One could argue that Rhonda Byrne blew up the genre in 2006 when her book ‘The Secret’ was published. Based on the idea that the power of positive thinking is the answer to everything, it sold more than 19 million copies and was translated into 46 different languages.

Other popular titles in recent years include Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, in which she gives up everything and travels the world eating, praying and you guessed it – falling in love.

The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, is enduringly popular and while it seems to be classified as self-help by some bookstores it doesn’t really offer advice, as much as share a story that leaves one feeling… happy?

Other top titles of the times are more business-like such as The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey, The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie and Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers.

A new mentor on the block

The freshest face on the self-help scene is Rachel Hollis. She’s been called a ‘lifestyle expert’ (whatever that is) and is the founder of the website TheChicSite.com. She’s also the CEO of Chic Media, her own media company, and has four children.

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Her new book ‘Girl, Wash Your Face: Stop Believing the Lies About Who You Are so You Can Become Who You Were Meant to Be’ has just come out and so far it’s been popular. Hailed as “the mentor every woman needs” and “the winning combination of an inspiring life coach and your very best (and funniest) friend”, she shares her “shockingly honest and hilariously down to earth” advice.

“Girl, Wash Your Face is a gift to women who want to flourish and live a courageously authentic life” enthuses Megan Tamte, Founder of Evereve, Hollis’ biggest sponsor.

But is it helpful?

“I think embracing chaos might be the journey we take to finding peace” – Rachel Hollis, Author of Girl, Wash Your Face.

Think about this quote for a moment. Does it make perfect sense to you? Do you feel inspired to ‘embrace’ the chaos in your life and then, somehow, find the peace you crave? Are you excited to read the rest of the book?

If so, the rest of this article is not for you.

Quotes like these, which abound in books and podcasts classified under the self-help genre, leave me, personally, feeling confused, anxious and – often – inadequate.

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Full disclosure, I’m not a fan of self-help books. I find the advice twee and generic at best, and incomprehensible and privileged at worst. 

No matter how these self-help experts frame their overly enthusiastic advice, I’m left feeling exhausted, and even sometimes ashamed. I think to myself that if this person has managed to overcome their issues (which are usually significantly bigger than mine) then what is wrong with me that I haven’t accomplished more?

Setting high expectations

As a modern woman living in an era of equality where we all have the ability to be all we can be, should I not then be more? Is it my fault I’m ordinary? I only have two kids, why haven’t I founded a media empire and written a best-seller yet?

I feel that often the authors come across as pushy, or even shaming – encouraging us to set those goals that might make us happy if accomplished, but will almost certainly create much hardship on the road to achievement.

As a practical person, I ask myself “Are the costs worth it? Will the sacrifices pay off enough?” But I’m not supposed to wonder these things, I’m supposed to get up, wash my face, and go out and ACHIEVE all the things, according to Rachel Hollis and her like.

But what if I don’t actually want to? What if I like my mediocre, dare I confess, even basic life? I work, I care for my family, I express myself in my way. I don’t feel the need to turn my sewing hobby into a fashion empire, or to trek my kids up Kilimanjaro.

Turns out, I’m not alone.

I found many women feel the same way, and a few shared their thoughts with us:

“I am so sick and tired of self-help books and blogs pushing their definition of success that is steeped in privilege and still somehow manages to blame women and add to our to-do list on "overcoming" these challenges. This concept of "advice" never addresses the real problems that create these situations in the first place” says Vuyo.  

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Anele says “It feels like "Look, it's easy to have your sh*t together, this is how I did it and I'm sure it will work for you". But the solutions are pretty privileged and don't seem to really speak to those in the trenches. They often tell you to get a therapist, get a nutritionist, if you're not happy in your job then re-examine your life, etc - but some of us are just trying to get through the day.”

“Rachel Hollis is like 35 and after listening to her whole book in a day I was a bit like "Really? You've solved everything in your whole life in 15 years?" Marissa said.

Ami said “I don't know what's wrong with me but the whole Girl, Wash your Face thing is like "You should be doing all these things" (work out, run a marathon, meal prep, go on weekly date nights, set goals, play with your kids etc) with a side of "Why don't you have your shiz together yet?". What I thought would make me feel better ended up making me feel worse. I literally cried driving down the road after listening to the audiobook.”  

Simmy said “There were parts of Girl, Wash your Face that kind of rubbed me the wrong way. I think it comes from the position of someone who pretty much has money to do almost anything and I don't. I felt there were parts of it that just ignored most women's reality. There are personal and financial barriers that women face. I feel like her narrative ignored that.”

Lerato shared that she read Girl, Wash your Face with an open mind, but “found what I read to be really judgey. I feel bad for her hypothetical friend "Pam" at work that keeps failing at diets and gaining her weight back. The author asks if this Pam person can be respected. Um, yes she can. More so than someone who judges others based on public failures.”

“Don't put all that pressure on yourself; there is enough pressure you don't choose. You don't have to make every aspect of your life better all the time!” Marie said.

What an expert says

We spoke to Licensed Psychologist Joy Harden Bradford, holder of a Ph.D and founder of therapyforblackgirls.com, to find out if self-help books really could harm more than they heal.

Dr Joy, as the advocate for the mental wellness of black women and girls goes by, told W24 that self-help books can be helpful depending on what people need. “Sometimes they provide really helpful tips and suggestions that help people to try something new,” she says.

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But while they can help women to see things from a different perspective, self-help books are not the same as therapy Dr Joy revealed. “They can act as a nice complement to therapy but they are not therapy, and I think that one should not go into a self-help book with any expectation besides to maybe learn something new.”

If someone feels like they fell short of the expectations of a book, she says, that would be an indication that they probably would benefit more from therapy than reading a book.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with people seeking out self-help books,” she clarified, adding that people can use books to help make improvements in their life “but I think it’s also important to know when our concerns may be beyond something that could be helped through reading a book.”

What to read instead

Perhaps we’re better off reading the newly published book ‘Enough As She Is: How to Help Girls Move Beyond Impossible Standards of Success to Live Healthy, Happy, and Fulfilling Lives’ by Rachel Simmons.

Her book shares the dangers faced by girls who place too much pressure on themselves.

She says “Many girls see setbacks as personal flaws and that leads to depression. Failure increases negative feelings, while achievement feeds confidence.” Rachel’s book aims to show girls how to "fail well," or practice "failure resiliency" and "self-compassion."

Or on a lighter note our very own local Rebecca Davis has released a new book titled ‘Self-Helpless: A Cynic’s Search for Sanity’ in which she experiments with all the contemporary trends in self-improvement, no matter how outlandish, over a period of 12 months. It’s bound to be a hilarious read, without the added pressure of urges towards self-improvement.

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