Books

Self-help books: how they became cool – and which ones to look out for in 2021

It’s official: self-help books are cool. From Elizabeth Day’s How To Fail to  Shonda Rhimes’ Year Of Yes and Glennon Doyle’s Untamed, a publishing insider explains why we’re so obsessed with self-books at the moment. 

There are many debates to be had over how Sex And The City has aged. One lesser-discussed storyline that a lot of us can relate to is when Charlotte York buys a self-help book. As she picks up Starting Over Yet Again by Dr. Jane Raab, she looks around to find other women crying on the floor in the self-help section. Embarrassed and ashamed, Charlotte leaves the shop and orders the book online. 

On the one hand, the scene doesn’t do any favours for women who need encouragement to seek help while going through a hard time. But it highlights the fact that there really has long been a stigma attached to self-help. Because, traditionally, self-help books have always suggested that something is “wrong” with us. Just take Bridget Jones as another example – a 30-something single woman who had a whole library of self-help books to help find a boyfriend (which she later switches for books that help justify her single status). 

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Millions of people around the world might have found comfort and advice in the pages of titles such as Chicken Soup For The Soul, The Power Of Positive Thinking and Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus over the years, but it’s never been something that they’ve spoken openly about. 

Last year, however, singer Adele did something that made the world see self-help books in a whole new light. 

The Grammy-winning singer, who had just been through a divorce, shared a photograph of Glennon Doyle’s Untamed – a “part memoir, part inspiration” book that asks readers to trust the voice inside. “If you’re ready – this book will shake your brain and make your soul scream,” Adele wrote. “I am so ready for myself after reading this book! It’s as if I just flew into my body for the very first time. Whew! Anyone who has any kind of capacity to truly let go and give into yourself with any kind of desire to hold on for dear life – Do it. Read it. Live it. Practice it. ”

Untamed debuted at number one on The New York Times nonfiction bestseller list, where it stayed for seven weeks. Self-help books were finally cool.

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Pippa Wright, publishing director at Orion, says there is a definite change in demand for self-help books, because we have become a much more literate culture when it comes to mental health and self-development.

“A lot of the stigma that was once attached to self-help is gone,” Pippa tells Stylist. “As a culture, we are beginning to recognise that our destructive or damaging behaviours aren’t necessarily personality flaws, or ‘just the way we are’, but that they may be responses to both individual traumas, and cultural ones such as structural racism or sexism. If we understand that we learned these behaviours, we can unlearn them.

“I think this change is driving a lot of the current boom in self-help. As a genre, it’s moved from ‘you’re broken, and I, an expert, will fix you’ to ‘your behaviour is a perfectly normal response, you’re not alone, and you can change this if you want to.’ That’s a much more empowering message for readers and, frankly, a less embarrassing one to be seen reading than something that suggests you have a problem.”

Self help books
Self-help books just got cool, thanks to Adele and Glennon Doyle.

When I asked the Stylist team if they’d read any self-help books recently, it quickly became clear how true Pippa’s words are. 

One colleague said she loved Year Of Yes by Shonda Rhimes, which Bridgerton star Nicola Coughlan is also apparently a big fan of. Another threw three tried-and-tested titles at me – Lori Gottlieb’s Maybe You Should Talk To Someone, Alain de Botton’s School Of Life and Clover Stroud’s The Wild Other. Two people raved about Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything by BJ Fogg. And Chrissie Tate’s Group: How One Therapist And A Circle Of Strangers Saved My Life also came highly recommended. 

Pippa says the most popular self-help books out there at the moment can be split into two categories: less intimidating and more approachable self-care books and “stealth” books. 

Explaining what “stealth” means, she gives the examples of Elizabeth Day’s How To Fail, Dolly Alderon’s Everything I Know About Love and Rosie Green’s upcoming How To Heal A Broken Heart, saying: “These are books which have the function of self-help (you feel better after reading and may make some actual changes in your life as a result), but which don’t position the author as the all-knowing expert, nor do they offer ‘8 foolproof tips for transformation’ or anything like that.

“They’re books that appeal to readers who shy away from anything that looks like traditional self-help, but are still looking for practical advice and encouragement on how to live better, happier lives.

She adds: “They’re clever, wise books that lead their readers to re-evaluate their lives for the better, and they do this not by positioning themselves as experts, but by saying ‘I’m just as flawed as you, and that’s okay, here’s some stuff I learned anyway.’”

So now that we know self-help books are officially cool, here are three big ones being published in 2021 that Charlotte York would be proud to pick up in Waterstones.

How To Do The Work: Recognise Your Patterns, Heal From Your Past, And Create Your Self, Dr. Nicole LePera

How To Do The Work by Dr Nicole LePera.
How To Do The Work by Dr Nicole LePera.

Dr Nicole LePera is the clinical psychologist behind The Holistic Psychologist Instagram account, which has over three million followers. 

Frustrated by the limitations of traditional psychotherapy, she wanted more for her patients – and for herself – so she began a journey to develop a united philosophy of mental, physical and spiritual health, and experienced the life-changing results herself. 

Her book How to Do the Work is already Orion’s most pre-ordered book of 2021. It is both a manifesto for self-healing and an essential guide to creating a more vibrant, authentic, and joyful life. 

Pre-order How To Do The Work: Recognise Your Patterns, Heal From Your Past, And Create Your Self by Dr. Nicole LePera at Bookshop.org, £15.79 (released 11 March)

Fears to Fierce: A Woman’s Guide To Owning Her Power, Brita Fernandez Schmidt

Fears to Fierce A Woman’s Guide to Owning Her Power
Fears to Fierce A Woman’s Guide to Owning Her Power by Brita Fernandez Schmidt.

Brita Fernandez Schmidt, the co-founder of Women For Women International, has spent 25 years championing women’s rights across the world, nurturing her own fierce and inspiring others to do the same. Through a combination of guidance, storytelling and practical tools, her rallying call in Fears To Fierce will inspire you to realise your purpose and potential, ignite your fierce and create the life you have been dreaming of.

Buy Fears to Fierce: A Woman’s Guide to Owning Her Power, Brita Fernandez Schmidt at Bookshop.org £13.94

Happiness Becomes You: A Guide To Changing Your Life For Good, Tina Turner

Happiness Becomes You: A Guide to Changing Your Life for Good
Happiness Becomes You: A Guide to Changing Your Life for Good by Tina Turner.

Behind Tina Turner’s global success, there is a difficult story of surviving abuse, losing her son to suicide, a cancer diagnosis and living with depression. 

In Happiness Becomes You: A Guide To Changing Your Life For Good, Turner shows how all of us can overcome life’s obstacles – even transform the ‘impossible’ to possible – and fulfill our dreams. She shows how we, too, can improve our lives, empowering us with spiritual tools and sage advice to enrich our unique paths.

She also reveals the deep wisdom that underpins her longstanding faith in Buddhism and provides a guide to these timeless principles so you can find happiness in your own life.

Buy Happiness Becomes You: A Guide to Changing Your Life for Good by Tina Turner at Bookshop.org, £15.79

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Images: Getty, various publishers