Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Self-Help Stumbling Blocks and How to Overcome Them, #2: Overgeneralizing From Your Own Experience

In yesterday's post, we talked about the pitfalls of making your self-help or psychology book overly autobiographical. 

Today, I want to talk about another potential downside of drawing too heavily on your personal experience, and that's the risk of overgeneralizing: assuming the tools and techniques that worked for you will work for everyone else (or at least for a whole lot of people). 

Stumbling Block #2: Overgeneralizing From Your Own Experience

Overgeneralizing from your own experience is a very understandable tendency: after all, if doing a certain thing really, really helped you, of course you’d want to shout it from the rooftops! 

But drawing too many conclusions based solely on your own experience can lead to a book which feels unprofessional, limited in scope, or only applicable to people who are exactly like you. 

One Size Rarely Fits All

Overgeneralizing from your own experience can lead to embarrassing mistakes: for example, a lifestyle change that worked wonders for you might be harmful to another’s person health, or it might simply be unaffordable or out of reach for people who don't have the same amount of time, resources, connections, or sheer good luck as you do.

"But It Worked For Meeee!"

If your book is solely based on your personal experiences with a certain self-help or spiritual practice, it might leave readers wondering if there’s really a scientific basis to your claims, or if you’re making it all up. You also run the risk of writing a memoir rather than a true self-help book (see Stumbling Block #1).

Drawing solely from your own experience can make readers skeptical that your advice is truly universal—if you’re the only guinea pig in the experiment, why should they trust that your techniques will work for them?

Solution: Broaden Your Book's Scope

The solution to this common stumbling block is to bring in research, anecdotes, and other supporting material to bolster your claims--and to always test your advice on a wide range of subjects before assuming it will work for anyone and everyone.

• In 10% Happier, Dan Harris tells the story of how learning to meditate transformed his life, while backing up this personal experience with fascinating research and stories of his conversations with experts in the field. 

•In Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay, Mira Kirschenbaum includes a broad range of anecdotes from her therapy clients, showing how a diverse selection of people successfully applied her techniques. 

•In The Anxiety Toolkit, Dr. Alice Boyles makes the occasional reference to tips she discovered in other authors’ books (with full attribution, of course!). 

These authors are all essentially saying, “These things work! But don’t take my word for it—look at what all these other experts have to say about it.”

If your book is tunnel-visioned on your own experience, you can broaden its scope by using one of the following techniques:


-Round up some more guinea pigs. Can you test out your practices on willing students, clients, and friends who agree to let you write about the results? Do you have the humility to adapt your book if you discover that the results you promised aren’t as universal as you thought?

-Include research from reputable sources. More science is usually a good thing. Can you bolster your claims with hard data?

-Interview experts in the field. You don’t need to be a journalist to reach out and ask questions. Have other writers, thinkers, and experts arrived at similar conclusions to you? Where do their opinions conflict with yours?

-Acknowledge how different factors like gender, race, geography, neurotype, or socioeconomic status might cause a reader’s mileage to vary from your own. 


Are you writing a self-help/psychology or spirituality book? Schedule a free 30-minute consultation with me, and we'll chat about ways to maximize your book's potential to change readers' lives. 

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