What Does “Self-Help” Mean?

Maybe you’ve heard the line from comedian Steven Wright:

“I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman, ‘Where’s the self-help section?’ She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose.”

Yes, it’s just a joke. And it makes a point: There is a lack of clarity around the term “self-help.”

What does it mean, exactly?

I have these answers:

  • Skills. Self-care calls for specific skills—especially skill in changing habits. People use good self-help books to adopt new behaviors that lead to new results in their lives.
  • Self-care. This includes anything that you do outside of a doctor’s or therapist’s office to promote your health—dietary changes, exercise, meditation, yoga, and other constructive behaviors.
  • Homework. If you’re in therapy, you might get assignments to complete between sessions—books to read, worksheets to fill out,  journal entries to write. Workbooks offered by companies such as New Harbinger Publications are based on this approach.
  • Prevention. Certain behaviors set us up for long-term problems. Examples are eating too much, drinking too much alcohol, having unprotected sex, living a sedentary life, and ignoring stress levels. We can disrupt these patterns at any time before they lead to suffering. In this sense, “self-helping” is the opposite of “self-defeating.”

Given these definitions, asking for help is a self-help strategy. People who benefit from professional treatment and support groups will vouch for this idea.

Turns out that Wright was wrong.