I feel like the self-help genre gets a bad rep, like people think it’s kitschy, kooky, goopy, woo-woo, corny, or navel-gazing. But what’s wrong with with wanting to improve, to work on your inner self and become a more realised person not only for yourself but everyone you know? Also, self help is cheaper than therapy. The best self help books might actually change your life.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month and as somewhat of a self-help book connoisseur, I’m sharing what I consider to the best self help books I’d recommend to anyone. These are my top 5 picks in no particular order.
1. The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.
The Body Keeps the Score is basically a bible for psychosomatic trauma-informed therapy through the lens of neuroscience. The premise is that the effects of trauma and PTSD (which everyone experiences on some level) are not limited to the brain, but actually effect our body’s cells, tissues, and nervous system. It is written in a very logical way, making it accessible for both left– and right- brain types.
The book introduces us to the limbic system (the part of the brain that processes emotion, memories, and arousal) and the sympathetic/parasympathetic nervous system that controls our “fight or flight” instinct. This system gets activated during a traumatic experience, and can be reactivated when we are “triggered” or reliving the moment. That’s why it’s so critical to incorporate the physical body into therapeutic treatment, alongside more traditional methods like CBT, talk therapy, etc. Van der Kolk encourages psychosomatic activities like breathing excercises, yoga, writing, and therapy to calm states of hyper or hypo arousal.
I will mention that some problematic allegations have surfaced surrounding Van der Kolk’s professional practice. Still, this book is too important to exclude from the list… for now.
2. Awakening Shakti by Sally Kempton
Awakening Shakti is all about goddess energy and tantra. It’s a worthwhile read regardless of your gender identity because everyone has both feminine and masculine energies.
This book focuses on 11 of the goddess archetypes. Kali is wild, Lakshmi is prosperous, Saraswati is creative, etc. The goddesses derive from yogic/Hindu culture but the book is secular.
Kempton uses worldly examples to illustrate abstract concepts, focusing on especially on climate change. The degradation of Mother Earth through industry and fracking is a metaphor for toxic masculinity, which is another way the imbalance of feminine energy shows up in the world.
Through illustrations, prompts and exercises, Kempton shows us what it looks like to embrace the divine feminine in our world and our personal life. In a patriarchal world where the feminine is misrepresented, I think everyone can benefit from getting a little more in touch with their feminine side.
3. Peace is Every Step by Thich Naht Hahn
"Lucidly and beautifully written, Peace is Every Step contains commentaries and meditations, personal anecdotes and stories from Nhat Hanh's experiences as a peace activist, teacher, and community leader." -Google Books
Thich Naht Hahn is a Vietnamese Buddhist Monk and Author who has the gift to convey complex concepts in simple ways. For instance, loving-kindness is a practice of tenderness and consideration toward others. This book kickstarted my mindfulness journey and got me interested in Eastern spirituality.
In a nutshell, the book provides wisdom for practicing mindfulness in everyday life. It’s full of simple exercises like taking three deep breaths, using all five senses while eating an orange, walking as if you are kissing the earth with your feet, etc.
Maybe the best part of this book is TNH’s advice for developing compassionate listening. He gives us a script for resolving conflict in relationships:
“From time to time, sit close to the one you love, hold their hand, and ask… ‘Darling, do I understand you enough? Please tell me so that I can learn to love you properly. I don’t want to make you suffer, and if I do so because of my ignorance, please tell me so that I can love you better, so that you can be happy.’”
I know you can’t see it, but I’m making that wide-eye emoji face with the two index fingers. I’m stealing this! Peace is Every Step is about everything from relationships to the prison industrial complex, politics, and globalization. At only 160 pages you should definitely give it a read if you’re looking for something short.
4. The Fantasy Bond: Structure of Psychological Defenses by Robert W. Firestone
The fantasy bond is a Jungian theory that posits children sublimate their emotional needs to those of their caretakers in order to gain their love, which they require to survive. Your dad might have shut you down when you cried, so you disowned the part of yourself that was sad. In order to say “my dad and I had a perfect relationship” (an example of a fantasy bond) you have to continue to disown that part that was considered “unacceptable.” While it was an adaptive coping mechanism as a child, it usually becomes problematic and causes issues in adult relationships. The fantasy bond exists in many iterations that Firestone explores further in the book. As a Clinical Psychologist, he teaches us how to get rid of our inner critic with cognitive-behavioral exercises.
5. The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller
Alice Miller’s Drama of the Gifted Child is, in one word, intense, and I wouldn’t pick it up unless you’re willing to do some serious inner child work. Fair warning, you might resent your parents after reading the this book, but that’s more of a temporary side effect than the goal… I think the goal is really to love yourself.
Ask almost anyone about their childhood and they will likely either respond “It was great!” or “I don’t remember.” Miller describes a “collective amnesia” we as a society have regarding our childhoods. In reality, even if we had a fine childhood, few of us reach adulthood completely unscathed.
Children – even those from well-off families – are often belittled, discounted, emotionally neglected, bullied, and humiliated. They learn to mask their true selves and perform false selves in order to gain the approval of adults, upon whom they literally depend to survive (see: The Fantasy Bond).
Ideally, parents would love their children unconditionally. Miller says that in reality, children are actually the ones who are unconditionally loving. They depend on securing and keeping their parents love, so they mold their behavior accordingly, growing toward the parent like a sunflower to the sun. If their parents haven’t done the work to address their own inner child, they’ll just project their issues onto their kids like their parents did with them, perpetuating cycles of generational trauma.
The scope of Miller’s work is ambitious. It examines family dynamics, cultural taboos, politics, religion, and history. And wait until you hear her theory on Hitler! Miller has written a ton on these subjects and more, so I highly recommend her other books.
So there you go, those are my favorite self-help books. Looking at this list, it’s apparent that I like to read about trauma-informed therapy, eastern philosophy, relationships, and inner child work. Everyone’s brain is different, and I’d encourage you to pursue what interests you. There are loads of books out there and you can learn just about anything. But don’t take my word for it! *lavar burton outro*
If you decide to buy one of these books, use the link in this article so I can get kickbacks from amazon’s referral program 🙂
Let us know what books you’d put in your top 5!