Whether you’re writing a self-help book, a personal development blog, or even an inspirational podcast script, your primary goal is most likely to help people—to pass on your wisdom to make people’s lives better. However, it can be easy to go wrong with self-help, and this genre is often criticised for its use of unhelpful clichés. Let’s take a look at the top self-help cliches so you can avoid them in your writing.
Cliché #1: “It’s about learning to dance in the rain”
There’s a time and a place for motivational phrases, like wall plaques and Pinterest boards. Self-help is not that place. Self-help writing needs to contain far more substance than a handful of standalone quotes to make a difference to the reader’s life. Worse still, such phrases can come across as overdone, hollow, or regurgitated because of their overuse on mugs, magnets, and the like.
Cliché #2: “Think positively and the universe will bring you what you want”
Since new age self-help book The Secret became a bestseller, a whole raft of content has appeared suggesting that if you sit on the sofa and think positively, your life will magically change and the universe will deliver your dream job or ideal partner. While positive thinking is an important aspect of change, it’s just step 1. The vital aspect that such books often miss is action.
Cliché #3: “I did it, so you can too”
It’s tempting to assume that because you overcame your difficult circumstances, then the reader clearly can too. However, life doesn’t work that way. We’re all individuals, with different thresholds for emotional pain and different life experiences. Not everybody has the same ability to cope or the same motivation to make changes, so don’t assume that just because you did it, they can too.
Cliché #4: “Don’t give up”
There is such a stigma around quitting and giving up, but often—giving up on our unhelpful habits, behaviours, and beliefs is what leads to success and improvement. The dogged suggestion that it’s heinous to be “a quitter” really isn’t useful in self-help. Rather than suggesting that someone doesn’t give up, help them to see the things that it’s useful to stop, continue, or start doing.
Cliché #5: “What you can conceive, you can achieve”
It’s lovely to think we’re all capable of literally anything, but the simple fact is we’re not. We’re limited by our physical bodies, our resources, and many other things. Yes, we should strive for improvement, but self-help requires realism, not just wild idealism. An important part of self-help is truly understanding your reader’s problems and limitations, then helping them find a realistic way around them. There’s a reason why SMART goals include the word “realistic”.
Cliché #6: “Your hard work will pay off”
We like to think that gruelling hard work will lead to success, that if we just grit our teeth and bear with it, we’ll reap the rewards. Unfortunately, hard work doesn’t always pay off so this cliché is misleading, but it’s also missing the point. If we only focus on the end destination, we fail to enjoy the journey. Instead, show them that their hard work will be an enjoyable process of improvement. It’s about loving the process, not just waiting for the prize at the end.
Cliché #7: “You only regret the things you didn’t do”
Urgh, this notion is wildly inaccurate and encourages a lack of consideration in your actions. Plenty of people regret things they did—crimes they committed, hurtful things they said to their partner, selfish things they did, and so on. Before committing any act, you should think about the consequences, not just for yourself, but for others. It’s about considering your actions in the context of other humans, not just blindly doing things because you might regret not doing them.
Cliché #8: “I believe in you”
This is a lovely sentiment, but you don’t personally know the reader, so having belief in them doesn’t actually mean anything. It’s more important that they have belief in themselves to make change happen. Your duty as a writer is to help them develop this self-belief, not to give them hollow sentiments that you believe in them.
Cliché #9: “I did it”
Like cliché #3 but different, this or any similar statement means the author is focusing too much on themselves. Yes, the author should give examples to demonstrate the points being made, but there’s a fine line between helpful personal stories and disguising your memoir as self-help. If you’re talking about yourself more than you’re talking to the reader, then it might just be your ego talking.
Cliché #10: “Life doesn’t give you what you can’t handle”
If this was true, nobody would need a self-help book. Ever. If this was true, people wouldn’t resort to alcohol, drugs, self-harm, or suicide because of the difficulties they face. Such statements are patronising and minimise people’s problems. Don’t tell people what they can and can’t handle—help them overcome what they’re facing.