I recently acquired a Kindle (gotta love Christmas, the time of the year when wealthy relatives feel unnecessarily guilty about not emailing all year and try to make up for it with consumer electronics). As a result of this I was browsing through the Kindle store, and I came across a promotion for a series of books called the ‘Overcoming Series’. Now, you might assume that, with a promising title like that, the series was aimed at people who worry they masturbate too much (over-cumming, geddit?), and would include volumes with titles like Wankers in the Kitchen: How Adding These Simple Foods to your Diet can Boost your Zinc and B-vitamin Levels, or Good Vibrations: We Road Test the 50 Best Intimate Pleasure Devices on the Market.* Sadly for people like me who enjoy bad puns, it turns out that this is instead a series of self-help books aimed at people with common psychological maladies, and encouraging them to make use of self-administered CBT techniques to overcome them.
I have a problem with this. Obviously, I have a problem with CBT at the best of times (I once described my own experience of CBT for depression as feeling like I was being sent out to compete in a jousting tournament armed only with a cocktail stick), but in this particular instance my problem is with the continued existence of self-help books.
I can see that, in the pre-internet era, someone who felt they were able to offer general help and guidance to worried or confused people might feel publishing a self-help book was the only practical means of getting their advice out into the public sphere. Back in those days, after all, there was no easy way to get something widely distributed. The only real alternative to publishing a book would have been trying to persuade a newspaper or magazine editor to run an article, or a broadcasting executive to make a programme.
But we no longer exist in the pre-internet era. These days – when getting something distributed worldwide is as simple as typing some words in a box and clicking on a button marked ‘Publish’ – anyone who’s motivated by a sincere desire to help can, if they want to, make the kind of generalised advice that’s found in self-help books widely available for free. So it follows that people who still write and publish self-help books are purposefully making use of a more restricted distribution channel with the explicit intention of making money out of their advice – or, rather, out of the worried and confused people who think they need advice. Such behaviour seems to me to be – how shall I put this? – ethically dubious. And that’s before we get on to discussing the advice itself.
There are a range of different books in the ‘Overcoming’ series – titles called Overcoming Depression, Overcoming Anxiety, and Overcoming Obsessive Compulsive Disorder are all promoted on Amazon – but the one that particularly caught my eye was Overcoming Low Self-Esteem. I have concerns about the other volumes, to be sure, not least the self-diagnosis issue: many people who have mild, transient or situation-specific symptoms of anxiety, depression or OCD will not have a clinical problem at all, and encouraging them in the belief that they’re suffering from a mental illness may be disastrous for their psychological well-being. But in terms of low self-esteem it seems to me that the overall effect of the book can’t help but be counter-productive.
I mean, think about it. Selling a self-help book for low self-esteem to someone involves actively encouraging them to think more negatively about themselves. It means persuading them that they actually are deficient in some way, that left to their own devices they lack something that it is necessary for a well-rounded individual to possess. See what I mean about counter-productive?
Then, too, I would have thought it was a fairly obvious point, but perhaps it needs to be stressed: self-esteem has to come from the self. A sense of esteem built on external things – like what a self-help book says – is, by definition, not self-esteem. Now, actually, a sense of esteem bolstered from the outside may well be no bad thing – the warm glow when someone compliments us or thanks us is a feeling most of us would agree is very pleasant – but it’s not self-esteem. Self-esteem is what you think about yourself, regardless of what anyone else thinks or says.
So, do you want to know Aethelread’s patent method for boosting your self-esteem? Well I’d suggest the biggest single thing you could do is stop focussing on how you feel (and certainly don’t buy any books that promise to change the way you feel): focus instead on what you do. Anyone’s sense of self-worth has to be derived, ultimately, from their own sense that they achieve worthwhile things, and the way to bolster your sense that you achieve worthwhile things is …to achieve worthwhile things. You should take the mental energy that you’re currently investing in poring over the supposed deficiencies in your feelings and invest it instead in doing something real – volunteer work, or a new hobby, or more time dedicated to an existing one. By thinking about something other than how you feel about yourself you will, in time, start to feel better about yourself.
A self-help book that encourages someone to apply CBT principles is advocating a form of self-directed therapy, and therapy, by necessity, requires a person to focus their attention inward. There are times when that’s necessary and productive (though self-directed therapy is always a fairly dodgy idea), but this isn’t one of them. You’ll never boost your self-esteem by focussing on the way you think about the way you feel about yourself (which is what, ultimately, a CBT-centred approach is going to encourage). You’ll boost your self-esteem by doing more things that make you feel better about yourself.
(I don’t claim, by the way, that this advice is particularly insightful, or will necessarily be helpful to you – how could I claim either when it’s at the level of generalised observations and basic statements of principle? But it’s no less helpful – and no more generalised – than any you’ll find in a self-help book, and it comes free of charge. If your problems go deeper than this, I offer you my sincere sympathy, and also a recommendation that you seek formal assistance. Self-help books won’t do anything for you, except make you poorer.)
* – Other suggested titles in the ‘Over-cumming Series’: You’re not Trying to Strangle it to Death: Tips for Avoiding the Dreaded ‘Vulcan Death Grip’. Or “Can’t You See I’m Doing My Pilates?”: The 101 Best Excuses for when Someone Comes In Unexpectedly. Or Sometimes I Just Like to Crack One Out: Explaining your Porn Stash to your Partner. Sorry. I’ve got a million of these.