In the spirit of self-help, I have a confession: Until quite recently, I had never read a self-help book.
That did not prevent me from holding strong opinions about them. They were full of truisms, I thought, or facile observations about the power of kindness and ‘living your best life’ that were better suited to fridge magnets than my hallowed bookshelves.
As I’ve got older, however, and started therapy (the two aren’t unrelated), I’ve learned that on the subject of self-help – as with so many things – I was wrong.
Now, I can’t get enough of personal development, particularly in the pandemic.
“When people are hurting or scared, they reach for something that might help them make sense of the world,” says Melbourne psychologist Colleen Murphy. “We turn towards things that are comforting to us. Sayings and aphorisms are comforting because there’s a kernel of truth in every one of them. We long for that.”
We want to make sense of the world
Interestingly, while the more traditionally prescriptive self-help titles, such as Jordan Petersen’s 12 Rules for Life or even The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck, continue to sell well, sales for the sector as a whole have been declining for the last 18 months.
But the situation is more nuanced than the figures suggest, says Joel Naoum, non-fiction category manager for online bookseller Booktopia.
“One of the biggest sellers during lockdown has been Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence,” he says. “It’s a beautiful book that addresses the exact concerns that people have at the moment and offers reassurance. In another year, it might have been categorised as personal development, but, because it has elements of popular science and memoir too, the publisher went with autobiography.”
(The book’s subtitle, On Awe, Wonder And Things That Sustain You When The World Goes Dark, is pretty much the definition of self-help.)
One of the biggest sellers during lockdown has been Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence
On the other hand, Untamed, a recent release by blockbuster US author Glennon Doyle, seems on the surface to be the quintessential self-help book, given there’s a lot of instruction to ‘find your Knowing’. (It’s filed under ‘personal development’ in stores.) But it could just easily sit under memoir or feminism, says Naoum, who used to be a publisher. “It has an agenda.”
You’ll find my short review of it below, along with other self-help selections from some of our favourite contributors. Hope they… help.
Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
Recommended by Bronwyn Birdsall
If you were to name a self-help book, there’s a good chance I’ve read it – I love them! Over summer, I found myself re-reading my favourites and rediscovered Tiny Beautiful Things. A collection of essays and her Dear Sugar advice columns, Cheryl Strayed’s insights into the human condition feel like letters from your wisest friend. To me, this is the best kind of self-help book – no lists of instructions on how to transform your life, but rather a model for how to look at it differently.
Super Attractor: Methods for Manifesting A Life Beyond Your Wildest Dreams by Gabrielle Bernstein
Recommended by Ashleigh Austen
I generally steer clear of self-help books but there’s something about New York motivational speaker Gabby Bernstein’s brand of spirituality that resonates. Less ‘woo woo’ and more rooted in the real world, the book is all about manifesting (aka asking the universe for what you want) via a series of practical steps to help you feel good.
The premise is simple: by tuning in to the signs around you, you’ll attract more positivity into your life. When I stopped rushing around with the blinkers on, I started to spot things I’d once brushed off as coincidences that were actually signs pointing me in the right direction. Best of all? I spotted them without having to sit cross-legged meditating for an hour.
Eat, Drink, Run by Bryony Gordon
Recommended by Hannah Rose Yee
I read this book on a plane (remember those?) last year in one greedy go and by the end I was crying quietly in my seat. Bryony Gordon, a columnist in the UK, wrote this book to document the year she decided to start running. For the first time in her life. In a marathon. While dealing with substance abuse and mental health issues.
It’s more of a memoir than a self-help book, really, but it has such a gentle and encouraging message, a reminder that it’s never too late to do that thing that you want to do, even if it feels so completely outside the realm of possibility. That’s the kind of message that we all need to hear, all the better when it’s said so generously in this big, warm hug of a book.
Recommended by Erin Cook
I was introduced to self-help books at a very young age thanks to Oprah. Looking back, it was probably a little bit strange for 12-year-old me to fake sickness so I could stay home from school, cook pasta and watch Oprah on the couch. But hey, we all have our vices.
The first self-help book I read was The Secret by Rhonda Byrne. It didn’t change my life but it alerted me to the wonders of self-help books. One self-help book that did change my life, however, was The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter by Meg Jay. I read it just as I was finishing university – perfect timing! It encouraged me to take risks and start on the path I wanted to be on; stop dating boys I didn’t see a future with; and make use of ‘weak ties’ if I wanted to get The Job. For the SparkNotes version, watch Jay’s Ted Talk on why 30 is not the new 20 here – it has over three million views.
A Beginner’s Guide To Being Mental by Natasha Devon
Recommended by Chloe Cooper
Mental health campaigner Natasha Devon tackles the incredibly complex subject of being ‘mental’, calling on experts in psychology, neuroscience and anthropology to demystify the spectrum of mental health. This is a humorous and compassionate book, and incredibly important, especially for those who work with, or live with, people experiencing mental health issues. Devon offers strategies for helping yourself and helping others in an inspiring and accessible way.
Untamed, by Glennon Doyle
Recommended by Felicity Robinson
Her first two books, Love Warrior and Carry On, Warrior, covered US writer Glennon Doyle’s attempts to rebuild her marriage after her husband’s serial infidelity. Now, in Untamed, she shares the unexpected next chapter: a heart-stopping love-at-first-sight meeting with US soccer star Abby Wambach, for whom she leaves her husband and subsequently marries. This is compelling enough, but what I love about this book is the wit and humour Doyle brings to the really big question at the heart of it: how to work out what truly makes you happy, and then do it.
The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read by Philippa Perry
Recommended by Sarah Tarca of The Wayward Co
Yes, the title is borderline clickbait, but what I love about this book (and psychotherapist Philippa Perry in general) is that it questions parenting habits and forces you to look at yourself, and your own upbringing/inherited parenting idiosyncrasies, for the answers. Instead of telling us what to do and outlining it in steps, Perry looks at why we behave in certain ways – and react – the way we do. It’s not aimed at “fixing” a problem (your child) per se, but building a healthy, respectful relationship with them… which is exactly what I want as a parent.