When Self-Help Isn't Helpful

I have a love-hate relationship with self-help. I love the idea that I’m in control. I love the idea that I can take care of myself. I love the idea that if I just read the right book I can figure out my life. Yet, where it totally falls apart is when I realize that I don’t always have what it takes to be who I want to be--even with the right books and the right mindset.

Don’t get me wrong, I recognize that I have many strengths. But when I’m stuck, it’s because I’ve run face first into my weaknesses. How do I help myself when the very strengths I need are not what I have available?

We think of self-help as a solo act--a focusing inward towards ourselves to solve our problems. But what if self-help is not about focusing inward? What if we recognize that to get the help we need, we must look outward. To help myself, I need less of myself and more of God and others.

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When we have a wrong view of self-help, it can be harmful. Sometimes in our pride, we believe that we don’t need anyone. So we isolate ourselves and suffer in silence. We struggle much longer when we dig in our heels, hoping that our self-help strategies will truly deliver us.

We really like to be self-sufficient, but there are times in our lives when what we have and what we can do are no longer sufficient. It takes reliance on God and leaning into our relationships with other people to get us where we need to go.

We Need God

The primary way that self-help can harm us rather than help us is by separating us from God. I know many great Christian women who read dozens of great books and rarely open their bibles. I know many women who have told me that prayer is their last resort, not their first response when they feel stuck. I can relate.

Why?

Maybe we become so self-sufficient that we think relying on God is a crutch. Or maybe we think our problems are too small for God to care about. Or, the opposite, we think we've messed up so badly that we're ashamed to go to God for help.

Whatever the reason, self-help is a problem when we mistakenly believe that we can do life on our own. In fact, I would even say that self-help is often self-sabotage because it separates us from the One who can truly help us.

So do not fear, for I am with you;
    do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
    I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
- Isaiah 41:10 (NIV)

We Need People

The Christian life isn't meant to be lived alone. We're told we're part of the body of Christ and the kingdom of God, yet we oftentimes live in our own little bubble.

Whether it’s our pride, insecurity, or past wounds, we don’t trust other people with our pain. So we go it alone. We think, “I’ve got this. No need to involve anyone else.”

Except… our suffering does affect others. It affects our mood, our performance at work, our disengagement in relationships. Don’t be fooled—your life always impacts another’s.

So instead of keeping people at arm’s length, invite them into the challenge with you. Allow them to help you and be part of the solution. We all have different strengths and gifts, so the best way to love one another and be in relationship with each other is by learning to be truly connected through honesty and authenticity.

3 God has given me grace to speak a warning about pride. I would ask each of you to be emptied of self-promotion and not create a false image of your importance. Instead, honestly assess your worth by using your God-given faith as the standard of measurement, and then you will see your true value with an appropriate self-esteem...
9-10 Let the inner movement of your heart always be to love one another, and never play the role of an actor wearing a mask. Despise evil and embrace everything that is good and virtuous.
Be devoted to tenderly loving your fellow believers as members of one family. Try to outdo yourselves in respect and honor of one another.
- Romans 12:3, 9-10 (The Passion Translation)

It can be especially difficult to let people into your situation when you’re deep in the middle of the mess, so rather than wait until things in your life fall apart, it's helpful to build trusting relationships when your life is going smoothly.

  • Have close friends who you are open and honest with
  • Join a small group of people at your church to do life with
  • Meet with a counsellor just to check in with yourself and see if there’s anything you can be proactive about
  • Establish open communication with your spouse so problems can be discussed with mutual trust and respect

Rather than hide yourself away, determined to fix your problems on your own, allow yourself to be authentic. Get real with God and other people. When we rely on God and lean into our communities, our lives gain so much more hope, joy, peace, and purpose.

Don't get sucked into our culture's version of self-reliant self-help. Embrace a biblical vision of surrender and sisterhood.