Sally Brown thought all DIY therapy was useless. Then she realised she had been looking in the wrong place

I came late to self-help books. While backpacking in my early 20s (the 90s, since you ask), when people told me I "had" to read M. Scott Peck's bestseller The Road Less Travelled because it would change my life, I would think, "Pass me a glass of sauvignon blanc."

A couple of years later, I went on holiday with a friend and her copy of Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. My interest was piqued, but I noticed she never seemed to get past habit number three. I continued to resist the genre even as I drifted into the target market by becoming a single woman in her 30s and feeling directionless. I was convinced self-help books couldn't help me, basing my judgment on the fact I'd never read one.

Then I discovered Women Who Think Too Much, by Dr Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, a professor of psychology at Yale University, the book that popularised the concept of "overthinking". It was a light-bulb moment. I realised mentally running daily "edited highlights" of my worst decisions wasn't "working things out". Instead, it was a toxic way of eroding my happiness and self-esteem.

Fast-forward to today and I'm a psychotherapist who has read hundreds of self-help books. Many are dull, badly written and downright silly. But, occasionally, one is a gem. The right self-help book can create a genuine shift in your thinking, much like a course of therapy, but at a fraction of the cost.


If you're not convinced, let me say: not all self-help books are written by perma-tanned gurus out to make millions. An increasing number of eminent academics now write for the popular market, such as Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor emeritus of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the scientist behind much of the research into the benefits of meditation. One of his books, Full Catastrophe Living, sat unread on my shelf for two years. This and another of his books, Wherever You Go, There You Are, are now my go-to reads.

Indeed, much of the genre is about changing the way you think and, as a therapist, I've seen proof that challenging habitual thought patterns can have a knock-on effect on a person's emotional state, which also influences behaviour and life choices. But sometimes, maybe, a good idea gets pushed too far. Take Rhonda Byrne, author of The Secret. She says if something is important to you, all you need to do is think about it really hard and it will happen. I kid you not, and she has sold 20 million copies.
Contrast this with a book that genuinely explains the value of changing the way you think, such as Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Dr Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University. It's essentially about thriving on failure, which doesn't sound uplifting, but it has created a lasting resilience in me.

I've come to view reading a good self-help book like a chat with a wise friend. I keep my favourites on my bookshelf, such as Caroline Arnold's Small Move, Big Change: Using Micro-Resolutions to Change Your Life Permanently, which helped me effortlessly lose five pounds last year.

Sometimes it's good to talk - but at other times self-help books can act as a guide, a stimulus, or just something to disagree with as you work things out for yourself. In the end, you are in charge, but you can always take advice.


1. The Happiness Track: How To Apply the Science of Happiness To Accelerate Your Success by Dr Emma Seppala (Piatkus, Jan). A must-read for anyone hooked on "busy".

2. Everything You Need, You Have: How To Be at Home in Yourself (Short Books, Jan) by A-list acupuncture expert-turned-guru Gerad Kite.

3. Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges by Amy Cuddy (Orion, Jan). The Harvard professor who brought us the "power pose" on how to use body language to win friends and influence people.

4. The Book of You: Daily Micro-Actions for a Happier, Healthier You by Nora Rosendahl, Nelli Lahteenmaki and Aleksi Hoffman (Penguin, Jan). Health nudges from the people behind the successful You app.

5. How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain by Dr Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman (Hayhouse, March). A scientist explains why we're hard-wired to need spirituality.

6. Smarter, Faster, Better by Charles Duhigg (Heinemann, March). Pulitzer prize-winning journalist explores the real secrets of productivity.