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SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless by Steve Salerno

This book is an illuminating examination of the self-help industry. Salerno, a journalist with decades of experience, investigates the underbelly of the self-help movement, arguing that far from empowering people, it often leaves them more helpless than before.

SHAM: An Overview

The title of the book itself, SHAM, is an acronym that stands for the ‘Self-Help and Actualisation Movement’. According to Salerno, this industry, which rakes in billions of dollars every year, frequently exploits the very people it purports to assist. He argues that many self-help gurus provide advice that is not only ineffectual but can also be harmful, fostering dependency and promoting a cycle of continual self-examination and navel-gazing.

The Illusion of Empowerment

Salerno contends that the self-help industry thrives on the illusion of empowerment. He argues that much of the advice provided by self-help gurus is designed to make people feel good in the moment but doesn’t lead to lasting change. This creates a cycle where individuals continually buy more products in search of the magic solution to their problems.

Victim Culture and the Self-Help Industry

Salerno also delves into the way the self-help industry perpetuates a victim culture, encouraging individuals to blame their problems on external factors rather than taking personal responsibility. He posits that the industry thrives on creating and sustaining a culture of victimhood.


While Salerno acknowledges that there are some beneficial aspects to the self-help movement, he asserts that the overall impact is more negative than positive. He calls for a more realistic approach to personal development that acknowledges the complexity of human nature and the challenges of effecting lasting change.

Top 10 Takeaways

  1. Self-help is an industry that often profits from the dependency of its customers.
  2. Many self-help strategies offer temporary feel-good solutions without effecting real change.
  3. The industry perpetuates a victim culture, discouraging personal responsibility.
  4. Not all self-help advice is safe or helpful, and some can be harmful.
  5. Real change requires more than positive affirmations and quick fixes.
  6. Self-examination is beneficial, but endless navel-gazing can be counterproductive.
  7. There is a need for a more realistic approach to personal development.
  8. One should be critical and discerning when choosing self-help resources.
  9. Some self-help gurus are more interested in profiting from their followers than genuinely helping them.
  10. Over-reliance on self-help strategies can lead to a cycle of dependency and dissatisfaction.

While it’s clear that Salerno’s views are contentious, “SHAM” provides a valuable perspective that encourages readers to approach the self-help industry with a critical and discerning eye. After all, the journey to self-improvement should be empowering and liberating, not a cycle of dependency and disillusionment.

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