Chapter 1: Understandings about Self-Help
Introduction to Self-Help                                              
What is psychological self-help?                                                
What will this book do for you?                                                 
Finding what you need in this book                                           
Finding other self-help books and Internet sites                         
Understandings between you, the reader, and me, the author     
We can learn and we can change!                                                       
Any therapist or self-help method may do harm.                                  
Every self-helper should research his/her methods.                             
Each successful change increases your belief in self-control.                   
10. This book does not teach you to be a therapist.                                    
13. There are many needs a book cannot meet.                                         
14. Understandings for group participants.                                                  
The Psycho-social Education Approach                                                     
The publishing business and self-help books                                        
Why is it so hard to find the book you need?                                       
The neglect of prevention by books and institutions                             
Why should self-help be given away via the school system?                     
A brief review of the idea of self-control                                              
Our attitude toward "self-help" will influence our future.                       
Introduction to Self-Help
What is psychological self-help?
I consider self-help to be intentional coping. It is handling your
own troublesome situations by exercising deliberate conscious control
to improve the outcome of the situation. It is recognizing your own
personal weaknesses and working to overcome those faults and
improve yourself. It sometimes involves changing others or the
environment to improve your own circumstances or feelings, but self-
help primarily focuses on changing your own behavior, feelings, skills,
cognition (thoughts), or unconscious processes. Self-help is the
conscious reasoning part of your "self" changing other aspects of your
internal self, your actions, and your situation. It is self-improvement
by your self. 
The self-change notion may seem a little foreign to you because
our culture attends far more to changing other people--making
children behave, teaching others, motivating employees, fighting crime
and drugs, selling ourselves or products to others, pleasing our lover,
getting people to vote our way, etc.--than to changing ourselves.
"Making things better" often means trying to change someone else.
Even my discipline of psychology spends far more time on studying
methods for changing or treating others than on methods for self-
improvement. The old concepts of self-control, self-responsibility, and
self-reliance haven't been in vogue during the last few decades. 
On the other hand, if the idea of self-help seems like
commonsense to you, then you may be particularly aware that our
minds are almost constantly attempting to solve some current or
approaching problem. Indeed, most of us are self-helping all the time,
i.e. every time you plan your actions by imagining in advance how to
possibly handle a situation. Even if it takes only seconds during a
conversation to think of what to say, that is self-helping. Our brain's
great ability to quickly imagine different ways of approaching a difficult
situation sets us apart from other animals. We are constantly asking
ourselves "what should I say or do now?" which usually involves
thinking of alternative approaches as well as guessing what the
outcome of each alternative might be. As a person becomes keenly
aware of these constant and complex coping processes, he/she
recognizes a myriad of opportunities for intervening to make things
better. This book should, above all else, enhance your understanding
of these internal mental events involved in coping moment by moment
throughout life. This is the essence of self-help. 
I suspect that many of us overlook most of the opportunities we
have to influence our lives (we couldn't possibly act on all of them).
We may feel rather powerless or we feel controlled by outside forces--
others, circumstances, fate, or a higher power. Many others don't
know or don't believe there are methods for directing our lives.
Perhaps, for the species as a whole, our natural (untrained) but
uncanny ability to problem-solve leads us to the false conclusion that
there is no way or no need to improve our coping skills. How sad. Like
the person who wants to effortlessly be a great conversationalist or
the student who hopes to impress others by doing well on an exam
"without studying," we humans may feel just a little inadequate if we
have to study and work to self-improve. The truth is: effective living
requires hard work, whether it is staying trim and fit or acquiring
expertise in our profession or maintaining a loving relationship. 
An effective mind sets our course. Like the tail of a plane, it guides, with small
movements, the power of all the rest of our body and spirit.
What is not self-help?
It may clarify the concept of "self-help" if we consider what self-
help is not. Examples: it is not habitually, automatically, or impulsively
responding to a situation, even if the response is very effective. It is
not stumbling into a solution by chance or luck. It is not being
oblivious to ways our situation or adjustment could be improved even
if, in our ignorance, we are quite content with the way things are. It is
not going along with or being "pushed" by our emotions in unwise
directions. It is not getting relief by avoiding a bad situation if a better
solution could be found. It is not assuming that we are doing our best
if our coping skills could be improved. It is not living without purpose if
meaning can be found for our life. It is not expecting to fail or feeling
helpless (assuming success is possible). It is not blithely overlooking
the genes, physiological factors, cultural influences, traditions,
perceptual biases, unconscious payoffs and forces, and other factors
that influence our lives in unhealthy ways, if there are ways to become
aware of and counter the undesirable aspects of those factors. It is not
joining a group, going to therapy, talking to a friend, or reading a book
in the hopes of finding someone who will save you. 
On the other hand, a person may join a support or 12-step group
as a way of getting ideas and encouragement to manage his/her own
life better; that is still self-helping. Similarly, reading a book, watching
a talk show, talking with a friend or a counselor can also be used by us
to help us help ourselves. While self-helping, even in a group or
reading a self-help book, we continue to assume the full responsibility
for changing our lives. (Sometimes, of course, our psychological
condition may deteriorate to the point we can't cope, then we must let
someone else take over for a while.) 
As I state repeatedly, self-help is not just dealing with life's crises
(although that's the current emphasis); it should enable us to prevent
problems and find nobler purposes, to be more loving and giving, and
to achieve greater successes than would have otherwise been the
case. Obviously, a highly competent self-helper is aware of many of
his/her real or potential problems and weaknesses and is able to
quickly formulate a plan to improve the situation. An ineffective self-
helper can't or doesn't do these things. 
Psychology's ambivalence about self-control
Humans want to control their lives and they fear a loss of control.
Yet, there is no strong belief that science offers much help with self-
control. As I mentioned, even the discipline of psychology left self-
control, will or volition, and cognitive control in the hands of
philosophers until the 1960's. Moreover, some experimental theorists
suggest that conscious thought or "will" has almost nothing to do with
our behavior (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999; Wegner & Wheatley, 1999). It
is true that much of human living is done automatically without being
guided by conscious thought. There is too much happening--
perception, behavior, emotions, memory, physiological processes--for
conscious decision-making and planning to handle it all moment by
moment. Automatic mechanisms have taken over. But when things go
wrong and/or we want to make changes, we sometimes have the
option of using our brain's limited conscious resources to plan new
Recently, Shapiro (1997) with two colleagues (Shapiro, Schwartz
and Astin, 1996) has summarized the theory and research about self-
control during the last 40 years. I'll summarize their summary. The
impressive and growing research showing that self-control (or the lack
of it) is important to our mental and physical health has awakened
research psychologists to the importance of self-change and volition.
Self-help attitudes and skills are becoming major factors in the
treatment of physical, mental, emotional and interpersonal problems. 
Normal healthy people tend to over-estimate their control and
under-estimate their vulnerabilities. That makes us feel better. If we
feel able to deal with an illness, it helps (we do more to help and our
immune system actually works better). Feeling helpless decreases our
treatment efforts and increases our anxiety and depression. Believing
you are powerless when you aren't is, of course, a problem. Likewise,
too much belief in one's control or an excessive need for control can
make things worse, health-wise and socially. If you assume you have
more control than you really have, you may also blame yourself
inappropriately for bad outcomes. 
Shapiro (1997) shows us that the concept of self-control is
complex. It includes your need to control, the confidence you have in
your control, as well as the actual control you have. This can be in
broad areas of life or in very specific areas, such as "getting this job
done on time" and "controlling my anger with this person." As the
Serenity Prayer tells us, control may mean coping with a situation by
yielding, patiently accepting, or accommodating the situation as well
as coping by assertively doing something to change things. Does
control include denial, such as the alcoholic saying "I can stop drinking
any time," which controls anxiety but worsens the addiction? Well, it's
not conscious control. Does control also include getting others,
including family, gang, government, and God, to make things better
for you? Maybe. Finally, there is a lot we don't know about teaching
self-control: do different genders, ages, levels of ambition,
personalities, etc. need different control skills and types of instruction?
Also, if society helps people get more self-control and perhaps more
influence over others, do we also need to be concerned about their
values, i.e. how they use their power? Shapiro's book, this one, and
others will answer many questions about self-control but there is much
still to be explored in this neglected area of knowledge.
What will this book do for you?
This book reviews all aspects of self-improvement. It provides you
with a system for analyzing any problem into its manageable parts and
for planning self-change. It invites you to first carefully consider what
you value and want to accomplish in life. It summarizes science's best
explanations of most human problems. It lists the most promising
ways of treating a wide range of unwanted behaviors and emotions. It
describes in detail how to use about 100 self-help methods. In short,
this book gives you a sound, research-based fund of knowledge about
behavior; add to this your own coping experiences and you accumulate
a storehouse of general knowledge that will help you understand
yourself and gain more control over your life. That is offered;
absorbing and applying the knowledge is your job. 
Just as experimental psychology has "Introductory Psychology"
textbooks, the science of personally useful psychology needs an
introductory text too, especially one that introduces you to other
practical and highly readable self-help books. No one book could tell
you all you need to know. In this book you will find summaries of
almost all the major self-help books and articles by scholars in the
field. In addition, about 1500 sources of information, mostly available
and easy-to-read books, are cited. You are urged to expand your
knowledge by reading more in areas that really concern you. 
No learner knows his/her subject well enough. The best we can hope for is to
know enough to know when we need more information and to know where and
how to find the best available information. Think of reading as probing the best
minds at their best.
This book was designed to help the ordinary person live his/her life
better. But, more specifically, what should a reader expect from a
thorough, comprehensive, effective self-help book? This is what I
would expect, based on my experience with 3000 students. After
carefully reading this book and getting some practice at developing
and carrying out self-help plans (both in your own life and with others-
-friends, family, or a support group), you should be able to: 
quickly analyze any problem into meaningful parts for better
understanding, and 
select, master, and carry out appropriate self-help treatment
methods, and 
assess your progress and make modifications to your plan if it
isn't working. 
In fact, I believe a person of average intelligence, with this
knowledge and practice, will be able to develop self-improvement
plans that are as good (judged by experts as "probably effective") as
treatment plans developed by professionals (psychiatrists,
psychologists, social workers, school psychologists, counselors, etc.).
It is an empirical question. I won't guarantee these results, but if the
average person believes he/she can do it (and does the work), I think
they can. Many of us inflate the ability of others and sell ourselves
Lastly, a self-help introductory text should be updated
every three to five years to include the latest research and
techniques for self-improvement. It should contain a wide variety
of self-help methods; one person's way of self-helping may be
totally rejected by another person facing the same problem; we
each find our own way. Such a book is a massive undertaking, but
a wonderful extra bonus would befall us all if self-help books
encouraged researchers to develop and publish more effective self-
control or self-insight techniques. 
Finding what you need in this book
I have done my best to make this big book user-friendly. I don't
want you to get bogged down in the first chapter, in technical stuff, or
in topics that don't interest you. Therefore, the book has been written
so you can skip around, finding the parts that address your concerns
and interests today. A search engine was added to help you. Of
course, you can read the book straight through if you want to (or are
assigned reading that way). 
As you can tell by looking at the table of contents, the remainder
of this chapter provides basic facts or things you need to know about
self-helping in general. Chapter 2 gives you a system for
understanding your problem situations better, and then it guides you
through explicit steps for devising self-change plans and trying them
out. The system isn't amazing, fantastic, or ingenious; the system is
just reasonable. The system isn't fast, simple, and easy; human
problems aren't that way. But human problems and this self-help
system aren't impossibly complicated, either. 
Before deciding on major changes in your life, you need to decide
on your life goals, i.e. what you want to become, what your ideals,
values, and needs are, what major purposes you are going to serve in
life. Chapter 3 provides some help with this. Your morals, values, and
philosophy of life could influence every moment of your life, so they
are of utmost importance. 
Chapter 4 discusses how to stop unwanted behavior and how to
increase your motivation to do what you think you should do.
Chapters 5 to 8 explain the four major emotions of anxiety,
depression, anger, and dependency, and suggest ways of reducing
these unpleasant feelings. Chapter 9 gives us insight into our needs
and the development of our personality as well as into our
relationships. Chapter 10 deals with finding and keeping love: dating,
sex, marriage, and divorce. Chapters 11 to 15 spell out the rationale
and detailed steps involved in carrying out the major self-help
methods to treat or solve problems. You would use only one or two
methods from a "solving-the-problem" chapter on a particular
problem. Thus, you usually need to read an "understanding-the-
problem" chapter before skimming the "solving-the-problem" chapters. 
Note: It would be a mistake to over-emphasize just finding
information to help you with a current problem. Remember, there are
at least three good reasons for reading about topics or problems that
don't concern you at the moment: (1) it is possible that you have a
problem but don't realize it, until you read about it. (2) It is highly
advantageous if you have read in advance about and prepared for an
upcoming, perhaps unseen, problem. For example, surely most of us
will be dumped by a lover sometime in our lives. If you have given
some forethought to coping with that situation--the irrational self-
doubts (chapter 14), the dependency (chapter 8), the feelings of
failure and self-doubt (chapter 6), the anger (chapter 7), etc.--surely
you will be better prepared for the unavoidable pain and even for
possible thoughts of suicide. (3) It is inevitable, if you have several
close, intimate friends, that they will face problems different from
yours. Your friends will be very lucky if you are well read and
understand them when they are in trouble, perhaps you can offer
them some helpful suggestions as well as steady support. 
My plea is for you to accept the size of this book, the sometimes
distracting referrals to other chapters, and the hundreds of useful
references (where you can go for the best additional information, if
you need it). It is a book of knowledge, not a book for pleasure. Let
me give you an example of how you can quickly find your way around:
I'd encourage you to read the rest of this chapter, but not necessarily
now. If you are in a hurry to "get on with it," just look over the
"understandings" in bold print below and go on to chapter 2. If the
details for doing self-help in chapter 2 are also too tedious for you
now, look over the steps in bold print (that will take you two minutes)
and then go directly to the chapter(s) that interest you most. This
book can't help you if you don't read it. Use the table of contents and
the chapter indices or use the book's search engine on the title page to
get around quickly. 
Once you have found that this book truly deals with your basic
concerns, you will be more likely to explore the whole volume for
interesting ideas. The important thing is that you stay interested in
improving yourself! The most I can do to help you with your
motivation is to feed you useful information. But useful information
must be used, and only you are in control of that. At least skim the
following understandings, and then decide where you want to go in
this book or in other recommended books. 
Finding other self-help books and Internet sites
Useful self-help information exists primarily in two places--in books
and on the Internet. Thus far, these two worlds don’t interact very
much, i.e. books cite books and Internet sites link to other sites. Of
course, the 50,000 self-help books published over the last 50+ years
contain much more information than the current Internet, but the gap
is narrowing. The Internet could grow rapidly with more and more
people getting access to free advice within seconds or minutes. The
Web is an ideal way to gain knowledge, but the Internet has a
problem, namely, it doesn’t as yet make money, like books do, by
selling information. Therefore, as long as publishers can buy and
control the best self-help material for books, hard copy publications
may, in general, be the better sources. Hopefully, Internet sites will
find support allowing them to compete and buy excellent information
and deliver it free via multi-media formats. In the meantime, the
prudent self-helper will search both the Web and hard copy books. I’ll
help you do that. 
To find specialized self-help books, the best starting point is
where you are, i.e. reading this book, Psychological Self-Help. Simply
find the topic that concerns you in the chapter indices (or use the
search engine on the title page). Then read the relevant material and
look for references. Most self-help books are rather specific, dealing
with a circumscribed problem area. Once you have the author and
year, you can get the full reference in the bibliography. 
In the same way, other comprehensive self-help books could be
used to find specialized books (Weiten & Lloyd, 1997; Creer, 1996;
Butler & Hope, 1997; Epstein, 1996; Lazarus & Lazarus, 1997).
Specific guidebooks to self-help books include Norcross, et al (2003),
Santrock, et al (1994) and Giblin & Bales (1997). Santrock and more
recently Norcross used ratings by professionals to evaluate self-help
books (and I have frequently cited their findings). Unfortunately, a
self-help book is four or five years old before the ratings can be
published by Santrock, et al. 
Another good approach to finding a self-help book on a particular topic
is to browse the “Health, Mind & Body” section at Amazon Books
(http://www.amazon.com) or at Barnes and Noble
(http://www.barnesandnoble.com). Book evaluations by experts and
readers are often provided. Finally, a search for information about a
particular problem on any of the major search engines, e.g. Alta Vista,
will usually yield useful sites as well as books, tapes, and other
services, often in the form of ads. 
To find self-help assistance on the Internet, the best hard
copy directories of diverse mental health resources are John Grohol’s
(1997) and (2004), The Insider’s Guide to Mental Health Resources
Online. Morrison & Stamps (1998) have written a similar book.
However, these books may not be obtained easily, unless you are on a
college campus. And, since you are online now, the sites listed below
are instantly available. 
Below are good starting points for seeking specific how-to-
cope information and support groups:
(1) To find explicit, detailed directions for coping with a
variety of specific problems, just as if you were searching for a
specialized book, go to the relevant chapter’s index in this online book
(or use its search engine). Self-help instructions will be found in the
discussion of your problem. In addition, I have cited the more helpful
and science-based books and Internet sites in that area. Other
Internet sites provide many self-help resources: Dr. Grohol’s Psych
Central (http://www.psychcentral.com/resources/), Self-
Improvement Online (http://www.selfgrowth.com/topics.html), Cyber
Psychologist (http://www.cyberpsych.com/), and Psych Web
(http://www.psywww.com/). Also, Psych Web lists numerous
brochures and articles available on the Web
Of course, you can simply do a search for your problem on a major
search engine. This will give you some URL’s of sites offering help with
your specific concern. But many useful sites will be missed and the
useful sites that are found will be intermixed with unscientific,
marginal sites and with ads. 
(2) To find local self-help support groups, call your local
Mental Health Center, a local psychiatric/psychological treatment
center, or a local hospital. If this doesn’t work, try the Self-Help
Sourcebook Online (http://mentalhelp.net/selfhelp/) which locates
groups all over the US and helps people start their own local support
groups if none is available. To find support groups on the
Internet, called “newsgroups,” “mail lists,” “chat groups,” “forums,”
etc., Psych Central-mail (http://www.psychcentral.com/mail.htm)
provides one list and Psych Central-news
(http://www.psychcentral.com/news.htm) another. Various support
groups are provided at a different section of Psych Central 
(http://psychcentral.com/resources/Other/Support_Groups/).  Self-
Improvement Online (http://www.selfgrowth.com/newsgrp.html) also
lists newsgroups. Both sites, Grohol’s PsychCentral
(http://forums.psychcentral.com/) and MentalEarth Community
(http://www.mentalearth.com/), offer several good Forums. Online
there is a direct link from the title page to the Self-Help Forum. Other
Forums deal with several different diagnoses and behavioral or
relationship problems. 
It appears that support and advice from people “who have been
there” are often as helpful as self-help books, professional advice, and
therapy. Certainly many people seek understanding, reassurance they
are not alone, encouragement, and just someone to hear their story.
Storm King (http://webpages.charter.net/stormking/) has discussed
in great detail the pros and cons of self-help groups. 
(3) To find accurate information about psychiatric
diagnoses, there are several outstanding sites,
but only one we really recommend, the mental health resources found at Psych Central . Search
engines will also find information about diagnoses for you. 
A surprising number of former, current, and prospective patients
are on the Internet seeking to learn more about their diagnosis and
possible treatment. They often identify themselves by some label: “I’m
bipolar,” “I’m an adult child of alcoholism,” “I’m a child of divorce,”
and “I’m PTSD... DID... BPD... ADD... OCD... “ 
(4) To find information about treatment methods as applied
to a variety of disorders, good sources are Psych Central,
(http://mentalhealth.samhsa.gov/), and this book, Psychological Self-
Help. As mentioned before, the major search engines can locate
information about how to treat a specific disorder and about specific
treatment methods, such as Cognitive-Behavioral or Psychodynamic
To learn more about psychopharmacological medications,
see Psychiatric Medications from Psych Central.
For clients seeking “talking therapy,” it is to their advantage to be
familiar with the rationale of several different psychotherapy
techniques. I say that because I believe that the best therapy is a
cooperative effort with the patient well informed enough to participate
in planning the therapy. Moreover, the client should continuously apply
self-help techniques to supplement the therapy methods. Thus, good
psychotherapy patients are students of self-help. 
(5) To find information on almost any psychological
topic, Psych Central is a well organized source covering many disorders. 
In most cases, the key to coping is knowledge. So, go get it! 
Understandings between You, the Reader, 
and Me, the Author
If you and I, as reader and writer, are going to communicate most
effectively, there are some things you need to know about the "state
of the art" of self-help and about my approach to self-help. I want you
to recognize the scientific basis (or lack of it) for self-help methods. I
want you to be aware of the assumptions I am making and the values
I hold. I want you to know what I would like you to do while reading
this book and afterwards. These 13 understandings should help you to
view self-help realistically, and then, use it effectively. 
Understanding 1: We, as humans, primarily learn to be the way we are;
therefore, at any point in life, we can learn to be different. But, it may not
be easy to change. 
I assume there are reasons--causes--for everything we do, and
that humans can learn to understand those reasons, which are
dependable, "lawful," useful, cause and effect relationships. Therefore,
each of us could presumably gain considerable control over our own
futures by understanding and using the "laws of behavior," especially
those in the form of self-help methods, such as: 
If I repeatedly highly reward a desired behavior, it will probably
increase in frequency. 
If I deeply relax for 10 minutes twice a day, I will probably be
calmer throughout the day. 
If I learn new communication skills, such as empathy, I will
probably get along better with people. 
If I can view a situation more positively or, at least, as being
"lawful," I will probably be less upset. 
I will describe many self-help methods in simple terms, step by
step, almost like recipes in a cookbook. Then, we will learn how those
methods can be used with specific problems, like fears, sadness,
jealousy, selection of a mate, etc. If you understand how a problem
started and what keeps it going, and how self-help methods work, you
are better able to devise a way to change things. And that's what self-
help is all about. 
I truly believe you learn by doing, not just by reading a book or
talking about your problems. You must use the ideas. So, I'll give you
lots of examples of how to use psychological methods in everyday life.
Hopefully, you can then see many ways to use each method in your
life--and, more importantly, will immediately try out the methods. If
you don't use the idea you have read or heard about within a day or
two, you will probably forget it. 
As you read, ask yourself: How can I apply this idea or self-help
method today or tomorrow? As you live, moment by moment, ask
yourself: What have I learned about psychology that would help in this
situation? This learning orientation is crucial to changing; it becomes
automatic and contagious. A few successes will crush the old, cruel
idea that you can't change things, and then you get "high" on learning
about yourself and how to relate to others better. I'd like to see you
take an experimental approach to life, i.e. try out self-help methods to
see what works for you. As you learn and experience more, you
become more self understanding, more in control, less helpless and
more confident, and better prepared for a whole life-time of growth.
We all try to help ourselves all the time, so why not learn to be a really
good, knowledgeable self-helper and steadily improve your future? 
Understanding 2: Self-help is a relatively new, still-to-be-proven approach,
involving a few well tested methods, but many methods are unproven.
Research supporting self-help approaches is accumulating. 
Psychologists have started to evaluate self-help methods
objectively. However, the methods that have been researched and
proven to be somewhat effective in most cases, like rewarding your
own desirable behavior, relaxation, assertiveness training, and
overcoming unreasonable fears by exposing yourself to the situation,
aren't effective in every case (and neither is therapy). The better
methods are, at best, effective only 80-90% of the time, even though
you are working on just a small aspect of your life, such as a fear of
public speaking. The only way to know if you are among the 10-20%
for whom a particular self-help method doesn't work is to try it out
yourself and see what happens. The profession, of course, needs to
research self-help methods much more than it does (Rosen, 1987;
Christensen & Jacobson, 1994), but, in any case, you must research
your own self-help methods and efforts (see understanding #5). You
are a different and unique person. 
It may surprise many of you that so little is known with any
certainty about self-help methods. Why is this so? Partly because few
funding agencies and scientists are interested in this area. Also,
because there is a dis-connect between personality and stress
researchers and practitioners who would actually advocate or write
about practical coping techniques. Approximately 14,000 research
articles about "coping behaviors" were published between 1967 and
1999, but this research has yielded very little in the way of practical,
personally useful methods for handling stress (Somerfield & McCrae,
2000). That is very unfortunate. Part of the reason is that academic
researchers tend to look at group differences on a single measure;
that's quicker and easier but very different than observing (within
many individuals) the connections over time between an individual's
use of specific efforts to cope and his/her immediate and long-term
outcomes. Only the latter measures tell us much about how-to-cope. 
Fortunately, a meta-analysis review of 40 well designed outcome
studies of self-help treatments has been done (Scogin, Bynum,
Stevens, & Calhoon, 1990). The focus was on written or audiotaped
material used by persons with various problems (bad habits, fears,
depression, poor skills) without regular contact with a therapist or a
teacher--typical self-help material, like this book summarizes. The
overall conclusions were that self-help is clearly more effective than no
treatment at all and just as effective in most cases as treatment
administered by a therapist. Do the results last? One study of
bibliotherapy with depression found the benefits lasted for three years
(Smith, Floyd & Scogin, 1997). These are important and impressive
findings, if they hold up over time, suggesting that self-help can
potentially offer you cheap and effective help. However, much of the
self-help material evaluated by these researchers was written by the
researchers; they may have been biased. Also, Scogin, et al. didn't use
the popular self-help material available in the bookstore. However,
another meta-analysis by Clum and Gould of 34 published self-help
books and videos confirmed that popular material also seemed to be
about as helpful as therapy by professionals. Gould and Clum (1993)
concluded that "self-administered treatments achieve outcomes
comparable to those of therapist-administered treatments." Indeed,
some types of problems and patients benefit more from self-help than
from therapy. Altogether 50 to 100 studies have shown that certain
self-help books or methods have been helpful to certain people with
certain problems; that doesn't mean a specific self-help method will
help you with a specific problem. But it means that self-help isn't
Although having minimal contact with a therapist or a teacher
beyond the self-help readings or tapes did not seem to help much in
the above studies, Rosen (1987) provides evidence that people with
certain problems (premature ejaculation and toilet training) are more
likely to persevere and actually complete a treatment method if a
therapist is continuously encouraging them to use the method and
monitoring their progress, than if the "patients" are left entirely on
their own to apply the method. That's hardly surprising. On the other
hand, there is evidence (Journal of the AMA, 1986) showing that 9 out
of 10 people who quit smoking do it on their own, not in a "program."
Smokers in a program--working with a helper--have a 24% success
rate; self-helpers working alone have a 48% success rate. Maybe the
smokers in a program were more addicted than self-helpers working
on their own. In any case, some people, no doubt, need personal
guidance and encouragement from others. A method could be equally
effective if applied by a therapist or by a self-helper alone, but
obviously the method can not do you any good if you won't use it on
your own. Becoming motivated to change is a critical and little
understood part of changing (see step one in chapter 2 and chapter
Why else do I believe self-help can help you? First, self-help
methods are often based on therapy methods which, in general, have
been shown to be fairly effective (Bergin & Lambert, 1978; Bergin &
Garfield, 1994). Specific treatment methods have been shown to work
dependably with 10 or so specific disorders (DeRubeis & Crits-
Christoph, 1998; National Advisory Council, 1995). Second, early
research on self-help suggested that it is more effective and certainly
far more economical than therapy, e.g. with self-reinforcement
(Kazdin, 1975), fears (Barlow & Craske, 1989; Clark, 1973; Marks,
1978), and vocational choice (Graff, 1972). More and more positive
results continue to be reported (Christensen & Jacobson, 1994),
especially when people are encouraged to work on their own towards
self-improvement (Smyrnios & Kirkby, 1993). Third, several college
self-help courses have been considered successful by 70-85% of the
students (Grasha, 1974 ; Berrera and Glasgow, 1973; Ladd, 1973;
Tucker-Ladd, 1994; Rakos and Grodek, 1984; Sherman, 1975). 
It has been my experience with over 3000 students, who varied
greatly in the seriousness of their problems, their motivation to learn
or change, and their ability, that about half of the students in one
semester became (or were already) rather effective self-helpers.
Perhaps 10% to 20% devoted 6-8 hours a week to the course (16
weeks) and made remarkable progress, turning in well documented
and impressive reports of self-improvement. At the other extreme,
10% to 20% did very little and appeared to learn little. Almost all
"claimed" to have self-improved, of course. When I did a follow up 1 to
8 years after the course, 69% remembered making progress during
the course, 5% said they didn't make progress, and 23% said "some
progress, maybe." At that time, 1 to 8 years later, 8% of the problems
worked on had gone away, 71% had definitely gotten better, 6% had
not changed, and 5% had gotten worse. A 79% success rate for self-
help several years later is pretty good, compared to the generally
agreed upon 70% improvement rate for psychotherapy. But, keep in
mind that 75% were still "working on it" and 40% expected it to
always be a problem (Tucker-Ladd, 1994). Therefore, while the data is
promising, psychologists pushing self-help or therapy can make no
promises to an individual about curing a specific problem. 
Finally, nearly 90% of all therapists consider self-help material
helpful. Between 60% and 88% of professional psychotherapists, who
are in a position to know what helps and what harms, recommend self-
help books to their clients, almost 50% do so "often" or "regularly."
Among the therapists who recommend self-help books, 92% to 94%
consider the books to be "sometimes" or "often" helpful. As discussed
in understanding #4, very few or no therapists observed self-help
books doing harm (Starker, 1988). 
Has the effectiveness of this book been assessed? No, certainly not
in the sense that every method has been tested for every problem
when used by every kind of person in every circumstance. That will
take decades! Yes, in the sense that this general approach (see
chapter 2) has been used successfully by me in approximately 100
classes over a period of 21 years. Please note, however, that there has
been no objective evaluation of using this book alone; my follow up
evaluation involved college students. My students were in a college
self-help class for credit and also at the same time, as part of the
class, in a paraprofessional-lead mutual helping group (much like a
group of helpful friends). You will notice that I frequently recommend
talking to friends. There is no way to tell, at this point, to what degree
the help came from my class, the readings, or the group. All seemed
Reader Feedback about Psychological Self-Help
Psychological Self-Help (PSH) is a 30-year effort and it is still a
work in progress. The book was started in 1970 to serve as an
undergraduate college text for a new psychology course (Psychology
Applied to Personal Adjustment) at Southern Illinois University. From
1974 to 1991, several editions served as the textbook for Mental
Hygiene and for Introduction to Helping (Self-Help) at Eastern Illinois
University. Over 3000 students have taken the 3-hour credit class, and
each participated in a mutual helping group and completed a lengthy,
well documented self-improvement project. By the way, even though
this book gives you far more information than you could possibly get in
any one class, the class/group/text/project combination is, in my
opinion, the preferred way to teach effective self-help. Most of the
students, I'd say 75% to 85%, in those classes and groups made
impressive changes in important areas of their lives. As mentioned
above, the remaining 15% to 25%, as you might expect, threw
something together at the last minute. 
Psychological Self-Help has been online at the Mental Help Net
(MHN) site since March, 1997. Dr. John Grohol was the Director of
MHN at that time. Dr. Mark Dombeck is Director now. The book is over
1,000 typed pages long and cites well over 2,000 references, plus
linking to hundreds of Web sites. Since 1970, PSH has been repeatedly
updated and revised. How much is it read? One can't tell, but during
the last two years, PSH has had about 8,000 visitors per month who
have viewed about 375,000 "pages" per month. That is about
1,500,000 hits per month. That still doesn't tell you much about how
many words are read or how many ideas are grasped. 
The main page of PSH provides a feedback form for visitors. I will
give a very brief summary of the feedback. Out of all these visitors
only 272 people have partially or completely submitted responses,
about equal numbers were consumers (74) and professionals or
students (72). The remaining 110 described themselves as "just
wandering the Web." They were asked to list the most interesting
chapter. Each of the 15 chapters were listed about equally often. 
About 92% of the people giving feedback rated PSH as
"comprehensive enough," but 7% felt more information was needed in
specific areas. 97% judged PSH to be easily understood (but some
commented they didn't have the time to read and use the
information). On a 5-point Overall Rating scale, 63% rated PSH as a 5-
-"one of the best," and 34% rated it a 4--"a very good source." There
were two ratings of 3--"average," one rating of 2--"Not great," and
three ratings of 1--"Well, you tried!" 
There is space at the end of the feedback form for comments. Here
is sample of the comments: "excellent source;" "it has helped me;"
"where can I buy the book?" "very supportive;" "persuaded me to seek
therapy;" "led me to great material;" "a detailed and in depth review;"
"my problems are ____(a request for help);" "I'm telling everyone
about PSH;" "I started a S-H group;" "can I duplicate parts of PSH?,"
"can I translate it into my language?," etc. 
Of course, this feedback can not be taken as an accurate
assessment of PSH. For one thing it is only 272 responses (between
March, 1997 and 1999) out of almost 100,000 visitors per year. This is
also probably a positively biased sample of readers. Dependable,
useable outcome research would involve careful, complex
measurements of change as well as a comparison with the amount of
change achieved by other matched experimental and/or control groups
in order to identify the causes of the changes. Programmatic studies of
many self-help methods used with hundreds of different kinds of
problems in specific situations need to be done. 
Besides the responses via the feedback form, I receive about an
equal number of emails from readers, almost all positive. Some are
touching, such as those who are desperate for help, others who
describe using self-help to turn their lives around, people without
resources who are grateful for the free guidance, spouses and parents
who very much want to help a loved one, former students who share
fond memories of being in the class/groups, and many others. 
I believe some self-help methods can be used by some people to
make some changes in some areas. There is a lot more to learn. 
Summary: learning and carefully applying self-help methods
(which isn't just vaguely "trying to change" on your own) seem to be
about as effective for many people as undergoing much more costly
psychotherapy. This may astound many of you, especially those who
are in awe of professionals. The data, thus far, also suggests that
minimally trained "paraprofessionals" are as effective with specific
problems as highly trained therapists with years of experience
(Christensen & Jacobson, 1994; Dawes, 1997). This too is amazing.
Your understanding of these findings may be increased if you know
that two thirds or more of psychotherapy by professional practitioners
is not based on the best and latest scientific research (Sanderson,
2002). Perhaps the self-helper (or paraprofessional) is like a mechanic
in comparison to a physicist or engineer. You can't expect your
mechanic to design and perfect a revolutionary engine or fuel, but you
can expect him/her, and not an expensive engineer, to fix your car.
Perhaps in psychology we are too dependent on scientists and high-
paid therapists to fix our minds, our feelings, and everyday
relationships, when we could be seeing trained assistants working
under professional supervision or reading and doing a lot of self-
changing ourselves. 
Before I leave this "understanding" I want to divorce science-based
psychological self-help from other approaches which may, in ordinary
person's mind, be considered a part of self-help. First, there are
thousands of self-help groups (discussed in chapter 5) and online
support lists, forums, or boards--some are very beneficial, some are
not. Second, there are several thousand
inspirational/spiritual/motivational books and tapes published every
year--it is mostly "feel good" material, but I seldom review it. I prefer
more specific methods which have an empirical basis. Third, there is
the popular psychology found in many self-help books, on the radio,
on tapes, and on TV. Much of this material is not produced by
outstanding psychologists, but rather by publishers and media
corporations designed to sell books, talk shows, and personalities. I
will review a couple of articles about this type of "self-help." 
Are self-help writers generally more snake oil salesmen than
In answer to this question, Rosen, Glasgow & Moore (2003) say,
“Yes, in many ways” and they document that answer in sobering and,
for psychologists, embarrassing ways. First of all, what some writers
call the “advice industry” is big business: books, tapes, videos,
seminars, coaching, CD’s, groups, workshops, etc., are sold for a total
of about $3 billion a year. Most of these educational services have
not been proven to be effective. And they are pushed by
advertisements filled with enticing promises and unsupported praise
from their publishers and other self-help writers. Nona Wilson (2003)
also documents the massive and unfettered-by-facts commercialization
of self-improvement (via the development of star personalities), such
as by John Gray, Tony Robbins, the Oprah-Dr. Phil team, and many
others. Self-improvement has often been turned into entertainment
and infomercials. Billions have been made off of troubled, hurting
people hoping for help from “professionals” on TV and radio and in
The real questions are: Is this any way for a discipline, claiming to
be a science, to behave? Is deceptive marketing and over-selling of
products and services beneficial in the long run to the public or to the
helping professions? What happens when the promises are not
fulfilled? Some, no doubt, will seek self-improvement via the next
“hot” book or workshop by a big name. But, many others may give up
on even authentic professional help, science-based books, and other
established sources of help. Even the esteemed American
Psychological Association, once the bastion of science, has been deeply
involved in publishing and selling unproven tapes, videos, books and
training programs. Who warns or protects the needy-but-unaware-of-
the-facts public? 
I have to admit that my specialty (healing, growth and prevention
via psychosocial education), as a whole, often looks like it is expending
enormous efforts to “make big bucks” while almost totally neglecting
to do and advocate outcome research and avoiding informing the
consumer about the sometimes flimsy scientific basis for our products
and services. The two articles I just cited should be required reading
for every real or pretend professional…and for every user of self-help
books, seminars, videos, TV & radio talk shows, and other services. 
The above authors present persuasive data to make their points.
For instance, the research done in the heyday of self-help, the 1970’s,
was a commendable effort and yielded both positive and negative
findings. In the negative direction, it was reported that many self-help
books were hardly read (Tony Robbins says only 10% of self-help
readers get beyond the first chapter…I doubt if there is any hard data
supporting that.). Even those who read the self-help material often do
not get satisfactory results, certainly not the outcomes promised.
Some studies have reported that 50% of the subjects in a “self-
administered group” (they just read self-help material) didn’t
understand or follow the book’s recommendations. Some researchers
found that some popular books actually upset more readers than were
helped. Studies of other books showed that the written material was
fairly successful when monitored by a therapist or researcher, but
were not successful when self-applied. These authors concluded: all
self-help material, all kinds of readers, and the various conditions
under which the information is read (or heard) need to be researched.
One can’t just assume “Oh, it will help to read this.” [NB: In contrast
with these authors, I have found that books are rarely harmful, but
many books are abandoned early on or just not used much. Books are
usually inexpensive but still not a wise buy if bought because they
have a clever title or misleading ads or if they are not read.] 
Reality is that most self-help books are not published because they
have been objectively shown to be helpful. Instead, the publisher’s
editor believed it would sell well. Rosen, Glasgow & Moore (2003)
explicitly mention that certain well known writers have published a
new edition, using misleading claims, even after negative empirical
results from the first edition had been reported in the literature. They
conclude that money, in these cases, was clearly more important to
writers and publishers than professional standards. Even when a book
appears to produce desired changes for some readers, the percent of
successful readers was often 50% or much less. So, is this a waste of
time and money for over 50% of the readers? These kinds of data are
relevant to the purchaser but almost never included in the ads. Also,
I’ve never seen an ad for a book that says the content is essentially
the same as in 20 or 30 other books…any self-help reader can tell you
there is great redundancy in this literature. 
In a survey of all the bibliotherapy books published between 1990
and 1999, Rosen, Glasgow & Moore found only 15 well controlled
studies. The ratio of self-help evaluations to self-help books is tiny.
Again, stated in another way, the data suggest that the time and
professional investment in trying to help AND make money at the
same time is perhaps hundreds of times more than the energy put into
careful, honest research. 
The conclusions and recommendations of Rosen, Glasgow &
Moore are sobering: To the reader they say “don’t take the claims for
a book seriously,” unless there is independent empirical evidence.
(They also say “don’t blame yourself if a book doesn’t help you, it may
not be your fault.”) To the psychologist or any self-help writer in an
allied discipline, they say “the idea of individual professionals giving
psychology away was and is overly optimistic.” Thus, the idea that one
person could develop and adequately evaluate a self-help procedure
for a specific problem should be discarded. Instead, self-help should
adopt an objective, programmatic approach, more like “public health,”
involving (a) several professionals from different disciplines who (b)
undertake a coordinated effort to design science-based self-change
procedures for a specific problem, (c) select a large representative
sample of “clients” for a clinical trial, (d) carefully educate the users in
how to use the methods, (e) thoroughly evaluate the behavior-change
techniques using a variety of outcome measures, and (f) continuously
improve the self-change system over time before marketing their
product. I say, “Amen!” I’m ready to join a team. 
Is the “advice industry” personally beneficial to some
people? Are infomercials harmful to psychology as a
Many well trained professional therapists view the “advice
industry” as a regrettable but unavoidable annoyance. It is an
elephant in the house but most psychologists may try to ignore it.
Nona Wilson (2003) thinks that may be like ignoring a cancer that
could “displace” the professionals and science. Her argument is that
once therapeutic skills and knowledge are “offered for sale” in the
open marketplace, it is tempting to popularize these services within
the entertainment industry, placing them in the hands of advertisers
and corporate investors. In the extreme, the results could be
something like the Jerry Springer Show, capitalizing on sensationalized
sex and relationship problems, or the Oprah Show, a seemingly
sincere and emotional one-hour production involving charming
personalities giving personal, relationship and spiritual advice. Most
observers will realize this is an hour-long smooth, polished commercial
to sell advice and products (books, media personalities, the next show,
etc.). The Oprah Program is certainly a more impressive love-in or
pep-rally type of show than your individual therapist could possibly
produce during a once-a-week one-hour therapy session. Do such
shows distract distressed people from getting professional help? Or,
does Oprah and the products she sells fix problems as well as
therapists? We don’t know. 
The television talk shows have been defended by many
psychologists, including me, because it was assumed (there was no
proof) that they increased the general public’s interest in and
awareness of psychological problems and provided some helpful
information about coping. Indeed, between 1970 and 1990 I thought
TV, like the early Phil Donahue shows, would be the major way to
provide practical, realistic psychosocial knowledge to everyone.
Somewhere things went awry. I still have hope—what better choice is
Now, Dr. Wilson (2003) argues that popularized and
commercialized pop-psychology degrades and distracts from the basic
scientific psychological methods and treatment. This quietly tolerated
growth industry (we don’t know, yet, if it is malignant) has quickly
expanded in 15-20 years to become huge, wealthy, and powerful. And
I agree with her that all this young pop-psychology, but especially the
trash, may have a down-side that could seriously harm its original
sources, i.e. therapists and the science of helping. Both the mental
health professions and the public should stay alert to the dangers. In
the mid-90’s there were about 150 shows offering advice each week.
They were popular and profitable, e.g. each Montel Williams’ show
costs about $50,000 to produce but it earns $400,000. It is estimated
that Oprah has earned about 800 million dollars, largely by offering
psychological advice, support, and motivation. Just because a show
makes money doesn’t prove it improves the listeners. But millions
would say they have benefited from Oprah’s shows and the books she
Even though any knowledgeable viewer can tell the TV shows are
primarily to entertain, hold attention and sell products, rather than to
pass on science-based psychological knowledge, the talk shows (and
self-help books) have certainly influenced millions of people’s ideas
about the nature of mental health, psychological treatment, who are
the experts, and so on. There are many personal opinions about the
content but virtually no objective data about the psychological impact
of 25 years of talk shows and self-help books. Dr. Wilson suggests that
the primary focus of mass media gurus has shifted from sympathy for
the victim during the 1980’s Recovery Movement to critical, scolding,
take responsibility lectures, e.g. Dr. Laura and Dr. Phil, in the 1990s.
She also believes that the players in mass media psychology have
become far more powerful—more influential with the public—than the
professional helpers and their disciplines (that the shows take their
material from). I believe that. The tail (entertaining performances—
some quite elaborate) is wagging the dog (the scientific foundation for
psychological help). 
As several communication experts have observed: Watching
emotions and humor seduces us away from hard reality and the
intellect. Emotions appeal to us more than reason. This is well known
by advertisers and TV producers. So, the mass advice industry attracts
viewers with dramatic emotions. Often we are convinced that the
person who expresses emotions and arouses emotions in us is a
genuine, honest, real person who is working towards a solution to
his/her problem. And, Dr. Wilson says the advice industry tries to
persuade the audience that emotions are unquestionably valid and all
one needs to know about a situation or relationship. Emotions and
“emotional reasoning” are so valued, she says, that pop-psychology
considers personal feelings to be a reasonable way to make decisions
about coping. Consider the advice “listen to your inner voice,” “follow
your heart,” and “if you feel that way it must be so.” Letting emotions
over-ride logic, reason, and knowledge is a dangerous way to go,
hardly in line with established psychology. 
Another powerful point made by Dr. Wilson is that the advice
industry (talk shows, call-in radio, self-help books, workshops, etc.)
strives to get everyone involved and thinking alike, e.g. believing there
are one or two major causes for the problem being discussed, such as
domestic violence, unfaithfulness, over-eating, addictions and on and
on. Media advisors try to explain such events in just a few minutes;
there is no time for considering individual differences, backgrounds,
and unique circumstances. To sound profound or to make a quick sale,
the advice-giver also wants to propose a simple solution (usually buy
my book or seminar) which seems believable to many listeners. The
mass media advisor often offers a one-cure-fits-all solution so that all
the listeners can feel they have benefited from the advice. On the
other hand, the thorough individual psychotherapist explores many
different details of the client being treated—the individual’s
background, the disorder, the needs, the circumstances, the stress,
the strengths, the hopes for the future and so on. They see the person
as a unique individual and the treatment is tailored to serve that one
person. In contrast, the media advisor looks for commonality among
us in an effort to interest and serve all the viewers, readers, and
audience. That isn’t good advice giving…it is serving some other
The advice industry offers not just generalities but also vague
advice, rather than explicitly defined methods. (Often, however, the
advice giver will say the solution must involve five specific steps, then
the steps are left vague.) Dr. Wilson gives several examples of Dr.
Phil’s advice: “have the courage to change your life,” “realize you don’t
have to get mad,” ”if something is wrong with your relationship it’s
because you set it up that way,” “you have to teach people how to
treat you,” “take personal responsibility,” “you either get it or you
don’t,” “life is managed, not cured,” etc. There is no empirically based
professional knowledge and little clinical acumen in these comments
but Dr. Phil calls his own advice “transformative.” I’d call his advice
mostly showmanship or platitudes (a common comment) or truisms
(so self-evident it doesn’t need to be said). Most of these statements
sound a lot like the ordinary Introduction to Psychology student who
thinks she/he has come up with a solution to some psychological
problem simply by stating what the outcome should be (example: “I’ll
stop procrastinating by studying every night”), without any description
whatsoever of exactly how one might actually get from no studying to
studying every night. 
This commercialization of psychology causes harm, says Dr.
Wilson. It pretends to offer wisdom but instead offers unoriginal ideas
expressed in an authoritative, pretentious manner. That may sell
books the next day but she thinks it probably lowers interest in
established psychology in the long run. It would be quite possible
and interesting to investigate the consequences of a person becoming
deeply immersed in the advice industry (books, talk shows,
workshops…) in terms of seeking more or less psychological help via
therapy or in terms of respect one has for Clinical Psychologists and
other therapists. Actually, some of the star media advisors, such as
Tony Robbins, are quite hostile towards psychotherapy. 
Advertising is critiqued by Dr. Wilson because of its powerful role in
defining “the good life.” The strategy of advertising is to arouse new
wants and feelings of insecurity and then offer solutions (for a price).
Psychological needs fit well into that scheme (some would call it a
scam), it is pretty easy to make someone want better relationships,
more power, or to feel inadequate or insecure or unsure of how others
feel about them. Advice, like advertising, usually involves selling
something. In talk shows, the entire program is the commercial. Tony
Robbins sold 25 million copies of his book, Personal Power, mostly
through late night infomercials—do you suppose that was the best
book available between 1990 and 1997? No. Dr. Wilson describes in
detail how Oprah and Dr. Phil teamed up to produce a series of self-
promotional shows to sell his books. Dr. Phil interviews people briefly,
and then just as briefly tells them what to do. His advice is not
profound, it is not based on research, and it is similar to what an
overly confident neighbor might tell you. But in the right
circumstances, it can seem impressive. Most practicing psychologists
think giving quick, blunt, over-simplified advice is a poor therapeutic
Psychologists invited to talk shows have been encouraged to be
interesting, clever, and describe brief cases…but to avoid “reciting
boring statistics.” Other guests report being encouraged to stir up
excitement by confronting members of the audience; other
professionals report being surprised by attacks on the show from other
hostile guests who were clearly invited by the show’s producers. Does
this sound more like entertainment or sharing professional knowledge
and expertise? 
Dr. Wilson observes that professionals who haven’t had the luck to
make their fortune by getting on a TV talk show are often encouraged
to develop their own Web site. This, too, may encourage advertising
and seem to underscore the commercial aspects of the helping
professions, especially if the Web site implies “I’m a better therapist
than other online therapists.” She again uses John Gray, who has a
correspondence school doctorate and no license to practice, as an
example of commercialism gone amuck. Gray has developed, in
addition to his books, an expensive training program for counselors,
Counseling Centers for the counselors to work in, a pyramid system to
sell his various books and games, a Web site to sell “romantic
accessories,” including lingerie, and several major efforts with
publishers to sell his books. In terms of advertising, when I started
practicing psychology in 1960, it was acceptable to publish in a local
paper a small formal announcement about your opening an office. Any
other advertisement was frowned upon. Things have changed…for the
Wilson contends that whenever professionals enter the
marketplace, perhaps selling a book, therapy, a group, or other
service, they experience pressures to impress others as well as be
entertaining. They are also likely to feel some temptations to make
overly optimistic promises, use testimonials (which are not scientific or
objective), and approve blatantly misleading ads. These kinds of
enticements tend to sabotage the integrity of professional service and
research. Professional helpers need to guard against being influenced
by the “advice industry.” Some psychologists have insisted that their
publisher tone down the advertisements. 
Lastly, there is to me one more special irony in the current
situation. By dealing with psychological content--personal and
interpersonal problems—TV and radio talk shows, workshops and self-
help books have become very popular and made enormous profits.
Clearly, the general public has enthusiastically welcomed dealing
publicly with these topics, giving their time and their money. Yet,
during the same 20-30 years, there has been almost no public support
for meaningfully teaching practical how-to-cope psychological
information in our public schools and colleges. Likewise, there has
been no support for psychosocial education coming from mental health
professionals, university faculties, or public school officials. This
contrast seems strange; why might this be? 
Why don’t we want realistic, practical psychology in schools?
Probably for several reasons, depending on the impact these changes
would have on one’s own career or role. But I believe Dr. Wilson’s
analysis of the advice industry suggests another major barrier to
change. If a psychological or interpersonal helper had a chance to be
interviewed or to go on TV or radio, this would be appealing to many
because it could yield several benefits, such as improve his/her
reputation, result in more sales, 15 minutes of fame, status, and
others. In addition, the professional would have little to lose as long as
he/she doesn’t make some embarrassing mistake. Such a guest would
not be assuming any grave professional or legal responsibilities, even
if they interviewed someone on the air for a few minutes and gave
some simple advice. Contrast this situation to the psychologist who
agrees to teach a small, daily, year-long, personally useful, skills-
oriented psychology self-help class to a small, intimate group of High
School juniors. This would deal with each student’s immediate
concerns and with preparing for the future. Wow! That could be scary
for the teacher. It would be an awesome responsibility requiring a high
level of skills, hard work, devotion to every student, and perhaps
involving some legal risks because it would be so intimate an
involvement in the students’ lives. That might be why psychology
classes are not proposed. Yet, if you, as the teacher, had a truly
significant impact on each student’s life, you would surely feel proud
and deeply gratified. And the world might benefit. [End of lecture. (:-)] 
It seems fairly safe to conclude that the meteoric rise of
psychological topics and advice in the media is not due to great
writers, creative producers of the shows, self-help literature of proven
effectiveness, astonishing methods displayed by media advisors, or
due to support from professionals in psychology. The popularity and
the profitability of the advice industry are surely attributable to the
commercial drive of corporate America—the nearsighted drive to be as
profitable as possible. As yet, we have opinions but no data to indicate
if the advice industry has, on balance, advanced or harmed the helping
professions…or, more importantly, if all this advice has helped the
general public to grow and cope better or not. This lack of adequate
research is what I would underscore.
Understanding 3: I prefer to be honest with you about the effectiveness of
self-help methods. I'm not going to "talk up" a method or try to "sell" you a
product; I'm trying to get you to learn and to think for yourself. Also, I don't
want to deceive you by implying that understanding or changing human
behavior is simple or always possible. 
Most popular psychology books emphasize how fantastic their
methods are and how much they can help you. In this way, popular
writers use the "power of suggestion" to increase the effectiveness of
their methods or ideas and/or to increase their sales. This works.
Instead, I choose to tell you, as best as I can, the results of my
experience and the limited research evaluating each self-help method
(if any). Hopefully, you will take a realistic attitude and say, "I want to
know the research findings--or lack thereof--as well as see how well
this method works for me." Your faith in self-help should eventually be
based on your own experience, not on research alone and certainly not
on this book or, even worse, on some unfounded claim by an
ostentatious writer. (Don't misunderstand me, research is the best
basis for "knowing" about the general effectiveness of some method,
followed by the opinion of a practitioner with lots of experience.
Eventually, your own experience with the method in question may
dominate your evaluation of its effectiveness in your situation.) 
Some popular writers even tell you that it is simple to achieve
some major change in your life (like stopping smoking with one
hypnotic session or "getting rich" by having a "positive mental
attitude"). Simple solutions may sometimes work but that doesn't
prove that human behavior is simple. There is probably a wish for
things to be simple. However, you will be more accurate, in my
opinion, if you assume that humans are very complicated. Most people
have no conception how complex the psychological world really is. This
over-simplification may account for astrology, for a belief that a
weekend workshop will solve marital problems, for the hope that a few
hours with a psychologist or psychiatrist will overcome depression, for
the incredible sale of one diet book after another, etc. 
Hope Springs Eternal...that's good but watch out for false
Hope springs eternal in the human breast; 
Man never Is, but always To be blest: 
The soul, uneasy and confin'd from home, 
Rests and expatiates in a life to come. 
-Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man, Epistle I, 1733
In spite of repeated failures, people often try to make the same
self-improvement over and over again. The fact is that most self-
change efforts fail, especially in the areas of eating, smoking, drinking,
gambling, poor study habits, New Year's resolutions, etc. Many people
have failed many times on the same project. Yet, people keep trying.
Why? Is it just human nature to have hopes, even unrealistic ones, for
things to be better? 
Polivy and Herman (2002) try to explain what they call the "False
Hope Syndrome," a sequence of hoping for self-improvement, trying
some change method for a while, then relapsing and experiencing a
disappointing outcome, analyzing the reasons for their failure, and
eventually deciding to make a new effort to change (even though the
person has not learned much more about self-change techniques).
These authors start their analysis by asking "Why do self-change
efforts fail?" Their answers: we tend to start with unrealistic
expectations, namely, big, fast, easy, far-reaching changes. The goals
are too high, so we fail. We run out of energy. We start to back slide.
We could have set lower goals but we don't. The fact is self-change,
especially big, fast, easy change, is usually far harder than we imagine
Then Polivy and Herman ask "How does defeat get turned into
some new hope?" Sometimes the self-helper, who has failed,
concludes "I didn't try hard enough" or "I didn't have the
time/energy." Of course, one could always try harder or give more
time; thus, there is reason to try to change again. Or one can conclude
"the diet didn't work" or "that self-help technique wasn't right for me"
(the failure wasn't my fault!). Of course, there are thousands of other
diets, many other techniques, more promising programs to buy,
hundreds of new self-help books; thus, you find another basis for
trying again. 
"Why do people try again and again?" The same hoped for rewards
are still there. Often the previous attempt did produce some success at
first--that memory of success motivates us to try again. Just making a
commitment to try again is reinforcing, helps us feel in control, and
gives us hope. Overconfidence is, in part, ignoring the reality of our
past failures so we can believe we will succeed next time. However,
the repeated starting and stopping of self-change efforts--the yo-
yoing--takes a toll, sometimes the tasks are unpleasant (like dieting)
and certainly the failures are frustrating and may make us self-critical.
So, for some people, this repeated failure may take a toll on our self-
On average, it takes 5 or 6 tries to make most self-improvements.
But repeated tries doesn't guarantee eventual success. If you have
had several failures and have seen little evidence that the desired
change is actually possible, consider (a) lowering your goals--settle for
less or a slower pace--or (b) revising your self-change methods so
your self-change plans are scientifically more sound. Eventually, it is
wise to face the fact that you don't know how to change at this time,
accept that reality, and set about learning what you need to know to
change. No need to be a victim of your own false (unrealistic) hopes. 
Rather than viewing the common repetitive urge to try to change
as a problem and serious human failing, as Polivy & Herman seem to
do, I choose to see this dogged perseverance as beneficial overall and
probably an important element in human evolutionary survival. The
problem isn't so much foolishly taking on impossible self-change tasks,
but rather neglecting to gain the knowledge needed to know how to
make the desired changes before launching another self-improvement
project. Getting this knowledge is often admittedly very difficult...our
ignorance is a challenging barrier. 
I recently read an example of life's awesome complexity (Fischhoff,
1992). I'll share it with you. It should make you question quick, simple
solutions for and advice about almost any human problem.
Researchers have gathered ideas for preventing or handling a rape.
They have collected 1,100 strategies! Thus far, there have been only
24 studies evaluating the effectiveness of any of those strategies (like
do something crude, such as vomit, or try to get him to see you as a
human). Only 1, 075 strategies to go! Of course, beyond strategy,
would be other considerations, such as rapist's strength, woman's self-
defense skills, presence of others nearby, etc. My points are: we are
incredibly ignorant about handling rape (there is almost no general
advice we can give at this time); we are not doing nearly as much
research as we should; the sexual assault situation is very complex;
watch out for over-confident, self-appointed "experts;" question
anyone giving the same advice to everyone; and listen to ordinary
people as well as "experts." These same points probably apply to 1000
other problem situations in which humans find themselves, including
the problems you face. 
In short, I refuse to lie and over-simplify life, and I refuse to
pretend I know it all (or that science does). There is still some help
available, however. Indeed, one recent "self-improvement" book
(Seligman, 1994) emphasizes which problems can be treated
effectively and which can not. (Can be changed=panic disorders,
phobias, anxiety, depression, certain sexual problems, pessimism, etc.
Often can't change=over-weight, addictions, homosexuality, serious
personality problems, psychosis, post-traumatic stress disorders, etc.)
Keep in mind that Seligman is primarily talking about the effectiveness
of changing by going to see a therapist, which is being carefully
evaluated. Science has not evaluated the effectiveness of self-help
methods in many of these areas yet. 
Understanding 4: Any therapist or self-help method may do harm. Reading
and self-help seem to rarely do damage. Note: pessimism and the fear of
trying to help yourself, resulting in your doing nothing, cause much more
harm than any self-help method. 
Halliday (1991) asked persons on their first visit to a
psychotherapy clinic if they had tried psychological self-help books.
Forty-three out of 100 said "yes." Of these 43, 37 (86%) said they
benefited from their readings, 5 didn't get any benefit or harm, and 4
experienced some harm or distress. Of these 4, three got a mixture of
benefit and harm, but the remaining one became upset by descriptions
of child abuse and simply stopped reading. Two more people reported
being upset by reading--one by a medical book and one by religious
literature. It seems fairly certain that reading psychological self-help
does less harm than undertaking psychotherapy (although see the
caution below). But, keep in mind that the effectiveness of very few
self-help books has ever been assessed. 
Of course, reading something which uncovers a problem you hadn't
realized before would be stressful. But, would you be better off not
knowing? Certainly, it can be scary to try out some self-help methods,
such as exposing yourself to a feared or a stressful situation. Talking
to another person or a group about a problem may be hard, although
the end results are usually beneficial. These uncomfortable situations
associated with gaining awareness or with working hard to learn new
skills may be a necessary part of growing. No one promised you that
life would be easy. 
It is possible that trying to help yourself and failing to do so could
cause problems. For example, it harms your body to go on diet after
diet, losing a few pounds each time and gaining them back in a few
weeks. Failure at efforts to solve interpersonal problems may worsen
the conflicts. Repeated failure at self-helping would surely be
depressing and may lower your faith in yourself, in self-help methods,
and in therapy (Rosen, 1987). Repeated success might yield the
opposite positive effects. 
Research has shown that individual and group psychotherapy do
harm (relative to no treatment) in about 5-10% of therapy cases
(Bergin, 1975; Bergin and Lambert, 1978; Mays and Franks, 1985). In
therapy, the harm seems to frequently be done by the critical,
probing, hostile personality of the therapist, not by the treatment
method itself. Since self-help does not involve a critical, pushy
therapist, perhaps it is not as harmful as therapy. But it is probably
harmful in ways we just don't know about yet. Popular psychology
books, like the ones available at your local library or bookstore, have
been criticized, however, because (1) the reader may misdiagnose or
not realize that he or she has a serious problem and, thus, may not
seek appropriate help. Of course, attempting to relax to cure a
headache caused by a fast growing tumor is foolish. That's why, in a
case like this, you must seek professional help right away. Regardless
of the problem, if self-help doesn't work, get help! (2) As discussed
above, a therapist may be needed before some people can change or
correctly use a method. (3) Many self-help authors may promise much
more than they can deliver. This harms by raising false hopes. (4)
Self-help books sometimes encourage self-centeredness, i.e. only
taking care of your self, not others. (5) Supposedly, "a little knowledge
is dangerous" (Barkas, 1977; Levin, 1975). But how often is having a
little accurate knowledge more dangerous than having even less
knowledge? These may be valid faults; they haven't been thoroughly
researched yet. 
I tend to agree with the above criticisms, except for point (5)
above, as you can tell from my question. There is also an old adage,
"The doctor who treats himself has a fool for a client." But, in this
case, we all have to be self-helpers! Of course, we should seek help
when we are ineffective self-helpers. Some people have feared that
self-helpers will not seek professional help when it is needed. Early in
our work, this was a concern. But, research does not support this fear;
in fact, students in self-help classes seek counseling more often than
other students (Rasche, 1974). Other people worry that self-helpers
will attempt to treat others. There is no evidence for this either. In
fact, an experienced self-helper would be more aware of his or her
limitations, know how hard it is to change, will respect professionals,
and encourage others to be self-directed or get professional treatment. 
An important final word of caution
There is one small area where harm may be especially likely.
Beware of anyone who tries hard to persuade you that you have been
sexually abused but you have repressed it. This action by
therapists/writers has generated a heated controversy. Many
therapists believe that certain psychological problems, such as bulimia,
multiple personality, and a variety of fears and personality traits, may
be caused by child sexual abuse or incest (Loftus, 1993). The problem
occurs when the assumed "victim" doesn't remember any sexual abuse
(most abused people do have some memories), but a therapist, group,
or writer strongly believes that remembering the sexual experiences in
detail is crucial for the victim's recovery. The therapist/writer may
attempt to uncover the incest or sexual abuse experiences, using a
variety of methods, such as hypnosis, age regression, visualization,
dreams, or simply "try to remember being molested" (Tavris, 1993;
Wright, 1994). Given just brief encouragement and suggestions,
however, some clients/readers will start to falsely "remember"
incidents, sometimes ones that took place when they were less than
one year old (when as adults we have no memories) and sometimes
fervently believing really wild bizarre experiences. Research has shown
that memories often distort reality and can be easily influenced by
others. So implanting a memory of sexual abuse may not be hard to
do in suggestible people, but a false accusation of child molestation is
a devastating charge, likely to result in a long prison sentence and
destruction of a family (plus more emotional stress for the victim).
Therefore, until we know more about the causes of specific emotional
problems, helpers and writers will have to carefully avoid vigorously
implanting these destructive ideas. You will occasionally find warnings
about specific books in this book. 
In my experience, self-help readings and methods are often not
acted upon (and, thus, don't do any good), but only in very rare
circumstances do they cause lasting harm. A temporary disturbance
from reading, usually worry about some "illness" or some self-
dissatisfaction, rarely lasts more than a few days (and often results in
self-improvement). On the other hand, both the exaggerated-but-
debilitating fear of harming yourself (by trying to self-help) and the
self-defeating feelings of helplessness cause great harm in many lives
because these feelings obstruct our attempts to change. Learn as
much as you can about self-help, and then do something! If you don't
get the results you want, try something different or get professional
Understanding 5: It may be difficult to measure changes in your
adjustment, but you should try. Objective measurement is necessary for
honest evaluation. Every self-helper should try to be his/her own
We all live life alone in many ways, even when intimate with
someone else. For example, married couples talk on the average only
20 minutes per day (often much less); long-term therapy, costing
$7500+, is only 100 hours or so; a self-help course is 150-200 hours;
but life is over 600,000 hours. No scientist studies your life. No one
knows as much about your life as you do. Thus, you are not only your
own therapist, you are your own researcher. Mahoney (1975)
advocates training students to be "personal scientists." The task is to
find out what self-help methods work for you; that is research! 
Science is simply common sense at its best.
One thing to guard against is the tendency (wishful thinking?) to
believe that "things are getting better." Double check your optimistic
subjective impressions by objectively measuring your progress while
trying to self improve. Chapter 2 tells you how to know if you are
really making progress or wasting time. This evaluation of your efforts
is important but not easy, especially if you try, like a good scientist, to
find out if the self-help method is really helping or if some other factor
is responsible for the changes. Such a determination requires you to
record daily or even hourly your efforts to cope and the results of
those efforts (see steps 2 and 7 in chapter 2).
Understanding 6: Honestly looking at ourselves and changing may be
stressful, but we need to do it. 
It is often comfortable and easy to stay the way we are. Changing
may be gratifying or stressful and is frequently both. Temporary stress
is a natural, necessary part of recognizing a weakness or feeling we
had previously hidden from ourselves, trying out a new behavior,
facing a fear, releasing a pent-up emotion, and changing. Growing as a
person may take you to new places, provide new challenges, require
leaving old and acquiring new friends, etc. Giving up an old security
blanket is scary; yet, many therapists, based on their experiences,
believe that crises frequently lead to important improvement and
growth in our lives. So, some stress is good and/or can be used to
Understanding 7: Do not hesitate to work on your most serious, meaningful,
and intimate problems. 
Self-help is not just for simple behavioral changes, like nail biting
or working harder. You are encouraged to work on any deeper
problems that you may have, too. Examples of these would be
excessive self-criticism and feelings of inadequacy, fear of intimacy
and jealousy, lack of purpose in life, irritation with others, sexual
concerns, and others. Granted, you may want to do some easier
projects first, but don't procrastinate with the tough problems. Self-
help must pay off in meaningful ways for you to keep trying. 
This understanding is not to exclude simple self-improvement
efforts. At this point in your life, it may be more important for you to
strive for further improvement in areas where you are already doing
okay. A good socializer can become a more intimate and helpful friend.
A pretty good student can become a true scholar. A morally good
person can become a moral leader, who encourages others by
example to become a genuine, caring Candy Striper, Big Sister, or
Hospital Volunteer. Your "problem" at this time may not be serious,
like suicidal depression, but rather to become the best person you can
possibly be. Both are important "projects." Prevention of problems is
important too. 
Understanding 8: Becoming a good self-helper will probably require a lot of
time and effort. You should prepare for problems in advance. It is a life-long
You may feel overwhelmed and discouraged when you realize all
there is to learn about self-help, all the books that have been written.
Certain of your problems may have existed so long that it seems
impossible to change them. The idea that changing may require daily,
even hourly, attention could seem like "too much trouble." Many
attempts to change ourselves fail because the old habits seem so
strong; indeed, change may be a long, uphill battle. Expecting some
failures may help you deal with them. 
Many of our attempts to change ourselves fail because we are
unwilling to put in the time and effort necessary. Our entire culture
expects quick, easy solutions. Related to this is my experience that
many students do not understand a treatment or self-help method
after reading it the first time. It is not because the methods are too
complex to be understood but because many people are newcomers to
"self-help" and others are careless readers and in a hurry. They think
they understand, but they often need to read it again and discuss it
with someone else. This takes time. 
Moreover, as mentioned earlier, much of popular, self-help
psychology is remedial, not preventive. That's too bad. Too many
people only read about marital problems after divorce is threatened.
Too many people read about depression after feeling suicidal. Too
many people change their diet after a heart attack. The best time to
learn to swim is before falling overboard, not afterwards. Try to
anticipate and prepare for problems. Try to prevent problems, nip
them in the bud. Therefore, you should read about possible problems
as well as about pressing problems. 
All I can say is: learn as much as you can, keep trying different
approaches until you succeed. Don't be so discouraged by failure that
you give up (you have learned something from failing: namely, what
doesn't work for you with this problem at this time). Think of yourself
as continuously learning to be a better person; try to generate high
enthusiasm for self-improvement; resolve that you will overcome the
obstacles in your way. 
Understanding 9: Don't wait for magical solutions. DO SOMETHING to help
yourself. Be strong! Confront any resistance to change and challenge all
your defeatist attitudes. Learn to believe you can change things. 
There are many reasons why people avoid change--fears, lack of
motivation, resentment of pressure, helpless feelings, procrastination,
wanting to fail and/or avoid responsibility, wanting to live
spontaneously without planned change, wanting sympathy and to be
taken care of, feeling that it's too much trouble to change, pride and
stubbornness, being willing to accept our own rationalizations ("it runs
in my family"), being inflexible and "set in our ways," feeling that we
are not okay and deserve to be miserable, and other motives. 
It may be hard to understand your reasons for avoiding change if
you are a procrastinator, but remember, there are reasons for
everything (the procrastinator should read chapter 4). Look for your
reasons (it's likely to be several reasons). For example, shyness may
enable you to avoid the stress of socializing; being irresponsible may
get other people "off your back" since they are likely to stop expecting
you to be a mature, capable, dependable person (see chapter 4). 
If you decide some self-improvement is especially important but
haven't made plans for changing within a day or two, then focus on
the reasons for your inactivity. If you can't be sure of the reason(s),
then guess at it. Try to deal with the possible resistance to change like
any other problem, i.e. develop a plan of attack by analyzing your
resistance to change as well as the problem itself, as described in
chapter 2. There is good reason to believe that self-help techniques
aren't remembered and used unless the person believes he/she is able
to change him/herself. Question the validity of your pessimism. And,
people who have failed to change in the past won't believe they can
change until they have drafted a good plan and done it. So, give it a
Practice thinking positively about your ability to change; be strong
and do things to prove your self-help skills; daydream frequently
about how nice it will be after you change (see chapter 14). Likewise,
face up to the bad consequences of not changing; don't give excuses
and let yourself "off easy;" refuse to accept weakness, helplessness,
and self-defeating attitudes. As Epictetus said 2000 years ago, "No
man is free who is not master of himself."
Understanding 10: This book does not prepare you to be a therapist. Help
others, but don't take control and "treat" others. 
While I want to urge and help you to take responsibility for your
own life, I want to persuade you not to take charge of anyone else's
life. It is important to distinguish between what might be called
"helping" and "treating." A "helper" may listen and give empathy,
suggestions, encouragement, feedback, care, and share his/her
experiences, plus many other things, but both helper and helpee
should always realize that the helpee must make the decisions, be
responsible for applying the self-help methods, and "live with" the
A "treater," such as a surgeon, is highly trained and usually takes
responsibility for diagnosing the problem and assumes full control in
the operating room because the patient can't help him/herself in that
situation. You have not had the years of training and supervision
necessary to become a competent therapist to someone else. If you
feel that a friend of yours is allowing or asking you to take charge and
tell him/her what to do or to make him/her feel better, please refuse
to do so. Tell your friend that he/she must make the decisions, take
the action, and assume the responsibility (no matter how much you
would like to be a hero and save him/her). If the friend is unable or
refuses to handle his or her own problems and needs someone to take
over, please insist that your friend to seek professional help (and stay
only a friend, not a second competing therapist). 
On the other hand, I want to make it clear that it is great to help
friends and to receive help from them. The world would be a healthier
and more beautiful place if all of us helped each other. But that
"helping" never includes taking over their life. Mutual helping or
support groups are wonderful opportunities to help and be helped (see
chapter 5 and Gartner and Riessman, 1984). 
Understanding 11: If your problem(s) could be caused by physical-chemical
factors, see a physician first. 
Certain physical conditions, such as low blood sugar or
hyperthyroidism, can cause symptoms that seem to be psychological,
such as fears, nervousness, irritability, depression, etc. Likewise,
psychological factors can cause physical symptoms, like exhaustion,
paralysis, pain, nausea, baldness, headaches, backaches, skin rashes,
sleeplessness, impotence, high blood pressure, etc. 
Probably, physical, chemical, and constitutional factors play a role
in almost all personal-emotional problems. A psychologist or social
worker cannot deal with the physical causes; you must consult a
physician if your problems are possibly physical and not psychological
or interpersonal (see step 1 in chapter 2). 
Understanding 12: When your problems are severe and/or your self help
efforts are ineffective, seek professional help immediately. 
While knowledge of self-help may prevent or relieve many
problems, there are certain situations in every life where outside help
is necessary. Self-help is like first-aid; so, if you need surgery, don't
use band-aids, see a surgeon right away! What are some of the
psychological situations that call for professional help? When one is so
depressed that there are thoughts of suicide, when one's thoughts are
confused or unreasonable, when a person experiences urges to hurt
someone, when feelings towards other people are very strong (so that
one is not likely to be thinking straight), and when someone has tried
and tried to help him/herself but nothing seems to work. Usually when
your psychological problems are quite serious, you will need therapy,
medication, a support group, and self-help. Get what you need. 
Furthermore, if anyone earnestly suggests that you seek
professional help, take their advice even if you don't understand why
or don't agree with them. Never be embarrassed about seeking help;
why should you expect yourself to know everything about psychology,
any more than you would expect yourself to know calculus or how to
repair a TV set? Indeed, what is really foolish is to need help but
decide not to get it. Research has clearly shown psychotherapy to be
helpful 2/3rds or 3/4ths of the time. Don't let your own lack of
knowledge or fear of what might happen or concern about "what
people will think" keep you from getting help whenever you need it. 
See the section in chapter 2 about Finding a Therapist. Make your
selection of a therapist carefully by getting recommendations from
people who know and by checking his/her training and credentials. It
pays to know a lot about psychotherapy, the training of therapists, the
types of therapy and which are most effective with different problems,
the cost of different approaches, etc. Several links cited there provide
the information you may need. 
Understanding 13: This book cannot meet all your needs. 
The highly self-controlled person needs more than a bunch of self-
change techniques. He/she must pick his/her own values and goals,
set his/her priorities. He/she must have insight into him/herself and an
accurate view of the world. He/she needs companionship, acceptance,
and love. 
None of us can solve all our problems by ourselves, no matter how
well informed we are about self-help methods. This book, plus
hundreds of others, can suggest many effective methods and even
"care for you from a distance," but you may need specific feedback to
identify your specific problems, confrontation about some foolish idea
you have, warm approval and support when your confidence lags, or
someone to take you to a hospital. This book can't give you individual
attention or a hug or a shoulder to cry on, in times of stress. I wish I
could, but those things must come from a caring person near by, such
as a friend, a relative, or a teacher. Getting and giving care are both
highly therapeutic. You will have to reach out to others and when you
do--please be very explicit about what you need. Most people want to
help others and benefit from helping. 
Understandings for groups and classes: Be clear about the purposes of your
group, know how you can contribute, maintain confidentiality, and help
others feel safe. Be sure you understand the reasons for the requirements
of your group.
Many students tell me they learn more from small group
discussions than from reading books and classroom presentations. I'm
sure that is true for some. We all have our favorite ways to learn.
Mutual helping groups are interesting but require work--dedication to a
purpose, self-disclosure, an eagerness to listen, learn, think, accept
and help others. Every person must be willing, after getting to know
each other well, to openly share his/her problems and positive or
negative feelings, to learn and use good communication skills, and so
on. In a good helping group, the payoffs are great: you learn from
others' lives, from their successes and failures. You gain useful skills.
You profit from the helpful ideas and honest feedback of 8-12 other
people. You also get the warm feelings and insights that come from
helping others. 
Be sure the rules of confidentiality adopted by the group are clear
and accepted by everyone. Insist on it. Be sure that everyone in the
group or class knows that they don't have to answer any question if
they don't want to. Accept your share of the responsibility for making
the group a meaningful experience; that usually means sharing your
experiences and your deepest concerns at the moment. Be gentle and
empathic with everyone in your group at all times, no matter what
they disclose. See the discussion in chapter 5 of self-help and support
groups for handling all kinds of stress and unwanted behaviors. 
All these understandings are to prepare you for making maximum
use of this book and to introduce you to the ideas of self-help, mutual-
aid, and psycho-social education. 
The Psycho-Social Educational Approach
Why haven't psychological techniques for managing and improving
our lives been more vigorously developed and taught to everyone? If
self-help is occurring in every life almost all the time, improving our
self-help ability and efforts seems like such a sensible idea. Strangely
enough, the methods of self-direction, self-control, and other forms of
self-help have never been organized and taught as a distinct part of
our family, educational, religious, informational, or social systems.
Let's consider for a moment why self-help knowledge might be
neglected. Why is self-help an orphan, apparently not wanted as a
whole, integrated discipline by any social institution? Why would
anyone or any group conspire to keep suffering people from getting
useful information? 
First of all, in spite of all our "fascination with people," we humans
have resisted studying ourselves psychologically and scientifically. As
Francis Bacon said, "Man prefers to believe what he prefers to be
true." We like having a grandiose view of ourselves. For instance, one
of the last sciences to develop was psychology; that was only 100
years ago. About 450 years ago, Copernicus almost lost his head for
suggesting that man and earth were not at the center of the universe.
About 150 years ago, Darwin suggested humans evolved along with
other living things. That idea is still bitterly opposed by some religions.
About 100 years ago, Freud suggested that we humans aren't even in
conscious control of ourselves, unconscious forces really determine
what we do. Unconscious factors are still denied by many people.
Humans are prone to oppose anything that lessens their greatness,
superiority, power, or importance. Thus, we as a species may even
resist the idea that anyone (or anything less than God) is needed to
help us cope better with our lives. 
Most of us don't like the idea that living optimally requires work.
Look at it this way. If each one of us is attempting to mentally cope
with some concern or task almost every moment of our life, in the
course of a lifetime every person will deal with millions of unique
situations and thousands of different kinds of problems. Every day
there are probably several situations in which you think: "I'd like to do
that better." That's real life. Sometime during your life you will
probably face almost every kind of human difficulty. In this sense,
intelligent living is complex and a lot of trouble. On the other hand,
many, many other people before you have faced the same concerns.
Therefore, given the right flow of information, you could benefit
greatly from the experience of others and from some advanced
preparation to face a wide variety of predicaments. As a species, we
seem more inclined to say "Oh, it won't happen to me" than to do our
preventative homework. 
Ideally, each of us would have in our heads a readily available,
comprehensive self-help system for solving many kinds of problems.
Such a system would be based on a sound general understanding of
behavior and relationships, i.e. a science of coping. Much knowledge is
already available. Wise people have gathered wisdom for thousands of
years. In addition, during the last 100 years, psychology has learned
much that is new as well as confirmed many of the beliefs of wise
people. There is a rough consensus about how to best handle many
situations. Self-change methods (which are essentially the same as
therapy techniques) have been shown to be effective with a very wide
variety of problems. We have many such methods. We don't need to
invent the wheel every time an ordinary problem comes up. But we
haven't yet learned how to systematically pass this information along
to everyone. 
Twenty-five years ago, I thought self-help books, informative TV
talk shows, and personally useful Psychology classes taught in schools
would have "given psychology away" by now. I assumed that by the
year 2000 almost everyone in this country would be a skillful self-
helper (in terms of understanding and managing their own lives) . The
truth is the general public, I suspect, has made very little progress in
acquiring useful psychology. Let's see if we can understand why self-
instruction--the most cost effective source of help--has been neglected
or mishandled, while expensive and questionable sources of help have
flourished, such as individual psychotherapy, psychiatric drug
prescriptions, chiropractors, faith healing, astrology, mystical
channeling or past lives therapy, illegal drugs for pleasure, etc.
The publishing business and self-help books 
The first thing you need to know is that, unlike drugs, self-help
trade books (mass market books in local bookstores) are not "tested
for effectiveness." These books, even those written by journalists and
free lance writers, aren't even reviewed by psychological experts for
accuracy, effectiveness, or dangerousness of the ideas. Instead, the
publishers seek books that seem likely to sell because the topic is
"hot" or the book has an attractive "gimmick." The largest publishers
require that writers have a literary agent before they will even
consider a manuscript. Thus, it is these agents who really select the
books for the big New York publishers. Agents ask "will it sell," not
"will it help?" Later, if the book is printed, the publisher's sales
representatives have only seconds (maybe a single sentence) to sell a
book to big bookstore buyers (there are 50,000 new books every
year). By contrast, professional books, like college textbooks or books
for psychotherapists, which you won't find in the usual bookstore, are
very carefully reviewed by several highly respected professionals
(because no teacher would use a textbook with glaring errors). With
self-help books (almost all are trade books) the attitude is "let the
buyer beware." Selecting a highly advertised "best seller" tells you
almost nothing about the scientific quality of the book. In fact, only
about half of the so-called "best sellers" are considered good books by
mental health professionals (Santrock, Minnett, & Campbell, 1944).
Publishing a self-help book is not a highly scientific process. 
Next, you need to realize that more than 2,000 self-help books are
published each year. So, over the last 25 years more than 20,000 such
books (maybe 40-50,000) have been pushed by bookstores. That
sounds like a very commendable effort to help you, but the question
is: What is the main motivation of many publishers, helping the
suffering or making money? No doubt, some care; most are more
concerned with making money (yet, supposedly 75% of published
books lose money). Many new books merely repeat what has already
been written. It is also not unfair to point out that several
psychologists have complained that their own book publishers have
made exaggerated claims. Do you suppose these untrue
advertisements are for benefiting people in crisis or for profits? Did
you ever see a publisher recommend that you look up his/her best
books at the library? 
Publishers seem to believe that people will not try to generally self-
improve or prevent problems. We readers are assumed to be so stupid
that we will only seek help after we are in trouble. Therefore, the self-
help book industry publishes books about specific, serious crises which
will drive us (while in distress) to buy their books. Fortunately, many
of those books are written by experienced professionals and are quite
helpful. However, truly effective self-help education should emphasize
early detection of problems and prevention, as well as crisis
intervention. Prevention is sorely neglected (discussed later). 
What are other consequences of primarily publishing specialized
(one topic), crisis-oriented books? For one thing it may discourage the
ordinary person from reading self-help books. If self-help books
become associated with weird problems and serious crises (such as
depression, addictions, abuse, divorce, etc.), it might strengthen our
belief, as long as we are coping barely adequately, that "I don't need
to know or think more about psychological coping unless I have a real
serious problem." That's wrong but it fits with our desire to feel
capable. (Note that talk shows have become so associated with rare
and bizarre behavior that many people have lost interest and become
scornful, feeling the talk show topics are weird and unrelated to them.) 
There are other problems related to the emphasis on thousands of
books with a very limited scope. Examples: Could such books be used
in a group or class where people have many kinds of problems? No.
Will reading one specialized self-help book give you general knowledge
which you can apply to different kinds of problems? Probably not
much. When you are having serious problems, are the difficulties
usually limited to just one area? No. Is it common to buy a book for a
specific problem and soon discover that you don't really have that
problem? Yes (perhaps that is partly why 90% of self-help books never
get read beyond the first chapter). Is it reasonable for every specific
problem to require its own self-help books? No, although that would
sell more books, wouldn't it? Do the thousands of unique problems
require thousands of different methods for coping? No. This is an
important point; let's look at it more closely. 
There are only 15-20 self-help methods for changing our own
behavior, no matter what problem or crisis we are having. Likewise,
there are only a few basic methods for controlling emotions which are
used in all upsetting situations. The same for learning skills, changing
our thoughts, uncovering unconscious factors, and so on. In short, it is
easier and better to know the general principles of behavior and the
basic methods for changing than to study hundreds of seemingly
unrelated problems. Therefore, 20,000 self-help books are overkill. A
case in point: this book deals with hundreds of problems (chapters 3
to 10), but the methods for coping with those problems are described
in entirely different chapters (11 to 15) because the same method will
be useful with many different problems. What we all need is
comprehension of the general principles of behavior and changing, as
well as carefully designed research (not necessarily by professionals)
testing the effectiveness of self-help methods. Our knowledge needs to
be integrated and unified, rather than split into little atomistic books.
This brings me to the last major point. 
Why is it so hard to find the information you need? 
With 20,000+ different self-help books sitting on book shelves
somewhere, the biggest problem is finding the book you need! These
are the conditions: (1) publishers favor one-topic books, (2) self-help
writers often recommend only one or two types of self-help methods,
and (3) self-help authors range from untrained in psychology to world-
class experts, thus, the quality of information in books ranges from
worthless (or even harmful) to the best available. Thus, what you get
in a book may be very limited--a small slice of applied psychology.
Certainly, the quack and the mystic won't reveal their ignorance on the
front of their books. So, obviously, a person seeking up-to-date
knowledge about a problem has a problem. Genuine expertise about
self-help books is not available, certainly not from publishers or
bookstores. No one has read all this stuff. I have read a lot of it and
attempted to provide you with summaries. This book cites and
recommends the best books I could find, but quickly finding the
knowledge you need at any one time is a monumental task that needs
solving in this age of information and technology. Most public and
university libraries have relatively few self-help books, but through a
state-wide, inter-library loan system you can get many books (if you
know the author or the title). 
So, in case you assumed that some intelligent body (psychologists,
publishers, a government agency) was coordinating and insuring the
cogent development of personally helpful psychology, disabuse
yourself of that good idea right now. While publishers grind out their
2,000 new self-help books every year, they do not print general, broad
scope, introductory self-help textbooks for teaching students to
prevent or cope with common personal problems. Why not? As we will
see, because schools and colleges don't offer personally useful
psychology classes (partly because there isn't an acceptable textbook).
However, don't forget: amid the junk, there are lots of good specific-
focus books available, if you can find them. 
My conclusions again are: coping effectively with life in general--
and all lives are complex--requires us to know how to handle many
ordinary problems as well as knowing how to improve what we already
do well. That requires a basic knowledge of useful psychology which
can be applied by everyone in almost any situation. Currently, the
typical specialized self-help books fail to provide us with generalized
self-control, and there is no bibliographic system to help you find the
specific information you need for solving today's problem. 
There are about 9,000 bookstores in this country, although many
of the small ones are being driven out of business by the giant
discount chains. Bookstores are just a part of the publishing business--
they provide storage bins and advertisement for selected new books.
They stock only a fraction of all books in print. The chain bookstores
don't even order their own books; they just shelf whatever corporate
headquarters ships them. The clerks don't know the contents or
quality of the books in stock, and certainly not unstocked books. So
don't expect the store clerk to wisely recommend a book for your
Many popular magazines depend on self-help material to increase
sales. Notice the featured articles--dieting, exercising, handling stress
or the blues, improving relationships, better sex, etc. Many of these
short articles are by professional writers who make their living writing
anything that will sell; they are not psychologists or therapists. Yet,
the short articles are often of interest and reflect some recent work by
a psychologist or psychiatrist. Because of the brevity, however, the
article usually deals with only one part of a problem and seldom
provides detailed instructions for self-improvement. 
The major problem with magazine articles is the same as books,
namely, how to find what you need. You may stumble upon a
magazine article of value to you, but if you were to set out to find an
article about your particular problem, your chances of success are very
slim. The lasting value of magazine articles is shown by the fact that
they are seldom kept more than a few months, even by libraries. 
Talk shows
Ten or fifteen years ago, I thought talk shows were the ideal self-
help education for adults. The early talk shows were informative and
practical, i.e., many dealt with solving common problems. They
discussed controlling bad habits, relieving stress or depression, gaining
confidence and asserting your elf, improving relationships, etc. When
watching the early shows, you might have said, "Wow, that's the way I
am. Maybe I should try that approach with my problem." When the
shows did deal with abnormal psychology topics, the thrust was on
understanding the behavior, helping relatives accept the patient, or
helping the patient seek help from mental health agencies. As the
years passed and competition among talk shows increased, the topics
became more and more sensationalistic. Sadly, now, they are usually
a waste of time, unless you are entertained by bizarre situations or
behavior. Now, if you watch, you say, "Wow, what a weirdo! Thank
God, I'm not anything like that." The great educational potential in talk
shows is being neglected because they focus only on the problems, not
the solutions (don't blame the shows or the sponsors, they give us
whatever attracts the greatest number of us). Heaton and Wilson
(1995) say the talk shows distort real life so badly that they harm the
mental health of all of us. 
The talk shows do not showcase psychological knowledge well.
Often the "expert" is given only a few minutes near the end of the
show under terrible circumstances: "OK, doctor, now instantly cure
these very long-term, disturbed subjects who have been whipped into
an emotional frenzy for 45 minutes." It is common for the talk shows
to also have a critic on the show to attack whatever the "expert" says.
It seems carefully planned to demean the value of psychological
knowledge. Certainly the public doesn't end up clamoring for more
useful knowledge (unless they are in a crisis and desperate). We as a
society don't need more titillation by aberrant behavior, sex, or shrill
arguments; we need more insight into human behavior and feelings,
more honest useful facts, and more practical research about effectively
handling common, ordinary problems. We need to be able to separate
the informative shows from entertainment based on someone's rare,
abnormal, and pitiable behavior. (We also need to confront our own
compelling, unquenchable thirst for entertainment.) 
The media
Except for a few public television series, television has given us
very little practical psychological education. Useful information has not
been made and probably can't be made interesting enough to draw our
attention away from the romantic glamour of the soaps, the intrigue of
a murder mystery, the thrill of a chase, the sexual excitement of a
seduction, or the humor of a comic. What does this mean? Are we
doomed to the hell of eternal psychological ignorance? No. I think it
means we have to change psychological education, perhaps using the
soaps as a way of describing solutions to problems as well as
describing the innumerable conflicts of humans. This means self-help
specialists should be writing soaps. Most importantly, as the
effectiveness of psychological knowledge is proven, I think the general
public will give up some of its mental masturbation via entertainment
TV and turn to more worthwhile and informative programs. We are
learning to eat healthy food instead of high fat junk food and desserts,
so we can learn to absorb healthy information instead of TV junk. Put
on helpful shows about attracting a good mate, overcoming bad
habits, handling anger, tactfully asserting yourself, or having orgasms
and people will watch. Changing our TV viewing habits will take some
intentional coping, however. 
Since churches teach religious beliefs and morals, it is possible that
they could also teach useful psychology to help us cope. While the
relationship between religion and psychology is generally quiet, there
is a reserve and distrust between the disciplines that interferes with
many ministers actively endorsing applied psychology. For one thing,
many preachers are not well trained in psychology or counseling,
although some are very well trained. The most likely inter-disciplinary
barrier is that self-help psychology believes you should think for
yourself. This carries the risk to religion that you might even question
the dictates of your religion. Most churches would be uncomfortable
with that much individual freedom of thought. Religions are
authoritarian organizations preaching "the truth," rather than
searching for scientific laws and "the truth" through science. Religions
tell you how to live and condemn living any other way even though a
majority of their members actually "stray," e.g. having premarital sex
and using birth control. This conflict over who should be in control of
individual lives would interfere with many churches advocating self-
help psychology to improve your life. 
One would think that schools are the perfect place to give away all
the useful knowledge science has found. But that doesn't happen. Why
not? In the case of self-help, there are many reasons. There are no
special advocates for psychology in schools (no clinical psychologists
work in public schools). Schools fear having even more responsibilities,
especially with very limited budgets. School schedules are filled and
other disciplines don't want self-help psychology to take part of their
class time. Neither psychology nor education has prepared teachers to
handle a class in which students learn to direct and change their lives.
In fact, only 50% of high schools offer psychology (the watered down,
easy-to-teach academic kind) and only 50% of those high school
psychology teachers have a background in psychology. Teachers who
would help children actually practice self-improving need to be highly
qualified and experienced (well trained school counselors might be
good choices). Such training would require at least a four-year college
program leading to teacher certification in "self-help psychology,"
which doesn't exist at this time. As mentioned above, there isn't even
a comprehensive textbook that all students could use to plan self-
improvement projects. Our public education system can't be prepared
to teach useful psychology at the junior high and high school levels
until 2020, at the earliest. 
University psychology professors yearn to publish research with
the brightest graduate students, but most would abhor intimately
teaching personally useful courses to ordinary undergraduates.
Community college teachers and counselors might be more interested
in teaching useful psychology. Most professors are in academia
precisely because they are untrained and/or uninterested in helping
with personal problems. The list of barriers in education could go on
and on. Yet, there could be great advantages to individuals and society
in the future from teaching personally useful psychology in schools;
some advantages are listed at the end of this chapter. 
The neglect of prevention by books and institutions 
Just as specialized self-help books leave much of your life
untouched, thinking of self-help as being primarily for solving serious
problems may cause us to neglect the prevention of problems. Since
the 1980's government funding of research has focused on the
physical, genetic and biochemical causes of diseases. The
psychological, interpersonal, environmental causes, like poverty,
prejudice, and dysfunctional families, are considered less important
(Albee, 1996). Prevention should be a strong point of self-help. Who
else is going to guide you away from trouble? And, we all face trouble.
A 1993 national survey about mental health lead by Ronald Kessler, a
sociologist at Michigan, found that half of us will have a mental illness
some time in our lives. It is a part of life. In fact, according to that
survey one third of us will be at least mildly mentally or emotionally ill
sometime during the next year! (The most common disorders are
depression, drug or alcohol dependence, and social fears. Problems in
living are in addition to the one third with "disorders", including
problems like being over weight, procrastinating, being anxious or
having a bad temper, being unhappy at work, having marital
problems, etc.) Obviously, we are not doing a very good job of
preventing mental-emotional disorders or ordinary problems, but there
is evidence we could. 
Several studies have shown that adolescent problems, like
depression, introversion, and aggressiveness, can be forecast in the
first and second grade. There are early signs of stress in a love
relationship that warn us of serious marital problems. It doesn't take a
genius to predict that a hostile, mean bully is going to cause and have
interpersonal problems as a teenager and as an adult. Even totally
untrained observers can pick out the young child who is more likely to
become schizophrenic at age 20 or so. Prevention of problems,
however, requires your attention: you will need to assess how likely
you are to develop a variety of particular problems (a task you will be
tempted to avoid); you will need knowledge to decide how to best
avoid the long-range undesirable consequences; you need to plan a
self-help project to carry out the preventative measures. Probably the
majority of serious psychological and interpersonal problems could be
avoided by alert self-helpers (and a school system oriented to
psychological well-being). I do not want to suggest that psychology
has already perfected prevention methods, but psychologists are
finding some effective self-help ways to prevent serious problems,
such as depression (Munoz, 1993). Albee & Gullotta (1997), working
with the National Mental Health Association, have described 14 award-
winning prevention programs; these could serve as how-to manuals
for other communities. Other researchers (Durlak & Wells, 1977;
Weissberg & Greenberg, 1977) have evaluated several prevention
programs for children and adolescents, these involve schools and
professionals but education (and self-help) plays a part too. Prevention
requires attending to parts of your life that are not yet problems.
Clearly, some of the self-help methods, especially behavioral-cognitive
methods (see chapters 4 & 14), for handling a serious problem could
be used to prevent the problem. 
You are, thus far, pretty much on your own to take care
of your life. No system or basic institution, such as family, church,
school, friends, or health/psychological caretakers, has taken on
the task of helping you learn to cope with the minor or serious
troubles that will come your way (denial is easier and, thus, self-
help isn't a big money maker). A lot of your welfare depends on
luck--being born middle class... or being raised in a psychologically
healthy family... or being given healthy genes... or being endowed
with the ability to learn coping skills on your own. To become
effective at coping, you need to practice thinking of self-help as
being applicable to all parts of your life, i.e. helpful all the time
with serious problems, minor concerns, and self-improvements of
all kinds. Self-help is for preventing as well as solving problems.
Self-help is for improving in areas in which you are already
adequate or superior. To think of self-help in a more restricted way
will limit your efforts to be a better person. We all need to
periodically review all aspects of our lives, looking for any danger
signs and taking preventive action if it is needed. We must
vigilantly guard against believing that self-help is natural,
automatic, instinctive, easy, unlearned, not-improvable or in God's
hands. All are excuses for doing nothing. We all need to know the
major methods for coping before the trouble strikes
Why should self-help psychology be given away?  How can it be?
The human condition involves an astonishing amount of misery. A
recent national survey (Kessler, et al, 1994) reported that 50% of all
Americans between 15 and 54 have had a diagnosable mental or
emotional disorder sometime during their lifetime. Almost 25% of us
have had a serious psychiatric problem within the last 12 months (less
than 20% got any treatment). One out of five of us is in fairly serious
psychological trouble right now. About 50 million (20%) Americans are
at least mildly depressed (200,000 attempt suicide), 20 million are
anxious neurotics, 10 million turn to alcohol (1 million are in AA), 10
million are arrested for a crime, 5 million are schizophrenic or
antisocial, 12% abused his/her spouse during the last year, 6 to 20
million (12-20%) of our children and teenagers are diagnosable and
13% of 9-17-year-olds have a "serious emotional disorder," 1 million
college students leave school each year because of personal-emotional
problems (1-2 million are addicted to drugs), 50% of marriages end in
divorce and half of the remaining marriages are "empty shells," one of
every seven women has been raped, etc., etc. (U.S. Surgeon General,
1979). During any given month, 15-20% of us Americans suffer from
substance abuse or mental disorder. And, beyond all the serious
problems, the fact is that almost all of us have things--bad habits, self
criticism, lack of motivation, unclear goals--we'd like to change (Kidd,
1974) but can't or don't. We shouldn't remain indifferent to all this
pain. We need a scientifically based system for preventing and
alleviating this misery. 
I believe our greatest hope in the long run, in our country and
throughout the world, is to improve the human condition by using our
fantastic educational systems--schools, TV, computers, self-help
groups, the information highway, etc. Why can't adults learn practical,
useful psychology watching public television and TV soaps? Why can't
useful information be delivered via computer and VCR to a hurting
person just as soon as he/she needs it? Why couldn't all children learn
in school to recognize, prevent, or cope with their personal and
relationship problems? It isn't a new idea; Proverbs in the Bible were
written to "educate in wisdom and moral discipline" and, thus, help
young people, the inexperienced, and everyone (Scott, 1965). The
problems associated with schools, self-help books, talk shows, and
bookstores were discussed earlier in the chapter, but their
effectiveness could be radically improved 
A recent American Psychological Association task force said
"prevention programs" are frequently effective and should be
evaluated and expanded (Price, Cowen, Lorion, & Ramos-McKay,
1989). Prevention usually involves education about alcohol, drugs,
unwanted pregnancy, poor health, etc., but it could be extended to
many problems. It is also estimated that 7 to 15 million Americans
were in almost 1 million self-help groups in 1990 (Riordan & Beggs,
1987; Jacobs & Goodman, 1989) and that such groups have become a
major source of help with mental health problems in the late 1990's.
Psychology is being given away to adults, but not primarily by
psychologists. Helpful psychology is being talked about and used
because the people want it, need it, enjoy it, and, probably, profit from
it. Burnham (1987) has warned the discipline of psychology, however,
to take more seriously the task of "giving useful psychology away to
the ordinary person;" otherwise, the major uses of psychology may fall
into the hands of lesser qualified journalists, talk show hosts, and TV
commentators. I wish my discipline would heed the warning (although
I think many people in the other disciplines are dispensing psychology
fairly well). 
If we, as a society, become serious about prevention and
psychological self-help, we must start early. We could help all children
handle problems. Ideally, every child would take a course in self-help
or interpersonal skills every semester from shortly after birth through
college--perhaps 40-50 courses, each tailored to the common
problems for their age. For instance, a course in "caring" at age 6-7, a
course in career choice at 10-12 and again at 16-18, a course in
sexual development and moral choices at puberty, a course in relating
to the opposite sex at 13-15, a course in selecting a partner at 18-20,
a course in developing a philosophy of life at 12-13 and again at 18-
20, etc. It won't be easy, but psycho-social education has tremendous
potential advantages within the public school system: 
Everyone can be reached at a young age via the educational
system; therefore, problems could ideally be prevented or
handled early. 
The amount of time available via the educational approach far
exceeds any other currently available delivery system. For
example, in just one course at the college level, students spend
approximately 150 to 200 hours working on their problems as
contrasted to an average of 5 or 7 hours in counseling centers
or perhaps the 15 to 30 hours of counseling for clients who
remains in treatment until termination. Suppose there was one
course every semester from nursery school to graduate school;
that's a total of 4,000 hours of study and application! Every
child could become much better trained than the current
psychiatrists and clinical psychologists. Why not? What else
would be more beneficial? 
The psychology-for-everyone approach may remove some of
the stigma against seeking professional help with personal or
interpersonal problems. At least, everyone would know where
to go to get the extra help they need. 
Practical psychology could eventually be made available to all
people, not just students. Surely knowledge of psychology and
how to apply it in one's life might not only be beneficial to the
sickest members of our society and to those who come into
conflict with the law, but also to the better adjusted or even the
leaders of our communities. 
The students are more motivated and the teachers have more
reinforcers to use than counselors. Self-help psychology is the
only class that I've ever taught in which students encourage
others to do their homework, so that they can make a better
contribution to class. 
Self-help applied psychology courses build self reliance,
personal pride, and self-direction, and reduce dependency upon
others. It helps correct the common notions that only a
psychiatrist or a psychoanalyst can deal with tough human
The person who is hurting knows his or her background better,
is aware of the problem sooner, and sees his/her goals more
clearly than anyone else. Only the person is always available
(to your self) and more responsible than anyone else for the
problem's existence, its treatment, and its outcome. The
knowledgeable self-helper is in the best position to help. 
There are fewer drop-outs and fewer people really dissatisfied
with the psychological services offered in a class, partly, I
suspect, because there are so many sources of help in a course
that do not exist in a therapy situation, such as the readings,
the lecture-demonstrations, the instructors (usually a
classroom teacher and a small group leader), the other
students in the class (individually and in the group process),
and their own learning by doing, i.e., self-help efforts. 
Credit courses provide credit to the learning institution, the
faculty members, and the students. I feel "giving psychology
away" is a real credit to the profession as well. Psychology is
clearly relevant to everyone's life every day. 
10. Courses are an excellent training opportunity for
paraprofessionals and graduate students. There have been 8-12
graduate students, interns, counselors, other faculty,
undergraduate paraprofessionals, etc. co-teaching with me
each semester for over 20 years. 
11. Intensive, personalized courses in school provide a much better
opportunity for doing realistic, meaningful "psychotherapy"
research and self-help research than does the typical outpatient
mental health center or private practice. 
These "advantages" are only my hunches, not proven facts. It will
take our society years to develop, research, and evaluate an
integrated sequence of age-related courses. Intentional coping is not
well researched. We know little about moving from one stage of self-
help to another, e.g. from avoidance of the problem to thinking about
it, from being concerned to preparing to act and then acting, from self-
improving to maintaining the gains. New research on the whole self-
help process is just getting started (Prochaska, DiClemente, &
Norcross, 1992; Klar, Fisher, Chinsky, & Nadler, 1992). Furthermore,
new kinds of psychology teachers are needed, and delivery systems
must be changed or developed. It won't be easy, but how else are we
going to help all our grandchildren cope well with the daily problems
that are a part of living? Let's get on with making this a better world. 
Every profession is a conspiracy against the laity.
-George Bernard Shaw
An appeal to all scientists and practitioners: Share your useful
knowledge. Remember, "’Tis better to light one candle than to curse
the darkness." 
A brief review of the idea of self-control
When the discipline of psychology started to develop over 100
years ago, it left terms like will, free will, volition, self-control,
determination, and cognitive control in the hands of philosophers. But
since the 1970’s or 1980’s, cognition has become an expanding part of
psychology. Now, concepts like choice, decision making, problem-
solving, self-esteem, self-efficacy, optimism, feelings of mastery and
many other similar terms are in favor in psychology, partly because
researchers continue to find relationships between one’s self-control,
including sense of mastery, and one’s mental and physical health.
Shapiro (1996, 1998) has summarized well the research and theories
about self-control during the last 40 years. 
Most people assume they have “free will,” i.e. the ability to make
choices that purposefully guide their lives. Indeed, our legal, moral,
and social systems assume that individuals have “free will” because
punishment, rewards, blame, praise, etc. would make no sense if the
person were not responsible and/or couldn’t help what he/she was
doing. Among scientists “free will” is still debated, but a growing group
believes that humans can weigh options, make decisions, and form
intentions that direct, within limits, their lives (Rychlak, 1977). This
self-direction or “will” is considered lawful and understandable, not
magical or mystical. If you are interested in a more detailed discussion
of "free will," "moral responsibility," and self-control, please see
Method #4 in chapter 14, Determinism
We humans want to control our lives, being out of control is often
very scary. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that normal, healthy people
over-estimate their degree of control and under-estimate their
vulnerability to control by others or circumstances. When confronted
with illness, the patient who believes he/she retains control over
aspects of the disease generally does better than the patient who feels
out of control. An optimistic, hopeful attitude about one’s self-control
actually changes our bodies--the body chemistry and immune system
However, too much (unrealistic) belief in one’s ability to control
things and/or too high a need to be in control, sometimes resulting in
making extreme efforts, can often make things--your health or social
situation--worse. For example, the alcoholic’s belief that “I can quit
any time I want” surely contributes to a loss of control over the
addiction. Also, as managers have seen, it is often harmful to give a
person more control responsibilities than he/she wants or can handle.
Likewise, as we will see in chapter 8, if a person believes he/she is
personally in control of a situation when in reality external factors are
the dominating forces, the consequences can be detrimental to his/her
health and self-concept, especially if the person continues to feel
responsible for the unwanted outcomes. Thus, it seems that the
concept of “free will” may sometimes assign far too much
responsibility (blame) to the actor (often a victim) when things go
wrong. In the opposite direction, feeling more helpless than you
actually are is problematic--and perhaps in this case the actor
(sometimes a victim) hasn’t taken enough self-responsibility. 
Shapiro (1997) illustrates the elusiveness and complexity of the
seemingly simple concept of self-control by asking: Is self-control
merely a belief (“Oh, I’d never have an affair”) or is it actual control in
real life? Is it a general trait (“I’m totally in control”) or very specific
(“I can handle alcohol but not sweets”) to thousands of tasks or areas
of control? Is there one level of control desired over external events
and another level of control expected over one’s own emotions,
choices, and actions? Is self-control only mastery, i.e. consciously and
intentionally improving one’s behaviors, emotions, skills, and thoughts,
or is it also coping by yielding, adapting, accepting, accommodating a
situation or powerful force until one has a better chance to change
There are other complexities: Is it still self-control if others are
helping you cope, such as family, friends (gang), government
program, self-help group, self-help book, religion, or God? How does
one naturally learn self-control? Where does one go to learn to
improve one’s self-control? Who in our culture are the self-control
experts--what discipline wants this area of research? 
Shapiro, Schwartz, and Astin (1996) suggest that the kind of
therapeutic intervention or self-help instruction a person wanting
better self-control will need depends on his/her “control
characteristics.” For instance, it is quite possible that gender
differences, age level, genetic factors, level of aspiration, situational
differences, confidence, and several other personality traits will
influence the kind of control methods that each specific person needs
to learn or be taught. Because of these uncertainties I have listed
many possible self-control methods for each major problem (see
chapters 4 to 10). 
Sperry (1993) makes an important observation: your values and
major purposes for living, if well developed, are perhaps the most
powerful determinants of your major life decisions. Therefore, each of
us needs to take great care in deciding on the values we will live by
(see chapter 3). Moreover, in the absence of a strong, thoughtful value
system, if one starts to believe that he/she is at risk of having little
control or if one becomes extremely emotional when his/her self-
control seems fragile, such a person is at risk of joining others who are
threatened and deciding to seriously harm another group through acts
of greed and by social domination (e.g. seeking power through wealth,
politics and war, or religion). Humans run amuck without effective self-
control and values. 
Our attitude towards "self-help" will influence the future of humanity 
Joseph Rychlak (1997), one of the best thinkers of our time, says
that unfortunately modern society considers the notion that a person
can responsibly guide his/her own behavior to be an illusion. At least,
it certainly seems that we resist the idea of preparing for personal-
emotional problems until we are in deep trouble. In any case,
humankind is obviously not rushing recklessly towards self-
responsibility and self-control. So, it is no surprise that general self-
help knowledge and classes have not become big business. The
thousands of little crisis books have not shown the general population
that psychology is helpful in every life every day. Likewise, the TV
documentaries or talk shows have not convinced many people to study
self-help techniques carefully (that is certainly no surprise considering
the few minutes the bewildered "experts" on talk shows are given to
solve highly complex, emotional issues). Our limited systems for
distributing useful knowledge to everyone are lousy because they are,
thus far, primarily devoted to entertainment and selling products.
Schools, families, and churches don't support self-help instruction.
Moreover, therapists know a lot but they aren't giving it away (in our
competitive, individualistic culture, who wouldn't want to make $100
an hour?). In short, our society does little to encourage and help us to
self-improve. What can be done about these skeptical or pessimistic
Producing better self-improvement methods, proving the
effectiveness of self-help by research, getting useful information
published in magazines, on TV, or anywhere that honestly reports the
effects of these techniques will eventually persuade enough people to
change the educational system, the media, and the publishing houses.
The real "proof" about self-help accumulates one person at a time--
one successful self-helper at a time. So if you read enough about self-
help that you give some methods a try (and if they work for you), you
will become part of the force that changes human thinking. Your belief
in using knowledge derived from science to control and change your
life will gradually influence other people's attitudes. 
I believe, like Alfred Adler, that the wide utilization of self-help
psychology is inevitable within your life-time (if you are young).
Psychological coping is like health, everyone has to work on it. And, in
both areas, science is finding more and more ways to improve our
bodies and our personal-interpersonal adjustment. For the last 600 to
800 years, science has steadily advanced; it can be slowed but not
stopped or rolled back. Once you think of an idea, like germs or
evolution or genetics or self-help, you can't un-think it. 
Practical, useful psychology will eventually be taught to everyone
so that we all can cope better with problems, suffer less, love more
fully, and contribute more to others. Comprehensive psycho-social
education is not an impossible dream, but it involves major changes
which no one can foresee today. We only see the problems clearly
now, e.g. most people would agree that the most important part of
growing up is developing character. And, great moral character is not
the hallmark of our society these days. "Character" is defined as
having the ability to control impulses and defer gratification, which is
essential for achievement, performance, and moral conduct. Character
requires self-discipline and moral values, which are not major topics in
our country any more (Etzione, 1993). Indeed, the lack of discipline is
the #1 problem in schools today: classes are often restless, impatient,
disorderly, and disrespectful, resulting in little learning. Much
experimentation about character development is needed, but my faith
in people--and in the usefulness of knowledge--makes me an optimist,
a believer in the eventual goodness of people and in the triumph of
In our early years, we humans seem to be capable of
understanding many of the complexities of life--and doing something
(a lot) about them. As youngsters we can influence our futures; the
earlier we start the better. Walter Mischel (1988) has shown that 4-
year-olds, who have learned how to distract themselves and resist
temptations, like candy, are more able to concentrate, make friends,
do well on the SAT, and deal with stress as teenagers. Self-taught self-
control apparently has important consequences (science doesn't know
yet if self-control taught to us by others has the same implications as
self-taught self-control but possibly so). The teen years and young
adulthood are also important in many ways: you develop trust or
distrust of yourself and others; you acquire attitudes, habits, values,
and emotional reactions which will have great impact on your entire
life. Youth isn't just a time for living day to day, as some think; the
early and teen years form the basis for much that you will become.
You can change at anytime in your life, even on your death bed, but it
is harder if you haven't had much practice self-changing earlier in life. 
So, hopefully, you can now see the big picture of where we are
going. Clearly, a life-long psycho-social education isn't just one book
or one course. Learning to cope is an unending task from birth to
death. It is a process of realizing your personal and social problems, of
deciding on the important purposes of your life, of planning how to
accomplish as many of those goals as possible, and, then, gathering
the knowledge you need to actually cope with the almost inevitable
stream of pitfalls in life, carrying out your day by day plans for
achieving your ideals, and living your values and dreams to the fullest. 
I urge you to seriously start self-helping yourself to cope now. You
don't need to be a good student or to know much about psychology
(you only need to be able to understand what you read); you don't
need to have problems because you can always work on self-
improvement and prevention of problems; you don't need to be in
good psychological shape because self-help is for all kinds of personal
and interpersonal difficulties. Why am I urging this on you? My goals
reflect my values of helping others, using knowledge honestly and
wisely to make this a better world, and encouraging each person to
take responsibility for his or her own life. 
Every creator painfully experiences the chasm between his/her inner vision and
its ultimate expression.
-Isaac Bashevis Singer
Psychology has accumulated a lot of useful knowledge--how to
improve behavior, handle emotions, acquire skills, change attitudes,
gain insight, and much more. So, why shouldn't these methods and
ideas be taught to everyone? Eminent psychologists have
recommended this for many years (Miller, 1969; Guerney, 1969). Of
course, we can't prevent all problems; some rain must fall in every
life; we all suffer the occasional pain of failure or self-criticism or
rejection or loss. But we could suffer less. Furthermore, we all could be
better--more caring and giving, and less angry or greedy, more
reasonable and calm, and less tense and impulsive, more capable and
aware, less timid and repressed, etc. Since we all have problems and
we all have room for improvement and much to contribute to others, a
good society would surely help us all live the best life we can. And,
since we are more responsible for our own lives than anyone else,
often having to cope with problems alone, everyone needs to be an
expert self-helper. It makes sense. It can probably be done, but not
quickly and easily. I hope this book makes a small contribution to that
distant goal. 
A warning: any society which emphasizes individual responsibility,
self-help, building self-esteem... must guard against burdening
individuals alone with the awesome task of coping with life's problems.
The knowledge needed by individuals must be developed and
distributed by massive research programs and improved educational-
informational institutions. Society must change as well as individuals.
When we say that every person must help him/herself, it is crucial, in
order to be fair, that every person be provided the self-help knowledge
and opportunities he or she needs to succeed. Otherwise, "self-help" is
just another mean-spirited ploy by the advantaged to "keep the
disadvantaged in their place."
References cited in this chapter are listed in the Bibliography (see
link on the book title page). Please note that references are on pages
according to the first letter of the senior author's last name (see
alphabetical links at the bottom of the main Bibliography page).