I’ve been inspired by posts on Vulpes Libres and the Victorian Geek to note down a few thoughts on self-help literature, the isotonic sports drink of the literary diet, all packaging to not much quantifiable effect. But a fascinating little corner of the collective psyche for all that. In a week of Robert Pirsig and Darwin, self-help seems to complete a boxed set of posts on human adaptation or the lack of it, which is such a January topic.
The first self-help book I ever read was Smart Women, Foolish Choices. Working at that book printers I was telling you about, I couldn’t help but notice its hot pink cover in a pile of abandoned file copies, and it was the work of a moment to give a poor orphan book a home in my handbag. Relatively speaking it was far more interesting than the database I was supposed to be setting up, so I sat at my desk, flicking through its pages and rather enjoying its stitch-up of the male mentality. Then I came across this section entitled ‘The Perpetual Adolescent’ about men who (the book proposes) will have no interest in settling down until they hit forty, and whose lifestyle and perspective the book then described in intimate detail. Now, I’m not a big practical joker, not like an old schoolfriend of mine who went into work at six for several mornings in a row in order to thread strings through the ventilation shafts that would enable him to make the objects on his colleague’s shelves dance of their own volition. No. But reading this section made me think so much of a man I worked with in the customer accounts part of the factory that a little evil plan stirred in my otherwise good-girl brain. All it took was a moment’s work on the typewriter, some tip-ex and a bit of photocopying, and I had transferred his details into the character study. Then I wandered casually down to his office (grand name for section of factory floor behind a partition) and said: You’ll never guess what I’ve just come across in a book I’m reading. Look, I’ve made a copy of it for you. And there was his name and age and occupation and where he lived, all seamlessly inserted into a description of his life and mentality. To be honest I thought he’d rumble me instantly, but he didn’t. He just read the passage through in a daze and looked at me with a fearful but overwhelmed look in his eye, like I’d just stepped off the mothership and had come to take him home. ‘Where did you get this?’ he asked me, through lips blanched by extreme emotion. Well, I’m not much good at keeping these things up, and in no time I had confessed all, but what was entertaining was that he almost couldn’t believe me. He declared that the passage had given him ‘quite a turn’, and I could see that. To his credit it wasn’t long before he began to see the funny side and we had a laugh. But that night down the pub, I noticed him sneaking the pages out of his pocket and reading them through again, as if the Oracle itself had sent him a message.
So the moral of this story is twofold. First and most importantly, it shows why I should never, ever, put myself in the position of working in a nine to five office job again. Even at the age of twenty-two I could see that any job that encouraged my darker side of kleptomania, persecution in the name of enlightenment, and time wasting could only end in disaster, and I returned to academia where such qualities are understood to be valuable. The second point to make is that self-help books do not lack punch, far from it. But their real power is in presenting the reader with a portrait of themselves that shocks with its accuracy and insight. Being recognized for our true natures is one of the fundamental desires of humanity; it’s always a knock-out to be really seen, properly understood, and to have one’s faults or weaknesses brought to the light of day and then treated with compassion and the prospect of a quick fix is a certain kind of spiritual manna. The ‘self’ part of self-help books is sometimes accomplished quite well, depending on the writer; it’s the ‘help’ part where the cracks start to show.
It used to be accepted readily that the point of life was a gradual accumulation of experience that would eventually reach its zenith in wisdom. Put it another way: we understood that the kind of change self-help books promise was actually the work of a lifetime. Reaching a point of acceptance, understanding our natures, distinguishing between what must be endured and what must be contested, acknowledging the ultimate harmony of our disparate responses and emotions, these lessons were taught slowly and painstakingly in the crucible of intense life experiences – loves won and lost, parenthood, grief, illness, the random acts of history. Hence the elders in the community were the ones with respect and authority – they had the wisdom, borne of experience, that the rest of the community inevitably lacked. In the modern world, we’ve turned those old values upside down, and youth is now where it’s at. Just look at the world around us: young people (at the risk of sounding like a grandma) want things fast. It’s one of the great joys of youth that you believe you can do anything, and fast. But it cannot apply across the board of human experience. To actually change yourself is a slow process and one that is extremely hard and taxing; change, if it is to be significant and long-lasting, is won only at the cost of effort, determination, insight and a great deal of strategy.
Most self-help books work on the principle that what you don’t like about yourself can be simply discarded. They adhere to a therapeutic process known as cognitive behavioural therapy, or the belief that being confronted by your thought patterns is sufficient motivation to change them. Now this probably does work sometimes, for some things. I’ve been interested on and off for a while with books that promote positive thinking, and have read Richard Carlson’s Stop Thinking, Start Living and (dipped into) Martin Seligman’s Authentic Happiness. Both promote the belief that negativity is something you can just choose not to have. Got an unpleasant thought in your head? Well, just put it aside and think about something different! It’s easy when you try! And both gloss over, with what seems to me reckless irresponsibility, the fact that the kind of mental discipline required to do this for the amount of time necessary to make a significant change, is no small feat. If you can’t keep your hand out of the cookie jar, how on earth do you think you’re going to keep the inside of your head clear of tempting thoughts of cookies? Everyone can suppress stuff for a while, of course. But the great tendency of negativity is to return reinvigorated after a spell in the wilderness. Like the Hydra, any attempt to chop off its head results in the growth of two more. This is because most of our negative thoughts and feelings have something very important to tell us; a story of fear and anxiety, or shame and regret, or anger and resentment that really needs attending to. The bad habit isn’t going to go away unless you pull it out by the root. And most people don’t like the prospect of that level of self-confrontation, or the painful process of plotting the contours of their dark places, or of depriving themselves of the comfort of transgressive pleasures that have come to plug the gaps. I don’t make friends by telling people this kind of stuff, and so publishers don’t publish books that say it, either. Glib promises are far more commercially successful.
Okay, that being said, some self-help is still feasible. Lowering goals and looking to less personal situations is a good place to start, and with this in mind, some of the business books I’ve read over my husband’s shoulder have been surprisingly good at helping me think about improving communications. I loathe conflict in all forms, and the book Difficult Conversations by a group of people from the Harvard Negotiation Project (Stone, Patton, Heen) is a very good guide to tackling the topic you don’t want to but know you have to. In similar vein is Dealing With People You Can’t Stand, a manager’s guide that tells you ‘how to bring out the best in people at their worst’. It’s a very amusing book this one, that categorises people as Tanks, Grenades, No-People, Whiners, Know-It-Alls etc, and has really excellent strategies for combating their obstructive behaviour. I’m not sure that I can ever teach myself how to be an optimist, but I certainly think these books have given me helpful insight (and a much needed laugh) when it comes to dealing with awkward communications. The Litlove mantra of self-help is: Pick Your Battle, as some are more receptive to written instructions than others… but if anyone can recommend a book that tells me how to write shorter posts, I’d love to know about it.