Scrutinizing Self-Help

Jessica Lamb-Shapiro on the appeal of popular advice books

January 4, 2015

Writer Jessica Lamb-Shapiro grew up steeped in the world of self-help. As the daughter of a child psychologist and author of more than 40 self-help books, she quickly grew weary of the simple solutions offered by popular titles like “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” So perhaps it was only natural that as an adult she wanted to understand why people liked them so much. To find out, she read hundreds of books and articles, journeyed to conferences headed by self-improvement icons, and even conquered her fear of flying along the way.

In her memoir, “Promise Land,” she argues that people are drawn to the kind of inspirational storytelling found in many self-help books. Though the stories may be clichéd, they’re also remarkably effective, reminding readers that they can also overcome obstacles. “I think that’s one reason why we like those stories so much, [because] we’re able to project ourselves into them,” she says.

For Lamb-Shapiro, self-help culture also appeals to our nationalistic notions of self-reliance, that anyone can triumph over adversity alone, through sheer hard work.

“On the one hand that’s a very empowering message,” she says. “But on the other hand it’s very isolating...because you’re saying you don’t need anyone else.”

Interview Highlights

On reading about stories of misfortune 

I actually read a bunch of beginnings of self-help [books] back-to-back, and by the end I was laughing out loud because each beginning is worse than the next. The formula works better the worse [the] initial situation is. So it’s really like everybody’s died, they’re homeless, they’re on the street, they have no arms and legs. It gets so ridiculous that you’re like, “Really? Was it really that bad?” But then that makes the payoff so much better.

On self-help as a cultural lens

One thing that I thought was so interesting about self-help is that it really responds to the needs of a particular time. A really obvious example is during the Depression, most of the books that were selling were about budget and money… During World War II there was a title called “Psychology for the Fighting Man” and there as another one called “Handbook for Army Wives and Mothers”... And of course it makes sense that during a recession people are going to be wanting books about saving money and making money, and so people are going to respond to that need. So in a way it’s very common sense, but it wasn’t something that I had thought about before I started this project.

On how wrting the book helped her grieve

I was writing this book that I thought was about self-help culture and I really didn’t think it was going to be a very personal book, other than the fact that my father was a self-help writer and that I tend to write from a first person point of view. But as soon as I started reading books on grief... I starting learning things about grieving and [realized] that I had never grieved my own mother’s death… And so once I put two and two together in that way, the book really changed and became also about that part of my life.


I listened to a portion of this show and found the author's and interviewer's comments about self help books (and the people who read them) to be flippant, patronizing and superficial.

It is understandable that 12-step organizations are lumped in with "self-help," and that the related books are located in that section of the book store; however, an accurate understanding of 12-step methods demonstrates that while there may be no "helping professional" involved, 12-step methods involve many other people, the main work is done in groups or one-on-one, but not alone. Some 12-step organizations even reject the "self-help" label, to make this point more clearly.