I consider self-help to be intentional coping. It is handling your own troublesome situations by exercising deliberate conscious control to improve the outcome of the situation. It is recognizing your own personal weaknesses and working to overcome those faults and improve yourself. It sometimes involves changing others or the environment to improve your own circumstances or feelings, but self-help primarily focuses on changing your own behavior, feelings, skills, cognition (thoughts), or unconscious processes. Self-help is the conscious reasoning part of your "self" changing other aspects of your internal self, your actions, and your situation. It is self-improvement by yourself.
The self-change notion may seem a little foreign to you because our culture attends far more to changing other people--making children behave, teaching others, motivating employees, fighting crime and drugs, selling ourselves or products to others, pleasing our lover, getting people to vote our way, etc.--than to changing ourselves. "Making things better" often means trying to change someone else. Even my discipline of psychology spends far more time on studying methods for changing or treating others than on methods for self-improvement. The old concepts of self-control, self-responsibility, and self-reliance haven't been in vogue during the last few decades.
On the other hand, if the idea of self-help seems like common-sense to you, then you may be particularly aware that our minds are almost constantly attempting to solve some current or approaching problem. Indeed, most of us are self-helping all the time, i.e. every time you plan your actions by imagining in advance how to possibly handle a situation. Even if it takes only seconds during a conversation to think of what to say, that is self-helping. Our brain's great ability to quickly imagine different ways of approaching a difficult situation sets us apart from other animals. We are constantly asking ourselves "what should I say or do now?" which usually involves thinking of alternative approaches as well as guessing what the outcome of each alternative might be. As a person becomes keenly aware of these constant and complex coping processes, he/she recognizes a myriad of opportunities for intervening to make things better. This book should, above all else, enhance your understanding of these internal mental events involved in coping moment by moment throughout life. This is the essence of self-help.
I suspect that many of us overlook most of the opportunities we have to influence our lives (we couldn't possibly act on all of them). We may feel rather powerless or we feel controlled by outside forces--others, circumstances, fate, or a higher power. Many others don't know or don't believe there are methods for directing our lives. Perhaps, for the species as a whole, our natural (untrained) but uncanny ability to problem-solve leads us to the false conclusion that there is no way or no need to improve our coping skills. How sad. Like the person who wants to effortlessly be a great conversationalist or the student who hopes to impress others by doing well on an exam "without studying," we humans may feel just a little inadequate if we have to study and work to self-improve. The truth is: effective living requires hard work, whether it is staying trim and fit or acquiring expertise in our profession or maintaining a loving relationship.
An effective mind sets our course. Like the tail of a plane, it guides, with small movements, the power of all the rest of our body and spirit.
What is not self-help?
It may clarify the concept of "self-help" if we consider what self-help is not. Examples: it is not habitually, automatically, or impulsively responding to a situation, even if the response is very effective. It is not stumbling into a solution by chance or luck. It is not being oblivious to ways our situation or adjustment could be improved even if, in our ignorance, we are quite content with the way things are. It is not going along with or being "pushed" by our emotions in unwise directions. It is not getting relief by avoiding a bad situation if a better solution could be found. It is not assuming that we are doing our best if our coping skills could be improved. It is not living without purpose if meaning can be found for our life. It is not expecting to fail or feeling helpless (assuming success is possible). It is not blithely overlooking the genes, physiological factors, cultural influences, traditions, perceptual biases, unconscious payoffs and forces, and other factors that influence our lives in unhealthy ways, if there are ways to become aware of and counter the undesirable aspects of those factors. It is not joining a group, going to therapy, talking to a friend, or reading a book in the hopes of finding someone who will save you.
On the other hand, a person may join a support or 12-step group as a way of getting ideas and encouragement to manage his/her own life better; that is still self-helping. Similarly, reading a book, watching a talk show, talking with a friend or a counselor can also be used by us to help us help ourselves. While self-helping, even in a group or reading a self-help book, we continue to assume the full responsibility for changing our lives. (Sometimes, of course, our psychological condition may deteriorate to the point we can't cope, then we must let someone else take over for a while.)
As I state repeatedly, self-help is not just dealing with life's crises (although that's the current emphasis); it should enable us to prevent problems and find nobler purposes, to be more loving and giving, and to achieve greater successes than would have otherwise been the case. Obviously, a highly competent self-helper is aware of many of his/her real or potential problems and weaknesses and is able to quickly formulate a plan to improve the situation. An ineffective self-helper can't or doesn't do these things.
Psychology's ambivalence about self-control
Humans want to control their lives and they fear a loss of control. Yet, there is no strong belief that science offers much help with self-control. As I mentioned, even the discipline of psychology left self-control, will or volition, and cognitive control in the hands of philosophers until the 1960's. Moreover, some experimental theorists suggest that conscious thought or "will" has almost nothing to do with our behavior (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999; Wegner & Wheatley, 1999). It is true that much of human living is done automatically without being guided by conscious thought. There is too much happening--perception, behavior, emotions, memory, physiological processes--for conscious decision-making and planning to handle it all moment by moment. Automatic mechanisms have taken over. But when things go wrong and/or we want to make changes, we sometimes have the option of using our brain's limited conscious resources to plan new solutions.
Recently, Shapiro (1997) with two colleagues (Shapiro, Schwartz and Astin, 1996) has summarized the theory and research about self-control during the last 40 years. I'll summarize their summary. The impressive and growing research showing that self-control (or the lack of it) is important to our mental and physical health has awakened research psychologists to the importance of self-change and volition. Self-help attitudes and skills are becoming major factors in the treatment of physical, mental, emotional and interpersonal problems.
Normal healthy people tend to over-estimate their control and under-estimate their vulnerabilities. That makes us feel better. If we feel able to deal with an illness, it helps (we do more to help and our immune system actually works better). Feeling helpless decreases our treatment efforts and increases our anxiety and depression. Believing you are powerless when you aren't is, of course, a problem. Likewise, too much belief in one's control or an excessive need for control can make things worse, healthwise and socially. If you assume you have more control than you really have, you may also blame yourself inappropriately for bad outcomes.
Shapiro (1997) shows us that the concept of self-control is complex. It includes your need to control, the confidence you have in your control, as well as the actual control you have. This can be in broad areas of life or in very specific areas, such as "getting this job done on time" and "controlling my anger with this person." As the Serenity Prayer tells us, control may mean coping with a situation by yielding, patiently accepting, or accomodating the situation as well as coping by assertively doing something to change things. Does control include denial, such as the alcoholic saying "I can stop drinking any time," which controls anxiety but worsens the addiction? Well, it's not conscious control. Does control also include getting others, including family, gang, government, and God, to make things better for you? Maybe. Finally, there is a lot we don't know about teaching self-control: do different genders, ages, levels of ambition, personalities, etc. need different control skills and types of instruction? Also, if society helps people get more self-control and perhaps more influence over others, do we also need to be concerned about their values, i.e. how they use their power? Shapiro's book, this one, and others will answer many questions about self-control but there is much still to be explored in this neglected area of knowledge.