Self-help or self-harm? With so many trainers offering life coaching as a side business, this could be the self-help scam that defrauds you out of happiness and the body you want.

EXPERT: Sarah Alexander – a coach and trainer, specialising in inspiring and empowering others. 


The history of self-help

Originating in the 1970’s, the self-help movement is now a global phenomenon, touching the lives of millions.

A casual Google search for “self-help advice” now throws up roughly 24 million pages of free downloads.

A mixture of YouTube channels and internet sites all jostling to promote their own brand of personal empowerment tips, life-enhancing techniques and “how-to” guides in every area related to health and fitness.

The industry is not all bad. However, contained within are countless charlatans making wild claims about their abilities.

Some profess their “divine” connection will guide you to a higher reality – only to have their assertions later debunked by investigators.

The 2016 CNN documentary Enlighten Us, on the deaths of three self-help devotees, issued a stark warning: beware the self-appointed guru on a giant ego trip.

Increasingly accused of exploiting the vulnerable and weak, the self-help industry appeals to a fundamental desire in all humans: to find meaning, gratification and simple solutions to life’s complexities.

So potentially, almost anybody can be drawn in, especially if you have fitness ambitions extending into your life.


Why should I be cautious of self-help?

For those seeking self-help enhancement from a reputable source, today’s modern sales techniques can blur the distinction between the genuine and the fake.

Glowing testimonials, name-dropping, YouTube self-promotions and a plethora of other subtle sales techniques combine to shift more and more courses and materials.

People will spend a fortune on a “leading light” because it feels right, but their gut feeling is likely to have been engineered by some promise to fill a gaping desire – usually, to live that “dreamed for” life.

With many exercise trainers and coaches jumping on the bandwagon of the self-help industry, some with little or no qualification or genuine experience, can you sort the wheat from the chaff and find an approach that really works?

Or should your just fall prey to all its philosophies and powerful, motivational talk?

To develop better discernment about which self-help approach may or may not help you, read on to see how your so-called training guru matches up against a true professional’s guide for success.

Here are 6 things to watch out for, and a better way to approach each of them.


is self help a scam?



The self-help industry lives to tell you that in order to be happy in life, you must follow your dreams.

To this effect, you should set health and fitness goals clarifying what you want to achieve, and then visualize them, affirming consistently that these goals have already manifested.

The theory is through a series of practical, logical and experiential steps, anyone can realize any dream.

Straight talk

Among those who follow this advice, many people risk their health or struggle to maintain the fitness regime that provides that longed for body.

For, unless you choose your dreams carefully, you may lack the inner resources, mindset or external support structures necessary to attain your desires effectively.

This idealistic form of goal setting, therefore, tends to leave some people depleted, and deprived of the fulfillment they hoped for.

As an alternative, if you have dreams and goals then make sure they are realistic, meaningful to you and provide some challenge.

With this approach, you will be growing as you fulfill your dream, but not pushing yourself to an extreme.



Science proves unequivocally that when people focus on extrinsic goals (such as attaining a great body, looking 21 again or achieving vibrant good health) long term people become not more, but less happy and fulfilled.

Yes, such achievements produce that short-term ‘high’ (if you succeed).

However, the thrill is only brief: a process known as ‘hedonic adaptation’ sets in, by which you grow accustomed to your new attainments and start to find them insignificant.

Straight talk

By contrast, keeping your attention fixed on intrinsic goals – that focus on who you are as a person, at work, in your relationships and in your giving back to the world – delivers the optimism and uplift most human’s desire.

This does not mean you can ignore your health or fitness goals. It means you should take a healthy approach to it and, too, focus on sharing your vitality, your enthusiasm and good energy in all the different areas of your life.



Very often, you set and pursue health and fitness goals by way of compensating for an underlying sense of lack and a gnawing insecurity.

You are led to believe you will feel worthy only once you have acquired the trophies of success – the perfect body, the sleeve tight arms and those longed-for abs.

And so, you connect your inner value to your outer value. You may also imagine these things will bring you a deep sense of inner security.



Straight talk

In truth, your worthiness and sense of self-assurance already exist within you, regardless of your health, and body shape.

They are who, and what, you are. Your self – the part of you that stands free from your mental conditioning – remains intact.

So, you don’t need to squander any resources seeking value through having a toned body: humans benefit more from living a productive, principled life, inspired by knowing their worthiness, and grounded in an innermost sense of security.

And, from this place of inner confidence, keeping your body healthy and fit.



As you set about realizing your training intentions, coaches often prompt you to “take massive action” and become a “yes” person: someone who always embraces whatever opportunity comes along.

You are led to believe that with immense, determined action and this attitude, positive results are guaranteed.

The “take massive action” approach is also seen as another road to inner satisfaction – the theory being that by working hard on your fitness goals, and accepting everything that comes your way, you’ll squeeze the most juice out of life.

Straight talk

In fact, the pressure to take continuous massive action when it comes to your health and fitness and to keep saying “yes” is known to leave people depleted and overwhelmed.

They may have given of themselves at a physical cost: a certain balance in their approach to well-being may be lost, or time for themselves and their families sacrificed – most importantly, their sense of worth may start to erode.

If you really value your time, energy, relationships and health, “no” is a word you simply must embrace.

Call it common sense or a gut feeling, you have the power to discriminate between times when you should indeed work hard and other times when it is actually in your very best interests to lighten up.

It’s this capacity for discrimination, rather than an automatic “yes’, that brings true rewards.



According to the tenets of self-help, you must avoid thinking about your health/ fitness problems or focusing on them in any way.

Since you create your difficulties through your own thought processes and subconscious beliefs, to place our attention on a problem is to energize it, thus increasing its disruptive power.

What are you advised to do instead? Keep your focus fixed on your intended destination, be it the healing of an ailment or a faster PB.


does self help make you happy or unhappy


Straight talk

While there’s much to be said for taking responsibility for your problems on one hand, and seeing beyond them on the other, ignoring problems altogether rarely resolves anything – as with many health-related issues, for instance, which may call for immediate action.

Moreover, the notion that you have created your own problems as a result of your thinking can make you feel guilty about the smallest setback if this subtle message is crudely delivered.

Blaming yourself is of no value. Turning inwards, quieting your mind and consulting your inner know-how is a better answer, as it can offer you viable solutions and a win-win for all involved – if you are willing to listen.



There is a glut of information out there about health and fitness, some of it valuable and perhaps based on empirical scientific research – and some of it utterly meaningless.

Certainly, continuous learning is a component of a good life. However, so is the practice of listening to the intelligence and prudence inside – a more reliable guiding force within everyone.

Straight talk

People attune to this innate intelligence whenever you take time out for reflection – be it running in nature, on the step machine, at a yoga class or through contemplative activities such as walking, gardening or listening to music.

If you keep constantly on the go getting fit, you miss the internal cues that inspire you to change your approach, get a new trainer, run in a different area or simply rest your body.

If you allow yourself the time and space to tune in, you can also become more discerning as to which self-help approach might be of greatest benefit to you.



The answer lies in your ability to recognize that achieving your fitness goals won’t bring long-term happiness.

And, all the positive thinking in the world will not stop bad things from happening as you pursue health and fitness (at worst, it could stop you from taking useful action).

True self-help means taking 100 per cent responsibility: the only one who can heal your life is you. To be guided by a coach or mentor with a wealth of experience can be valuable.

However, the best self-help counselors, training courses, books and DVDs are of no benefit unless they convey that the answers lie within you.

And most gurus won’t tell you that because it’s not where the profits lie.


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