Is “self-help” only for the decidedly hopeless?

Someone recently asked me why I have been reading “self-help” books, and then proceeded to point towards my Goodreads bookshelf. The judgemental tone, although I knew that it was just grounded in ignorance, rankled me. I tried to humor them that no, I hadn’t in fact been reading a book on how to lose weight or something such, only to realize I was just validating the person’s deprecating stance on “self-help”.

So I asked what exactly constituted self-help in their opinion.

“You know, all that nonfiction.”

The books in question turned out to be Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational. Equally amused and annoyed, I pointed out that not all nonfiction can be labelled as self-help. And then again, what’s wrong with reading self-help anyway? An exasperated “ufff” from the other side was my cue to give up on any further defense of my reading preferences.

Because this is another one of those deep-rooted desi mindsets. The I-am-the-epitome-of-perfection mindset. Help? That’s for losers. Acknowledging that some area of your life might need improvement is the ultimate no-no. Seeking out “help”, some pointers on how to fix something you are clueless about? Oh lord, that’s just social suicide.

This disdain for self-help may also explain the taboo against seeking professional mental health assistance in our society.  This in a country where unofficial estimates place the prevalence of mental illnesses at above 8% of the population. But I digress.

The funny thing is, the books in question don’t even classify as self-help. Sheryl Sandberg insists it isn’t in the first chapter of her book (although admittedly, I did go looking for it in the self-help section because I wasn’t sure what the bookstore might have categorized it as). And Ariely’s is a book on human psychology and cognitive biases. I do however read a lot of material online on managing my career, parenting, healthy living and the likes which fall under the typical self-help category. So does reading all this mean that I am a complete basket case by desi standards? I wonder.

But going by how most bookstores here seem to have a well-stocked self-help section, such books must surely be selling? So all those people who want to figure out how to become a better manager, improve their parenting skills, learn about human psychology, become a better conversationalist, or even how to lose fifty pounds ten in days, more power to you. I’d gladly be labelled a decidedly hopeless loser if it means getting inspired and making positive changes in my life.


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