The Pitfalls and Promises of Self-Help

I’m a self-help scavenger. Over the course of a lifetime, I’ve read hundreds of self-help books. Like many people, I started life off on uneven footing and always had the sense that I had to make up for something that I was lacking – something that was preventing me from being the confident, self-actualized, happy person I thought I should be. It’s taken decades to understand how to make self-help advice useful and how to discard that which is not.

There is a wide variety of books out there, one for every phase or problem in one’s life. The approaches vary and as we all know, so do the results. Some are sweet aunties who love you and just want you to be happy. Others are drill sergeants who bellow in your face. And then there are the shills, who turn basic ideas into a secretive language of high wizardry.

Here are a few things that I’ve learned about self-help books:

The first half of the book usually covers all the concepts.

I will be the first to admit that it is a rare self-help guide that I finish. Unless the writing or the stories are compelling, repetition sets in and then it all starts to sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher in my head. I also find that I need time for thoughts to marinate – once I catch an idea I like or that makes sense to me, I’m eager to put the book aside.

The harsher the tone of the writer, the less I trust their ability to understand human nature and therefore offer useful advice.

canstockphoto2656709This is the drill sergeant approach. Take someone who is feeling down and out, tell them what to do, and then suggest that they’re a failure if they can’t make it happen. This is, essentially, what many self-help books do. Throw in a little moralizing and finger-wagging and you get the idea. This is, to loot modern terminology, self-help shaming. What? We told you what to do. If you’re not happy now, there’s something wrong with you.

Some books have a narrator who talks as if they’re in the midst of a bar brawl or on the battlefield. The toughness approach generally makes me want to tear the book in half. I grew up with negative motivation. It means that fear drove most of my behavior. I’m a grownup now and won’t be yelled into compliance. Convince me with logic and reason. Use your indoor voice.

Most self-help books are missing major caveats.

I recently read a self-help book that is popular right now. The first chapter started out with the origin story. The second was a cheap remix of The Secret. The following chapters had a few actionable items. I finally quit at the chapter that characterized depression as some sort of defeatist laziness. The writer was a little older than I, so there was really no excuse for this type of ignorance.

This is not the first time a self-help writer characterized depression as something canstockphoto13041791besides a brain chemical imbalance. The positivity movement of the 1990s, in its self-congratulatory glee and smiley faces, runs roughshod over obstacles to good mental health.

It is likely no coincidence that, despite all of these friendly people telling us to get happy, depression is on the rise in this country. It turns out, willful ignorance and grinning determination is not actually an antidote to mental health issues.

Like most things, the sequels are rarely better.

This is about marketing, not self-help. It’s just squeezing an already-juiced orange.

*****

canstockphoto34597907So those are some of the pitfalls. The biggest one, of course, is believing that you are one constant DIY project. I’ve unraveled a lot of the thinking around that. I like self-improvement pursuits, but it’s very easy to focus so hard on trying to be better, that you fail to appreciate the things about yourself that are pretty good. And when pretty good is good enough.

It’s part culture and part related to whatever messages we get as kids. We get pulled into the advertising of better selves through possession of better things and it can attach itself to that part of our psyche that says whatever we have, whatever we are, it’s not enough.

Using Self-Help to Your Advantage

Self-help advice is like a buffet.

You pick what you like, what resonates, what seems like a possibility. You don’t make yourself eat the beets just because they are next to the chocolate pudding (or vice-versa, depending on your intentions and tastes).

There’s no failure. There’s what works for you and what doesn’t.

If you don’t implement every step the author suggests, you’re not a failure. Has the step you’ve chosen helped improve your life in some way? That’s the only thing that matters.

Sometimes good ideas come from odd places.

canstockphoto24077627Many years ago, I read L. Ron Hubbard’s “Dianetics” – the tome associated with Scientology. The one thing I learned was to think about my reactions to situations and whether or not I was reacting to what was in front of me or to other memories and connections related to the situation. That’s pretty much all I got out of a 600+ page book, but it was something.

Change is not a television show. There is no big reveal.

I used to love watching This Old House on PBS. Usually it was a kitchen or basement that got transformed in the course of an hour. Of course, ginned-up versions of this now come in weight, house, and fashion makeover shows. Buses are moved, curtains pulled aside, and suddenly, there’s the after, dramatic and “improved”. Real change takes time and perspective. I’ll read something today that I may not try for years, but it’s a tool in the back of my mind that might come in handy someday. You just never know what might be useful when the time is right.

canstockphoto12917145My Abbreviated History of Self-Help Books

Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus by John Gray

I learned that I hate any self-help books divided by gender – and this guy’s books in particular. It’s loaded with stereotypes and unimaginative solutions. This smarmy trad-dude is from Uranus.

Between Parent and Child by Dr. Haim G. Ginott

I learned some good communication skills, not just with my child, but with humans in general. Kept it as a reference book.

Women and Self-Esteem by Linda Tschirhart Sanford and Mary Ellen Donovan

I read this back in the 1990s when I was spending a lot of time on public transportation. It had a chapter about women in public spaces that made me not only function differently in public, but also improved my observation skills of others around me.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey

Don’t quip corporate terminology, show me what is essentially a PowerPoint presentation, or encourage me to buy your extensive line of products. Sigh. I bought one of those stupid planners. I needed to schedule time in my day to fill in the damned thing. Not effective and carries a whiff of corporate bro-ness.

Getting Unstuck: Breaking Your Habitual Patterns and Encountering Naked Reality by Pema Chödrön

This was my first encounter with this American Buddhist nun and I’ve been hooked ever since. Most of the time I listen to her audiobooks, but I will sometimes pull When Things Fall Apart off the shelf. The thing that always sticks in my mind is the idea of “leaning into the sharp edges” – this idea that instead of seeking distraction and avoidance of unpleasant feelings, to look at them with a clear and present eye. It’s much less destructive.

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

I really wanted to like this book, but it was a bit of a clunky read, with anecdotes that were too lengthy and perhaps intended for people who routinely miss the point.

Small Move, Big Change by Caroline Arnold

I read this book last fall and set about immediately making changes (microresolutions). I’m still in the enthusiastic phase. I’ve made changes that are, 8 months later, habits. I read another book at the time that was similar in nature: Mini-habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results by Stephen Guise. It was a good starter book, but Ms. Arnold’s book included an important piece often missed in goal-setting – teaching you how to pick the right goal for yourself.

The Power of Now by Ekhart Tolle

I tried, I really tried. There’s no way around it – the condescension just irritated the hell out of me.

Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore

This book stays on my reference shelf. I like writing that makes me feel just a bit smarter. The narrator, a former monk, does not limit himself in sources, drawing analogies from religion, mythology, and culture. His book embraces complex feelings, instead of trying, like so many others, to deny or simplify them.

Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman

I learned how to change my internal dialogue with this book. There are a lot of ways to go about this, but this particular book resonated with me. I learned how to challenge my irrational thoughts. Not permanently, of course – that’s an ongoing challenge.

*****

I’m going to stop there – the list is getting too long. The books that I have actively disliked (and passive-aggressively not provided links to), might just be the thing that does it for you. And some of my aha book moments may completely elude anybody else.

Do you read self-help books? What have you read that has been useful?

 

 

Bits of Sunshine Coming In

canstockphoto2875377In journalistic vernacular, this is going to be a disjointed fluff piece. For months, I’ve been wrapped up in the turmoil that is political life in America and this week, I’m calling a time out. It’s exhausting and depressing – and I’m pretty sure I’ve lost some IQ points in the process. My practice this week is to not read any news until the evening, leaving my day untainted by a sense of apocalyptic foreboding.

The sun has been shining and we’re having a bit of a warm streak here in Minnesota. Despite a few slip-n-slide sidewalks, I’ve been able to get out and walk and feel some sense of normalcy. I perused my yard, taking note of various garden projects and making lists of supplies. It’s premature. These warm streaks are inevitably followed by blizzards and my notes get put aside for a snow shovel. But still, it’s a break in the cold days and bleak skies. And it keeps the Minnesota homicide rate down during cabin fever February.

*****

canstockphoto9109848I forgot that it was Valentine’s day yesterday. Late afternoon, I stood in line at the drugstore with a lot of men who were clutching chocolate and stuffed animals. It’s a test each year about expectations. I usually have to make up something for my husband to get me, because when I say nothing, he worries that he should do something. Inevitably I end up with some heart-shaped doodad that, until that moment, I didn’t know I didn’t want. I usually ask for spring flowers, which show up in shops around this time of year and are easy to pick up downtown on the way to his bus. We’re a romantic lot here.

*****

canstockphoto7037830If you have a compulsive personality like I do, the real trick is to turn that negative into a positive. I cancelled Netflix and Amazon Prime to curtail a binge-watching habit. I traded it in for a free language training program called Duolingo. I’m not into product promotion, but this is a fantastic online program. I’ve been reviewing, in short snippets, my Spanish, Russian, German, and French every day for the last week. Once I get back into the groove, I would like to start some Hindi and Korean. It’s user-friendly (my 12 year old got me onto it) and is self-paced. I feel parts of my brain light up that were collecting dust.

*****

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If only my cats were this useful.

In my attempt to eat less packaged foods, I’ve been cooking. As a rule, I don’t particularly enjoy cooking. I’m so accustomed to quick food that the preparation, cooking and cleanup seems interminable. A meal from scratch can take 2 or more hours, and it takes my family all of 15 minutes to eat it – even less to grimace on the first bite and make themselves a sandwich instead. It’s not a gratifying experience and I’m stuck eating a soup nobody liked for the next week.

*****

Writing has been going well for me. I’ve been more productive in the last couple of weeks than I have in months. I need a finished manuscript done by April for a writers’ pitch conference. I had to let go of preconceptions about how and when I work. I purchased a cheap laptop which I drag along to all the places where I wait – all my daughter’s rehearsals and lessons and practices.

I finally trained myself to use Scrivener, which I had purchased with a discount after NaNoWriMo in 2012. It’s a challenge to learn it, but my novel and notes were becoming too unwieldy in Word. I’m finding it useful, but there is definitely a learning curve.

*****

As an American, I’m highly trained in instant gratification. Instant entertainment, instant food, instant information. Cooking, reading longer form news, not trying to incessantly fill every space with sound, images and ideas – it seems that this is emerging as a new intention for me. It’s not just slowing down, but giving myself time to unravel all the tight, angry tension that I’ve felt for the last year.

canstockphoto34597907Lately, what I’ve been observing in schools, coffee shops, offices and sometimes in my own home, is that we are batteries that are never fully recharging. Our information comes in fast, short bursts. We lie to ourselves about multitasking. We pride ourselves on odd things like functioning on little sleep or how many emails we get or how many friends we’ve acquired on social media.

I’ve been thinking about the concreteness of life around me, a life not lived ephemerally through my phone or computer. It’s not as interesting or exciting. It defies instant gratification. There is no drama, nothing that inspires rage or jealousy or triggers eating and shopping sprees. I realized how addictive some emotions can be. I’ve felt addicted to anger with all the online reading, an anger I usually reserve for driving. The space left when I turn off all the noise is unsettling.

*****

Useless trivia I will remember instead of where my car keys are:

I watched my daughter’s orchestra perform at Orchestra Hall last week and ended up with a melody stuck in my head. That’s when I found out that a pop song I knew from the 1970s had liberally lifted from Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, III. Adagio.  Perhaps, if you’re an oldbie like me, you recognize the tune. The Rachmaninoff estate now gets 12% of royalties due this pop singer. This same singer also borrowed from Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in C Minor, Opus 18 for another pop single.

The Green Study’s “Positively Happy Nice Story” Contest: Honorable Mention

Today’s post wraps up the contest entries. Thank you to all the people who added a little positivity to The Green Study in the month of October!

In November, I know many people will disappear into the deep hole of NaNoWriMo. While I won’t be participating this year, as I have a work-in-progress, I’ll be furiously writing away, word counts be damned. Take a breather and stop by here for some encouragement, a laugh or just a sympathetic, weary nod of agreement. I’ll be posting throughout the month, taking breathers from the novel. Best wishes to you all!

canstockphoto14284461Last, but not least, is an Honorable Mention post by Alison at Adventures in Wonderland, whose entry “Sometimes We Take For Granted Those Who Are Most Important To Us” is self-explanatory.

Alison is carrying on her nomadic journeys, so she received an e-postcard from Minnesota and $25 was donated to the Red Cross on her behalf.

Sometimes We Take For Granted Those Who Are Most Important To Us

By Alison at Adventures in Wonderland

This morning I said to my husband Don:

Michelle at The Green Study is having a story contest. She wants a 400 to 800-word piece about something positive, and I can’t think of a single thing to write about. It’s been sitting with me for a week and I can’t think of anything.

I’m almost always positive. I’m one of those annoying Pollyanna types who sees the good in everything, and I couldn’t think of anything to write about.

He looked at me and said: Write about me! With a big grin on his face.

At first I was bewildered, and didn’t know how to react, or how to let him down kindly. It didn’t seem to remotely fit the required theme. Don was still grinning.

canstockphoto31001917Then I read out loud the requirements: a positively happy nice incident, an admirable person in your life, unwitting luck or fortunate consequences. Bingo! He fulfills all the categories – for me he is a continuous positively happy nice incident, being with him is the biggest piece of unwitting luck or fortunate consequences to ever happen to me, and I admire him enormously. Here’s why:

Don is a kind man. It’s not that he never gets upset with others but his basic nature is one of kindness. He is sensitive to his environment and to others. He mostly wants to feel good and to have others feel good. He questions his place in the world but at the same time is one of the wisest people I know. He always goes to the heart of the matter, looking for deeper meaning than the waves on the surface. He is not afraid to look with open eyes into his own depths and to clear what needs to be cleared. He is not afraid to feel his feelings. He is always pursuing authenticity.

He is steady and organized and takes care of business. He never puts things off, but sees to what needs to be done in a better than timely manner. I’m a procrastinator, but not Don. He’s always on top of everything and helps me to be as well.

My Don is a good good man who takes care of me, but at the same time allows me to be canstockphoto7166839myself. He makes few demands. He’s committed to clear communication and authenticity, and he chooses love. Even in the face of discord he chooses love. He chooses the path of courage to face the truth, courage to be seen no matter how shameful it may be, courage to stand his ground in things that matter to him. He says clearly what he wants and needs. At the same time he can be flexible, bending like the willow, his roots firmly planted, but branches flying free when the situation demands it. He’s willing to admit when he’s been wrong.

He has many qualities I admire, but I think above all I admire his commitment to the truth. I don’t mean the scientific truth, I mean his own deeply felt truth – the truth in his heart and soul and body about what’s right or not for him, and his quiet determination to live by that.

He’s intelligent and thoughtful, and a good listener even if I sometimes have to start with: pay attention to me now.

Plus he’s funny. When I wonder out loud from time to time how on earth he puts up with me he says it’s because he’s a living saint.

So I read to him what I’ve written. Later we’re out for a walk and start talking about it. He says he never knew I thought that way about him. I guess I need to be more communicative. Anyway, I say: I constantly admire and appreciate and enjoy you. And you let me!

To which he replied: It’s my best trick.

So I get to spend my days with the person I admire the most, and I didn’t even think to write about him. Sometimes we take for granted those who are most important to us.

Congratulations Alison!

Here’s an Adventures in Wonderland sampler:

Do You Want a Home or Do You Want a Life?

The Nile Forever New and Old – Cruising from Aswan to Luxor

Endless Beauty: The Glory of New Zealand

The Green Study’s “Positively Happy Nice Story” Contest

canstockphoto28843846Months ago, I had decided to run an autumn contest here at The Green Study. It will be my 4th contest in 4 years, so longtime readers here are familiar with the patter. At first I thought I’d dispel some political gloom and make it the “If I were President” Contest, but frankly, I’ve lost my sense of humor about it all. And I don’t have the energy to rein in political rants running amok on my blog.

Instead, I’m looking for good news – the news that aren’t click bait, news happening in your life or in your neighborhood. We the people aren’t just political affiliations and labels. We have stories – stories that remind us of what is good and kind and generous and decent about being human. They could be something that happened years ago or something that is happening now. We need joy. Stat.

Welcome to The Green Study “Positively Happy Nice Story” Contest. Here are the canstockphoto16178005guidelines:

Write a previously unpublished blog post or if you’re not a blogger, an essay (with title) 400-800 words long about a positively happy nice incident, an admirable person in your life, unwitting luck or fortunate consequences.  Submit it through my Contact page by Saturday, October 1st, 2016, Monday, October 3rd, 12:00 pm, Midnight (US Standard Central Time). Please note that your formatting is retained when I receive it – the Contact page makes it look like it has disappeared.

One entry per person please. The contest begins as soon as this post goes public.
The winners will be notified on Wednesday, October 5th, 2016 by 12:00 am (US Standard Central Time).

Shipping of the prizes and donations will take place by October 12th, 2016. Guest blog posting will occur between October 15th and November 1st, 2016.

All entries will be judged by me, myself and I. It’s entirely subjective.

canstockphoto23327111st Prize: Your entry will be posted as a guest post to my blog, you will be sent a brand new The Green Study Coffee Mug and I will make a $100 donation to the American Red Cross on your behalf to your local Red Cross Chapter or their International Disaster Response fund.

2nd Prize: Your entry will be posted as a guest post to my blog, you will be sent a brand new The Green Study Coffee Mug and I will make a $75 donation to the American Red Cross on your behalf to your local Red Cross Chapter or their International Disaster Response fund.

3rd Prize: Your entry will be posted as a guest post to my blog, you will be sent a brand new The Green Study Coffee Mug and I will make a $50 donation to the American Red Cross on your behalf to your local Red Cross Chapter or their International Disaster Response fund.

All participants will receive a priceless, irreplaceable postcard from Minneapolis (although it actually cost $1.00 and can be bought at the airport, in large quantities).

I will ship prize winners’ mugs stateside or internationally (with no guarantee that it will arrive or that it will arrive in one piece), just because I like to hold up the line at the post office because I haven’t filled out the right forms.

If any former participants and/or winners read this post, please feel free to comment on the veracity of The Green Study contests. Please let readers know that you’ve received your prizes and that I haven’t shown up at your front door looking for a place to stay or spammed your email. Previous winners are allowed to participate and an updated mug is in production.

Good news is rare these days, and every glittering ounce of it should be cherished and hoarded and worshipped and fondled like a priceless diamond.
Hunter S. Thompson

Administrative Note: There will be no fondling or diamonds involved in this contest. 

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