Why Self-Help Doesn't Help and What To Do Instead (my journey to truth)

law of nature Aug 16, 2023


I was sitting in my basement, on an old armchair, in a sparsely furnished room because we had no money for couches or decor. Our used treadmill was next to me on one side, my children on the other. There were four of them then and I adored them, but I often felt that they deserved a much better mom than me.

 I was so depressed, so confused and overwhelmed. All my life I had wanted to be a wife and mother. I had planned for it and looked forward to it. Now it was here and I felt grossly unprepared. What made things even worse was the myriad of unforeseen troubles that had descended on me over the past 5 years until I felt crushed under their weight. 

 One of the worst of these was my marriage. My husband and I loved each other and wanted to make things work but his pornography addiction was a constant source of pain and confusion for both of us, and I often felt betrayed. He had shared his struggles with me before we married but unfortunately we were both naive enough to think that marriage would “fix” it. Our crippling financial situation strained our relationship further. His commission-only career meant a constant see-saw of income that we didn’t know how to ride successfully. Trying to make ends meet, we built one home after another—building it, living in it, then selling it, and using the equity for income. This created instability in our family, as well as loneliness for me.

 During this time I longed to turn to our families for help but our parents were lost in their own failing marriages—in those years one couple had separated and the other divorced. Unfortunately, many of our other extended family relationships were also strained for a variety of reasons. 

 As for me personally, it wasn’t just all these external issues that were causing me pain. I loved my family dearly. Although I was grateful to be a wife and a mother, I felt like I was getting lost in it. There never seemed to be enough time, money, or resources for me to develop myself as a person. Actually, it was worse than that. I didn’t even know enough about myself—what I liked, what my gifts and talents were, how I could spend time each week doing things that would fulfill me—to know where to begin. 

 In this midst of these hardships, in that moment, in our basement, I knew that I should get on that treadmill. But I didn't want to. I mean, it was more than not wanting to, I didn't know how to make myself. And as I glanced from the treadmill, to my children, I felt a wave of discouragement. How was I going to become the mom they deserved—a mom that was more optimistic, that was more put together, that knew how to be a stable, consistent wife and mother, that knew how to handle all the challenges in her life? I felt trapped but I also knew there was nowhere I’d rather be. I never thought I’d find myself in this situation and I wondered what else I could have done to be more prepared.  

 College had been no help. Although I’d spent three years in a really good university, we all know higher education doesn’t prepare you for real life. The purpose of university studies is the pursuit of career and financial success. Yet, there is so much to life outside of those specific endeavors, arguably the most important things in life. I wanted to know how to live—how to navigate key relationships with confidence and connection, how to better manage my emotions, time, and money, how to raise children of integrity, how develop myself as a woman. Virtually nothing I learned in school taught me how to do those things. 

 Of course, all my life I had turned to God again and again for comfort and insight. He was always there, loving me through all the troubles. But now my difficulties seemed so much bigger, so much more vital. I knew He cared; I was regularly nurtured through prayer and scripture reading. Yet, the answers to the problems I was facing didn’t seem to be surfacing. Either I didn’t know how to hear Him and utilize scripture well enough, or, as I think was truly the case, He wanted to lead me to the truths I would later find so that I could not only have more permanent solutions to my own problems, but I could share what I’d learned with others. 

 So I did what all of us do in these moments of great desperation, I turned to self-help. For me this included spending time in dozens of books, courses, and even going to therapy. Though there were moments of insight and bits of progress, after several years of exhausting these resources, I was not much better off. Our marriage was still troubled, my husband was still addicted, our finances were still a mess, and I still didn’t know how to move forward in my own personal growth. I constantly wondered, “Why is nothing working? What in the world am I supposed to do?”

 Out of ideas, and feeling incapable of solving many of my personal and family problems, I decided to try to find something just for me, something that could break through the “mommy fog” in my brain and help me feel like I was growing as a person. I looked into several options including finishing my university degree, signing up for then popular “Franklin Covey Writing Mentoring”, or taking drawing classes. The problem was that everything that sounded interesting cost money and time—both of which I didn’t feel I had. 

 Around this time I went to lunch with my sister-in-law and shared with her my woes. Listening to my story, she told me about a little college she had recently run across. When I looked into it, I was intrigued by how different it seemed than any college or university I was familiar with. For one thing, this school was not accredited. That meant there was an intense focus on personal development rather than income earning. This college also allowed me to sign up for distance courses where I would work through the material at my own pace—something absolutely vital for a mom of four small kids. Most importantly, there seemed to be a depth to this college that was apparent not only from the difficulty of the readings but, as stated on their website, the goal of this education was to build character by learning from the most important thinkers in history. It sounded challenging but a different kind of challenge than the ones I’d been having for the past several years—something that might provide real answers and real personal development.

 Some of the most important insights, those that would have the greatest impact on our lives, came early on. For one of my first courses, I was reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People  and two important paradigm shifts that helped me begin to understand why this college focused on classics to build character. They also gave me my first insight into why self-help doesn’t seem to help. 

 The first epiphany came when Stephen Covey talked about how, in an attempt to understand the “keys to successful living,” he had read or scanned hundreds of articles, essays, books, and key publications in the United States since 1776 on subjects such as self-improvement, popular psychology, and self-help. He noticed a pattern. He explained, “The success literature of the past 50 years (he said this in 1989) was superficial. It was filled with…techniques and quick fixes…that addressed acute problems and sometimes appeared to solve them temporarily, but left the underlying chronic problems untouched to fester and resurface time and again.” He contrasted this literature, what he called “personality ethic” writings, with the “character ethic” approach that he said was prevalent in the writings published the 150 years prior. Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography was representative of the “character ethic,” he explained. In it, Franklin attempted to change his basic nature over time, not adopt specific practices and habits that others recommended. 

 This was mind-blowing for me. If Covey was right (which I came to know he was as I later studied many of these same writings myself),  then there was a major flaw in most of the books, programs, and even therapeutic approaches I had been trying for years. There was actually a reason they hadn’t worked—and it wasn’t that I was stupid, or couldn’t change. There was something wrong with them, not with me. I felt a spark of hope for the first time in a long time. 

 Then came major insight number two. Covey went on to explain that the shift  in the focus of the literature began happening after World War I when the “personality ethic” writings, while sometimes giving lip service to the importance of character, were full of “quick-fix influence techniques, power strategies, communication skills, and positive attitudes.” (Sound familiar?) In contrast, the “character ethic” writings of earlier times “taught that there are basic principles of effective living, and that people can only experience true success and enduring happiness as they learn and integrate these principles into their basic character.”

 I felt like I’d been hit right between the eyes. Basic principles. Enduring happiness. It sounded fantastic. But I had no idea what he was talking about. 

 Although Covey went on to call out some of the “principles” he was referencing, they were concepts like “honesty” or “kindness”—values I believed in and I was already striving to live. This left me feeling confused about exactly what principles were or how they could make my life more successful and happy. But new ideas had been planted. I didn’t have any answers yet, but I had these powerful insights, and with further searching, praying, study, research, pondering, and practice, these ideas would eventually blossom into a new way of life for me and my family. 

 In the meantime, I kept reading 7 Habits. When I ran across Covey’s description of mission statements and the importance of creating a family mission statement, I got excited. It sounded like just what we needed! I thought that maybe writing out a family mission statement would help me and my husband get on the same page in our parenting, and maybe it would give our family some clarity about the direction we were headed. So my husband and I went on a weekend retreat with a long list in our hands of all the things we wanted our family to become. For hours each day we walked and talked, going over each item and trying to get at the heart of what was most important to us. Then, on our last afternoon, we were sitting in our hotel room trying to put all the pieces together and suddenly my husband lit up with excitement, “It’s like that scripture verse about the truth setting you free!” We looked it up in the Bible and there it was: John 8:31-32 “And if ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

 We just looked at each other for several moments feeling the power of those words, “the truth shall make you free.” That was it. That was our family mission statement. There was nothing we wanted more at that time in our lives than for the truth to make us free—free of addiction, free from financial worries, free in our relationships, free from our fears. Again, I was hopeful. Again, unsure of how to proceed. 

 Yet, over the weeks that followed, I kept turning that phrase over in my head, "the truth shall make you free.” At some point during that time, I made a connection that got me thinking about principles in a new way. Jesus had said that the truth will make me free and Covey had taught that principles are the foundation that produces successful, happy lives. What if principles and truth had something to do with each other? What if principles were truths that could make me free? And if they were, how could I better understand principles and live them?

 I sat with these thoughts and wondered how to move forward until one day John Locke provided the first step. Locke was a British philosopher in the 1600’s who had a huge influence on the way people think about government and its role in our lives. For one of my classes we were reading an essay by him called “Second Treatise on Government”. In this essay, in order to better explain his ideas about government, he began by asking the reader to imagine a place where there was no ruling body. Consider what would society be like with no government in place, he proposed. How would individuals know what was right and wrong? How would people behave? 

 After setting up this scenario, Locke said something that made me think differently about the world from that moment on, “All men,” he explained, “are naturally in a state of perfect freedom to order their actions…as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of Nature.” This single sentence turned what I’d been taught all my life upside down. I had been told, from spiritual and secular teachers alike that there was God and his “commandments,” on the one hand—and only the “believers” took those ideas seriously. And then there were the “scientific” laws of nature on the other hand—and those were universal and immutable. But here was this brand new idea, from a thinker in the past, who had been so influential that he was quoted in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. He seemed to be claiming that the law of nature was not a scientific set of truths, but rather a social set of human laws that govern human interactions at all levels, from the family to the government. He then went on to connect the law of nature to freedom. You can only imagine how much that completely intrigued me—I desperately wanted greater freedom! I knew I had to get to the bottom of this. I determined to do whatever I had to do to figure out if Locke was right, if others agreed with him, and if so, I wanted to deeply understand the law of nature and how it could make me free. 

 What my research over the next few years uncovered was shocking. It turns out that the concept of the law of nature is thousands of years old. I found dozes of voices echoing the validity of the law of nature and how important it is to human thriving. Philosophers, leaders, and thinkers in the West have been talking about it since the time of Plato and before. In fact, it’s an idea so pervasive in human nature that it is very similar to the concept of the Tao in the East. 

 In my studies, C.S. Lewis’ guidance through the basics of the law of nature has been invaluable. Aware in the early 20th century that the removal of the classical works from our schools was closing down the conversation on the law of nature, he took to studying, speaking, and writing about it several places beginning with his “fireside talks” on Christianity aired on BBC radio during WWII. He knew it was necessary to begin these talks on the basic tenets of the Christian faith with a tutorial on the law of nature because even eighty years ago, this knowledge was already being lost. He understood how vital the natural law is to the stability and success of individuals and societies, so in his books he left  us many important insights into what the law of nature is, why it matters, and how we can honor it. 

 There are basically two different aspects to the law of nature that Lewis presents. The first deals with our own personal behavior. Lewis He explains that because God has created everything, He knows best how to help all his creations function optimally—especially His children. That’s why he calls the law of nature, “God’s instructions for running the human machine.” It’s like an inventor who builds a robot and proceeds to write out the instruction manual, teaching the user how make it work properly, how to keep up with the on-going maintenance, and what to do if there is a breakdown. The law of nature, or the law of human nature as Lewis calls it, is the set of rules that God has put in place for humans to best manage themselves. To the extent that they follow the Creators instructions, Lewis argued, their lives will be productive, successful, and happy. William Blackstone confirmed this idea centuries earlier by beginning his extensive set of volumes on British common law by explaining that all human law has its root in God’s law of nature. He said that God has so intimately interwoven our real personal happiness and the law of nature that “if the former [the law of nature] be punctually obeyed, it cannot but induce the latter [true happiness].”

 Just as the robot doesn’t get to make up all the rules for his own maintenance, we don’t get to decide for ourselves what is right and what is wrong, God has made those rules. But, God has not left us to figure it out for ourselves. As the 18th century philosopher Thomas Reid put it, the law of nature is “written by the very finger of God on the hearts of men.” It is this intuitive understanding of the basics of right and wrong that enables us to judge our own behavior against a higher standard that we intuitively know. This explains why we have a conscience, why we suffer with guilt, why we feel we “should” be better. In fact, without an innate sense of the law of nature, we would never judge ourselves or others at all, because there would be no higher objective standard to judge things by. Therefore, in our personal behavior, we all know we have something inside ourselves encouraging us to do certain things and behave a certain way—whether we want to or not. And as Locke, Blackstone, Reid, Covey, the American founders, and many, many others have taught, to the extent that we know and honor the law of nature, we will enjoy lasting success and happiness. In this very real sense, I came to see that the law of nature was the truth that could set me free. 

 Which brings us to the second aspect of the law of nature that Lewis expounded upon—its social aspect. He explains that if you listen to people long enough you’ll hear a lot of arguing about things like “fairness” or “ownership” or “justice”. He says that all this quarreling is only possible because each person is trying to prove that the other is wrong and he is in the right. But, and here’s the important point, you can only have these kinds of arguments if you both know that there is a right and wrong, and that you both should, and actually do inherently understand it. We couldn’t even navigate our social interactions without appeal to the higher law of nature. Yet, ironically, we pretend like it doesn't exist. As Jordan Peterson recently commented, today we say we don’t believe in objective moral truths [aka this law of nature], yet we actually act like we do. C.S. Lewis made this same comment decades ago about the moral issues of WWII. He said that if there’s no intuitively known law of nature, “all the things we said about the war were nonsense. What was the sense in saying the enemy were in the wrong unless Right is a real thing which the Nazis at bottom knew as well as we did and ought to have practiced?” Lysander Spooner agreed. In his 1882 work titled Natural Law or The Science of Justice he taught that listening to children on a playground is profound evidence of the reality of this law in our social interactions. He explained that children constantly appeal to it and hold each other to this standard, “Their childish plays, even, could not be carried on without a constant regard to them [laws of nature]; and it is equally impossible for persons of any age to live together in peace on any other conditions.” Blackstone reaffirmed this when he taught that the law of nature “is binding over all the globe in all countries, and at all times; no human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this.” This means that not only do we desperately need a clear understanding of the law of nature to navigate our personal lives, it is also the foundation for all our social interactions, and even the basis for all human laws.

 That’s why C.S. Lewis was right to be alarmed about the loss of this fundamental framework of human existence. Its loss is daily wreaking havoc in our world. The secularization of everything, the “your truth, my truth” approach to personal and societal resolution, the subjective rather than objective approach to truth, goodness, and beauty are creating confusion as they conflict with the real truth which is the law of nature written on our hearts. We’ve certainly moved a long way from where we were 250 years ago when the American Founders wrote “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” into the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Clearly it was understood and believed then. What happened?

 Going all the way back to what Stephen Covey uncovered with the personality and the character ethic approaches to human problem-solving, we can see that the timelines correspond—the 20th century loss of the classical works that taught about the law of nature, and the religious framework that made sense of it in every day life, have left us floundering in quick-fix approaches that cannot produce the lasting results we long for. Further research and study taught me that the term “law of nature” is an umbrella term for all the “rules” that govern human thought and action. Under this umbrella are universally and intuitively known “first principles” that most human beings can agree on. These are concepts like rights, self-reliance, justice, love, etc. These are actually the types of principles Covey was talking about. From these first principles flow “principles” (I finally figured out where they fit). These are also universal truths but not necessarily intuitively known—they often have to be learned and applied consciously. These are truths like “forgiveness brings emotional peace,” or “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” These are what I have come to call “actionable principles.” They are truths in the form of principled statements that apply to all humans all of the time, but which are presented in such a way that a myriad of applications of them can be formulated. With these actionable principles in hand, individualized applications of the principles can be practiced which produce lasting health and wholeness—the truth that makes us free. 

 With this understanding in hand, I could now clearly see why self-help didn’t help me, and doesn’t help so many others. It was obvious that the basic assumptions and approaches which make up modern self-help philosophies and practices are fundamentally incomplete or broken. I’ve come to understand that there are at least 5 specific reasons why self-help doesn’t help us.

5 Reasons Why Self-Help Doesn’t Help

Reason #1: Modern self-help resources are personality ethic rather than character ethic based—focusing on content, discussions, or solutions that don’t change our basic character permanently for the better.

Reason #2: Because the concept of natural law is virtually lost today, modern self-help isn’t developed within that framework, which means it may or may not align with reality and truth.

Reason #3: Modern self-help often focuses on managing thoughts or emotions rather than learning to fundamentally think differently about ourselves and the world, especially through the lens of the law of nature and principles.

Reason #4: Because we don’t have the skills for identifying the principles of the natural law, modern self-help encourages us to lean on experts in the major decision-making of our lives, rather than depending on our own ability to discern truth and principles.    

Reason #5: Without the ability to discern principles themselves, creators of modern self-help mix up any principles they may teach with a myriad of applications, confusing us, causing a great waste of time, and potentially moving us backward rather than forward. 

  Understanding why I spent years spinning my wheels in modern self-help resources helped me see why my best efforts often led to failure. This was a huge relief. It gave me courage to find new answers and a new path for myself and my family. I felt incredibly empowered because I not only knew why self-help doesn’t help, but I knew what to do instead! Because of my newfound understanding of the law of nature, I could see that from it flow timeless principles that I could discover and live, and that they were the truths that would make me free. I knew exactly how to proceed! I simply needed to gain the skills for identifying true principles, and then learn the best techniques to practice them in my every day life. I knew it would be hard and it would probably take many years, maybe even a lifetime. But I didn’t care how long it took because I some of the greatest individuals in history had verified the reality and effectiveness of this path. I was determined to discover and live truth—not just for me but for my family as well. 

 Now, twenty years later, I am a different woman. Through writing, speaking, teaching, and practice, I have learned the skills for identifying the true principles that flow from the law of nature, and applying them to my life. This has generated increased freedom in virtually every area of my life—my marriage, our finances, my relationships, my health, my education, my self-knowledge, my life-fulfillment. I cannot emphasize enough how this new way of seeing and engaging in the world keeps me on solid ground, keeps my confidence high, and empowers me to discern and follow truth. My life is far from perfect but I know how to meet the new challenges that present themselves by applying timeless truths that always bring better results. I have walked this path long enough to know that the law of nature, with its underlying first principles and principles, is the truth is truly making me free. It’s also, as Blackstone and Covey and so many others promised, making me happier and more successful.

 Thankfully, it’s not just me that’s benefiting. I recently got a phone call from one my students. She was struggling in her marriage and attending marriage therapy with her husband. At a critical point, she felt she needed to take a particular action in her marriage and her therapist counseled her differently. She asked me, “Audrey, I think that my therapist is giving me an application, not a principle.” She then shared with me the principle she felt she should apply. “I think this is the principle and I should apply it in my marriage differently than my therapist is counseling me. In fact, I think she is not only telling me an application, it’s clear she can’t tie it back to a true principle. Am I right? Is this a principle and should I apply it my own way?” I told her she was right, and she should follow the principle she had uncovered. Her newfound sense of confidence and courage to stand up to her therapist wasn’t born out of discomfort or laziness, but out of knowledge of the law of nature and the skills she’d worked hard to gain in identifying the truth and applying it appropriately to her own situation. She has become the expert in her own life—not that she has all the answers, but she knows how to identify the true principles and valiantly champion those, rather than being constantly confused by the barrage of information and applications being thrown at her. 

 Learning about the law of nature and true principles can do the same for you. Rather than running to the next “thing” that promises you the solution to the pain you are in, you can become the authority in your own life. You can have the truth make you free through gaining the skills to identify the principles for yourself and practice applications of them in your life in ways that will work for your unique circumstances.  

 Obviously, these are skills that will take time and practice to develop, but I know that the work is worth the result. That’s why I’ve spent so much time speaking and writing about the importance of these truths, and why I’ve built several courses and masterclasses educating people on how to live in more principle-centered ways. I’ve dedicated my life to this message and building tools to help others along this path. Stephen Covey said it best, “The internalization of correct principles is the foundation upon which lasting success and happiness are based.” 

You don’t need self-help to meet your potential, you need the truth to make you free. 




There is truth. You can know it, live it, and be liberated by it. Begin now to be set free from the significant problems you face. 

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