Can You Be Addicted to Self-Help?

Woman smiling and reading a self-help book.

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Self-help can be an effective way to address problems and drive personal growth, but is it possible to go overboard? Or could you even become addicted to self-help?

While experts still don’t agree about which behaviors should be considered “real” addictions, there’s no question that certain behaviors can cause serious problems in a person’s life when they become pervasive, invasive, and distressing.

But what happens when it is a persistent pursuit of becoming better, stronger, happier, and more productive? Is the relentless pursuit of self-improvement ever a bad thing?

Wanting to be better and do better is, after all, what often motivates us to take action in the first place.

The problem is that if you are always making your happiness hinge on meeting those ever-changing goals, you’ll never feel satisfied with the life you have now. If you can only feel fulfilled by reaching that target, how can you feel content if the bullseye keeps moving?

What Is Self-Help?

Self-help refers to a type of self-guided improvement. It means relying on your own efforts to achieve some type of goal. While self-help is often self-initiated and self-directed, it often has a basis in some type of psychological theory or research. 

Self-help often centers on making improvements in different areas of your life. Some primary self-help goals that people often choose to pursue include those in areas such as:

  • Mental health: This might include doing things such as reducing anxiety, finding happiness, feeling more gratitude, or practicing mindfulness.
  • Career or education: Learning and growing both academically and professionally are also common self-help goals. This might include exploring new careers, gaining job skills, and searching for career opportunities.
  • Relationships: This might center on dating and finding new relationships or on mending and strengthening current relationships.
  • Health and fitness: Losing weight and getting fit are two of the most common self-help goals that people pursue.
  • Self-improvement: Self-help also often centers on finding ways to improve aspects of the self such as learning to stop procrastinating and overcoming low self-esteem.

Self-help can occur independently, but it can also take place in the context of a self-help group. Groups devoted to self-help for mental health problems are the most prevalent type of self-help.

An estimated two million U.S. adults participate in self-help groups each year.

Is Self-Help Effective?

Self-help can—without a doubt—be a powerful tool. It can augment professional treatment to help maximize the benefits of psychotherapy and medications. For some people, it can even be enough to bring about lasting change all on its own. But there are some aspects of self-help that may prove to be harmful:

  • One problem is that many self-help programs lack the research and empirical evidence to back up claims about their effectiveness. 
  • Adherence is another factor that can influence whether self-help has a real impact. People vary in terms of how much they follow a plan, which may ultimately affect what sort of results they experience.
  • It's also important to remember that many of the self-help advice books that you'll find in stores and online are not necessarily backed by research. The effectiveness of each one may also vary depending on a variety of factors including your goals and level of commitment to making a change.

Fortunately, there is research that has shown that self-help programs, particularly guided interventions, for mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression can be beneficial. 

Research suggests that some self-help programs can be effective for a number of different purposes. For example, research has found that guided self-help programs can be an effective way to reduce symptoms of depression.

Self-help interventions have also been shown to be helpful in the treatment of gambling addictions, postpartum depression prevention, diabetes self-management, smoking cessation, and substance use disorders.

Signs You Might Have a Problem

If you are concerned that you might be addicted to self-help, there are a few signs that you might have a problem. These include:

It’s Consumes Too Much of Your Time

Self-help programs require you to devote your time toward pursuing a goal. In many cases, this can actually be a good thing. Focusing on yourself, your health, your self-care, and your emotional well-being are all things that are good for both your mind and body.

But if it feels like all of your time is consumed by your self-help pursuits, it might be a sign of a problem. Do you feel like you only have time to practice self-help? Have you given up other hobbies or are you avoiding friends, family, and work so you can work on self-help?

It Interferes With Your Relationships

While relationships are a common focus of self-help efforts, there are times when your devotion to improving in one area might actually create problems in other areas, including your relationships with your partner, friends, or other loved ones.

If your self-help efforts are having a negative impact on your relationships with friends and loved ones, it might be a sign that there is a problem.

Perhaps you’re spending so much time on a self-help activity that you’re ignoring the people in your life. Or maybe you think that you can’t pursue relationships until you reach your self-help goals. 

It’s Causing Problems in Other Areas of Your Life

An addiction can make it difficult to function normally in your daily life. If your self-help goals are interfering with your ability to work, go to school, or perform other usual tasks, it may be a sign that there is a problem. 

For example, if you find that you are distracted or preoccupied with thinking about your self-help goals, you might find it difficult to concentrate on your work or academics.

In some cases, your behavior might even cause you to neglect self-care, miss appointments, or struggle to make important decisions.

It Makes You Feel Bad About Yourself

Self-help can be a powerful tool, but it’s not going to be an effective source of self-improvement if it relies on making you feel bad about who you are in the here and now.

The best self-help tools and programs encourage you to see your own strengths and encourage you to use those abilities as a springboard toward becoming even stronger.

If the need to “fix” perceived flaws is leaving you feeling demotivated or just plain terrible about yourself, it’s time to step back and reevaluate your goals and efforts.

It Interferes With Doctor-Recommended Treatments

One of the most serious signs that you might have a problem with self-help is that you are using these tactics instead of the treatments that your doctor has recommended or prescribed.

An example of this would be stopping your antidepressants and taking supplements or using some other self-help strategy instead. 

In this case, there can potentially serious health consequences. Stopping your medications may cause withdrawal symptoms and some supplements can have side effects and drug interactions that you need to discuss with your doctor before taking.

Not taking your prescribed medications may also lead to a return or even a worsening of your symptoms.

Always talk to your doctor before you stop or start taking any medication or supplement. If you want to try something new, discuss it with your doctor. You can get their advice and then come up with a treatment plan that incorporates their recommendations.

Is Self-Help Really Addictive?

While the symptoms of an addiction vary depending from one type to the next, there are some common signs that a behavior might be a problem. These include:

  • Changes in mood
  • Changes in appetite
  • Changes in sleep habits
  • Continuing to engage in the behavior in spite of the negative consequences
  • Engaging in risky behaviors
  • Experiencing financial or legal problems
  • Feeling unable to stop
  • Losing interest in things you used to enjoy
  • Try to hide your behaviors from others

Having these symptoms doesn't necessarily mean that you're addicted to self-help. Self-help addiction is not a condition recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Some behavioral addictions are recognized as mental health conditions and a number of others have been noted by healthcare providers. 

However, such signs may be a sign that you should step back and consider talking to your doctor or therapist.

It is important to note that sometimes excessive self-help can contribute to other problems. For example, self-help efforts directed toward losing weight might play a role in the development of eating disorders

Questions to Ask

Some things you might ask yourself to help determine if your self-help efforts have become problematic:

  • Does engaging in self-help actions or reading self-help material make you feel inadequate or unhappy?
  • Do you tend to turn to self-help when you are feeling bad about something in your life?
  • Do you often read or collect self-help material without actually putting it into action?
  • Have other people noticed that you are spending a lot of time on self-help goals?
  • Do you ever try to hide your self-help efforts from other people or experience feelings of shame about them?
  • Do you find it difficult to stop thinking about or pursuing self-help goals even when you experience negative consequences?

If you can answer yes to some of these questions, it might be a good idea to make an effort to find a way to deal with the behaviors that are causing problems in your life. 

What You Can Do

If it seems like your self-help efforts are taking over your life or causing problems, there are steps that you can take. Some things you can do are listed below.

Focus on Accepting Yourself

Self-acceptance involves a complete acceptance of who you are. It involves embracing who you are in the here and now. It doesn't mean that you think you are perfect; it means that you recognize that you have flaws or weaknesses and you accept them.

This doesn't mean that you've given up or aren't interested in building your abilities. Instead, it means that you can focus on goals for getting better without feeling the need to reach some unattainable level of perfection. 

Choose the Right Self-Help Program

Just by the nature of the programs themselves, the self-help industry often relies on and even exploits people’s insecurities. By convincing you that you aren’t good enough now, they can sell you books, products, programs, and even supplements that will purportedly make you better.

The problem is that this can lead to a self-perpetuating cycle of insecurity. After all, there’s always something to fix or some deficiency that needs to be resolved.

You can avoid falling into this cycle of self-doubt by choosing goals and self-help tools that make you feel good about yourself in the first place.

It’s fine to acknowledge that you want to change, but a good program will help you feel inspired and motivated. It will help you recognize and value your current strengths and see how you can leverage those abilities to acquire new skills.

Remember Your Strengths

While it is sometimes easy to focus more attention on the things you’d like to change, it is also important to keep your strengths and abilities in mind.

Even if you are dealing with a problem that you’d like to help—whether you want to feel less anxious or feel closer to your partner—you have positive qualities, traits, talents, and abilities that you should value and appreciate. 

Talk to a Professional

Sometimes talking to a mental health professional can help you keep your self-help efforts in perspective. This is particularly important if you're working on using self-help to overcome some issues such as anxiety, depression, stress, or another mental health concern. 

In some cases, you might feel dissatisfied with your self-help efforts because you need some other type of treatment in addition to those strategies. Working with your therapist, you can then decide on a treatment plan that may incorporate psychotherapy, medication, and self-help techniques to relieve your symptoms.

If you are also experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition, talk to your doctor or mental health professional.

A Word From Verywell

The desire to become better is a strong intrinsic motivator that can help you seek out ways to grow as an individual. But it's also important to consider why you want to pursue these self-help goals. Remember that wanting to improve doesn't mean that there is something wrong with you now.

Self-help can be a great way to reach goals or overcome difficulties in your life. It can help you cope with stress, improve your relationships, reduce anxiety, as well as a number of other goals.

The key is to have a healthy outlook, be aware of what you can realistically achieve on your own, and be willing to reach out if you need additional help.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."