Self-Help is Bullsh*t. ~ Deborah Williamson

Via elephant journal
on May 23, 2012
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Photo Credit: Amy Wilbanks

Yes, I said it. Bullsh*t.

Why? Self-help perpetuates the “me” complex and pulls us away from how we can really make a difference.

Me, me, me, me, me!

The “me” complex doesn’t really help anyone. If anything, it isolates us from one another and creates more of the inertia that we dread—that sickening sensation of being stuck.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe in self-inquiry, observation, reflection and the resulting action, but all this “I have to love myself first” was created to, if we’re being honest, keep us steadily stuck and buying more self-help books.

But we don’t have to be unhappy and stuck. And I’m not attacking self-help as a whole. I own many self-help books, countless numbers of them, in fact. And some of them are damn good.

But I do want to get your attention. Because there’s one self-help concept in particular that transforms self-help into self-stall:

“I have to love myself before I can love or help others.”

Is this really true? Let’s get all scientific for a second and try a controlled experiment.

First, hug yourself. How does that feel? What do you get from this experience?

Now go hug someone else. Better or worse?

I find the difference is drastic. Hugging someone else (read: helping/giving) wins hands down every time. Hugging ourselves (love myself first) doesn’t really have any effect at all.

We just wind up feeling kind of dumb.

And guess what?

The same is true in your life.

The “self-love first” mentality is what cause self-help books to be necessary in the first place. It convinces us that we are not enough, that we are not ok and that until we get our shit together, we should just go hide in a cave.

This self-help also reinforces that we are victims of cruel circumstances beyond our control.

This is the self-help that gets us stuck.

Here’s why:

(1) It shifts responsibility to something or someone other than us, making us victims.

(2) It suggests perfection before connection, making us feel lonely and useless while we wait to achieve that perfection.

(3) It is centered on the past, making us immobile (unable to see the present).

That’s a mouthful for sure, but what do we do about it all? If this self-help has no answers, where do we find them?

We won’t find answers in hours and hours of brutalizing analysis of past decisions.

“If I had only tied my shoelaces tighter in the second grade, then I would not have tripped and decided that I am endlessly stupid and clumsy.”

We won’t find answers in affirmations gleefully hollered into the mirror.

“I attract abundance! I’m hot shit! I’m sexy and I know it!”

And we won’t find them in blaming our parents (or anyone else).

“If my dad had only put me through college, I could have really made something of myself.”

Yes, we all have our baggage, but why dig around in that stuff when you could just leave it on the curb and step forward?

Try these three simple steps and you just might escape the need for self—help entirely.

(1) Reach out.

One of the easiest paths to joy, like that hug you gave someone else, is in finding ways to enrich the lives of others. Science supports this, too. More and more studies highlight the importance of connection in mental and physical health.

Any little touch or thought can make a world of difference—from a phone call to volunteering at a soup kitchen. And when I say it can make a world of difference, I mean it will make a difference for you too, each time you give.

(2) Book “we-time” (instead of me-time)

Yes, take time off to rest and play. But also take time to keep the very connections that keep you socially involved, happy and sure of yourself.

Give yourself the homework of asking a certain number of people out for coffee each week.

Make appointments and keep them, no matter how busy life gets.

(3) Take responsibility.

You have exactly the life you deserve. Bad things will happen to you, or someone else, but you choose what comes next. You are no longer a victim when you make a choice. Enough said.

How many stories have we all heard over the years about inspiring people who started with nothing or triumphed over horrible circumstances?

How many of these people found their success from setting aside appropriate amounts of “me” time?

Often their biggest success and greatest joys came from direct contribution to others and the world (think Oprah).

You can experience the same end in your own life.

Throw your arms wide open every chance you get.

There is nothing to fix or forgive.

If you are really looking to help yourself to happiness and success, “self-love first” isn’t the path.

It’s what blocks the path.

We are healed when we elevate the world together.


As an educator and coach for over 25 years, Deborah (Debbie) Williamson has helped thousands to create the lives and careers of their dreams. Founder of the internationally recognized Yoga Life Coach™ Certification program, co—founder of LIVELOVETEACH, ( and a well-loved Vinyasa teacher, Debbie splits her time between international travel and running her thriving Wisconsin yoga studio, Midwest Power Yoga, with husband Mark and their two dogs. Her new book, The Yoga Body Cleanse, is due out in 2012. Find Debbie at


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Editor: Jamie Morgan


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47 Responses to “Self-Help is Bullsh*t. ~ Deborah Williamson”

  1. I love your take on this, but I don't completely agree. I think we can get too wrapped up in narcissism, which it seems like you are referring to. I also think that without self-love, maitri, self-compassion, we aren't able to sustain healthy, loving relationships with others.

  2. tatumann says:

    I agree with you on that Kate, but my take away from this post (which I loved, by the way) is that by getting out of our own heads sometimes and finding joy by opening our hearts to others, we clear the path to self-love, ultimately clearing the way to love others more openly. We don't need to completely love ourselves to give love. Maybe it's a parallel journey, instead of one before the other.

  3. Graham says:

    Wow this article is awesome !!! … and so so True !

  4. Dave says:

    Well 10 out of 10 for promotion, this headline got my attention. But self help, as far as I know, is all about self responsibility. People often reach for self help when they have spent years defining themselves by their roles to others.Hence the need to develop the connection with themselves. I think you are confusing it with narcissism. What specifically are you criticising here? Self Help is a pretty broad umbrella, and I agree some parts of it are not really very helpful. Which models and belief systems do you think are unhelpful? Your solutions sound like self help solutions to me. Yes life is all about connection and reaching out. But over the years I have counseled hundreds of people who cannot enjoy their connections because they don't feel worthy of them. Hence the need to evaluate the beliefs we have about ourselves. I think some people misinterpret self help to mean that they have to be perfect, fixed or whole before they are worthy of love. But I have never read a book which actually says that. I do agree that it's better to seek experience than perfection.

  5. Sharon Marie says:

    Wonderful article, Deb, and truly, all the comments have their own validity. Maybe even a little chicken and egg-ish. Except for the hug thing. I do feel better when I hug someone else, for sure. We are all alone, together, on this path, if you will. Does it matter how we make the connections as long as it is in the vein (vain 😉 ) of non-harming? Being open to all things, to disagree is valid if a thread of truth can be seen in all view points. what a gift to not be attached to our own viewpoints! "Believe nothing. No matter where you read it or who has said, not even if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense. ~ Buddha.

  6. cathywaveyoga says:

    The way I understood self-help is that it is taking responsibility fo rmaking positive and helaing changes in ones life rather than relying on a counselor, a pill, a magic fix or simply waiting fo rthe universe to open up o rthe stars to align.
    Thus in my understanding that which you assert is 'better' than self-help i smy definition o fit.
    Moving ahead with ones life positively from reflection and positive action makes a difference talking can not make.

  7. Hi Kate, Thanks for your comment. Self-love & compassion are absolutely essential, yes, but my point is that often we can discover self-love by loving other people, instead of waiting to love ourselves first. We when start to help others, or become involved with others, we're able to see that we CAN make a difference, that what we do & say has value. By appreciating others, we see ourselves in others, and appreciate ourselves. Thanks for reading!

  8. Hi Dave, thanks so much for reading & commenting. The title was meant to draw you in – glad it had the intended effect. 🙂

    Self Help IS a broad umbrella, and as I said above, I take issue mainly with this statement/belief: “I have to love myself before I can love or help others.” THIS view and THIS summary of self-help comes up stated as fact by participants in many of the trainings I lead – yoga teacher trainings & other events as well. And, as you mentioned, it does often equate in their minds to the idea that we must be perfect before moving forward. I've also heard many presenters, particularly in the yoga industry, utter this sentence or some variation thereof.

    And I disagree with THAT statement. We don't have to wait to participate in our lives or to be powerful for other people. We can do it now. It's part of how we find self-love.

    There are great resources out there (and I have many of them) that would rightly be classified as self-help.

    Thanks again! I appreciate the comment and conversation! Hope this clarifies…

  9. Hi Cathy – thanks for commenting!

    Taking responsibility, reflecting, and taking action are all valuable & worthy pursuits – as mentioned in the article, I'm singling out one particular component/primary idea / statement often equated with Self-Help: “I have to love myself before I can love or help others.”

    Why wait to love? Why wait to give? If we wait, will the right time ever come? How will we know when it comes? Stepping past the statement about self-love first allows us to start interacting with our world and the people in it immediately.

  10. Thanks for reading, Graham! Feel free to share if you enjoy!

  11. Ben_Ralston says:

    Oof, left a long comment and it got lost in cyber space.

  12. Ben_Ralston says:

    The gist of what I said was that I love your article, for many reasons.
    I particularly like the lines:
    "Take responsibility.
    You have exactly the life you deserve. Bad things will happen to you, or someone else, but you choose what comes next. You are no longer a victim when you make a choice. Enough said."

    But – loving oneself is the first step to a meaningful life. You can't love another until you love yourself. You can't serve until you love yourself (because real service is selfless, and selflessness only comes as a result of letting go of the ego, and letting go of the ego can only happen when we're not filled with doubt, and that only comes as a result of self-love.
    Self love is the only love there really is in fact: when we see ourself in everyone else, then service is natural.

    And finally, the idea of hugging oneself versus hugging another as a test of whether self love is better than love towards another is self-defeating. Because if you don't love yourself, hugging yourself will feel silly, and if you do love yourself hugging yourself will feel silly. It's always better hugging another, because love expands, and hugging oneself is an act of contraction…

    with LOVE, Ben

  13. Rhonda says:

    Very nice article, I think for surface "stuff", yes hugging, smiling, and interaction in conversations leaves you feeling less heavy. The underlying issues are not for self-help if your struggling with "baggage" that is what counselors are for, they can take you deeper into your"stuff" if your willing to travel that journey. Debbie has a very valid point of what you put out there is what you will receive in return. You have to engage in your life and living it to its fullest to receive any kind of benefits from it, to often we sit on the sofa wondering why we don't have a better quality of life….Well , look at what you are present in.What are you participating in to make the quality of your life to a higher satisfaction. I love the conversations and thoughts that are provoked from this article….Well done Mrs. Williamson !! xo

  14. Ben!

    I'm glad you got in and I appreciate your comments.

    The hugging is meant as an example – the beautiful feeling that comes when, as you said, "love expands." It's a metaphor. That same feeling is possible when we reach out in support of others, and I do firmly believe that loving others helps us find love for ourselves.

    But there are many paths, and never any absolutes.

    To a long and varied journey for each of us!

  15. Thank you, Rhonda! It's fun to hear from you and from the others here as well. elephant journal is such a great community for these discussions.

  16. Thanks for commenting, Sharon! Love the Buddha quote you posted – lovely!

  17. […] We’re pleased to report that Debbie debuted at the top of the readership charts on one of our favorite yoga, news & opinion blogs today – elephant journal! […]

  18. Tracy, Bali was amazing! We're going again in 2013, back to Ubud. Thanks so much for your comment and for posting!

  19. Miss Equalibrium says:

    It's all about finding the balance, we are all too unbalanced in our lives. I am not a self-help book reader, I just don't get them! But I don't throw my arms around people (I am not a "hugger"), and I'm okay with me, being this way. Just be okay with who you are and what shaped you. Leave the struggle as the author said "at the curb"…. Good article!

  20. KaylaOco says:

    Love it! I've definitely been stuck there before and if it happens again I will definitely be reflecting back on this article! Whoo Live Love Teach!!

  21. Jeni says:

    I see what you mean, but at the same time I think it's different for everyone……essentially balance is required: some people need to brush up on the self love while others need to work on giving love to others……….you can't be running yourself ragged for others, but you don't want to shut the world out either………..

  22. MileHighMama says:

    Disagree 100%. Coming from a Christian background, where rule #1 is that you are a sinner and don't deserve anything good at all, I have found that learning to love myself is the most important and healthy thing I can do. The more I have learned to love myself, the more love I have found for others and the world. Self-love is not narcissism; it embraces and extends to all other life as well. In my opinion, it's the single most important thing we can do if we do want to have a positive impact on the world.

  23. Gangster BoyScout! Love this post – thanks so much for sharing!

  24. Thanks for your comment and for taking time to join the discussion. Self-love is important but can be used as an excuse for not living life or interacting with others. As some of the other readers here have posted, there are many paths. This is what works for me and frees a lot of my students and clients from waiting to participate in their lives.

    I appreciate your thoughts!

  25. Absolutely! Thanks for reading and commenting. 😉

  26. I love to flip things around to reveal new perspectives. And I appreciate bringing attention to an area that has become saturated (the self-help market) because whenever anything becomes saturated, chances are high that a lot of baloney will begin to emerge.

    With that said, I was thinking about a similar topic recently (and blogged about it on my own blog). I spoke about the importance of self-forgiveness, which has something in common with self-love. The gist of WHY it is important has to do with the importance of *Letting Go* of that which holds us back. Letting go of harmful emotions, such as guilt and anger. It's about forgiving what we perceive to be failures in ourselves so that we can then move on. (And this is especially true for those with high expectations of themselves/perfectionists)
    With Everything Positive,

  27. Amber Thompson says:

    Thank you so much for writing this. Let me remark with the old cliche ‘It was just what I needed” because honestly it was. I am taking this blog into action.

  28. Amber – fun to see you on the blog. Thanks too for sharing it! Will I see you in Madison when I'm leading teacher training in June? Maybe you can stop in for a class or two. So glad you liked it.

  29. Donna, this is great. One of my businesses is a yoga teacher training company called LIVE LOVE TEACH, and we work with a series of principles to help our yoga teachers "teach from love and not fear". One of those principles is called, "Instant Forgiveness", and it is a tool that can be practiced and refined. Such a great skill to have and a GREAT point. Thank you for sharing. Please send your blog post on this to me at [email protected]. Would love to see it! Thanks again. Debbie

  30. Al-Anon member says:

    Dear Deborah,

    Thanks for the article. Let me tell you my story, maybe you can try to make me understand your concept better?

    I am married to an alcoholic. I am working on

    – Stopping any controlling (which looks to me like help in order to overcome self-doubts)
    – Loving myself (with the wonderful immediate effect of loving and accepting others a lot more)
    – Believing in a higher power

    There is one thing I cannot do, which is to change my beloved's drinking. I tried for years. By self-help, together with Al-Anon, I managed to improve my life and all my relationships. I am giving the drinker the opportunity to think for himself and to decide when he wants to seek for help when he and only he is ready. I love him and I do not want him to cause himself too much harm, in a few years we would talk about a matter of life and death. I CANNOT help. There is nothing I can do FOR him. I am working so hard to understand this.

    By the way, I am getting out of the victim role, by gaining responsibility for my own life. If I cannot help him, it is not my fault that he drinks.

    Please explain, how can I understand your article?

  31. […] Isn’t it so much easier, in a way, to claim we have something wrong with us and that’s why we don’t, or can’t, do cer… […]

  32. Leann says:

    Wow. I guess if you grow up with a certain amount of self love, then you don't know what it's like to not have it and not need the self help books which deal with that. Good for you if you did, but you don't have to sound so condescending to those who found the stuff you call bullshit helpful. You are speaking from a position of strength and fearlessness when you say things like "Throw your arms wide open every chance you get." Most people don't walk around like that, so they read self help books. Now, if it's bullshit to do that, they should be calling you I suppose…..?
    Also, great catchy headline but it's so dismissive of real needs that I'm not quite sure I'm having the reaction you'd want me to.
    Yes, you really have to find self love, self respect, boundaries, even be in touch with what you prefer before you can *truly* embrace and be with others. You can go thru the motions without finding it, but you're not being an expression of self; you're doing what you think you *should* be doing. I would think as a coach you'd want people to do whatever it takes to learn to come from their authentic selves in service. But there really are valid reasons that people first need to find themselves. And you don't make a clear distinction between what you call "hours and hours of brutalizing analysis of past decisions" and necessary analysis.
    I guess if your motivation was to just shock readers and only be able to reach other people who have never had self love issues, well, then great article. But there are people with pain out there that this sounds like you're saying "and you're an idiot for believing in bullshit".
    There was a kinder way of putting this…

  33. Dear Al-Anon member,

    Thank you for your post & comments – very valuable and I appreciate them. I do have some personal experience with a similar situation in my own life from years ago.

    You are right, you can not help your husband, or control him, or do anything to make him stop drinking, unless he decides he is ready, which may or may not happen.

    The three objectives you state are powerful and important to your healing, especially giving up control of that which you can't control.

    The article is not saying "Never help yourself," or "all self-help is bad/wrong/useless."

    I am defining what I take issue with as one main principle commonly stated in self-help: "I have to love myself first."

    Self-love is important, yes, but not exclusive to moving forward.

    Even in your current situation, how could you potentially reach out or share with another? Perhaps someone else in an Al-anon group who is also hurting and in need of understanding? What can you pull from your experience that can make the world brighter for someone else?

    These are things to consider. I believe that as you heal and help others, self-love becomes more evident and easy to realize.

    Hope this helps and I wish you all the best! Just by posting and sharing your experience, you are already giving and sharing to others who may need it.


  34. Hi Leann,

    Thanks for your comments. I do appreciate them.

    No, shock value was not the only intended outcome for this post. It truly does come from wanting to see others be free.

    A few thoughts:

    First, I love and agree with what you said here, " I would think as a coach you'd want people to do whatever it takes to learn to come from their authentic selves in service."

    Yes, each of us serve in different ways and have unique gifts, strengths & passions. My point is that we don't find out what those are by guessing or waiting and wondering. We learn who we are by making a choice, taking an action, reflecting on it, and then making another choice. This would be what I'd refer to as necessary analysis. Another way to put it would be:

    (1) "what is happening right now?"
    (2) "is it working?"
    (3) "what else can i try?"

    If you try, as you said, "what you think you **should** be doing" and discover that it doesn't work for you, you now have information to use in choosing again with no attachment to the previous choice. You are free to move forward from right now.

    I do disagree with this statement, however: "Yes, you really have to find self love, self respect, boundaries, even be in touch with what you prefer before you can *truly* embrace and be with others."

    I believe that there are many paths to one end – that we each find our way with different choices. But I do not believe that we have to have it all figured out as individuals before we can start to love and express with the people in our lives. Like anything else, I believe learning comes from experience and action. Love begins when we reach out and invite it in, and grows as it is received and given again.

    Lastly, with regards to "throwing your arms wide open", another thing that I believe very much is that courage is very much a practice – we have to dance with it every day.

    The example in my own life is this: I'm painfully shy in a very public life as a teacher and presenter. Moving through that fear, for me, comes from the question, "how can i reach more people today? how can i make a difference / an impact in people's lives? how can i contribute?"

    If I give in to my fear, there are people that I can't and don't reach.

    If I take risks, share honestly, and make choices or statements that give me butterflies every day, that is my practice of shifting fear into excitement, and there is instantly more I can do in the world for others.

    Do I believe that all self-help is bad?

    No. I've got some great books – plenty of them.

    Do I believe that self-help can backfire? Yes – and this article is criticizes one component of self help – the concept of "self-love FIRST" as the only way.

    Self love is necessary and good, but by itself, with no regard for others, it is a lonely and limiting place to live. And I don't believe it to be separate from love and contribution to others. I believe they go hand in hand. Why wait to give love?

    I encourage further discussion if you like. Thanks!

  35. […] of us teaching ‘self-help’ skills want to make a difference. As Deborah Williamson wrote recently for Elephant though, it’s a slippery slope (with dollar signs on it). She warns that the idea that we have to […]

  36. […] statement is so important to our understanding of how life works, especially in a time when so many self-help gurus claim that your thinking creates your […]

  37. […] need to help yourself before you can help others in any real and effective […]

  38. […] simply a figment of imagination—a creation that is as substantial and sturdy as a sandcastle. Something was shifting inside me. I wasn’t aware of what it was or how it was working. I just began to question what was going on […]

  39. […] you have found yourself in the self-help aisle and you have time to read the books you downloaded on your Kindle from start to finish, a label by […]

  40. elephantjournal says:

    Hey Bram,

    I'd like to remind you that this article is only one of tens of thousands on elephant journal. Each author has their own opinion—we all won't agree with all of them!

    You are welcome to share your own view here. – Ed.