For years, I was a closet self-help book reader. Like most of us, I wanted to be a better human being, a highly successful professional, overcome my fears, have a healthy body and mind, a sharper memory, be a great manager of time, on top of things, completely in control, ever smiling, and radiating confidence and positivity. That’s quite a tall order, and rather unrealistic too, as I subsequently realised, but that did not put me off reading them till I reached a point where I had become a hopeless reductionist with a storehouse of quick-fixes, which failed more often than they brought about any significant enhancement in my life.

While I spoke openly and excitedly about the other genres of books I read, particularly fiction, I shied away from divulging that I read self-help books too. Why? Simply because of the fear of being seen as vulnerable or deficient or not together, and because the stigma that existed against self-help was in essence a stigma against vulnerability. In the eyes of a critic of self-help books, you are a loser. When you sign up for a workshop, enrol in a college to add to your skills and qualifications, consult a counsellor or an expert to sort you out, you are perceived as taking charge. But mention that you are reading a self-help book, and you’ll see raised eyebrows and some serious tut-tutting. In an instant, you are judged as a flawed wimp who knows no better than to look for pat solutions in books that prey upon those very deficiencies, and make a greater fool of you than you already are. You are just circling the mountain, picking one book after another, moving laterally, and reaching nowhere. While the infantilising is infuriating, and there is truth in being prudent about what to read, it’s only half the story.

When you sign up for a workshop, enrol in a college to add to your skills and qualifications, consult a counsellor or an expert to sort you out, you are perceived as taking charge. But mention that you are reading a self-help book, and you’ll see raised eyebrows and some serious tut-tutting.

If you pick a cannibalistic self-help bestseller that plays up your weaknesses, and does little other than recommending similar titles as add-ons, you might just end up being a self-help junkie, addicted to reading but erring when it comes to action. That may require some focused weaning. But, does that mean you shouldn’t read self-help books at all? Certainly not. In a world where every other person surfs the net for tutorial videos, listens to podcasts, watches talks and enrols in master classes in a bid to expand more of what they have or hone their skills or get inspired by another’s story or experience, self-help or self-development books have a right to be in the reckoning too. There is growing evidence to support the efficacy of bibliotherapy, and while self-help books may not be the most reliable problem-solvers, they are important in promoting active coping.

In a world where every other person surfs the net for tutorial videos, listens to podcasts, watches talks and enrols in master classes in a bid to expand more of what they have or hone their skills or get inspired by another’s story or experience, self-help or self-development books have a right to be in the reckoning too.

Should you be ashamed of reading them? If you think of yourself as an individual living in a free country, with the prerogative to make free, informed choices, you needn’t be. It’s certainly a step ahead of wallowing in self-pity and buckling under. It’s the beginning of a journey to acknowledge one’s limitations, explore new possibilities, do some soul-searching, and heal. Shit happens. To everyone. Sometimes it hits the fan. All of us have our moments of weakness. So, while the general belief is that life hacks can be learnt only from counselling or institutionally educated individuals, and real growth goes beyond the ‘eat healthy, rest well and be positive’ formulas spawned by self-help books, the truth is that quite often, for time-strapped individuals, these books prove to be effective, ad hoc pick-me-ups. A word, a quote, a sentence, some time-tested practical advice, when applied with conviction, can save someone who is on the skids. It paves the way to exploring other structured complementary channels. Who can grudge you that or judge you for it?

It’s the beginning of a journey to acknowledge one’s limitations, explore new possibilities, do some soul-searching, and heal.

For those out of whack, it takes guts to acknowledge one’s problems, and some more to take a decisive step towards bringing about a change. You may not unearth the secret and employ the laws of attraction commendably or get the universe to do your bidding, but you will have owned up and made a beginning, and kudos to that. It’s best to accept that none of us is omnipotent. Not all of us are comfortable baring our hearts to a shrink. Not everyone needs an expert to dissect their lives. To some, the written word acts as a friend, guide and philosopher, to take that leap of faith. As long as you are aware that the shift is in the doing more than in the reading, and you track your transformation from confusion and bewilderment to clarity and growth closely, while keeping other avenues of healing open, read all you want. Reading self-help books is not everything, but it’s only your business. In good time, who knows, you may have won many friends and influenced a lot of people.

P.S. Read some fiction too. Stories are great healers.

Archana Pai Kulkarni is the Books Editor at SheThePeople.TV. The views expressed are the author’s own.

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