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MIT student blogger Natasha B. '16

Self Help by Natasha B. '16

I <3 bell hooks, thoughts on personal change, the merits of self-improvement books

I raised my young self on a steady diet of self-help literature. I read parenting books when I was a kid–books like How to Speak So Children Will Listen, How to Listen So Children Will Speak and The Blessing of a Skinned Knee–and marked the pages I thought my parents should read. I read guidebooks for each stage of development the stage before I needed them: The Care and Keeping of You before I reached puberty, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff for Teens before I reached twelve, and Elaine St. James’ books on “Living the Simple Life” by involving your kids in household chores and limiting the color scheme of your work clothes well before I had such a thing as work clothes, while I was still on the receiving end of chore assignments. Girlwise by Julia Devillers was my favorite of all. I read it over and over and celebrated when an old man I met complimented me on the firm handshake I learned in Chapter 4.

And then suddenly I stopped. Partly I got busy with books that were age-appropriate or relevant to my life, but mostly I decided that the self-help shelves didn’t really have much to offer. I was looking around me and realizing that the adults I knew didn’t have it all together the way I’d thought they did. The adults I didn’t know, I figured, were probably the same: pretending to have it together, writing books about having it together, and puttering along in their individual worlds of chaos and delusion like everyone else.

I stopped reading self-help books. I became a skeptic. I saw people trying and failing to make change in their own lives, and I doubted an inverse correlation between the number of self-help books in someone’s library and the number of problems in their life. I developed a general disdain for books that seemed–like diet pills or clickbait listicles–to be offering quick or permanent solutions to problems I thought were probably universal or inescapable. My own self-improvement efforts became a private indulgence. I read How to Talk to Anyone (a wonderful, wonderful book) when I was so shy my high school classmates thought I didn’t speak English, and when I was done (and significantly less shy) I removed the book from my bookcase. I read Flirting 101: How to Charm your way to Love, Friendship, and Success and reconfirmed my opinion of the self-help genre as ludicrous.* Maybe I read a few books as my dedication trailed off, but when I stayed away, I stayed away for a long time.

It was a slow reintroduction. My sophomore year of college, a friend lent me a copy of Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway with the disclaimer that he “usually didn’t like self-help books” but that this one was special. I read the beginning and found it revelatory enough to buy another by the same author (Susan Jeffers) titled Embracing Uncertainty. It claimed to offer “breakthrough methods for achieving peace of mind when facing the unknown.” At that time in my life, I felt adrift. I was eighteen and my world seemed lawless. I wanted someone to tell me what to do, or a religion to tell me what to do, or even just a stronger voice inside myself to tell me what to do. The book offered a way of thinking I had never encountered. It described life as an adventure that would be ruined if you knew the whole story. The impact on me was profound. My anxiety, which had centered on feelings of fear and uncertainty, melted away a little–not entirely, but permanently. I kept these books, albeit tucked away sometimes so visitors wouldn’t think I needed self-help books. They were exceptions to the general rule.

This summer, I read bell hooks. I started with All About Love. Having heard about bell hooks in the context of radical feminism and antiracist activism, I expected something a little angry, a little revolutionary. Instead I found a voice that was not angry at all–and was wholly revolutionary.

bell hooks wrote with a softness and compassion, with a curious and introspective approach, firm but easy language, and no apology for her interest in the self-help genre. She was critical of the texts she mentioned, but she did not dismiss them out of hand. She believed that the authors had something to offer, and I believed her. I read her essays on white supremacy and patriarchy in Killing Rage: Ending Racism and her thoughts on the female search for love in Communion. I’m still dwelling in the space her work opened in me. It is a space of gentleness, optimism, and unfamiliar trust. When I turned over the last book of hers I read, the designation in the top-left-hand corner of the back cover read “cultural studies/self-help.”

Her books do not feel like gimmicks. Their covers are not plastered with shiny endorsements or pictures of skinny white women or motherly figures with knowing smiles. They contain more cultural criticism than anecdotal instruction. Sometimes her messages are unclear to me, but they are not unwelcome. I am not sure they have changed me at all, or that I want them to, but I will continue reading them. I’m realizing it doesn’t kill me to take the concept of self-help seriously. There are things I don’t know. There are people who run their lives better than I do. There are writers like bell hooks, whose lived experiences and years of study give them wisdom I can’t make up for myself.

Readers, what do you think? Is self-improvement an end in itself, or does it come about as a byproduct of the pursuit of external achievements? What kinds of self-help advice have helped or not helped you? If self-help books don’t actually help, is it a waste of time to read them for fun, the way we read beauty & health tips in magazines with pretty pictures, happily knowing we’ll never try them?


Further Thoughts

1. My mother read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up cover to cover and proceeded to clear out all our bookshelves, closets, drawers and even the Barn Containing All Things Imaginable From Bell Jars to Broken Cars, which was previously thought to be an impossible task. My high school friend’s mother apparently did the same thing. Beware. That book might change your whole house.

2. Women are the primary audience of the self-help genre. There is a stigma around the genre: like many things classified as “feminine pursuits,” self-help is devalued and seen as frivolous.**

3. Like other industries that thrive by convincing women they are inherently flawed or unworthy and need to spend money to be fixed or improved, the self-help industry is in many ways exploitative and damaging.

4. I still doubt the authority of self-help authors. Even people with doctorates can be hacks, and even people with the best intentions can spew misguided nonsense. I read selectively. Umberto Eco can tell me how to write a thesis, Thich Nhat Hanh can tell me how to be a good citizen, but no one can tell me that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, or that unflagging individual happiness and personal pleasure are the most meaningful pursuits in life.


Related Articles I Have Not Totally Read

“The Science of Self-Help.” Algis Valiunas, The New Atlantis Journal of Technology & Society.

“Self help as women’s popular culture in suburban New Jersey: An ethnographic perspective.” Kelly C. George, Participations Journal of Audience & Reception Studies.

“The self help industry helps itself to billions of dollars.” Lindsay Myers, BrainBlogger.


* The book (in which I might find some serviceable tips now) was useless to a fifteen-year-old girl who only crushed on teachers, gay boys, and people with girlfriends. (It suggested working sexual innuendos into everyday conversation. For example, if you were raising a flag with someone, you could say “Let’s get it up.” My thoughts at the time: who regularly raises flags with the people they want to date? and gross.) I resigned myself to a life of practical and respectable unflirting.

**”Thinking about self-help as a feminine pursuit, or put another way, as “women’s popular culture,” inevitably begs the question: “which women?” By bringing attention to the genre’s association with “women,” my intention is to consciously invoke the long-standing synecdoche, confusing middle-class women for all women. Opening up the category “women” necessitates not only looking beyond the middle-class woman, but also within that category. In order to take account of identity as it relates to the reading and social activities of a particular group of women, in the case of the present study, a group of white, middle-class women in suburban New Jersey, one must begin by asking, what is contained in Volume 9, Issue 2 November 2012 Page 27 the image of a White, Suburban Woman? What does one expect to find or not find in this figure? Alternately, the classification as women’s popular culture is also intended to invite reflection on self-help as a feminized activity, a genre described as “simplistic” (Woodstock, 2007), “narcissistic” (DeFrancisco, 1995), “irrational” (Askehave, 2004) and “bourgeois” (Parkins & Brabazon, 2001).” (Kelly C. George, “Self help as women’s popular culture in suburban New Jersey.”)