A question that I have given some thought to in recent times is whether or not self help books actually work. I have often looked at them with some element of disdain thinking that they are for people who don’t have any common sense (sorry if you’re a fan) and that if you’re the sort of person who needs to read a book to learn to make friends then you probably never will be able to.
However I have found myself slowly getting into them none the less as the subjects definitely appeal to me. It started probably when watching Tony Robbins at a TED conference on YouTube – he was pretty charismatic and stuff and although I didn’t agree with all of his views, I did find some of his ideas to be useful. Later I would come across Steve Pavlina, as a result of my SEO attempts I found his stuff very interesting and inspiring. I also enjoyed his ideas about waking up early etc. I went on to read the Personal MBA which was kind of a self help book for business and I was given ‘How to Save an Hour a Day’ and actually found some of those ideas pretty useful too. My friend read The Game and though I had a girlfriend I could see that many of the techniques that they used would work and were similar to things I use myself (the confidence building stuff, not the actual pick up lines).
Suffice to say in other words, that all this was enough to pretty much convert me, and furthermore seeing a couple of my friends really transform themselves helped too. I have always loved the Art of War and The Prince (by Machiavelli) and I suppose in a way those could be seen as the first ever self help books.
The Central Tenant of All Self Help Books
The self help books worked because they force you to change your way of thinking and this is something that really does have a profound effect on your life. Whether consciously or not, the way that self help books approach problems is the same as the way that cognitive behavioral psychology does. In other words, this is by getting you to alter the thoughts in your head and then assuming that this will change your behavior by extension. Cognitive behavioral psychology states that our behavior is a result of our thought processes – which is a given – but that we often get stuck in negative thought cycles that hold us back.
The problem is that we are more likely to respond to risk and threat than we are to respond to reward, and so we will go to lengths to avoid behaviors that seem risky even when there is a 51% chance of a positive outcome – or even a 70% chance. This risk aversion then leads us to basically limit our own ability to succeed in many fields. More negative thoughts form through habit, or as a result of drives and desires that are better suited to our evolutionary past than they are to life today.
The official cognitive behavioral way to deal with this is first to identify the problem. To identify the negative thoughts in your head that are holding you back. So for instance if you were shy at public speaking you might find yourself thinking such things as ‘I am very bad at public speaking’ or ‘everyone is going to laugh at me’. To get you to identify this CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) gets you to practice something called ‘mindfulness’ which is where you sit and close your eyes and then just watch your thoughts drift by like ‘clouds’. Don’t try to stop or control your thoughts, instead just be an objective observer and note their content. This is where you will find yourself thinking those damaging things. Alternatively just being aware of your own thought patterns during the process can help, and some therapists suggest keeping a diary where you write down your thoughts so that you can then look over them at a later date and do so removed from the moment.
Then you have to change those thoughts and change the way you are thinking about a subject. That’s the part called cognitive restructuring, and though it’s not easy (you have to get yourself to genuinely believe your new thoughts) it is an incredibly powerful tool when used correctly.
To do this you first need to think of the new way you are going to think about the situation and that means focusing on the positives that will be gained from the new thought process and the negatives of staying with the current thought process. You are basically reinterpreting the information.
I found this very useful when I was trying to get up in the mornings. Here I found myself struggling to get up and get on with a productive day and would instead sleep in until 11am before waking up and feeling dirty and getting nothing done. This is partly because of my thought process and I would find myself ‘convincing’ myself to stay in bed every morning by thinking things like ‘just five more minutes’ or ‘I need to stay in bed to be healthy as I didn’t get much sleep’. On some level I knew these were negative thoughts, but they convinced me to stay in bed.
I then figured out that this was the problem and that this was what was keeping me in bed so I restructured the thoughts and looked at it another way by thinking ‘if I stay in bed I’ll go to bed later and I’ll just be continuing the cycle’, or ‘if I stay in bed longer I actually tend to be more groggy’ or ‘no excuses!’. By doing this I found myself heaving myself out of bed. And you can use this in any area of life. Another time I did this was when I had a phobia – a rather embarrassing one – of urinating in public toilets. It was a stupid fear but the thought process went ‘if I can’t piss I’ll end up standing here for ages doing nothing and people will think I’m insane – or worse, perverted’. I had this problem for about five years until I learned about CBT and I then changed this thought process to ‘I’ll never see these people again – who cares what they think I’m doing?’ or when I’m in a pub ‘these people are drunk so they’re not going to notice’. I genuinely cured my problem and have never suffered from it since.
Another example of using this myself was when I was trying to cut my carbs to tone better abs. All I did was reinterpret the signal from my body. So while once I would have thought ‘I’m hungry, must eat’, I now thought ‘I’m hungry – good that means I’m cutting the flab’.
Of course remembering to do these things can be rather tricky and if you don’t remember to think the things you won’t benefit from them of course. Thus it can sometimes be useful to use external cues. For instance I pinned a piece of paper by the side of my bed that read ‘NO EXCUSES!’. Then whenever I found myself starting to think negative thoughts that would lead me to stay in bed I would see this sign and then just get straight up and take no nonsense.
Some people use CBT and cognitive restructuring in order to help themselves get over depression and similar conditions. To do this they must change their pessimistic thoughts for positive ones and of course this can again benefit from little notes around the house. On the glass of your shower, on the window, on the mirror over the sink. These can say things like ‘life rocks’ or ‘life is what you make of it’ and that will then help you to be positive throughout your day.
Another useful strategy is to try challenging your negative beliefs and assumptions. So for instance if you have the urinal problem like I do (I feel for you), then the best solution is to try standing at the urinal for as long as possible and seeing if anyone comments. Once you see that the very worst case scenario isn’t really that bad, then you will be able to go with confidence.
My driving instructor actually helped me to drive this way. I used to stall at the lights when I was at the front of the queue – as I believe most learners do. So what he got me to do was to just sit in the front of the queue for a whole green light without even trying to start. People were honking their horns and getting irate but he just kept telling me to ignore them. When it came around the next go I was suddenly very calm as I realized the worst case scenario wasn’t really that bad.
The book ‘The Game’ teaches you to approach women this way – it says that you should keep approaching them and getting turned down in order to just get over the fear of rejection. It would also have lots of other little strategies such as going up to women and asking for the time, or calling up random numbers and having a conversation with the person on the other end. All of this just gives you more confidence and gets you to the point where you can approach anyone.
I myself have used this to improve my social skills and to get over my general fear. I would go into shops and then just stand there, or put on a funny voice in front of the shop keeper. By doing something this odd I show my brain that it really doesn’t matter if I come across as weird or fumble my words.
Finally, the last cognitive restructuring technique taught in CBT is to use positive affirmations. This means simply repeating positive and affirming phrases over and over to yourself until the point that they become ‘habitual’ and the point where these become the natural thing for you to think.
All of these techniques are brilliant for changing your thinking and the way that you think about various subjects. If you can integrate this approach into every area of your life, then you can control the way you think in any situation and you can overcome urges, nerves and anything else that is holding you back and preventing you from achieving your full potential. So, self help books do work – but by understanding these tenants you can apply the principles yourself to every area of your life.