If you’ve stepped inside a bookstore lately, you’ve probably noticed a proliferation of self-help titles. The list of things you can improve about yourself is literally endless—and it can be hard to know who to trust or whether any of these books will actually help.
In the case of social anxiety, self-help books hold a special significance, as they can be accessed by anyone regardless of your current fears. If you’re too afraid to pick up the phone to call your doctor, ordering a book from Amazon might feel like a smaller first step that you can take.
At the same time, there is a risk with self-help books that you expect too much. A book is never going to replace an interaction with a mental health professional. What it will do is provide knowledge upon which you can act.
A study published in 2008 in the journal Professional Psychology: Research and Practice examined 50 self-help books for anxiety and depression and rated books on four main qualities believed to reflect books that would help:
- grounded in science, brings the knowledge of experts to you (e.g., cognitive-behavioral therapy)
- realistic in their expectations (not promising a complete cure)
- offered specific guidance (step-by-step instructions, user-friendly)
- did no harm (did not provide false information)
The 10 top-rated books from that study included Dying of Embarrassment by Barbra Markway and The Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook by Martin M. Antony.
What they found was that the best books (based on their criteria) had the following characteristics in addition to those listed above:
- focused on a limited type of problem
- were written by doctoral-level psychologists, often affiliated with academic institutions
- offered a chance to monitor your progress
- addressed relapse or setbacks
- discussed co-existing disorders or problems
- talked about when to seek professional help
Although that study touched on it briefly, I think one of the more important qualities of a good self-help book is that it is not overwhelming.
We are all busy, and it is often easier to keep doing what we are doing than to try to make a change. While self-help books are more convenient than visiting a therapist or life coach, if they are not put into practice, they are likely to have minimal effect. You need to apply the advice in the book to make progress.
I think there are two types of books that impede translating knowledge into action.
Those that provide too much information (overload) and those that provide no plan (lack direction).
Of course, it’s possible for a book to have both of these qualities—that would be the worst of all worlds.
When choosing a book, after you’ve narrowed it down to those that meet the above criteria (as best you can, based on reviews or referrals from others), try skimming through (in a bookstore if you can, or the library or online) and read a bit. All other things being equal (as described above), I’d choose the one that is easiest to read with the best action plan (often a workbook style). I’d also choose a book that you find inspiring.
Once you’ve chosen a book, how can you get the most out of it?
- Keep a journal. Add your own thoughts and insights. This will bring the book to life for you.
- Complete the exercises. This might seem obvious, but don’t jump ahead. Take the time to do any exercises in the book fully. Change involves thoughts, feelings, and actions all interacting. You might learn new things about yourself that you can use as you move forward in the book.
- Take stock. At the end of each chapter or section, take stock and think about the impact of what you’ve done. Do you need to adjust or make changes?
- Get an accountability partner. This could be a friend or family member, or even an online group. Meet once a week to discuss what you are reading.
In the Huffington Post article, “Why self-help books rarely work,” life coach and personal growth expert Matthew Jones writes “The book can change your perspective, but you must change your life.”
I’d like to relate an example from my personal life, not about social anxiety, but that shows how books can impart knowledge, but it is up to you to take action.
A couple of weeks ago, I was scrolling through Facebook and came across a video called “The Secret Reason We Eat Meat.” I was interested, so I started watching, but soon realized that the video was over 20 minutes long and I didn’t have time to finish all of it. It started out with Melanie Joy, a social psychologist, explaining the premise of what she terms “carnism,” or the ideology that creates a meat-eating society.
So I set the video aside to return later. Unbeknownst to me, it contained graphic videos of animal slaughterhouses midway through. Somehow, I managed to jump back into the video during one of these videos. It was as though I’d accidentally clicked on a slasher film—it really was that bad. Nervously I jumped ahead a bit and watched to the end. And then I read Dr. Joy’s book, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows.
The book presented a logical argument regarding veganism and the secret ideology that promotes eating meat. It all made sense to me, from a logic standpoint. But if I had put that book down and went to eat a hamburger, would anything change? If I knew differently, but continued to do what I’ve always done, what was the point?
I hope that if you do pick up a self-help book, you will realize there is little point in just reading. You might gain knowledge, but you won’t change, and what you’ve learned will much more easily slip away.
If you find it hard, be accountable and then reward yourself in some way for taking action.
If you find it really hard, find a therapist to help you work through the book.
As for me, it’s been two weeks and I still haven’t eaten that hamburger.
Huffington Post. Why self-help books rarely work.
Psychology Today. What you should look for in a self-help book.
Redding, R. E., Herbert, J. D., Forman, E. M., & Gaudiano, B. A. (2008). Popular self-help books for anxiety, depression, and trauma: How scientifically grounded and useful are they? Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 39(5), 537-545.