What Is the Difference between Self-Help and Self-Improvement Books?

by Ameesha Smith-Green

Even for those who love nonfiction, the terminology can sometimes get confusing. After all, there’s self-help, self-improvement, and personal development books, plus books on personality. What does it all mean, and how do you know which is right for you? Have no fear, our simple guide is here…

What is self-help?

Self-help does what it says on the tin: it helps people to help themselves. Self-help books are essentially about the reader overcoming problems — especially personal, mental, or emotional ones. This often includes issues such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, or relationships with the self or others. The key factor is that the reader is doing so without getting professional help, such as therapists or counsellors.

The easiest way to understand it is this: imagine a baseline of “okay” — self-help books are for those who feel they are below that baseline.

What is self-improvement?

For those who feel that they are on or above that baseline, there are self-improvement books. Again, they do what they say on the tin: help people to improve themselves without professional help, such as a coach or training program. Self-improvement books are basically about the reader improving themselves to become better. This may include becoming more organised, focused, or efficient. It may mean developing positive habits or becoming a better person.

What is personal development?

The terms “self-improvement” and “personal development” are often used interchangeably. In bookshops, these books are generally grouped together. Some people argue that self-improvement is about a more holistic, spiritual, or internal improvement process while personal development is about developing specific skills or attributes. Others argue the exact opposite. In principle, these books address the same thing: bettering oneself in a general or a specific way.

What are personality books?

This is not a genre of book in itself but falls under the category of psychology books; some of them deal specifically with the topic of personality, such as how humans develop their personality. There are also mental health books on how people develop a personality disorder (a specific mental illness). These books are not about helping or bettering oneself.

Do self-help books really help us?

Whether self-help books really help people depends on the effort and commitment they put into implementing the advice contained within. Many people believe that the act of simply reading a self-help book will change their life; it won’t, the same way as signing up for the gym won’t get someone get in shape. To make changes, you have to put in the work, which often isn’t quick, easy, or fun.

Sometimes, the case is that the reader’s problems run deeper than a self-help book is able to resolve, and they may need professional help.

Do self-improvement books really work?

Many successful entrepreneurs and millionaires swear by personal development books. Some read at least one every week. Of course, the difference is that successful people actually implement the advice in self-improvement books. They put in the work, time, effort, blood, sweat, and tears to make change happen. Reading a book won’t get you results by magic, but it will show you what you need to do.

Which of these types of books, if any, do you read? Have they helped you?

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