When Self-Help Books Go Horribly Wrong

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.
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January 13, 2016

Head in Hands

Me, as I read this book. But with a shirt on.

In conjunction with the tiny daily habits e-course I’m taking, I thought it would be worthwhile to do some reading on the subject. And since it was around New Year’s, the book store had a large display of self-help books on display. One of them was Gretchen Rubin’s Better Than Before and it looked like it would be decent and it had a blurb from Brené Brown on the cover–I enjoy Brown’s work, and I admit that was a big factor in my decision to buy.

I should have done more due diligence because, oof, this book.

This is a book based on anecdotes and the overall tone is one of smugness and self-absorption. Rubin makes up a bunch of arbitrary categories and then makes it clear that she believes the category she put herself into is the most desirable–she does, near the end of the book, acknowledge that she is extreme in her habits and is an outlier, but throughout the book, she centers herself, her experiences, and her way of seeing the world.

I came away from this book thinking that Rubin is both manipulative and elitist and not someone I would want to spend time with. I am not sure that was her intention. I certainly hope it wasn’t.

There are some good suggestions in the book, don’t get me wrong: knowing what’s important to you and your tendencies is important in building habits. Also that if you can figure out a way to measure or monitor something, you can get a better handle on it (no, shit, really?). But these are kind of obvious and I’m not sure why I paid $16 for Gretchen Rubin to tell me something so obvious and that I already knew.

This really was a book about the process of writing the book and is more about the author than anything else–and while that approach can work for some subjects, I feel that it was a bad fit for this one.

Rubin lives in New York (so has access to a lot of conveniences), is self-employed and works from home, and it seems her her children are past the point where they need a lot of hands on care–so she has a lot of free time to navel-gaze and meddle. She doesn’t seem to worry about paying her bills or where her next meal is coming from, so she’s able to concentrate on meddling in the lives of her family and friends. She’s also coming at this from a very white and Western perspective and doesn’t seem to realize that different cultures or life experiences may shape people’s tendencies and expectations in different ways.

I found the most frustrating and upsetting things in this book to be her intolerance of people who struggle with chronic diseases and who are overweight. She admits to being a “zealot” (her word, not mine) about exercise and her low-carb diet and belongs to at least two separate gyms as well as a yoga studio. And this is all fine–I don’t have a problem with people being really into exercise or eating in a particular way, but I do have a problem with people who believe this makes them virtuous.

Guess what? Food intake and physical movement are not actually indicators of a person’s worth as a human being!

Nearly every chapter has anecdotes about people making decisions about food and exercise that Rubin clearly doesn’t agree with–and she makes her disapproval extremely clear and perhaps it’s just that I’m not used to being hit in the face with such obvious fatphobia in my day to day life, but it was tiresome in the extreme.

And then there’s the treadmill desk. My notes have, scribbled at the top, “Shut up about the fucking treadmill desk already!” (except in all caps because that is how I roll). She buys her sister a treadmill desk–one of the chapters is entitled “Sitting is the New Smoking”, I shit you not–and boy oh boy, does that desk ever help her sister get her diabetes under control! She did, at least, ask her sister if she could buy her the desk. I’ll note that treadmill desks–ones which are purpose built as such–are not cheap. At any rate, I feel like the B plot in this book was “Gretchen helps her sister get her diabetes under control, isn’t she great?” and it was utterly infuriating to read, over and over again.

So, yeah. If you find that sort of thing upsetting, don’t read this book.

Actually, I can’t really recommend that anyone read this book. Unless you enjoy being annoyed and angry, in which case it may be just your sort of thing.

And can anyone recommend a book about habits that won’t make me want to throw things? Or are they all like this?

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7 Comments

  1. Megan Kerr

    Try the BPS Research Digest and search their articles for stuff on habits and will power. Actual evidence-based info!

  2. Sunita

    I enjoyed Charles Duhigg’s THE POWER OF HABIT, the first 35-40 percent in particular. He’s a good writer and reporter and he cites scholars and research that are credible to me. The book is much less successful when it moves from the individual to the societal level in the second half, but the first half is worth taking a look at.

  3. Selki

    I remember thinking Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People was pretty decent in parts, but that was years ago and the suck fairy may have visited it. I thought he wrote a later book about negotiation that was even better, but I don’t see the title on his Wikipedia page.

  4. Lindsey parry

    You’ve actually made me curious enough to want to read this book now, but on principle, I’m not going to ?.
    Loving your tiny potato image by the way ❤️

  5. G. Jules

    I don’t have any good books to suggest, but I can tell you that I found one of her earlier books similarly annoying in a lot of the same ways. (I think it was The Happiness Project but it might have been Happiness At Home.) It was just so relentlessly self-focused. I think I made it halfway through before I said “Do I want to be like her? No. No I do not.” and donated it.

  6. Dana

    Not a book but a new article on this topic in The Washington Post.

    Maybe it will have some useful ideas for you?

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