Self-Help for Christians: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

Well, we made it! We got home from our Epic Road Trip early Friday morning and have spent most of the weekend recovering from two weeks of driving, visiting, playing, and being Away from Home. The laundry is finally done, but the kids’ bedtime is a mess and I keep waking up with terrible dreams in which I’ve accidentally left one of them in some other state (usually, oddly, North Carolina).

It’s possible that I have Epic Road Trip PTSD.

Anyway, I’ll be sharing about all that as I have time to think through what I learned from our whirlwind adventure. In the meantime, I’m happy to have one of my kind readers, Jane Halton here today, sharing some thoughts about the self help industry from the perspective of a life coach. Please welcome her here today!

woman reading

How are Christians to respond to the (primarily secular) self-help movement?  What’s to love about it? What’s to hate? And why does it even matter?

These questions began to flood my mind as I was going to life/career coaching school.  In fact, at that point I had never read anything from the “self-help” shelf. But after I was inundated with book recommendations, inspirational picture quotes, new theories and conferences, not only was my head going to explode, I kept coming back to the same question: what does this have to do with faith in Christ?  I had to spend some time reflecting on how I should respond to the industry I now found myself in, especially because the majority of my clients are Christians.

Here is a look at “the good, the bad & the ugly” about Christians and the self-help movement. The Good being what Christians can take away from the self-help industry. The Bad refers to what we should be cautious of but can still learn from. The Ugly is what we should avoid completely.

The Good

There is much to be appreciated about and learned from within the self-help movement if we have the correct lens with which to view it.  When I asked my Story Session Sisters what they thought about the topic, one of my favourite responses came from Suzanne Terry:

“I think the lines between the sacred and the secular, if they exist at all, are much blurrier than most of us are comfortable admitting.”

Can’t we take the term “spiritual,” which is often used more vaguely than we are comfortable with, and apply it to our own beliefs?

Surely it means different things to different people. Christians are often wary of things that are not “explicitly Christian” because it infers the things must not be “God’s truth.”

But things don’t need to be marked with a cross or bear the name of Christ to be relevant in our lives. For example, it’s easy for us to find spiritual truths in TV shows, movies or books that aren’t explicitly Christian. (Hello, how many Downton Abbey posts have you read like this?) Yet when someone has offered something to “help” us, we turn our backs and refuse to listen.

For example, take the concept of “mindfulness,” which was adopted from Buddhism but is now taught independent of religion. Many Christians would run from an idea like this because people are leery of getting help from other religions or from concepts not explicitly found in the Bible.

Yet the core of mindfulness is being present to what is going on in a moment-to-moment basis.  That’s it. Imagine if your young child wakes you up way too early. You are tired, frustrated and your first reaction is to put those frustrations right back on your child.  Practicing mindfulness can help you clarify and focus on what is happening in the exact moment. Your young child is crying because she had a terrible nightmare. She’s not waking you up just to bother you.  How does this change your response?  It helps put things in perspective and show empathy toward your frightened child through a concept popularized by the self-help movement.

The Bad:

The bad isn’t really that bad. It just has potential to be bad. Kind of like french fries: keep them in moderation. So what exactly do we need to do to keep in moderation within the self-help movement? Just about everything.  (What? I thought you just told us most of it was good!)

I know, but the bad part of self-help is when we rely only on the help of others whom we don’t know and who don’t share our faith. Variety is the spice of life, folks.  We have established that God is big enough, wise enough, and strong enough to deal with the fact you really want to read Brené Brown or Danielle LaPorte right now, and in fact, I’m sure God will just meet you in the pages.

But what I’m not so sure about is what happens if you deprive yourself of getting “help” from real people that know and love you because you are immersed in a book or new movement. We can begin to rely solely on “that famous author” or “that deep spiritual connection with a theory” and we lose site of the fact that there are people in our lives who actually want to help us.

If the heart of the gospel is relationship (which I will quickly argue that it is) then we must strive for self-improvement in the midst of relationships.

So gather some friends, start a Daring Greatly book club and read it together.  Dare I even say, hire a coach, because we only work in the midst of a relationship we have created for the purpose of your movement/shift/change.

The Ugly:

The ugly side of self-help rears its head when mentally unwell people in need of a trained therapist and/or medication attempt to help themselves through methods often suggested by the self-help industry.

It’s very dangerous when a clinically depressed person is told to “work on positive thinking” or “eat better” in order to heal from their depression. Of course being positive and eating well can help people feel better, but it is not a safe response for everyone.

It sounds a bit similar to the unhealthy response sometimes given within the church.  People are told to “give it to God” or “pray more.” (Oh, my blood is boiling as I type this!)  Things become ugly when people with diagnosed (or undiagnosed) psychological issues are getting help from people who are trained to only work with very healthy people looking to “improve” their lives. There is a big difference here and it must always be considered.

What is your experience with the self-help industry? Any recommendations or warnings?


jane haltonJane Halton lives in Vancouver, BC with her husband and two young sons. She has her own coaching business working mainly with Christian woman to help them do things like blow up their evangelical baggage, reconcile faith struggles and super practical things like career transitions.

Her favourite description of her coaching: pastoral care meets your to-do list. Other favourite things are witty humorists and real Mexican food (for which she is convinced there is none in all of Vancouver).

9 thoughts on “Self-Help for Christians: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

  1. Jane, the “good” part of your post reminds me of an old Christian therapist who once said to me, “Truth is truth. It doesn’t always come with a label.” Well said. And boy, do I need that reminder to connect with flesh and blood about areas where I need help. Great post. Thank you.

  2. “Pray more”. That advice has led to so much tragedy. Not only does it discourage faithful people from getting the help they need, it also leads to shame and despair when the distress doesn’t miraculously go away.

    The thing is that our prayers have been answered. God gives us the mental health profession. It is not a faithless act to engage a therapist; to the contrary, it’s a courageous act of compassion for oneself and the people in our lives. If we don’t avail ourselves of the resources for healing, if we are depleted from the constant coping required just to get through the day, we have diminished our capacity to love God and neighbor.

  3. It’s very dangerous when a clinically depressed person is told to “work on positive thinking” or “eat better” in order to heal from their depression.
    ^^ yes. Totally.
    And I also agree with your ‘good’ section. I did a post-grad qualification in Gestalt counselling, and a lot of the practice is influenced by Buddhist thought. But I found it was easy to integrate it with the Bible, because all truth is God’s truth. It just requires a bit of thinking…

    (That’s not put very clearly but I hope you get the gist!)

  4. “The ugly side of self-help rears its head when mentally unwell people in need of a trained therapist and/or medication attempt to help themselves through methods often suggested by the self-help industry.” YES

    Great analysis, Jane!

  5. I love this :: It’s very dangerous when a clinically depressed person is told to “work on positive thinking” or “eat better” in order to heal from their depression.

    ^^ that right there is such a frustrating reality and I’m not sure when that became acceptable in any sense of the word. This is a wonderful analysis! love you, story sister!

  6. Love this! It’s one of those questions I’ve never really articulated but that has always sort of floated around in the back of my mind. You helped to not only articulate it, but to make quite a bit of sense out of it.

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