For those of you who don’t know me, I’m an avid reader. I know, big shock, right? My husband refers to reading as my “habit” – saying it in a way that clearly implies he feels I could benefit from a 5-step program and a sponsor. I found this amusing as hell, images of me locking myself in the bathroom so I could just get a quick fix… well, okay, he may have a small point.
Anyway, moving on. I read a lot, and I’m not all that picky about what I will read. I have my favorites, and I’ve got some preconceived notions about certain genres you’d be hard pressed to change my mind about. But overall, I’m a pretty open-minded reader.
Usually, I’ll have four or five books going at a time so I can flip back and forth depending on my mood. Take right now, for example. I’m in the middle of three different books on my Kindle, two hard copies from the library, one I bought from the used bookstore Tuesday, and two audiobooks. And not one of them is the same genre. For the sake of honesty, two of them are Stephen King books, but one is nonfiction, so they don’t count. Which is irrelevant anyway.
The point of me telling you this is so you don’t roll your eyes when I tell you that I’ve become kind of a self-help book junkie.
Don’t get me wrong. If the first chapter of a book tells me that my road to inner peace is paved with affirmations, I’m out.
I don’t need to waste my time reading books that are going to tell me all about the power of positive thinking. We all know, on some basic level, that negative self-talk can be a buzzkill at best, and deadly at worst. But we also know, or at least, I know, that people who walk around all day shitting sunshine and happiness without fail are creepy and unsettling. There has to be some bad in there to balance it all out. Otherwise, how could you genuinely appreciate all of the good?
Over the last couple of years, I have become somewhat of a connoisseur of self-help books. From the ones that don’t really seem to have any intention of actually helping the reader, to the ones that scream “You are amazing and your imperfections are amazing, and you eat that second brownie because all of that amazingness deserves to be rewarded!” at you. Actually, I’m convinced some of these books are actually designed to give you new, different problems, so you have to go buy new, different books.
See, it goes something like this:
I am going to love myself for who I am, warts and all. I do deserve that brownie because I am amazing. I am my best friend, and I don’t judge myself!
Then, two months later, after your doctor has told you that you’ve gained 17lbs, and you are putting yourself at risk of diabetes if you don’t stop eating brownies every time you feel the need to remind yourself how much you love yourself, you re-evaluate, and pick a different book.
God, I need to stop eating my feelings! I’m going to start confronting my problems, and being the stronger, more assertive me! I will no longer suppress my feelings with food, I am going to say it like it is from this moment forward!
Then, two months later, you may have lost a few pounds because you are no longer eating your feelings, but you’ve probably also lost some relationships along the way too. Because nobody likes it when they’re merrily going about their own lives, and you suddenly show up with the most dominating opinion in the room. About them. Without any acknowledgment of your own issues. Because you are too busy telling them what their issues are. So, another book gets picked up.
Why am I so determined to self-sabotage? Why do I drive everyone away? I need to look at what motivates me! Forget feelings, I need to focus on my actions! It’s time to start doing more things for me!
So. First, you filled yourself with love in the form of brownies. Then, you swallowed your feelings in order to tell everyone else what their feelings were. Then, you decided the best way to prevent yourself from sabotaging yourself was to only focus on yourself. Annnd you’re likely back to square one. It’s baffling! The cycle just goes around and around. A million variations of the same damn dance.
It’s like one of those walking escalators they have at Disney World and overcrowded airports. You get on it, and you’re going and it’s all good, and then you step off and the whole world feels disorienting for a second because your brain forgot what it’s like to stand still and just be there.
That’s what depression feels like, to me, anyway. Like I forgot to show up and exist. I could see all of the people moving around, going about their lives, but they were all too separate from me for me to reach. And once I finally caught up to them all, nothing would come into focus. It’s a bizarre and unsettling feeling, especially in the context of my life. Which brings me back to all the self-help books.
Sometimes, I’ll read one, and think to myself Holy shit! That’s amazing! It’s so simple, why didn’t I think of that? And other times, I’ll read something and think to myself Do people really buy into this BS? Because really, it’s all about what connects to your life, and your experiences. The things that feel relevant to me could very well seem trite and ridiculous to you. Which left me to wonder about a lot. Is there a point to reading these books? Yes, I think there definitely can be.
Honestly, sometimes it’s just to know that someone else’s head may be a bit more screwed up than my own. But more than that, they serve as a reminder that there is no solution. There’s no big answer. No giant computer is going to tell me that 42 is what I’m looking for so I should just sit down, shut up, and be happy with it.
I want to explore the ideas more. The main, consistent themes that pop up in these books. I’d like to play a few games of comparison with them. What is the difference between self-care and self-preservation, and at what point does it make you selfish? When is it perfectly reasonable to be angry? How angry is considered reasonable? Where is the line between working on myself, and focusing on other people? Does the hamster really need a second ball to run around in? Oops. Not that last one. Bit of a slip up there. We’ll talk about Jerry on another day.
The point is, there’s no universal system here. No one-size-fits-all psychobabble found in a pretty package. Hell, maybe you’re a perfectly adjusted person with no reason to feel anything but complete contentment and satisfaction with your life. If that’s true, well… honestly, though, that’s just a bit weird.
For the most part, we all have our hang-ups. We all have the things about ourselves that we’d like to fix, or change, or maybe just dust off and bring out to show around a bit. And why isn’t that okay?
My husband and I got into an argument the other night about something inane, and in a moment of genuine frustration, he said “God! You’re just so self-destructive!” I sat there for a minute and just blinked at that. Because, well, he’s not wrong. I mean, he was wrong right then. At that point, I was being self-righteous, which is totally a different thing. But in my life, I have been known to be self-destructive. And I sat there thinking, why? I mean, what the hell is the point of it?
If you’re hanging on here for the answer, you’re going to be disappointed. Because the truth is, I have no freaking idea why I do some of the stupid shit I do. But I am becoming more aware of it as it’s happening. And that counts for something in my book, because it’s a hell of a lot more than it used to be.
All these books have gotten my head circling around a lot lately, about the contradictory messages we are all fed by the world about ourselves. Love yourself, but be skinny! Don’t compare yourself, but be better than that kid! Be frugal, but make sure you’ve got the latest phone with all the newest tricks! It’s a joke. Well, actually, it’s not. It’s a terrifying reality. We are living in a world full of push and pull, and there’s no resting time given. There’s no time allotted to make up our own minds about our own feelings and that’s not okay.
Every day when I lay down for bed, I run through a list of all the things I didn’t do that day but wanted to, and I discard every excuse I gave myself for why I didn’t do those things. Because in retrospect, in my mind, no excuse is good enough. It doesn’t matter that I had severe cramps and wanted to crawl out of my skin and hide somewhere dark and quiet with a bottle of wine and a bowl of chocolate. I should have taken a few extra minutes to talk to Mason about the story I was 99% certain he had completely made up. Or, who cares that I only got a solid three hours of sleep and felt like my eyes were going to fall out of my head, I should have made a real meal for my family. Not. Good. Enough. That’s what it always boils down to.
When does this shit stop?
Probably never. I don’t know that I’ll ever fully be rid of the running dialogue in my mind, the one that gets so much worse when the world is quiet. But the only way to find out is to keep trying. So, that’s what I’ll do. And in the meantime, I’m going to start tearing these books apart so I can find the candy centers.
Or is that Tootsie Pops? Damn, I could use a brownie.