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What’s Wrong with Self-Help?

3 Questions to Make
Self-Help More Helpful


People have always been on a journey to grow and make meaning out of life. But on the quest for self-improvement, there are some pitfalls. Here are 3 questions to ask yourself to make self-help a force for good for yourself and others.

Are you one of those people who read self-help books to learn how to solve an issue or improve your life? You are one in a million supporting the self help market, which is worth over $11 billion. If you’ve ever read a book, tried an app or joined a lecture claiming to tell you the secret of life, you’ve tried self-help. Some say it’s like a sugar rush for people’s emotions: sky high expectations for a quick solution, usually followed by an inevitable failure and crash of disappointment. While this only describes some self-help, it points to some of the real problems with the self-help industry: little to no quality control, profit incentives to overpromise and oversimplify, and an excessive focus on selfishness and happiness.

How can you use self-help content in a way that leads to meaningful learning and growth? Here are 3 questions to consider and suggestions for how to make intentional, emotionally intelligent choices about self-help.

How to Navigate Self-Help with Emotional Intelligence: 3 Powerful Questions

1. Who’s the expert on me?

Over the past decade, self-help books have exploded in popularity. In the United States alone, the number of self-help books published increased from 30,897 in 2013 to 85,253 in 2019, and sales increased from 1.4 million to 4.3 million in the same time period (source: Publishing Perspectives). It’s not just the Western world, either. Self-help books consistently land on China’s bestseller list in recent years.

In a world where everyone is an expert, one issue that arises is that there is increasingly conflicting advice. Should you do more, or do less? Should you download a meditation app, or do a smartphone detox? Make to do lists, or go with the flow? The conflicting advice points to an important truth about self-help: all of these authors are sharing their best journey, experience or opinion. It’s what worked for them. It’s tempting to assume their solution will work for us too, but it’s unlikely. 

At Six Seconds, we teach that No Way is the Way and Wisdom Lives Within. No Way is the Way means that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. You can learn from new ideas, but not every solution will work for everyone. And Wisdom Lives Within means that, ultimately, you know yourself best. You are the source of your own solutions. You are capable of ideas – and with some new information – you are able to help yourself through a challenge. Here are two suggestions to apply these principles to self-help:

Adopt the mindset of a “self-scientist.” Pay attention to yourself as you experiment with new ideas, try out solutions and discard ones that don’t work for you. Embrace the process of experimentation as a journey that will teach you more about yourself.

Have a healthy skepticism of promises and guarantees. Self-help is a market-driven industry, and offering simple, concrete solutions tends to sell better than acknowledging ambiguity and complexity – even though life is nuanced and complex! With reasonable expectations about results, you can be proud of your growth but not devastated by poor outcomes.

Here’s a link to Six Seconds’ Learning Philosophy if you want to learn more about all Six Seconds Learning principles.

2. Will this make me happy?

According to Robert Plutchik’s Model of Emotions, there are 8 basic emotions and 24 variations and combinations of them. But self-help is generally obsessed with just one: happiness. How to find it, keep it and make a life full of it. This focus inevitably leads to frustration because being happy all the time isn’t a reasonable goal to begin with. 

To be fair, most of us are searching for something that brings us ultimate happiness and eases our suffering, but that quest may be too simplistic and lead us away from a path of deeper learning and growth. Suffering is a part of life, and if we’re trying to be happy all the time, we’re doomed to disappointment because real happiness comes paired with other emotions. What can we do instead? 

At Six Seconds, we teach that all emotions have meaning and purpose, and the trick is to discover what emotions are telling us. Learning what emotional messages mean is the journey. Trying to stop feeling “bad” feelings leads to more unhappiness because it causes us to be in conflict with ourselves. Here are a few tips to counter this tendency and find more holistic versions of self-help:

Let yourself FEEL your feelings and get better at navigating through the harder or bigger ones. Most of us have been socialized to ignore or suppress challenging feelings, but the diversity of our feelings is what makes life rich and spectacular. To gain appreciation for all emotions, check out the Emotoscope Feeling Chart, which gives the meaning and purpose of dozens of emotions. Instead of pushing away a challenging feeling, look it up in the chart and see what it may be trying to tell you.

Do a self-inventory of all the emotions you experience in a day. Take a break a few times a day and write down what you are feeling. This can be a good way to practice sitting with all your emotions, instead of just ignoring the unpleasant ones. You can do this on any journal or piece of paper, but if you want a journal with specific emotional intelligence questions and exercises, you can get an EQ Journal in the Six Seconds EQ Store.

3. Is self-help selfish?

Self-help is, naturally, about the self. But a growing body of evidence suggests that for learning and growth to be meaningful, it has to involve others. If self-help is an endless loop of self-improvements and personal growth just for the sake of it, and the arrow always points inwards, it could actually stunt your growth. What if you could help yourself and help others? How can you live your purpose in a way that supports others to be their best?  We are all seeking validation, recognition and support, but through connection with others we can be more than the sum of our parts. Want to really grow? Learn to help others grow. In the Six Seconds Model of Emotional Intelligence, Give Yourself is the part of the model that looks outward. It’s all about connecting with others, and connecting your everyday actions to a bigger purpose.

Here are two suggestions to make self-help a force for good for yourself and others:

Shift from short-term to long-term thinking. When faced with a decision, ask yourself: What will be important about this in 5, 10, or 20 years? Consider what you want your legacy to be, what you’d want people to say at your retirement party or even funeral. Thinking long-term takes you beyond yourself and helps you apply your learning toward meaningful goals.

Identify a purpose beyond wealth or happiness. Having a sense of purpose has been linked to higher life satisfaction, better physical and mental health, and even longevity, which is why the capstone emotional intelligence competency in the Six Seconds Model of Emotional Intelligence is Pursue Noble Goals. It means connecting your daily choices with your overarching sense of purpose, with your Noble Goal acting as a one-sentence personal mission statement. Want to develop a Noble Goal?

There are 5 criteria that need to be met for a goal to qualify as a noble goal:

  1. Not complete in your lifetime – It is enduring and inspiring, something beyond the daily struggle. This helps you maintain a long-term focus so you can avoid the confusion of short-term thinking.
  2. Pointed outward – While you will benefit, the focus is on others. This helps you maintain an expansive vision.
  3. Integrates different domains – It encompasses all dimensions of your life; serving your noble goal in one domain (such as work) supports you in all others (such as family).
  4. Gets you out of bed – It motivates and inspires you at a deep level; this helps you to have the energy when the going gets tough.
  5. No one made less – No one has to be “less than” or “wrong” for you to pursue your Noble Goal; this helps you stay out of ego and power struggle.

Does your current noble goal meet these 5 criteria?

To learn more about noble goals and developing a meaningful life, check out this article: https://www.6seconds.org/emotional-intelligence/topics/purpose/

Best of luck with your self-improvement journey, and let us know in the comments or on social media if you found any one of these comments or questions to be particularly helpful!

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Michael Miller
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