Five Things You Should Know Before Starting a Self-Help Program

I’ll admit, I was nervous. As I stepped into the event space in New York City’s Lower East Side I didn’t really know what to expect. What I discovered was an open room with white painted walls and exposed brick, a table full of treats (“all paleo,” a publicist informed me) and an upbeat blonde woman warmly introducing herself to the dozen or so other writers and editors gathered.

About a half hour after I arrived and accepted my front row seat with trepidation, Bizzie Gold — the woman who’s been dubbed the millennial voice of personal development — strode in front of a projection screen in platform stilettos she noted were a bit aggressive for a 90-minute talk and clicked to one of the first slides. An Albert Einstein quote read, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” With that, my first-ever self-help session began.

To be clear, as a talk for members of the media, this was less learning how to deal with your personal problems, more learning about BREAK Method — her creation that she calls her school of sustainable self-mastery. And despite my natural inclination to cringe when people talk about finding inner peace, the program — which involves discovering traumas large and small from adolescence and unwinding how they affect the way you deal with life as an adult — left me intrigued.

Of course with most self-help resources, whether it’s a book, an online course, a podcast or in-person seminar, you don’t have the same opportunity to sort of try before you buy. So for those looking to avoid buyer’s remorse, I asked the pros what to look out for in any potential self-help program — and how to best prepare yourself for a journey of self-discovery.

self-help program

1. Look out for red flags.

One major cause for concern with any resource: a prohibitively high price tag.

“If you’re genuinely in it for the right reasons, you’re not going to charge $10,000, $20,000 a pop just because you can,” notes Gold, who suggests also looking for a program that provides outreach and scholarship opportunities for lower-income communities. And any solid service shouldn’t require you to return time and time again for costly tune-ups, she adds, “They should arm you with the tools you need to continue this work on for yourself, otherwise it’s not sustainable.”

2. Do your research.

With most people seeking out self-help resources online, clinical psychologist David Susman suggests also spending some time scouring the Internet to look into their legitimacy. While it’s a good sign, says Susman, an assistant professor in psychology at the University of Kentucky, if a resource is connected to a university or medical center — “Because typically you have faculty or students that are using more research based tools” — that’s not the only test.

You can poke around for reviews, see if other professionals have endorsed the approach, consult a tool such as Self Help That Works, a book that provides professional ratings or simply inquire with a representative from the program about their research. “Some will have very well-established evidence,” says Susman, “and some may struggle. But you would hope, at least, they could point you to some background or tell you they draw from this approach.”

3. Pledge to keep an open mind.

Not matter the resource you choose, “You’ve got to give it a little bit of time,” insists Susman. In some situations, he notes, “You have to form new habits or try new behaviors or alter your routine. So you’re going to need to go through the whole process before you can really see if it’s of any benefit.”

You have to put in the work as well. Before launching into anything, “You should know your level of willingness to fully commit,” says Gold. “Because you are only going to get out of it what you’re willing to put into it.” Time and time again, she says, she’s seen the person that’s tried every self-help approach possible to no avail: “They’re always blaming the program for not working when their pattern is to never show up to anything all the way and fully commit.”

4. And know the process might be unpleasant.

With most successful approaches, change may not feel good. One flaw Gold has seen with programs “is that they’re reliant on your ability to objectively self-report, which no human on the planet is able to do.” And often in an attempt to not upset you or force you to go through painful experiences, she says, “They kind of sugarcoat everything.”

Her take: “I’d rather put someone in the position where they really have to self-evaluate and it’s not necessarily going to look pretty, but they get a better longterm result.”

5. Realize, in the end, you may have to kiss a few frogs.

You’re not going to relate to every book or connect with every group leader. And if you don’t fit with a particular personality, you might need to test out something else.

“It’s the same in formal therapy,” says Susman. “A lot of times people will try therapy and will say, ‘Oh, I didn’t like the therapist,’ and they want to bail out totally on therapy.”

To him, he says, that’s akin to “if somebody said, ‘Oh, I was sick once and I tried medicine and it didn’t work for me. I’m never going to try medicine instead.” Don’t let one unsuccessful experience sway you from trying again, he advises.

“It’s sort of like shopping,” he explains. “You may have to try a few on before you find the one that fits you the best.”

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About Sarah Grossbart

The first time Sarah tried running she complained the whole time — both laps. Two-plus decades later she voluntarily runs marathons, boxes, spins and is borderline addicted to megaformer classes at SLT. A graduate of Michigan State University, the Michigan native now lives in New York City where she writes for publications such as Us Weekly, Real Simple, HGTV Magazine, Martha Stewart Weddings, Mental Floss and aSweatLife. When she’s not working out or bingeing bad reality television, she can be found watching college basketball with her husband and yelling at the TV. What? They can totally hear you through the screen.