Doctor, Heal Thyself

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.

21 thoughts on “Doctor, Heal Thyself

  1. Another wonderfully insightful post, thank you. Oh goodness, you are so right about office work. My colleagues’ idea of fun is limited to switching the letters on unsuspecting victim’s keyboards and stretching clingfilm over the toilet bowl. I’ve convinced myself that such japes don’t happen in academia, and am educating myself accordingly.

    You’re absolutely right that some self-help books appear to offer the quick-fix solution that most people crave. Dorothy Rowe is a glorious exception. She is very gentle on her readers and encourages them to make very small changes that will have longer-lasting effects.

    Your comment about banishing negativity reminds me of the extraordinary ‘Awaken the Giant Within’ that suggested grief is simply a social construct. According to the author, we only grieve the death of a loved one because we feel it’s a response expected by our peers. If we put our minds to it, we can quickly pull ourselves together and resume normal service immediately. The author didn’t seem prone to irony, so I can only assume he actually believes this nonsense.

    Anyway, for purely selfish reasons, I’m not going to suggest a book on writing shorter posts because I enjoy your output so much. You are perfect with a cup of tea, or indeed any other beverage.

  2. I’m fascinated to hear that you want to write shorter posts. I’m always thinking I should write longer ones. No shortening, please! You have plenty to say of value, so you might as well say it at length.

  3. Maybe you could try twitter. Having only 140 characters or less to express oneself in certainly encourages brevity:)

    Self help books are my guilty pleasure- especially time management and declutter your house ones. I’m always looking for THE SECRET that will magically help me live the life I aspire to effortlessly.

  4. I do not believe that what was said in that book about men growing up when they are 40. So much wrong and misleading information finds its way into self-help books. Why, I’m 64 and still waiting to grow up!

    btw; Long posts rule – – –

  5. Catherine – what a lovely comment, thank you!! I am charmed to think of my blog posts going with tea – that’s such a nice thought! You are quite right that not much practical joking goes on in academia. I’ve heard people make puns in Latin, but never turn desks around so that people sitting down bang their knees. The name of Dorothy Rowe is instantly going on the list as someone to look into, and I am just as appalled as you by the thought that a published author considers bypassing grief is possible or sensible. That’s alarming. Harriet – I really worry that I go on for too long – but thank you for your kind reassurances. I admire bloggers who seem to say so much in a shorter space. I’ve never felt any of your posts was truncated or insufficient – they always seem just right. But alas, I always seem to need an extra 1,000 words or so! Ms Bluestocking – it was kind of cheeky, wasn’t it? It seemed so funny to me when I was preparing it, and then I was a bit worried when he didn’t get it! Ms Make Tea – twitter is certainly a good straitjacket for self-expression! But I can see I need to honour you with the post of official researcher. If you do find THE SECRET will you please, please tell me what it is? Archie – LOL! I should have thought of you when I was writing this! But you know what, I don’t think they’ll ever create a category to encompass you, my friend.

  6. I, too, struggle mightily with writing shorter instead of longer. To an extent, I’ve simply accepted that that’s the way I am. You get much more of a flavor of the person when he/she writes more than two sentences, after all!

    As for self-help books, well, there have been many through the years. I read something online recently though, that made me laugh — someone mentioned running into a co-worker at the bookstore, in the self-help section; both frantically — but oh-so CASUALLY — trying to prevent the other from seeing the title. Just thought that was funny. But my current favorite self-help book focuses more on spirituality and philosophy, I guess. It’s The Attraction Distraction by Sonia Miller. It helps people make sense of the Law of Attraction, as a vehicle for spiritual development. This book has helped me finally make sense of the Law of Attraction — I understand how the Law of Attraction works now and I no longer have to take things on faith.

  7. This is GREAT! love it. As someone who can admit to buying self-help books (usually the kind that guarantee that I can figure out my place in the world) yet rarely ever read every if any exercise/idea recommended, I appreciate that you don’t just snidely reject these books. Great post. I’m still chuckling.

  8. Love the prank! I’m sure he became a better person because of it. As for the long posts, please don’t cure yourself.

    I think the comfort of self-help books (speaking as a recovering user) is seeing one’s problems reflected and not feeling alone. I am completely with you, though, on the fact that glib promises sell and it is easier to read about solutions rather than to try to enact them.

  9. You are absolutely right about those glib self-help books that tell you to do such things like just stop having your negative thoughts. I always think they must be written by people who are very superficial and have never really had any true negative thoughts or tortured feelings about anything. And only you, Dear Litlove, could lead me to find myself thinking I ought to read two business self-help books. I vote for keeping your posts the length they are: you actually manage to get quite a lot into very little space (e.g. here we have autobiography, self-help books, practical jokes, terrific psychological insight…in something that is nowhere near a book-length work).

  10. Oh Litlove, how I would have loved to have you in the office I just left! Though we did have a practical joker who took a how to be ergonomic at your desk sign I made and turned it into how to sleep ergonomically at your desk. I loathe those self-help books that are so glib about how easy it is to make changes. If it were really all that easy the self-help book writers would have been out of business a long time ago!

  11. I’ve never been much of a reader of self-help books, but maybe I need a copy of Difficult Conversations–I loathe conflict, too! I did buy a book about finding your creative voice, but it didn’t teach me to turn off my inner critic! Please don’t shorten your posts–I like them the way they are 🙂

  12. “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.” This makes absolute sense, but I can’t help but wonder (and maybe this is just my current very negative mood talking) whether our negative thoughts aren’t telling us about the way the world is and at least in some cases we have every right to be fearful and anxious. I mean, I can see that sometimes we do need to attend to and try to root out the cause of our negativity — that it’s some problem rooted deeply in our personal experience — but other times I wonder if the negativity isn’t a perfectly natural and sane response to the way life is. Cheery thought, right?

  13. I am definitely going to read the last two books you recommend, as I have been struggling tremendously with some difficult personalities at work – the kind of personalities that make me not want to WORK while still believing deeply in the field (health care) that I am in. As for negative thoughts, etc, I used to be the kind of person desperate to always feel happy, and to be convinced something was wrong when I didn’t, but I have since found the value in moving through the fields of negativity and allowing myself to feel sad or anxious or whatever it is I’m feeling as there is generally value in that, so long as it doesn’t turn into wallowing.

  14. PS – I finished Love Falls by Freud after reading the review on your site last year and I loved it. I am not sure if I am going to blog on it but it was really a lovely book and I am looking forward to reading her other novels,so thank you!

  15. Lizzie – hello and welcome! Thank you for the solidarity on long post-itis and also for the book recommendation. I think self-help is an area where word of mouth is tremendously important. There are good books in the genre, just as there are in any given category, and the best way to find them is through reviews from people you can trust. Bkclubcare – there is no way I could possibly be dismissive, because as much as I suspect there isn’t a truth, I can’t help but hope against hope that some day someone will find it and present it to me in book form! 🙂 Charlotte – yes, I do agree. Problems have a nasty habit of isolating people, when in fact the vast majority are extremely common – and it feel a lot better to know that! As for my prank, well, I don’t believe he DID settle down until his forties, but maybe he could at least do it with some self-awareness! I was just relieved he did laugh in the end. Emily – do you think that some people are capable of just brushing things aside? I think they must be. I do know I find moving on an awfully difficult thing to do, and wish I could speed it up a bit, but to no avail. I laughed about the business books! Yes, it is surprising even to myself that I should recommend them! 🙂 But thank you for the long post vote. For you, then, I will. Stefanie – I was a menace to offices with no work ethic whatsoever and very little respect for my bosses (I stand firm – they didn’t deserve any). But I could certainly do good book chat of a lunch hour 🙂 Ah and you put your finger on the problem of self-help. I guess it’s the promise that sells, rather than the result. Gentle Reader- oh the conflict-shy people of the world should unite. Just think what a pleasant, serene group that would be! If only we could convince everyone else that avoiding conflict is good. I don’t like the sound of that creativity book much – silencing the inner critic is essential to putting the first word on paper, I find! 🙂 Dorothy – yes I do know exactly what you mean. The same book did say that depressed people do indeed see the world clearly, and optimistic people turn it into a happy fiction. But I’m wondering whether I can put that into the same category as giving up hope, which is also depressing on the face of it but curiously liberating in reality 🙂 Courtney – actually I think you have it just right. I think it is the right way forward to just let those emotions be and to experience them the same as the good, as inevitable and part of life and part of the experience of identity. I am do sorry to hear about work, although I do not doubt it a bit – I found the workplace stuffed to the brim with unpleasant types (not that I can say academia is much better, but students are lovely and make up for it). But I am so glad you enjoyed Love Falls. It’s not a book you can say much about, I think, but the experience of it is fun.

  16. Someday I am going to write a self-help book called “CBT and its Attendant Stupidities Kept Me in Therapy for 25 Years, NO KIDDING.”

    But until I get around to doing that, I would like to say that I think the biggest mistake some self-help books make is failing to distinguish sufficiently between not having negative thoughts, and not investing in them. It’s simply impossible not to have them. It’s quite possible to notice that you’re having a negative thought, and wonder whether you should invest in it, and maybe decide not to, or to choose a contrary positive thought.

    But just switching them off would require major brain surgery, or continual drug therapy … which probably explains why so many people are on antidepressants.

  17. David – I like your style! I really do. That is a very astute remark about the difference between not having and not investing in negativity. I need to write that down somewhere or maybe commit it to memory. If you’d care to hurry it up a little with that book, that’s one self-help title I’d really be interested in reading. 🙂

  18. Litlove – I’d forgotten how funny and incredibly wise you are! I loved this post, not least because my Master’s thesis was on agony aunt columns in popular magazines. You have summarised in a short space much of what I was trying to say in a much longer way. And I really think this sort of sharply-observed and funny wisdom would sell in the right format. Litlove’s self-help manual would be one of my books of the year 😉

  19. Awww, Pete, you are too good to me. But wow, what a Master’s thesis! What fun that must have been! And if I may say so, I could imagine that that would make a pretty interesting non-fiction book, too.

  20. Litlove – Yes, you’re right but I got so sick of that topic by the end that I swore I’d give up all academic writing. But it would be fun to throw some more ideas around. Modjeska had some good ideas on the topic in The Orchard too. Now if only some bright spark would gather all these excellent feminist academics / writers together and they could each write a chapter on the self-help genre.

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