There are a couple of ways these books, even if authored by sincere people with good intentions, can pave the way for unhappiness, explains Oliver Burkeman, author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.

“A magazine that provides you with an picture of ‘how life should be’ results in a situation where anything in your lifetime that diverges from that image actually makes you feel worse,” Burkeman explains. When you compare your current situation — which has likely motivated you to buy a self-help book — with the picture of happiness and fulfillment conveyed through the author, or you compare yourself with this smiling, got-it-all-together author, you may believe that you come up miserably short.

Then there’s the bummer that can arise when you try to place the advice into practice. “These books naturally sell the concept that you’re going to make a completely new beginning,” he says. “You’re going to transform your life in a pretty simple and easy way, and it’s not really a long and arduous process — which, according to all evidence, real psychic change really is. If you are feeling bad, and also the nine-week program to make things perfect doesn’t work, you’re not just still feeling bad, but you’ve added the sensation of being a failure at self-improvement.”

Ultimately, he suggests, the frustration that self-help failure generates might be rooted in the very idea of self. “You yourself decide what your condition is and buy a book that addresses that problem,” he explains. “But what if you think you need to become more productive but they are actually a workaholic, and if anything, you have to be less productive — or at least less work-obsessed — to become happy and to improve your relationships?” Psychotherapy, he points out, exists to find and address the problems that you don’t see.

If you don’t want to abandon the genre, Burkeman suggests, look for authors who are honest about their own imperfections and struggles, “people who are more like companions than gurus.” Be easy on yourself, understand that real change is slow, and consider speaking with a therapist if something seems intractable.