Researchers say you might as well be your own therapist,” the website Quartz proclaimed recently, in light of a new study that found a vanishingly small difference between seeing a cognitive behavioural therapist and just doing various self-help exercises on your own. Naturally, this sort of thing is liable to make therapists angry. (The correct response is to nod compassionately and ask: “Now, why do you think that makes you so angry?”) As Mark Brown noted in this paper, we should be wary of any finding that seems to suggest governments could save money by telling people to sort themselves out. But the self-help route has another limitation worth bearing in mind: what makes you so confident you even know what your problems really are?
Typically, self-help works like this: you’re troubled by some issue – procrastination, commitment-phobia, depression – so you seek a book to fix it, just as you’d seek a spanner or screwdriver if the legs on your kitchen table started wobbling. But minds aren’t like wobbly tables. There’s no reason to assume – actually, there’s much reason to doubt – that we’re in touch with our deepest anxieties and hang-ups. Rather than productivity techniques, maybe you need to face the fact that your job provides no meaning. Maybe accusing yourself of “commitment-phobia” is how you rationalise the subconscious awareness that your partner doesn’t love you. Maybe your depression is best understood not as the result of “automatic thoughts”, but as a sign that you’re living life to serve your parents’ agenda, instead of your own.