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Karina Chronicles

How to Make Self-help Work For You

Crystal Hammon is a vintage fashion enthusiast who blogs at Dressed Her Days Vintage. When she isn’t working as a writer, she teaches yoga, plays golf, sews and reads. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Promise land

You can tell a lot about a woman by what’s on her bookshelf. Here’s a sample of what’s on mine: Steering by Starlight, The Joy Diet, What Happy People Know, The Midlife Fat Cell, How to Think Like Leonardo DaVinci and The 15 Second Principle: Short, Simple Steps to Achieving Long-Term Goals. See a pattern?

Yes, I’m a convicted striver and self-help junkie, seduced by the idea that I’m just one self-help book away from having the happiest, healthiest, most brilliant life on the face of the earth. And it’s not just me. Women purchase 74 percent of all self-help books, guiding ourselves through hard times, career decisions, phobias and family relationships when we can’t afford or don’t want a good therapist or career coach.

What’s wrong with that? Nothing unless you’re Jessica Lamb-Shapiro, author of Promise Land: My Journey Through America’s Self-help Culture. As the daughter of a child psychologist who wrote several obscure self-help books, Lamb-Shapiro comes to the subject with a healthy dose of skepticism—until she discovered the book that helped her deal with her mother’s suicide.

If you’re part of the self-help sisterhood, here are some common sense reminders for intelligent use of self-help books, drawn from Lamb-Shapiro’s observations about the genre:

  1. Don’t get caught up in the marketing. Many self-help books make complex ideas totally cliché. This reduces life’s problems to something simpler than they are.
  2. Don’t abandon critical thinking skills. A rare success story should not become so elevated in your mind that it implies the recommendations are a no-fail solution. Stories are supposed to be inspirational—not delusional. It is illogical to believe that an exceptional story will become your story. Appraise the tactics and strategies that seem useful and apply what you can, but don’t think of them as a recipe for guaranteed success. If you apply the suggested principles and you aren’t successful, it isn’t your own doubt that jinxes you. More likely, it’s the exceptional nature of greatness.
  3. Be cautious when responsibility is unfairly distributed—whether blame goes to the individual or the society. Complete acceptance of either view distorts reality. Example: If you’re being bullied, ignoring it or focusing on things you want to attract won’t end bullying. Instead, it may prevent you from taking actions to protect yourself. A negative attitude isn’t the cause of bullying.
  4. Don’t overrate expert advice. Things you don’t know yet are not secrets. They are only things you don’t know yet. Once discovered, they may seem revelatory, but that doesn’t make a savant out of their source. Experts are just people who have researched and experimented with a single topic more than you. They do not hold the keys to navigating your world.
  5. Watch for cause and effect relationships and generalities. When you take two successive events and try to link them in a cause/effect relationship, ideas often fall apart. Swap out general principles for specifics and test them to see if they follow logically.
  6. Make a clear distinction between attitude and action. In psychological terms, the belief that your mind can control things is known as magical thinking. In a life full of ups and downs, a little fantasy can be a useful survival tool, but it can’t be the only tool, especially when you need to make rational choices.

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