Personal Development vs. Self-Help
Is there a difference between personal development and self-help?
And if so, what is it?
Although this idea has been floating on the fringe of my consciousness for months, I figured that there were authors and bloggers much more deeply entrenched in these ideas than me to cover this topic.
However, my recent read of Help Me: One Woman’s Quest to Find Out if Self-Help Really Can Change Your Life, brought the idea once more to the forefront. It’s something I knew I needed to address - both for my own benefit and hopefully for the benefit of anyone who bothers to read this.
The terms “self-help” and “personal development” are often used interchangeably. This has always irritated me, but it wasn’t until I read Help Me that I recognized why. In the book, Marianne Power sets about to revolutionize her life and become the person she has always wanted to be through the power of “self-help”. While some of the ideas do seem to benefit her for a while, she ends up in a downward spiral and a near mental breakdown.
I empathize greatly with Marianne, her struggles, and her desire to find a different life. I don’t, however, agree with the way she decides to go about her mission and her undying devotion to and focus on self-help.
To me, self-help and personal development are related, probably cousins, if you will, but are two different and distinct things. The differences are subtle but important.
And if personal development has taught me anything, it’s that the words we use are important.
These concepts are even further confused because both realms contain many of the same books, courses, and advocates. If you go to your local bookstore, they likely have either a “personal development” section or a “self-help” section, rarely both.
Sometimes even the teachings each area advocates for are more of a circle than a Venn diagram. But regardless, there are three distinct, and in my mind, very important reasons why self-help and person development are distinct categories.
But before we begin, I would like to mention again that the author of Help Me, Marianne Power, undergoes a near mental breakdown during her year of self-help. This is not something solely tied to her self-help experiment. It was something she had struggled with in the past and that needed to be dealt with professionally. Depression, anxiety, and other serious mental health issues are not to be taken lightly. They should be handled appropriately, not through self-medication or trying to apply the principles of random books.
This brings us to the three distinctions between personal development and self-help. First, they have different foundations.
From what I have seen, the people who engage in self-help, including Marianne, are ones who want to fix their lives. They feel that there is something fundamentally wrong with them - maybe they feel like they are unattractive, or feel unmotivated to accomplish the things they feel that they should.
These people look to self-help for one obvious reason, they are seeking help. They want to read a book or take an online course that will fix their problems and maybe even save them from their struggles.
I have read a lot of books that are labeled as “self-help” (I mean hundreds of them), but I have yet to find a single one that actually allows you to snap your fingers, or apply any other easy trick, to fix your life and make it better. None of these books will fix or save you.
Personal development, on the other hand, has a very different foundation. The idea of developing who yourself, to me, says that already know who you are. You are comfortable and confident, willing and able to take the next step towards growth.
The second difference is related but distinct. People who are looking to self-help are looking for something that will bring them out of their current circumstances.
On the other hand, those who view their growth through the lens of personal development tend to think of it more as a process rather than a single event. They know that it is only through continuing to learn, set goals, and work hard that real growth can occur. These people are willing to put the effort into developing themselves and following through.
The final difference originates in the terms themselves. Self help often totes that one step will change your life. If you merely try this diet, this exercise, or this affirmation - all your troubles will fade away. These blanket fixes rarely if ever, work. One goal, plan, or method will never work for everyone.
But personal development tends to be just that - personal. It helps you make personalized choices. It may illustrate a certain method or idea, but it often allows more flexibility to make it most effective for you.
There are certainly books that could fall into both of these categories. But, having identified these differing perspectives, I’m sure you could think of a couple that could be categorized into one or the other - that alone proves my point. Self-help and personal development are two distinct categories.
There are, and will continue to be people, who continue to produce massive bodies of work for those in the self-help community. However as we continue to read and consume new information, I think it is important to identify whether it will help us develop ourselves and move us closer to our goals, or if it is merely promising to fix our problems and create the idealized “self” that we want.
I hope you now understand a bit more why I consider myself to be a personal development blogger rather than a self-help blogger. I want to help those around me identify their goals and work towards them. Individual growth is a process, and only when we recognize that can we truly begin to build a life that we love.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and our lives won’t be either.
Until next time,