This essay will discuss the online self-help book Psychological Self-Help by Dr. Clayton Tucker-Ladd. Since late 2004 I have had the good fortune to be able to discuss the book with Clay via e-mail (I am British and live in the U.K.). During that time I have both read the book and tried to apply some of the self-help techniques covered.
Most of us have things about ourselves that cause us some concern. A wish to change ourselves is a good thing if it helps us to overcome our problems and live our life better. If we are unable to live up to our ideals, however, that wish may be a source of disappointment and frustration.
The self-help market caters to our wish for personal improvement by providing us with a wide range of products promising to help us deal with many aspects of our life. Many of them make bold claims that seem to suggest there are simple solutions to all our problems. Some of our problems may be amenable to simple solutions, but the truth is that planned self-change is rarely likely to be easy or completely effortless. One of the striking features of Psychological Self-Help is that it starts out by presenting us with this hard truth.
One problem with most self-help books is that they brush over the awesome complexity of life for the sake of providing clear ‘answers’ to life’s problems, many of which may be quite wrong. Why do they do this? The authors may sincerely see things in these terms, but it may also be that they want to lay claim to a ‘magic’ method of self-change from which they can profit.
Self-help authors also may simplify things to present their ideas in an easy-to-use, easily understandable format. Perhaps they emphasize the effectiveness of their own method and ideas partly to encourage people to use them and benefit from them. The combined dynamic of all of these factors, however, creates a situation where truth is likely to be compromised for the sake of expediency.
While this may benefit the author in terms of sales and profits, and even, sometimes, his or her readership in terms of getting good results, it does little for the credibility of self-help as being trustworthy and reliable. I am not suggesting that highly effective methods don’t exist; I believe they do, just that this is a likely temptation for all self-help authors. This will continue as long as the popular success of self-help material depends on its level of commercial backing and its emotional appeal. It may still be possible for self-help books to achieve success on the basis of their effectiveness as we would hope. This is a possibility too and a more hopeful one, but by no means guaranteed.
The effectiveness of self-help material sometimes depends upon its emotional appeal and persuasiveness. Are the dual aims of persuasive presentation and objectivity inherently at odds with each other? People of a highly scientific or intellectual temperament tend to present facts and truths as they understand them in a measured and unexaggerated manner. They allow the facts to speak for themselves rather than advocating on behalf of their cause, and can sometimes appear dry and unemotional. It is as difficult to imagine this sort of person as an effective motivational speaker as it is to imagine the motivational speaker as a good scientist.
I am not suggesting that it is not possible for someone to be both persuasive and right. The goals of objectivity and persuasiveness, though, are very different and often conflicting ones.
The ability to persuade others to cooperate is an important skill that can be used for good or ill. The problem is that any sort of emotional appeal runs the risk of compromising objectivity for the sake of argument. Self-help will never be taken seriously as long as this is considered to be a defining characteristic.
A major area of concern for Dr. Tucker-Ladd is why this state of affairs has been allowed to develop (see Chapter 1). Why has this important area of human knowledge spawned a massive industry while receiving relatively little attention from academia and the educational system? Dr. Tucker-Ladd has spent his own working life as a university psychology lecturer and has taught self-help psychology to thousands of undergraduate students in order to try to pioneer a new approach to self-help; the book itself arose as part of this endeavor. He maintains a strong commitment to the importance of honesty in the effectiveness of self-help methods and their free distribution to everyone who can benefit from them. He envisions a future society in which self-help is given far greater importance in academic research and teaching.
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Waterhouse, A. (2009). Locating ‘Psychological-Self Help’ Within the World of Self-Help. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 9, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/locating-psychological-self-help-within-the-world-of-self-help/0001554
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
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