What You Can Learn from My Love Affair With Self-Help

by Melissa Karnaze

Valentine heart candy messagesIn my twittersphere, and based on the blogosphere pulse I’ve been taking, it’s clear to me there’s a somewhat contagious self-help bash underway, coinciding with the recent release of Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book.

And it’s not the “party” kind of bash, it’s the bad kind. Like the talking down on multi-millionaires who just want to sell the good feelings kind.

(In case you were wondering, Ehrenreich’s book is called Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, and it’s on my overrun to-read list.)

Enter the self-help bash

As part of the bash festivities, Guardian writer Carole Cadwalladr called positive psychology a cultural orthodoxy that isn’t really helping people in the ways that it claims to.

Now, I happen to agree with a lot of Cadwalladr is saying.

Pushing positive thoughts into your mind when you’re not ready for them — most likely to avoid fully processing your negative emotions — is a deadly recipe.

But at some point while reading, Cadwalladr just rubbed me the wrong way.

Because if the let’s-get-critical-about-self-help movement veers off-course in more of a rant than constructive criticism, then it won’t be helping anyone, really.

So I’m going to make a confession, to redeem the two main qualities that make self-help really awesome.

My affair with self-help

I had a love affair with self-help not too long ago. Now, I didn’t read hundreds of books, but I did read a few important ones… rather intensely.

This site wouldn’t have been conceived without my love affair — I wouldn’t have had the courage or the reason to write from my heart, with a purpose, for all the world to see.

And I wouldn’t be who I am today if I didn’t let my mind mingle with thousands of words delivering help for the self — help which I took and ran with.

Self-help, the seductress

Self-help starts your engine. It alerts you of where you need to go, or where you want to go. It shows you some positive options. And it gives you a really long pep talk in case you had any doubts.

But self-help only starts the engine. If you don’t follow your route, don’t have enough gas, or don’t have a car that will even make the trip — then self-help is useless.

Meaning, you have to be willing and ready to make actual changes in your behavior and your life. Which is going to require that you don’t turn in the other direction when pain, anger, fear, or other negative emotions, show up as regular stops along the road.

But back to my love affair, because it was a good one. And hopefully you can learn something from it.

Self-help, my companion

I had a really good run with my intense self-help absorption. I learned how codependency was wreaking havoc in my live, started my own recovery program, and in the process, learned who I really was — and found my voice.

When it comes to working with self-help, you need to know two really important things:

    1. Self-help is a loyal partner
    2. Like any partner, self-help can’t be perfect

Self-help is a loyal partner

Self-help nurtures you, makes you feel comfortable, and faithfully supports you every page (or post) of the way.

It gives you space to accept yourself unconditionally, because the author does. Read far enough, and you really feel that author believes in you. Pretty soon, you start believing in yourself. And you know you have a cheerleader to turn to because she’s resting safely on your bookshelf.

Whenever you make important life changes, you need the faith and support to move forward. And the patience that reading a book brings. You learn to visualize your success with your author of choice’s choice of words. If you’re lucky, you learn how to take visualization to the next level, with mindful prayer. And then you’re in real business.

Like any partner, self-help can’t be perfect

Self-help doesn’t have all the answers; it’s going to come up short somewhere along the line, or it may even have some dangerous pitfalls. Which means, it challenges you in the end to, as the Oracle says to Neo: “Make up your own damn mind.”

And you have to be on your toes to make the relationship work, because self-help is in the business of selling good feelings to you, often, when you’re not in the mood. Self-help does this through it’s tool of seduction — language.

It uses generalizations, exaggerations, assertions about what you need (which I’m mindfully guilty of), and it abandons comprehensive analyses or thorough scientific investigations — because that’s what self-help is: copywriting for feeling good. It’s not a mathematical proof or a research paper. It’s supposed to be direct and motivating. (Scientifically-sound means tons of waiting-time for funding, research, and application — that last of which may never even happen — not to mention the time-consumption of political hurdles that must be faced.)

Self-help’s seductive and clever use of language can be a bad thing for you, as Cadwalladr and company are happy to point out. Or, it can be an incredible exercise for you to hold your mental boundaries, strengthen your self-awareness.

If self-help keeps you discerning when and why you’re in the mood to feel good — or not to — you really benefit, because you learn to connect to your emotions, and stay connected to them in constructive ways.

How I ended my affair with self-help

When I had healed myself enough, and was confident to move forward by finally owning my voice, I made an important decision: I ended the affair.

    — But not the relationship.

Self-help and I remain really good friends, confidants. That’s because I have a healthy sense of boundaries.

I know when I really want to (read: not need to) re-read one of my favorite passages — or when I’m really just looking for a fix. And now, thanks to a lot of the writing that I’ve done here, I know it’s okay to itch for that fix — but that acting on impulse won’t fix anything (you have to be mindful of it), and will just make it worse.

In other words, I consume self-help completely on my own terms, with a healthy sense of when and when not to engage. Because self-help, like any persuasive writing, is meant to alter the mind, just like any drug (or the hormones of romance).

When you read self-help to alter your mind at the expense of being mindful of all your emotions, self-help uses you.

When you read self-help to sharpen your ability to be mindful of all your emotions, by:

    1. Supporting yourself through the process of natural self-growth, and integrating all of your life experiences and emotions in such a way as to promote response ability and build your life as a mindful construct
    2. Being hyper-aware of anything that comes into conflict with the process (even if it’s directly from the self-help source), and keeping it “out” with strong mental boundaries

…then you use it — the right way.

I know that’s a mouthful, but read it again if you have to. Because it sums up what it took much of my time (especially reading time), energy, and especially my tears, to learn. It might save you some time, energy, and maybe tears, if you’re so self-help inclined.

Self-help relationships can be codependent

You see, self-help is like a romantic relationship. It’s addicting. It’s codependent-prone.

The trick is not to get addicted, but to be mindful of every single page you read. And doing so from a place of total mindfulness about your life, your relationships, and your emotions.

Self-help is going to court you — it’s meant to persuade you to get happy, feel good, do better, be more successful.

But you need to know when it’s not the time to grope for those things, and instead take your time to figure out what you really want in the first place.

Codependent relationships won’t make you happy

Some days are going to be shit days. Some days everything falls apart.

But guess what?

You feel the pain. You nurse yourself. You take your time, to grieve.

Then you pick yourself up. You rebuild. And then you know what you want to build, and why.

If you try to skip the shit days, the down time, and if you throw mindfulness out the window when it’s there to remind you it’s okay for everything not to be okay

    — then you lose.

And you risk compounding the injury, the problem, the conflict… because you hide the problem instead of identifying it.

If you use self-help to avoid facing your dark emotions, then you’ll only end up feeling used in the end. Because your problems will never be fixed, only masked.

And slowly… you’ll start to numb out from life.

Self-help relationships can be good

Self-help is the key to start the car. It’s the beginning of the journey. Learn how to court it, and it might just be a trustworthy companion along the way.

But the journey is yours. The life is yours. The opportunity belongs to you.

And there’s a lot of opportunity to be found, if you are willing to look while remaining true to yourself, meaning, all of your emotions.

That’s what my love affair with self-help taught me. And that’s why we’re still really good friends.

As with all of the articles here, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. So if you’ve had or are having a self-help love affair of your own, by all means, share the juicy details!

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Cole Bitting October 16, 2009 at 9:32 am

Another well written piece. It’s like there is a self-help infatuation treadmill.

1. Start
2. Become infatuated with the guru
3. Feel really good about yourself
4. Try the program – kind of
5. Less infatuation, more frustation
6. “Almost that time. Let me get another book.”

If self-perspective were easy, we wouldn’t see so many self-help books.

Melissa Karnaze October 16, 2009 at 9:42 am

Lol @kind of

It’s sad, but true. There’s no “graduation,” just the next best-seller.

And you know, I think many have trained themselves to skip the “more frustration” feeling, or rather, numb it out. If self-help is a consumer cycle, it’s like a treadmill, not an actual journey.

Cole, thanks for making me laugh with your thoughtful comment.

Kelley Mitchell October 17, 2009 at 9:55 am

I’m a fan of self-help as well. I particularly liked the passage about “the shit days”. Had a few of those this past week, and you’re comments certainly ring true.

“Some days are going to be shit days. Some days everything falls apart.

But guess what?

You feel the pain. You nurse yourself. You take your time, to grieve.

Then you pick yourself up. You rebuild. And then you know what you want to build, and why.”


Odin Xenobuilder October 17, 2009 at 12:21 pm

Doesn’t it seem like this self-help thing parallels physical health fads in a way? As in people never achieving long term physical health until they understand it’s a permanent life style change rather than a one time fix it diet program or something. Maybe self-help is the same way, you’ve got to consume it and integrate it into your life ongoing instead of constantly moving to the newest thing looking for a destination. As you said, it’s a journey.

Melissa Karnaze October 17, 2009 at 2:45 pm

Kelley, I thought carefully before using the first curse words on Mindful Construct, so I’m glad to hear it rang true for you. I hope your days pick up for you when the time is right. :)

Odin, I think it really can parallel health fads. It’s easy to think that you just have to try this new diet or lose that much weight — but why? If people are doing it because they think they *have* to but don’t have health or some other form of self-love as the number one reason, then their efforts won’t endure long-term, because they are missing the point to begin with. Same is true for using self-help compulsively.

It’s interesting that you use “consume” alongside “integrate” in describing functional self-helping. You’d think that commodifying anything, like happiness, etc. into books or courses or audiotapes — would be disastrous. But, you do need to consume to integrate. Thanks for that insight.

Gabe | New Hustle October 19, 2009 at 4:26 pm

Powerful post – and well written. You succinctly described the exact emotion I couldn’t quite put my finger on about my own “self-help” addiction. We can’t hide our negative traits – but we can seek to improve upon them to become more well rounded and positive contributors to society as a whole.

To seek our “best self” involves delving in “self-improvement” – and whatever book or passage that may assist us (by the wisdom of the ages) is by no means a recipe for disaster – unless, as you say, we choose to only focus on positive and hide the negative.

Thanks for the great read!


Melissa Karnaze October 19, 2009 at 5:17 pm

Gabe, exactly. Self-help can be a razor sharp tool if we are aware of its potential pitfalls, which may be explicit or implicit in the text. We need to consume it in a balanced way. Thanks for sharing about your relationship with self-help.

I really like the pack in the New Hustle punch! I can totally identify myself as a Millennial. :)

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