Too much of a good thing?

Do self — improvement books really help to improve our lives? Not at all, according to Paul Pearsall, Ph.D., a clinical neuropsychologist. In his book, The Last Self — Help Book You’ll Ever Need: Repress Your Anger, Think Negatively, Be a Good Blamer, and Throttle Your Inner Child (Basic Books; $14.95), Pearsall suggests that many of the generic, feel — good, pop psychology messages offered on bookshelves actually do readers more harm than good. Considering his book is also found in the self — help section, Pearsall’s title seems contradictory on the surface. But he contends that most self — help books promote an unhealthy self — absorption and urge readers to be blindly optimistic in the face of life’s challenges.

He maintains that conventional motivational wisdom tells us never to lose hope, to refrain from being judgmental, to believe in the premise of “unlimited personal power,” and to strive for ever — higher levels of self — esteem. Citing scientific evidence to the contrary, Pearsall dismisses these and other platitudes as “McMorals” — mass — produced advice unsubstantiated by research from self — styled gurus who attempt to package fast fixes to serious problems that affect people in uniquely complex ways. In short, they fail to deliver “meaning, comprehension, and management.”

Pearsall is not opposed to seeking counsel through motivational/self — help books per se, but he is adverse to the often — cliché, glass — always — full, eternally optimistic outlook that most books of the genre offer. He writes that such thinking is not always prudent or helpful to people in challenging situations.

Some people may benefit more from an “all things are possible” kind of thinking, and that’s fine. Others, however, may want a more “don’t tell me it’s partly sunny when I see that it’s partly cloudy” outlook, a different kind of extrinsic motivation. At best, this book attempts to reach those people by offering another perspective and encouraging readers to make informed decisions.

Pearsall proposes maintaining a more realistic mindset when confronted with obstacles; for example, making necessary judgment calls and knowing when to throw in the towel. He details how to accomplish both by exploring research, drawing on client case studies from his clinical psychology practice, and challenging popular self — help authors by name. Pearsall’s work presents a refreshing departure from typical offerings.

The best way to put Pearsall’s advice to good use is to consider your individual situation and be honest about it. As with anything, take what works for you and discard what doesn’t, whether it comes from him or the next motivational guru of the moment. For more information log on to