Self-Help Books: Are They Effective?

Özge Üstündağ

Is it possible to ameliorate distress and banish anxiety by reading self-help books?

If you have ever wandered inside a bookstore, you have probably met the ever so popular self-help section. The self-help section is abundant with books in Turkish and foreign languages. Some of those are translated from English to Turkish.

Have you ever thought about why anyone should pay for psychotherapy when they can help themselves by reading about whatever that is bothering them?

This is certainly an attractive thought. Why pay for therapy when you can heal yourself? Why go through the trouble finding a reliable therapist when you can be your own?

Unfortunately, the answer to these questions is more complicated than you might think.

What is self-help?

Self-help literally means to provide help for oneself without relying on the assistance of others. How-to books, audio recordings, online courses, and group therapy can all act as self-help tools. In the realm of psychology, self-help tools are aimed towards improving one’s mental health and quality of life.

Why are self-help books so popular? Well, given they are not exported from other countries, self-help books are cost effective. They are indeed much cheaper than consulting professional advice. They also provide anonymity. No one needs to know that you’re struggling with a lack of confidence. Self-help is also flexible. You don’t need to schedule appointments to read a book about social anxiety. You can move towards your goals at your own pace.

So, what’s the big deal in using them?

You may wonder, if self-help books are cheap and accessible why shouldn’t you use them? Why aren’t they as popular in the scientific community as they are in public?

Some scientists consider self-help “psychobabble,” over-simplifying complex psychological problems. Others claim that self-help books give buyers a sense of hope that is not real.

First, it is important to recognize that there is not a ban on the use of self-help materials. Self-help becomes a problem when it is 1) inappropriately used 2) based on pseudo-scientific claims.

One-size does not fit all when it comes to self-help

As a practicing clinical psychologist/psychotherapist in Eskişehir TR, Çağdaş Yalçın confirms this limitation. Reflecting on his own practice, he suggests that therapy is shaped to meet the needs of the client whereas self-help books cannot provide an individualized approach to readers. He further advices that “it is crucial that the reader does some research about whether strategies offered in self-help books are scientifically valid if he/she decides to buy them.”

Though he does not dismiss the effectiveness of psycho-education on client’s process of recovery and healing, he does underline the importance of client-therapist interaction (this is called therapeutic alliance in psychology) in helping clients achieve their goals and avoid relapse.

Myths about self-help
Focus on the positive to elevate mood: Studies show that this technique can highlight the sadness one experiences and lower mood further down
Visualizing goals will help you reach them: Research suggests that we also need to think about the obstacles that are in the way of reaching our goals and that visualization itself is not enough
Self-affirmations raise self-esteem: This is not true. As science shows, our interactions with others matter when it comes to feeling self-confident.

Reader is more important than the self-help book

In Do Self-Help Books Help? Ad Bergsma proports that readers must take an active role when studying self-help books if they want to see results. Bergsma suggests that “It is the reader that decides to drop the options that do not enhance satisfaction and keep on track if some advice seems to work out fine.”

It seems that if a person benefits from self-help therapy, we should be applauding that individual and the not the book.


  • 1. Bergsma, A. (2007). Do self-help books help? Journal of Happiness Studies, 9, 341-360. DOI: 10.1007/s10902-006-9041-2
  • 2. Rosen, R. D. (1977). Psychobabble; Fast talk and quick cure in the era of feeling. New York: Atheneum.
  • 3. Paul, A. M. (2001). Self-help: Shattering the myths. Psychology Today, March.
  • 4. Polivy, J., & Herman, P. (2002). If at first you don’t succeed; false hopes of self-change. American Psychologist, 57, 677-689.