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13 embarrassing self-help books that actually worked for us

As a diehard literary snob who once had to shut a book club down because it got too popular, this doesn’t come easily to me: I like the occasional self-help book.

This is a list of the books that aren’t showcased on my bookshelf. I haven’t read them in coffee shops. If you’re like me, you would probably rip the covers off them, download them to your Kindle, buy them on Audible long before devouring.

There’s a good reason for that: most self-help books are as awful as their horrendously designed covers imply. But in the saturated world of self-improvement, self-confidence, all the “selfs”, there are plenty of self-help books that will change the way you think, see, do, and act. These are a few of our favorites — and of course, if you’ve got any recommendations hit us up.

1. YOU ARE A BADASS By Jen Sincero

Let’s just start with the most obvious option, the self-help book du jour: You Are a Badass by Jen Sincero. When our CEO, Lauren and I were flying to a work event, and I needed something to read at the airport, she put it this way, “It looks like it would be terrible, but actually, I think you’ll really like it.” And I did, I really did.

Essentially, it’s a modern take (read: full of snarky commentary and swear words) on the whole “if you believe it, it will happen” juju thing. Bonus: Sincero includes a list of all her favorite self-help books in the back, which are definitely worth looking into.

2. FEELING GOOD: THE NEW MOOD THERAPY By David D. Burns

My therapist specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and often hands me Xeroxed copies of pages or exercises to work on between sessions. Because I’m a bit of an overachiever, I sometimes look the books up on Amazon and buy them outright. Feeling Good is one of those books. That glaring yellow cover makes you think you’re about to open something absurd, but actually, it’s written by one of the forefathers of CBT.

For those of you that aren’t familiar, here’s my (very) unprofessional explanation: the idea is that you see the world through a lens of your own making and, by adjusting that lens, you can improve how you feel. Basically, you can’t control what other people do, but you can control how you react to it. It’s interesting and also effective — hence why many therapists out there specialize in CBT.

3. LOVING WHAT IS By Byron Katie

I read this book years ago but just recently revisited it. When I checked into a hip hotel in Berlin earlier this summer, every room had a complimentary copy. … And when on that same trip my boyfriend and I broke up, skimming it again brought some much-needed relief. Katie’s method involves journaling your negative thoughts or beliefs — anything from “my ex is awful for breaking up with me in Berlin” (ahem) to “my father was a horrible parent” to “As a black woman, I hate white people because they’re scary” (two-thirds of the book is comprised of real examples) — and then asking yourself four questions to challenge those beliefs or assumptions.

Some people argue this is Katie’s method is just an informal version of CBT, which I get having read Feeling Good as well.

4. THE CREATIVE HABIT By Twyla Tharp

Arguably, this isn’t an embarrassing self-help book at all. Twyla Tharp is a famous choreographer and a total badass whose book is perfectly acceptable on your coffee table. The Creative Habit is smart, beautifully designed, and unique. So just read it. (I’m obsessed with this thing she does with collecting “inspiration” like magazine pages and cassette tapes in physical boxes to revisit them later.)

5. THE SEAT OF THE SOUL By Gary Zukov

Confession: I have not read this yet. It’s on this list because the friend I stayed within Berlin after my breakup (“We know, we know.”) told me that reading The Seat of the Soul convinced her to end a three-year relationship with her boyfriend who wouldn’t commit and move to Germany on her own without a real plan. She’s happy, thriving, and one of the most stable women I know, so … yeah, I’m reading this next.

6. WABI SABI FOR ARTISTS, DESIGNERS, POETS & PHILOSOPHERS By Leonard Koren

As noted in the book’s title, this is a read that’s resolutely directed at creatives. That said, it’s a breath of fresh air for anyone who’s interested in design thinking (i.e. focusing on how to solve problems by redesigning the processes), which should be pretty much anyone. I can’t remember now which company makes this required reading for all its new employees (Twitter? Instagram? Zappos?), but that’s the context in which I first heard about it. It makes sense given that Koren explains the philosophy like this: “Pare down to the essence, but don’t remove the poetry. Keep things clean and unencumbered, but don’t sterilize.”

7. THE ARTIST WAY By Julia Cameron

Stuck in a creative rut? This book is renowned for a reason. Julia Cameron is/was a writer, director, playwright, etc. who (after she quit drinking) started teaching other people how to conquer creative blocks, which ultimately turned into a book. Most people have a love-hate relationship with The Artist’s Way — indeed, if you Google it, you’ll find countless articles about why it drives people crazy — but it’s also brilliant in its simplicity and focuses on action.

According to the New Yorker, it’s “a book that can be classified as self-help but is more like common sense … a program designed to help readers reject the devils of self-doubt on their shoulders and pursue creative activity not as a profession but as a form of therapy.” The action part involves writing “morning pages” AKA free-form journaling every day. There’s also the “artist’s date” which involves taking yourself to one cultural place per week. Straightforward, right?

8. INTUITIVE EATING By Evelyn Tribole and Elise Resch

This is a book I often re-read when I’m feeling self-conscious about my body or how I’ve been treating it. And honestly, even if she’s a diehard feminist committed to body acceptance, what woman doesn’t have those days? We’re imperfect. Intuitive eating is about tuning into your own hunger and needs and finally letting go of the diet mindsets most of us have. It’s interesting, though. Once you grasp the concept, you start thinking about how you can focus on mindfulness and making intuitive decisions in other aspects of your life including relationships and work. Hence why it made this list.

9. HOLD ME TIGHT: SEVEN CONVERSATIONS FOR A LIFETIME OF LOVE By Dr. Sue Johnson

I came to this book after Googling relationship fight loops because my ex-boyfriend and I always seemed to be in them. The search returned a hit for an article in The Cut that seemed to be about us (but was actually about the writer and her husband).

There are several interesting concepts in Dr. Johnson’s approach, which she’s termed emotionally-focused couples therapy. One of them is that in a society that primes us to believe we shouldn’t need anyone as adults, it’s precisely that lack of vulnerability that’s destroying our relationships. There’s also this thing called “demon dialogues” — including fight loops — which are the patterns we fall into when we’re fighting with someone we love. Johnson argues that if we can recognize them as they’re happening, a miraculous thing happens: the behavior becomes the enemy, not your partner. Did it save my relationship? No, but now I realize nothing could have. That said, those loops we had became much more infrequent.

10. 10% HAPPIER By Dan Harris

I came late to the Dan Harris craze by way of this documentary called Minimalism, which frankly, I thought was awful. Still, I liked some of the premise, and when the cameras panned to Harris, I perked right up. A self-medicating spiral, a panic attack on national news—this is one of those personal narratives that screams “If he’s figured this out, maybe I can, too.” That’s about when Harris found meditation. This book takes the heaviness out of meditating, which makes it feel much more accessible than I ever considered it could be.

11. ZEN MIND, BEGINNER’S MIND By Shunru Suzuki

When I left my first full-time job at a music ticketing startup, one of the most zen (couldn’t help myself) people I’ve ever met handed me a copy of this. He’d somehow sensed how stressed out I was at work — hence why I’d applied to and found a new job — and he recommended giving this a try. I was like “Yeah, okay, Joe, thanks a lot.” But I did read it, and he was right, it helps. Thus, it became my first ever experience with an “embarrassing self-help book that actually works.”

12. YOU’LL SEE IT WHEN YOU BELIEVE IT By Wayne Dyer

This is our editorial assistant, Jacqueline’s dad’s favorite self-help book. And if you met Jacqueline or heard stories about her dad and the kinds of zen AF things he texts her every day (this morning’s was “I’m honored to be your dad and to be loved by you”), you’d want to read it, too.

13. YOU CAN HEAL YOUR LIFE By Louise Hay

This is another one of those “change your life via positive thinking” self-help books, which can definitely start to feel cliché. Except here’s the thing: it was one of the very first. She’s also the originator of all these affirmations such as “life loves you” and “only good can come to me.” So here’s what I’d say: read as much of it as you can before the metaphysical bits start to drive you nuts, take the parts you like, leave the ones you don’t. But coming from someone who hated the idea of affirmations: you’ll be shocked to realize how much they actually work.

This article first appeared on Career Contessa.

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