I Will Embrace Self-Help, I Will

When the kind publicity assistant sent me a copy of Physical Intelligence by Claire Dale and Patricia Peyton, she probably had no idea she was sending it to two of the sorriest specimens for self-help you could imagine. I was really keen to read the book, which claims that ‘the active management of our physiology – the ability to detect and strategically influence the balance of chemicals in our bodies and brains’ is within our grasp. This sounded like good news to me. The approach of menopause has hit me hard and my CFS has been back to the level of nuisance it was a decade or so ago. I’m clearly doing something wrong. In fact, my dry eye syndrome has been so awful that I had to ask Mr Litlove to read the book to me, and Mr Litlove and self-help… well it’s not the most obvious combination. Mr Litlove is fit and healthy and if a parallel universe existed in which he sang karaoke, he’d be up at the mike belting out Gloria Gaynor’s immortal line, ‘I am what I am and what I am needs no excuses.’ So the two of us together would have every experienced teacher rolling her eyeballs – one student eager but hopeless, and the other competent but deeply resistant. Would the book be equal to the challenge?

The book’s basic premise is that our responses to daily life are governed by a cocktail of eight chemicals, each of which has a signature feeling. We’d probably all recognise adrenaline and its feeling of excitement or fear, testosterone’s feelings of power and control, serotonin’s happiness. But there are others that are equally important and less well-known – oxytocin, for instance, which gives us a feeling of belonging, DHEA which governs vitality, and cortisol which creates the feeling of anxiety. The authors argue that the right combination of diet, exercise and CBT can be used to manage these chemicals as they ebb and flow according to the situations we find ourselves in.

The book is organised into four sections – strength, flexibility, resilience and endurance – with all kinds of different exercises designed to promote these vital qualities. So for instance, in the section on flexibility, there’s an exercise called ‘Relationshift’ which frankly every person in the UK ought to be made to undertake before we have to hear another thing about Brexit. Where this kind of loggerheads conflict occurs, the kind that has coagulated into a battle of wills, it’s important for both parties to be able to see the other side – such a shift reduces the sense of threat that has immediately been triggered, and sets in motion the chemistry of trust which can heal the breach. Name your emotions, the authors suggest, and be specific about the physical feelings that accompany them, breathe to stabilize emotion, and then consider what exactly is under threat here (they suggest possible threats to control, ownership, achievement, harmony, security, certainty, freedom, creativity or status, which is the sort of list one ought to carry around all the time because it explains a great deal). Then shift your perspective and imagine standing alongside the person with the opposing viewpoint and see how it looks. From this point of view, you might be able to come up with solutions or suggestions that benefit you both and meet the different needs. It’s not as touchy-feely as you may think, because thinking through a problem like this actively reduces cortisol (threat) and increases oxytocin (belonging). Minds, bodies and behaviours are all tightly linked.

So you get the idea. Unsurprisingly, there was much I struggled with. In the strength section, the authors suggested cheerfully that crunches, planks and squats were all you needed, which are the kind of exercises that even when I was in full health I would have considered a form of sanctioned masochism (one of the authors is a dancer and choreographer and yeah, proper dancers love that sort of stuff). And the exercise that I was hilariously bad at – in Mr Litlove’s estimation – was one called the ‘winner pose’. where you stand with arms and legs outstretched like a starfish. Apparently this builds confidence and power and should be used after any achievement to prevent the chemical high sort of collapsing in on itself. Well, I just can’t seem to manage it. I could do a sort of jazz-hands-by-my-face thing, but anything more brought about a feeling of such intense absurdity that I couldn’t keep it up. Mr Litlove, who has way more testosterone than any one person needs, would throw himself into winner pose every single time our paths crossed in the house, yelling ‘C’mon, Litlove!’ I pointed out that the authors of this book did not envisage their exercises being used by husbands to taunt their wives, but alas that did not prevent him from telling our son when he visited over Easter. And our son, who is training to be a therapist, immediately began asking why it was that I should feel silly? And did feeling silly matter? There’s nothing quite like one’s family piling in with the advice to make the appeal of self-help grow stronger. Some things are best done alone.

Some people, however, cannot be helped. I am sorry to say that Mr Litlove did not see the light. He read the section on procrastination out loud – and goodness knows he could use some advice here – while mentally singing la la la la la. I could see him doing it. You know that fur men grow in their ears as they age? I’m coming to think of it as a kind of enchanted forest designed to prevent any alternative point of view from entering. But the authors of the book had evidently seen us coming. They sensibly suggest that you should devote a month to each section of the book, picking out a few of the tips and exercises and ‘habit-stacking’ them, or trying to attach them to other habits you regularly practice.  And even Mr Litlove found one exercise at which he nodded approval and said it was really good. This is an exercise for when something dreadful and undesirable gets thrown at you. You begin by feeling the force of your resistance and saying – shouting if you want, punching the air – I won’t! I won’t have this! I don’t want it! And when that energy is worn out, then you start saying, I will take this on. I will handle it. Could there possibly be an allegory in this for Mr Litlove’s relationship to self-help? Ah well, time will tell. But I will definitely be keeping the book within easy access as there was much intelligent support to be found in its pages.

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19 thoughts on “I Will Embrace Self-Help, I Will

  1. You do make me laugh always with your posts! Frankly, if anyone proposes squats etc to me they’ll get a flea in their ear… My self help involves books, crafting videos on YouTube and shutting out the world! Which is not entirely practical, I’m sure… And I’m amazed you haven’t slapped him after those continual winner poses! 😉 Seriously, i’m sure there’s some useful stuff in there and if I ever get my work-life balance sorted out I may have to take a look!

    • Karen! It’s so lovely to have you visit. I do miss you and my blog friends and really must try and pick up blogging again a bit. I am ALL FOR shutting out the world, which seems an excellent strategy to me. 🙂 Mr L was perilously close to getting no dinner with his winner poses (see, I really know where to hurt him), and I did warn him that I was going to review the book and there would be consequences! It was a much better book than a lot of self-help guides and I know my own resilience is rubbish, so I will certainly be keeping it as a resource.

    • Ahhh so is that at the root of your love for a really good psychology-based memoir? I’m a latecomer to CBT but see that it can be extremely helpful and yes, there are lots of good techniques in this book that I’ll definitely be trying out. x

  2. This sounds a little like a self help bootcamp with Mr Litlove taking a turn as sergeant major, although more gently, I’m sure. So sorry to hear about your health problems. You manage it all with admirable good humour.

    • Haha, yes indeed Mr Litlove does do a good sergeant major. In the Myers-Briggs profiles he comes out as the Field Marshall General or whatever that type is, the one who has no qualms about sending his troops into battle! Mind you, when you think that the troops available these days are myself and the cats…. well. He’s got his work cut out. 😉 My health has been terrifically irksome of late, but you know, better to laugh than cry.

  3. How lovely to see your blog post appear in my inbox and also to laugh at Mr LitLove’s tactical use of the Winner Pose! I was having dinner with a friend the other day who said, ‘We all need time to be still.’ Which is so true and so difficult to achieve (and can actually cause more anxiety if it’s difficult to achieve.) Still … it’s the best advice I know of, even if achieved for only a minute. What is this life if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare? But I also know what we all know: that exercise helps hormonally and physically … but only if it is achievable. Why not scale the exercises down (and ignore all competition for the not-the-point limelight!)?

    • I have to say that meditation is the most useful thing I’ve learned in the past few years, though I am still terrible at it! And absolutely, I remember a wise friend saying that exercise is basically just a bit more activity that you do normally, which was a very nice definition. I do an awful lot of being still at the moment, but I like the idea that something good will come out of it philosophically. I will embrace that thought! x

  4. Absolutely cackling at Mr L striding round the house striking “winner pose” – but actually the book seems reasonable, and I love the thing about feeling the full force of your resistance before saying “yes, I will take this on and succeed”. It seems important to acknowledge negativity without necessarily letting it take over.

    • You should have seen him! There were also some exercises to help prevent snoring that I was ahem encouraging him to do – they were also roundly subverted and turned into annoying noises. It’s the little brother in him!! You put it perfectly about negativity and I couldn’t agree more. it’s lovely to have you visit – how are you? Are you still at the gorgeous Heywood Hill?

  5. I never cease to be so greatly engaged in the posts you write, and the same goes for this. So many things of which you describe feel applicable to me. (But, you didn’t mention a ghastly weight gain?!) That said, I am caught by the book in your sidebar, The Courage to Be Disliked, which sounds even more apropos for me at the moment. Thank you.

    • Oh I have definitely gone up a dress size – two when it comes to jeans! You are not alone. But The Courage to be Disliked is a fabulous book and I’d warmly recommend it. It focuses on the teachings of Alfred Adler, who had some extremely intriguing ideas and saw life very differently to other psychological thinkers. I’d love to know what you make of it if you do decide to give it a go. And bless you for the solidarity – so much appreciated!

  6. Does it have any variations of Salutation to the Sun in it? That always makes me feel good and if I don’t do it for a while it’s much harder, which is encouraging because it tells me that it’s worth doing on a regular basis. I also think i need to breathe more, I hold my breath too much.

    • Denise it doesn’t – and Salutation to the Sun is new to me. I shall go and look it up. I’m in the market for anything that works! I’ve been a shallow breather all my life and I’m working on that – I also hold my breath when I’m concentrating or feeling stressed. None of it is helpful and I’m now a fan of breathing exercises, though of course they always make you breathe really oddly when you first begin with them!

  7. Oh my, your posts are such a delight always… even if you’re doing poorly, poor Litlove. I suppose there’s a reason why self-help contains self, you’re supposed to read it by yourself for yourself. I suggest you try the audiobook version next time, so you’ll avoid the lalala effect. Last time I read aloud a quote from a self-help book to Mr. Smithereens I could practically hear his eyes rolling, so I keep it to myself.

    • Smithereens, that sounds like a very sensible way to go. I’m glad I’m not the only one with an eyeball-rolling husband (you did make me laugh!) and you’re right there’s no need to indulge them any more than we do already!

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