10 Self-Help Books I Wish I’d Read Sooner

Woman in aqua jumper reading a book with coffee

I read self-help books.


I said it.

Yet, before I wrote that, there were several iterations of that intro that included me justifying why I regularly read self-help books. You know, claims that I’m ‘normal’ (whatever that means) and just ‘interested’ in some topics or ‘I read very widely’. You know the lines. You may have used them yourself if you’ve ever been caught in the act of reading something even remotely whiffing of self-help.

Even if our (apparently) enlightened 21st century existence, there is still a whole heap of stigma about asking for help. Which, ironically, is probably what makes self-help books so popular.

Whether we’re reading them secretly on our Kindle or in a dimly lit room on our own, sales for self-help books for women are booming and so they should be.

Why? Because, you know what, get the right self-help book and it actually can help.

Having read many self-help books (insert the ‘because I read widely’ justification here) I thought I’d share the 10 self-help books I wish I’d read sooner. These aren’t all specifically self-help books for women but being a woman writing a women’s lifestyle blog, I’ll inevitably give my female slant on what I found useful about them. I’ve listed them broadly in the order that I read them.

Library cards ready? Let’s dig in…

Self help books I wish I’d read sooner

1. The Art of Happiness, Dalai Lama

What it’s about: According to the Dalai Lama, everything we do is geared to one true pursuit – being happy. If we take that thought and apply it to human behaviour, it can help us better understand people. That annoying man cutting the line at the airport? What if he’s worried about missing his flight because it’s an important business meeting and his job’s on the line and his wife has told him that ‘this is it’ – if he doesn’t make this new job work, she’s leaving and taking the kids with her. He’s cutting the line because he wants his wife to stay and he loves his kids – he wants to be happy.

What I learned: sometimes (not always, I’m not perfect), I think about the reason behind someone’s behaviour. I think about their pursuit of happiness and it makes me more tolerant. In turn, this makes me happier, instead of being in a boiling rage at people like the man at the airport.

2. Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert

What it’s about: We are all creative beings is the main message of Big Magic. As a blogger and writer, I’m fairly obviously out there in the creative camp, banging my drum and sharpening my crayons. But we are ALL creative beings and this book is a wonderful reminder to tap back into the creative joy we had as kids.

What I learned: If something isn’t going so well, pick up a pen or a paint brush or some needlepoint or a trowel or guitar or crack a few eggs – just make something. It doesn’t need to be good nor does it need to become your full-time job. I never feel worse after I’ve done something creative. It’s really is one of the best ways of letting go for a while.

3. The Reluctant Yogi, Carla McKay

What it’s about: Yoga feels pretty inaccessible to a lot of people. It did to me once, too. I had questions like what is it and how do you do it and why is it featured on every physical and mental health list out there. Is it really that good for you? This book answers your questions. Even better, it’s written by a UK journalist who was anti-yoga and packing enough weight that she had a pre-emptive tummy tuck to get started on her yoga journey (this is not necessary for embarking on yoga, btw. Promise).

What I learned: All the science-backed reasons you should have yoga in your life. If you’re interested, I have a posts about yoga for beginners coming soon.

4. Year of Yes, Shonda Rhimes

What it’s about: Is this strictly a self-help book for women? Maybe, maybe not but Shonda Rhimes’ year of saying yes to every invitation that came her way was funny and inspiring and a great reminder of the opportunities out there if only we take them. Plus, the regular references to ‘her client’ (vagina) needing to ‘have meetings’ (sex) had me in (relatable) stitches. For those who don’t recognise the name, Shonda Rhimes is the brilliant writer behind major shows like Grey’s Anatomy, How to Get Away With Murder, Bridgerton and Scandal.  She manages all of this while performing the miracle of being a single mother to three daughters. Yes, she appears to a very inspirational super-human who is also an introvert.

What I learned: Get off the sofa, get out the rut, stop saying no, no, no. If nothing else, get your client a meeting. As we age, it’s easy to fall into habits and patterns but while we stick rigidly to our routines, life is literally passing us by.

5. Why we sleep, Matthew Walker

What it’s about: I’ve struggled with sleep my entire adult life but around 2017 it got serious. My mum was ill, I was trying to seriously monetise my travel blog while dipping back into some freelance lawyer work to pay the bills, and I had some health issues all of my own (thanks, life). The upshot was, I was living on so little sleep I felt dangerous behind the wheel. Cue: myriad books on why to sleep, how to sleep and, perfect at 3 a.m., all the ways you might die if you didn’t get enough sleep.

What I learned: Although this book didn’t cure my sleep problem (the solution came later, thanks to another book – see below), it was a fascinating read. We all instinctively know that we need to get good sleep but we let other things take priority. This book allowed me to feel less guilty about taking Saturday cat naps instead of bulldozing through the to-do list, and allowing myself early nights and lie ins.

6. Rising Strong, Brené Brown

What it’s about: This book popped up as an Audible daily deal at exactly the right time. My mum had just died and, book nerd that I am, I wanted to be able to read a book that made the grief go away. Brené’s book didn’t do that (spoiler alert: no book can do that). But it did encourage me to take a closer look at vulnerability and the huge leaps we can make, in life and in grief, if we only have the courage to be open and honest about how we feel.

This is the famous Theodore Roosevelt quote from his ‘man in the arena’ speech that inspired her to write the book:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly;…who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

What I learned: This book helped me have honest conversations with family and friends about my grief. It helped me cry openly and not apologise for my sadness. It helped me dare to feel the pain of the grief instead of blocking it out. It’s helped me have the courage to start this blog, too.

7. The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook, Kristin Neff

What it’s about: This was another book I approached during my grief – I told you I tried to find the answers in books. Once again, it didn’t do a whole lot for my grief but it really put a spotlight on that bitch voice that lives inside my head and the pretty abusive relationship I have with her. I’ve basically been criticising and gaslighting myself for decades. And you probably have, too because we all have that voice inside us. I think it starts in our teenage years and it gathers force until it’s as much a part of us as our limbs.

What I learned: I actually took some time away from my desk to work through this workbook like it was a piece of work and it really was. The tough kind that required lots of tea and a box of biscuits (not just a packet). This book helped me take the time to look at that voice, listen to what it said, and find ways to talk back in a more positive way. It helped me find a kinder voice that says ‘hold on, I’m trying my best here.’ Don’t get me wrong, the bitch is alive and well and very often she wins out. But not every time and some times on some days that makes all the difference.

8. The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober, Catherine Gray 

What it’s about: Did I mention I read a lot of books after my mum died? It was a difficult but corner-turning time in my life (at time of writing, it was 2 years ago). I picked up this book because it was on Kindle sale for 99p and after a few months of trying to treat my grief with wine and finding it only gave me tears, I decided to have a break from boozing. It’s a break that is ongoing. Save for a couple of glasses at Christmas, I have given booze the swerve and, guess what – my sleep came back. It remains fragile at times (moments of high stress) but I’ve not known sleep like it, not in my adult life and I don’t want to trade it just for the sake of a glass of wine.

What I learned: While I didn’t find the author’s story personally relatable (I wasn’t blacking out on work trips and waking up with the bell-boy in my bed), the section on the physical impacts of booze had me rapt. The fact that my own sleep came back after an entire adult life of drinking, I can testify to how impactful regular drinking can be.

9. Attached, Amir Levine and Rachel Heller

What it’s about: It’s funny how one book can take you on a journey to another and the author of a Joy of Being Sober talked openly about her relationship struggles. Having consistently made bad man choices my entire life (yes, including the now-ex-husband), I was fascinated to read that the author had found a book that told her why she did the same thing. I was fascinated that there might be a root cause for my poor relationship choices, and it turns out there is.  The basic premise is that we ‘attach’ to adult relationships in the same way we learn to ‘attach’ to our parents. Some people do it well, they’re the ‘stable’ kind and usually have had a stable upbringing. Some people don’t attach well, the ‘avoidant’ kind who back off every time you get close – you might know them as commitment-phobes. And some people, like me, form anxious attachments (go ahead, call me clingy, I don’t mind * I secretly do mind *). It may sound a little hokey but it’s backed by studies that have been running for decades.

What I learned: Avoidant and anxious types mix like water and oil, yet they are very commonly attracted to each other, mainly because the anxious type will generally tolerate much more shit than a stable or avoidant person. While reading this book, I took a rake back over my man history and almost every single one of them was avoidant. The real beauty of the book: I’m better able to identify the avoidant man-type so I can give him a wide berth in future. So far, so good.

10. Wintering, Katherine May

What it’s about: There is a reason I have spent the past 10 years fleeing to the tropics for a month or five over winter. I don’t do well in cold weather. Worse, I firmly believe (and my doctor agrees, though it really is hard to confirm) that I have Seasonal Affective Disorder. November to February feels like one long drag of endless jet-lag. I wake some morning and have to spend an hour re-learning how to blink. Some days I’m half way up my stairs and have to sit down and cry. And then the sun comes out and my mood is transformed. I’m skipping and dancing and singing and even the tax man can’t bring me down. But then a pandemic comes along and makes my passport next to useless and I find myself having to endure winter for the first time in a decade. I used this book to get me through. It’s about slowing down, taking time and actually trying to enjoy the season.

What I learned: Stop resisting the cold. Light a candle, cook something slow and soulful, go on those winter walks and keep an eye out for signs of new buds and spring coming because it will eventually, bringing a better mood with it. I should add that this book isn’t just about the winter season, it talks about ‘wintering’ as a concept of slowing down when we’re facing difficulties in any season. Something many of us find very hard to do.

I’ve got another 10 self-help books for women lined up but I think that’s enough for now. If you’ve found this post useful, let me know. I can definitely add more recommendations and I’ll certainly be reading more, even if it in alone in a dimly lit room.

I’d love to know if you have any other suggestions for self-help books for women or any books that have helped you become more wonderful than you were before. Let me know in the comments below. 

10 Self-Help Books I Wish I’d Read Sooner

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