvement is a long-term process.

If you’re the latter, figure out if the type of self-help you’re about to engage in is even right for you to begin with.

As an example, don’t get sucked into the 101 advertised ways to become rich, happy and successful if you don’t even care about being rich, and your idea of success and happiness is the ability to stay home and play with your two French Bulldogs.

Pretending to be someone you’re not makes you miserable very quickly. Only engage in areas of self-help that align with who you are and what you value.

2. It distracts you from actually pursuing your goals

Don’t consume personal development for the warm feeling of inspiration, consume it to turn the insights into action. Once you act, move on to the next puzzle piece and advance.” — Ayodeji Awosika

Watching self-help videos delivers huge shots of inspiration and dopamine. That’s why we find it difficult to stop at one.

You feel like you’re constantly learning and improving yourself with each video watched, book read or podcast listened to. In reality, however, you’re not getting anything done because you haven’t taken any meaningful action. It’s like slamming your car’s accelerator pedal only to wheelspin.

I’ve known my fair share of self-help junkies who hop around from seminar to seminar, loading up on new skills and techniques, only to never apply them.

Why is this the case?

If you think about it, most of us don’t really want to get out of our comfort zone. We say we do, but when faced with a decision to take real action, we hesitate to pull the trigger.

Instead, we convince ourselves that we already took action by going for all these seminars and reading every available self-help book.

What to do instead

This is an easy fix. Entrepreneur and motivational speaker Gary Vaynerchuk dishes out perfect advice when he says:

“You can only read so much and at some point, you just have to do.

Realize that you’re not going to change anything by loading up on motivational self-help videos, books, and podcasts alone. As the saying goes:

“Knowledge is power but knowledge without action is useless.”

The ability to reach your goals very much depends on your willingness to take consistent action toward them.

3. It overly fixates us on the opinions of “experts”

We tend to revere self-help experts because of their larger-than-life personality and reputation.

As author Mark Manson points out in an article critiquing the self-help industry, self-help is a “market-driven, rather than a peer-reviewed industry.”

It is market-driven in the sense that the popular “self-help experts” may not necessarily be the ones that know more, but the ones that market themselves the best. And often, these “self-help experts” are the ones teaching lessons that they most need to learn themselves.

Michelle Goodman, author of “The Anti 9-to-5 Guide” provides insight into this phenomenon in an article where she states, “I’ve known dating advice columnists who don’t date.”

Even experts don’t always have their shit together. They are only human after all.

When we listen solely to the opinions of self-help experts, we end up losing the ability to figure things out for ourselves. We also fail to tune in to how we really feel and what we really desire.

We make the arbitrary goals that these experts set as the standard to be met, without first filtering them through our own values.

Maybe we tend to do so because listening to self-help experts allows us to be less committed. They’re not going to care if you don’t improve. There’s no accountability. If you screw up, they’re not going to call you out on it.

What to do instead

Sometimes, you don’t need to look further than your spouse or best friend to tell you what it is that “needs fixing”. They can see your blind spots. They know your strengths and weaknesses. They tell it to you as they see it.

If you’re interested in becoming a better person, simply ask them how they think you can improve. Of course, it hurts us to hear critique from people we love, no matter how constructive the advice.

But remember that they love you and are personally invested in seeing you grow as a person. No self-help expert can be that involved in your life.

4. It focuses on the outcome rather than the process

A lot of self-help is predicated on helping people achieve results — do this to achieve a better body; do that to achieve wealth and success.

This creates a life where you’re always chasing something, a process that could actually make you miserable. Take for instance our twin pursuit of happiness and success and how it plays out:

Unhappiness from non-attainment of goal→

Happiness from attainment of goal→

Happiness fades when sights are set on a higher goal→

Unhappiness from non-attainment of higher goal→

I call this the “success-dependent happiness” loop. It demonstrates how trying to achieve an outcome or result is a never-ending cycle that if you’re overly fixated on, leads to ephemeral bursts of joy followed by longer lasting periods of chronic discontentment.

What to do instead

“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue.” — Viktor Frankl

Treat self-improvement and personal growth as a process, not a goal.

Enjoy seeing the fruits of your labor but above all, learn to love the process of growing, because that’s where you’ll spend the most time.

When you learn to love the process, your goals will, like Thanos, become inevitable.

5. It sucks the joy out of life

We are increasingly optimizing every aspect of our lives.

What time you wake up. How you spend your most productive hours. How you make the most of your morning commute. What you do between 8 to 10 pm after your kids are asleep to ensure you keep the “hustle” alive.

Nothing is free from self-help’s scrutiny.

It’s all about utility, efficiency, and productivity these days. Sometimes it’s as though we are trying to be finely-tuned robots rather than human beings.

We’ve even resorted to cutting off lifelong friends just because they don’t fall into Jim Rohn’s definition of the 5 people we should be spending time with. Just because they aren’t as ambitious or successful and may occasionally be a bit melancholic, doesn’t mean we should drop them like a hot potato.

The real irony here is that in our haste to design a better, more well-lived life by turning to self-help, we may end up failing to appreciate and enjoy life itself.

What to do instead

Before you engage in self-help in its various forms, ask yourself this question:

“Am I doing it because I want to? Or because it’s what everyone else around me is doing and I feel pressured to do likewise?”

Self-help is only helpful if you believe it enables you to achieve the life you desire, a life that is in line with what you value.

The Takeaway

Practiced the right way, self-help can allow us to unleash our latent potential and pave the way toward stronger relationships, greater career prospects and better habits.

On the other hand, jumping into self-help just because it’s the “right thing to do” and without the right mindset can quickly work against a person, leaving him or her feeling overwhelmed.

Remember that each of us is unique. We all have different values. We desire different things. We are at different stages of life and work. All this makes self-help difficult to apply indiscriminately with a broad stroke of the brush.

If you want to practice self-help, do it in a way that makes sense for you personally. Don’t force it. If you treat self-help as a game to be mastered, it might end up playing you instead.


4th Generation family business entrepreneur, father to 2 beautiful children and husband to a lovely wife that is out of my league. I write to inspire, encourage and teach. Based out of Singapore, a melting pot of ideas and stories. Visit Victor at BigToSmall.com.
4th Generation family business entrepreneur, father to 2 beautiful children and husband to a lovely wife that is out of my league. I write to inspire, encourage and teach. Based out of Singapore, a melting pot of ideas and stories. Visit Victor at BigToSmall.com.

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