The purchase of a self-help book often occurs in a moment of life when we have hit the outer limits of our patience, energy, or optimism. The best self-help books don’t con us by exploiting our vulnerability, rather they conjure the wiser, braver, steadier version of us. In this increasingly crowded genre, we need help identifying the true gems hidden among the occasionally awful and often underwhelming options.
These gems are the books that make you laugh or cry, the books that name your deepest secrets, fears, and wishes, and that whisper the magic words you need to heal, change, and transcend. Not all of the books on this list were written exclusively by or for women, but were instead selected for their overall relevance, insight, and potential to help. True to the literal meaning of “self-help”, this list does not include books that tell us exactly what to do or how to do it, but instead ones that teach us to find answers and solutions within ourselves.
1. Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love & Life from Dear Sugar
In Tiny Beautiful Things, bestselling author Cheryl Strayed presents a heartbreaking and exhilarating compilation of her previously anonymous online advice column Dear Sugar. The columns selected for the book (some previously unpublished) represent a full spectrum of human suffering. Readers witness intimate snapshots of a person’s life that left them feeling stuck, ashamed or scared enough to ask a stranger for advice. Strayed is simultaneously brutal, gentle, and kind in her responses to her readers.
Unlike many formally trained therapists, she does not sterilize her responses to remove her own emotions and trauma, and even reciprocates with her own equally gut-wrenching secrets. Not for the faint of heart, Tiny Beautiful Things is raw, real, and shockingly resonant. This book reminds us that when life is hardest and when we feel smallest and most broken – we aren’t doing it wrong, and that in the midst of any tragedy, it is always possible to find at least one tiny, beautiful thing.
In Untamed, bestselling author Glennon Doyle explains that at a very young age, women begin internalizing messages from others and the world about what we should/should not feel, do, and become. Many of these messages have trained women to willingly submit to the louder voice, the stronger opinion, or the deeper need, even when it means betraying themselves.
Each chapter in Untamed is an anecdote from Doyle’s own rocky journey through addiction, parenting, and infidelity which helps to illustrate the path that ultimately led her back to the wild and untamed version of herself. Some of Doyle’s stories feel a bit manicured and some of her revelations do too, but overall Untamed is essential reading for those of us who compress, conform and contort to meet the needs and expectations of others at the expense of our freedom.
3. Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better: Wise Advice for Leaning into the Unknown
The best self-help books are ones that not only teach us how to survive adversity, but to transcend it. In Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better, Pema Chodron reminds us that failure is inevitable, especially if we are living our lives to the fullest. Despite this prior experience, many of us have not really been able to fail “better” and instead have adopted the default goal to “fail less.”
While counterintuitive, this book suggests we approach failure instead of avoiding it, and teaches us how to use the experience to become braver, freer, and kinder versions of ourselves. Like her previous bestselling books, Chodron is able to provide ultimate spiritual wisdom in a way that feels incredibly humble, human, and grounded.
4. Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, from Birth to Preschool
Emily Oster has a PhD in Economics and teaches at Harvard, so it’s safe to say she has a strong grasp on numbers. Parenting books are a dime-a-dozen but Cribsheet uses cold hard data and research to outline what works and doesn’t when it comes to parenting. Despite the many alarmist parenting advisories that exist on feeding to sleeping, toileting and everything between, there are only a few solid evidence-based parenting approaches. Because the remainder is uncharted territory, Oster encourages moms to relax, trust their own judgment, and do what they feel is best.
New moms are also encouraged to factor their own wants and needs into these decisions, which is a refreshing departure from the current paradigm that guilts and shames moms for anything less than complete self-sacrifice. Most parenting books profit off of the fear that we will fail and mess up our child forever, while Cribsheet names this fear, outlines the basic no-no’s, and trusts us to figure the rest out ourselves.
5. The Gift of Fear & Other Survival Skills That Protect Us From Violence
The Gift of Fear equips women with information that can help us protect ourselves from violence, and more specifically, from violent men. It is written by Gavin De Becker, who created a security protocol that is used by members of the military, police and CIA to identify violent offenders. It’s easy to see how a man teaching women how to protect themselves from other men could be offensive, but The Gift of Fear is actually incredibly empowering and helpful. It introduces readers to the inner psychological workings of men who deceive, exploit, stalk, threaten and harm women so that we can identify their tactics and keep them from working on us.
While most women are taught to disregard their intuition and lean on facts, hard evidence, logic and the advice of authorities, the message in this book is the opposite. De Becker emphasizes that our intuition is usually right and always valid, teaching us to trust and hone this inner alert system and allow it to protect us. It’s tragic that we live in a world where women need this kind of psychological self-defense training, but because we do, the information in this book is not only life-changing, but potentially also life-saving.
6. Real Help: An Honest Guide to Self-Improvement
Ayodeji Awosika’s Real Help is a book for all of the skeptics who immediately bristle or scoff at “self-help” books because it presents real, practical advice that can be applied to virtually any brand of stuckness life can create. Real Help doesn’t promise readers specific results in dollars, days, or pounds and even reminds us that life isn’t fair, that hard work won’t always pay off, and that no one is coming to rescue us.
If you are already feeling offended or defensive, don’t buy this book. If, however, you are frustrated by people who sandwich their criticisms with compliments and put a cheerful spin on everything, you may find Real Help, well… really helpful. Essentially, Real Help pulls us out of the “la la land” we created for the most fragile version of ourselves and into the real world where things are hard and unfair – but still redeemable.
7. Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence
Any woman in a long-term relationship eventually learns that Disney movies left out a lot of key details on exactly how to get from the blissful “love at first sight” to “happily ever after”. For example, hot sex and passion weren’t really reviewed in great detail, which is a problem since many of us find it doesn’t come naturally after years of sharing beds, toilets, chores, and (sometimes) babies.
Bestselling author and couples therapist Esther Perel helps us understand why passion wanes, where it goes, and even gives suggestions on how to bring it back. Mating in Captivity is a deep dive into human desire and an introduction to the symbols, secrets, and codes that reside there. Once we have gone to these inner depths, Perel coaches us on how to bring these desires back into our relationships in ways that help keep passion, creativity, and playfulness alive.
8. Lean in: Women, Work, & the Will to Lead
In the Bestselling book Lean in, Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg gives readers a tour of her career, stopping to review and talk about the many internal and external barriers she encountered along the way. Some of these barriers are more expected like the guilt she felt about working after she had a baby or the way her initial salary offers were lower than her male counterparts. Others are more nuanced, including one of her biggest stumbling blocks which was her fear of being disliked, which consistently conflicted with her need to be respected and taken seriously.
Sandberg argues that women are socially conditioned to be likable, and that this conditioning can keep us from being fairly recognized, promoted, and paid for the work we do. Sandberg essentially coined the now viral term “lean in” as a call-to-action for women to keep moving towards their dreams and ambitions, even when they encounter fear or guilt along the way. While Lean In is sometimes criticized as a concept that only applies to women of privilege, the core inner conflict Sandberg explores is relatable and one which has broader applications than the workplace.
9. Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day
Make Time encourages us to be more intentional about how we spend our time because as authors Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky remind us – we are always living our lives right now, one moment at a time. When we do not have our own agenda (i.e. meaningful activities, plans and goals), we will inevitably get recruited into the agendas of other people, companies, or things.
On an average day, we can get sucked into meetings, projects, and problems of other people and we can also float mindlessly into distractions from our phones, screens, and other devices. In both scenarios, time (our greatest commodity) is not being used intentionally to help us learn, grow or improve ourselves or our circumstances. The authors introduce a framework for making and protecting our own agenda by prioritizing ahead, staying focused, and continuously optimizing our workflow so we can “make time” for what matters instead of waiting to “find time”.
10. Should I Stay or Should I Go? A Guide to Knowing If Your Relationship Can – And Should – Be Saved
Despite the inflammatory title of this book, it does not include a multiple choice quiz that will lead you to a blaring STAY! or LEAVE NOW! Instead, Should I Stay or Should I Go presents a series of questions and topics designed to spark an honest internal dialogue within the reader. The book outlines specific types of relationship issues, describes where they originate from, and helps the reader better diagnose the issue and establish an informed prognosis.
One central impediment is that this book is written for women who the authors assume are in monogamous relationships with men. This exclusion is both offensive and self-limiting. For those willing to overlook this, Should I Stay or Should I Go is one of the best books for women who are asking themselves this question.
11. The Wonder Years: 40 Women Over 40 on Aging, Faith, Beauty, and Strength
The Wonder Years is a compilation of essays from female authors over the age of 40. Each essay is a story or reflection that represents the larger experience of women who grapple with characteristic losses of youth, beauty, children, career, and other threads woven into our former identities. Beneath these losses is often a deeper loss, and many of the women describe this as becoming more invisible, unimportant, and unheard. By amplifying these voices and stories, The Wonder Years succeeds in changing the message from one of isolation and loss to one of connection, grace, and hope. Titling the book The Wonder Years conveys the core message women: approach these years with a sense of wonder instead of dread and you might find that the best is saved for last.
12. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
Rounding out our list is Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly which, like her other books, urges us embrace vulnerability versus constantly expecting, trying and failing to be perfect. While not a new insight for those familiar with Brown’s work, Daring Greatly’s message to be vulnerable continues to be profound and offers another path to live life more freely and happily.
While difficult, the alternative, Brown says, is to continue trying (and failing) to be perfect, beating yourself up, and hiding your messiness with Insta filters, smiles, and other pretty little lies. Most women eventually come to realize that being perfect isn’t really worth it—it’s exhausting, terrifying (what if people find out it’s all a lie?!), and painful, and because no one is perfect—it’s lonely too. Daring Greatly is an invitation to join a growing tribe of recovering perfectionists as we support each other in just taking it one day at a time.
For Further Reading
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