The Dark Side of Self-Help

Personal development doesn't need to be a solo endeavour.


When I went to a new high school and wanted to fit in, I started consuming as much self-help content as possible. With every new book and podcast, I became more confident, more outspoken and generally more knowledgeable. 

As an adult, I enjoy listening to someone else’s advice for following your passion while I buy groceries. Self-help books have continued to be comforting, but at times also debilitating to my mental health. I didn’t realize until the pandemic just how much self-help content was affecting me.

Prioritizing personal development over all else meant skipping time with friends and family, or missing crucial self-care, all in order to be my most productive aka my “happiest” self. Friends stopped calling and, when the seasonal depression hit, I couldn’t leave my bed. I couldn’t think of one person to reach out to, not because they weren’t there, but because I had not been. The self-focused, productivity-obsessed mindset did not fill that gap. 

Caught up in the world of self-help, I forgot that I can’t always do it alone. And shouldn’t. 

Me, myself and I

A lot of the YouTube videos focused on self-help show people living alone with little focus on community or family. We can lose sight of external supports this way and feel even more disconnected. 

Disconnecting from the bigger picture can add to the isolation and we may forget the role we play in everyone’s lives. Sure it is easier to control things when it is just you, but then it ends up being just you. 

Taking time off from socializing and playing different roles can be great for our mental health, but if your brother is sharing his bad day and all you are thinking of is the next thing on your to-do list, you may miss an important moment. 

Just “Bob the Builder” it 

When I was focused on making the most of each day, a bad day would feel like a personal failure. If not productive, the day was worth nothing. Out I’d go with my toolbox, fixing everything. 

But isn’t self-help supposed to help?

There is a slippery slope from self-improvement to constant dissatisfaction. Pursuing one positive experience after another is a rollercoaster that never stops.

This can also bleed into our relationships. We may try to fix everyone around us based on what we perceive is wrong with them.

Why doesn’t everyone just listen to this podcast and fix their habits like I did?

Your mom may look forward to having chai with you every day, your friend needs an empathetic ear and people who read your blog might enjoy it a lot. They may not need a solution, just some company. 


It is so easy to listen to self-help books again and again. I love Atomic Habits by James Clear and it makes me believe in myself when I hear the audiobook. The fact that there are rows and rows of new self-help books every year is concerning. Why are there so many? Because reading is so much fun, and if you want more stimulation, someone will provide it. Personally, I forget to apply concepts I read after a while. This means I spend money and time, consuming information that does not actually benefit me.

When you fail to “Get Richer in 30 Days,” there is a book about how to build your self-esteem—and that is not an accident.

Improving for improvement’s sake can distract us from our real goals. 

The Porta-TED Talk 

It took me a while to get this, but springing our newest obsession on a friend is not the best thing. It is embarrassing to admit but I enjoyed sharing my morning routine with everyone and it felt good to talk about something other than school stress. 

Self-help has the undercurrent of an exclusive club and a sense of superiority that is projected when we keep talking about how amazing/busy/ focused we are. Especially if someone asks for advice. Not everyone wants to accompany me on that journey and that is okay. 

Instead, offering to partake in activities that are not performance-related bought me happiness. Let your friend defeat you at chess or win a game of Catan and make some enemies. 

Seeing yourself do better is amazing. But self-improvement is not the destination. Meaningful experience is.

How to avoid the vortex

Redefining what “happiness” means for us is a revolutionary act, while we are bombarded with messages telling us what it should mean. Accepting negative experiences and setting realistic boundaries can do wonders for our day. An example of this is reserving time every week for self-care and committing to some time with loved ones with the same discipline.

Changing our metrics for success can help. For example, productivity can be your metric for success during finals season, and quality time with friends on days off. Self-care can be the metric on sick days. I’m learning to embrace bad days and not trying to make everything perfect all the time. Including myself. 

A sunset happens every day and we never think if only there was more purple in the sky, it would be perfect. We appreciate it as it is, and the sunset does not care. You are the sunset. Come as you are and stay as you will.


About Khadija

Khadija is a third-year Economics and Psychology major in the Faculty of Arts. She can be found naming her new plants or propagating others from produce. She will grow pretty much anything the Canadian weather allows for. Khadija enjoys hiking, finding waterfalls and lakes to dip in specifically. Her main adulthood goal is to start a blog for her dog. Once she has the dog.