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Does it Make Sense to Go to a Therapist? What About Reading Self-Help Books?
For some people, the answer to the questions posed in the title is so obviously, “yes,” that it doesn’t even need to be discussed. However, there seems to be an increasing number of people answering those questions, “no.”
Now, before we get into this, it’s important for you to know a little bit about my background because it does inform my opinion. First of all, I’ve read more than a hundred self-help books and I have a book that was at one point, one of the top 50 best-selling self-help books on Amazon (101 Things All Young Adults Should Know). Additionally, I’ve gone to a couple of multiple-day Tony Robbins events which I very much enjoyed. On top of all of that, I am a psychology major and at one point, just a couple of years ago, I did seriously consider going back to school to get a master's so I could go into counseling. I decided against that for a variety of reasons, but it partially had to do with advice from my life coach.
I’ve had a life coach for, gosh, maybe a decade now. I talk to her about once every 2-3 months at this point and I find it very valuable, primarily because I find it very useful to have a smart person that can give me a second opinion on ANYTHING that goes through my head. When we were talking about me going back to school, she told me she thought that once I got the necessary experience, I could turn it into a 100k-per-year business, but she also thought I might get a little bored with a lot of clients who really don’t have much going on in their lives. That had a ring of truth to me, so it helped encourage me to go in a different direction.
Now, you might think after reading all that, “Obviously this guy is going to be about as pro-therapist/self-help as you can get, right?” However, it’s actually a bit more complicated than that.
First of all, let’s talk about what potential value psychologists, psychiatrists, and self-help books bring to the table.
If you have a mental health issue that is causing difficulties in your life or making you unhappy, it could be because of a chemical imbalance in your brain. There really are some people that are only functional on drugs that fix problems in their brains. Are they typical? Not at all, but they exist. Some other people may have genetic tendencies that exacerbate issues they have, but in my personal opinion, that’s often (but, certainly not always) used as an excuse to avoid having to address the real issues.
So, what are the real issues?
Broken patterns of thought and behavior.
You’re depressed because you have patterns of thought that lead to you being depressed. You’re anxious because you have patterns of thought that lead to you being anxious. Your marriage is screwed up because one, or more likely both of you, have patterns of thought and behavior that lead to it being screwed up.
Getting beyond broken patterns of thinking and behavior, self-help embraces the idea that some patterns of thought and behavior are much more likely to lead to “success.” For example, one of the OG self-help books was Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, which was published in 1937. It’s still considered a self-help classic and in it, Hill explicitly talks about the importance of successful patterns. He writes things like, "There is a pattern to success, and that pattern can be learned and followed” and "Success is a pattern that can be replicated. Find the pattern, follow the pattern, and success is inevitable."
Tony Robbins, who is the king of modern self-help gurus also focuses very heavily on this same concept. One of his core principles is, "One of the smartest things you can do is to model people who are already successful."
Theoretically, all of this sounds like a good idea, right? So, what’s the rub?
Well, the rub is the same one that’s creating problems all across our society. Standards have slipped considerably, there are fewer “wise” people than there used to be, and politics is being inserted into all sorts of areas where it wasn’t before.
Whether you are talking about a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a therapist, a counselor, or even a self-help author, you are giving these people the opportunity to make changes to the way you think based on what you hear. That’s an intimate and important thing. So to do that, you both need to have a certain amount of trust that they’re well-meaning and that they’re competent enough to help you.
This is increasingly an iffy bet for a number of reasons.
Should a therapist who needs a therapist to function be treating patients? I’d say absolutely freaking not, but pretty clearly it’s happening.
Additionally, given the incredible levels of political polarization in America and some of the very bizarre beliefs that liberals have increasingly embraced in recent years, this information provided by ChatGPT should give you some pause about going to a psychologist as well:
One of the most well-known surveys on the political leanings of psychologists was conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2006. The survey found that 85% of APA members identified as either liberal or moderate, while only 15% identified as conservative. Similarly, a survey conducted by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in 2011 found that 92% of its members identified as liberal, while only 8% identified as conservative.
Very few liberals in 2023 seem to be able to separate their liberalism from… well, anything. Do I think someone who believes men can become women, American society is structurally racist, white people are bad because of the color of their skin, or Republicans are evil, has any business at all counseling or giving therapy to people? Again, abso-freaking-lutely not, but it’s happening on a massive scale. If you’re a man having relationship troubles and your marriage counselor is a liberal feminist, what do you think your chances are of saving your marriage as compared to the chances that she’ll blame you for everything and put the final nail in the coffin?
On top of all this, there are a variety of different approaches to psychology, but it’s still an art that relies a great deal on communication skills, trust building, understanding human nature, and having a knack for reading other human beings. Just because you’re a warm body with a psychology degree doesn’t mean you’ll be any good at all at helping people and guess what? The number of people that have these necessary skills have dropped considerably over the last couple of decades.
So, what does all of this mean?
It means that before you go to a therapist, you should do your due diligence. Do some research, see what people say, and be prepared to try out multiple therapists to find someone you click with it. I’ve had a lot of trainers and massage therapists over the years and guess what? Some of them were really good and some of them weren’t. The same goes for therapists.
As for self-help books, I believe they’re extremely useful, but again, there are a couple of caveats.
The first is that not all books are created equal. If you want to read a self-help book, start with this “best of” list I wrote and go from there. If you want something more specific, do a little research and look for recommended books from people that have the same problem you do. Follow that up by reading the reviews as well.
Keep in mind that because so many books have been written throughout the years, many newer tomes just take a single concept that was discussed in older works and turn it into a whole new book. That doesn’t mean all new self-help books are bad, because they’re certainly not, but the fact it’s on the top 10 list right now doesn’t mean it’s a classic that will stand the test of time.
The other thing to keep in mind is that if you are not careful, you can start treating self-help books as a masturbatory end unto themselves. Put another way, it means you can feel like you’re accomplishing something just by reading the book instead of implementing any of the things you learn. To give you an example, if you told me you were afraid to make phone calls, I wouldn’t have you read a book, I’d have you call to order pizza for dinner, have you make appointments over the phone, and just randomly hand you the phone while I was in the middle of a conversation. To get value out of self-help books, you have to actually take what you learn and apply it to your life. If you don’t, what good was reading the book?
What it all comes down to is whether you’re talking about a psychologist, psychiatrist, marriage counselor, another type of counselor, or a self-help book, they can be helpful, but only if you do your research and apply what you learn. If you don’t do that, then you may end up doing more harm than good.