November 9, 2010

Self-Help Books

Every so often a patient comes into my office carrying “the book” that has all the answers they need for a wonderful experience in life.  Whether it is a metaphysical book or the latest pop-psych bestseller, I listen patiently while they describe how everything is going to work out smoothly now because they know the secrets to success!

But, they come back the next week, with a different book—or they come back disappointed in the last one—because they only “knew ABOUT something” they didn’t really “know”.  This thought is not original to me, of course—not many thoughts are—but rather comes from years before I began my psychology training.  Someone made the remark to me that “knowing about something is not the same as knowing”.  The remark puzzled me—aren’t these two the same things?

No, they aren’t the same at all.  If they were the same, I could send a patient home with a handout about creating a better marriage and never see that patient again because just reading about creating a better marriage would have done the trick! Voila!  Regrettably, that is not how it happens.  Knowing about the strategies and skills it takes to create a happier home is not the same as developing those skills and using them day after day, hour by hour and minute by minute in actual relationships with human beings.  When a patient takes one of these handouts (just to use marriage as an example, it is such a fertile ground of examples!) and goes home with very sincere intentions of making marriage much more successful and satisfying, it is not enough to read about it, or think about it, or even have deep and sincere feelings about it.  What needs to happen is that day-in-and-day-out practice of imperfectly putting those principles into action.  That is knowing.

The self-help books that come into my office probably do contain some great ideas and suggestions for being more content, satisfied, successful, or whatever, but until they are relentlessly put into moment-by-moment practice, they will not do what the authors so gamely assert on their covers.  “Fear nothing!” or “Be irresistible to women!” or “Have the marriage you deserve!” I’m not so sure about being irresistible to women, but I do know that the science of human experience can be applied to most situations to achieve many valuable outcomes, but none will be achieved simply by reading the book.  The hard work is what makes it happen.  Sadly, that’s what teachers told me from elementary school onward, that few things come from wishing!