Martin is round for dinner when his phone rings. It’s a friend back in rehab for maybe the 25th time, calling to say hello. He should be at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting but he slid out and he’s in the pub. It’s hard to hear what he’s saying because it’s noisy and, anyway, his speech is beginning to blur.
What is happening when we are acutely aware that everything is falling apart but appear to have no control over changing things so that they become more comfortable? Where on earth do we learn to get better, and, selecting to take ourselves in hand, why do we insist on continuing to falter?
In the US alone the Self-Help industry is estimated to be worth $10b which is a lot of money to be spending on trying to find ways to make ourselves feel happier. Blogs (like this one), books, online workshops, and courses exist in abundance with the stated intention to help us get more from our lives, push away the demons which get in our way and help us to rise, like a phoenix, from the flames of pain, disappointment, destruction, and self-criticism. But a simple Google search will reveal a dark underbelly of discontent amongst the hoards who need help. When I type in “Does self-help…” Google offered to finish the sentence with “Does self-help actually work?” and, my personal favourite, “Self-help is…”, Google suggested, “Bullshit”. All is not well.
It’s not a coincidence that the growth in self-help has occurred at a time when we are increasingly demanding more in order to feel satisfied. Greater importance is given to answering questions (always difficult and often pointless) than asking them (much easier and always illuminating) and perfection has become more of a requirement than an aspiration. So the desire and need to help ourselves is understandable but there appears to be something going wrong with the methodology we use.
Following someone else’s path leads to their house.
It is not enough to listen to another person’s experience and then try to replicate it. In the same way that bereavement is not a blueprint which can be religiously followed through a set of defined steps into a new painless existence so emergence from any sort of emotional difficulty is a trip which must be taken largely alone. There isn’t a map and there are no answers, only an increasing invitation to ask questions and experience your life as it plays out.
Part of the problem with self-help is that we want to take it literally. We reach out for “off the shelf” solutions but complication with this utopian approach is that we are not the same, none of us. Our experience of emotional trauma is not simply a result of that which triggered it but also of all the experiences we had previously which bear any resemblance to it. Emotional pain is cumulative and creates a personal landscape unlike any other. Self-help offers direction and not a workable plan.
Quick fixes don’t last.
We read self-help books because we’re looking for answers and we want them right now. Recovery from emotional difficulty is rarely immediate but we have been coaxed into the misguided expectation that if we are uncomfortable we can change it today. Recovery is not constant because life isn’t, not ever, and it is in the moments of greatest challenge that self-help comes under a pressure it simply cannot bear.
Even the best recipe doesn’t work if you don’t follow it.
Let’s assume you’ve found a resource which is right for you, that you’ve been able to assimilate the information in a way which makes sense and really does lead you onto a more positive path. Whilst this is all well and good we can have a sloppy attitude to self-help advice. We can’t expect change to be sustainable if all we do is take the opportunity to pick and choose the bits which we find easiest and safest.
Here’s the truth about change, it hurts, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. If it was easy to overcome the obstacles which get in our way self-help and therapy, in general, would not be such a huge industry. Prepare for some discomfort and self-help, whilst not a panacea for all ill, can be something of a support to creaking limbs.
Don’t perform surgery on yourself.
While we’re on the subject of creaking limbs, if you need medical attention you’re unlikely to consider taking yourself off into the garage to perform a minor operation, right? Why do we consider emotional issues to be worthy of less attention? One of the most effective aspects of therapy is that you have the luxury of someone else focused on you without interruption. Think of this, you can never look at yourself real time the way that you are can you? You don’t see your own face because your eyes are in it and, although you can look in a mirror, you are reversed. Its hard to see ourselves clearly and if you can’t see yourself it stands to reason that it is going to be harder to identify the problem let alone the solution. The certainty that you know best is an arrogance that you can’t always afford.
Self-help is a great way to stop helping yourself.
One of the great attractions of self-help books is that all the time you are reading about what to do you don’t actually have to do it. As avoidance tactics go a shiny new self-help book is dynamite. We spin ourselves all manner of convincing stories that we don’t have to change until we have finished reading about how to change. But there’s always another book, another video, an alternative view. The irony of self-help is that it frequently stops the very thing it’s trying to kickstart. As with all things, balance is critical. If you spend an hour reading a self-help resource make sure you devote an hour to actually doing something about it. Sound simple? Maybe, but do you do it? In the end, change is always achievable but is wholly dependent on a heartfelt decision to do so.
Of course, checking into rehab is a form of self-help, but spending an evening getting smashed instead of going to a peer support group won’t underpin any attempt to get off heroin. It’s short-termism of the most destructive type but it’s the easy path, and that’s the trap. We use self-help to make life easier and that doesn’t work because it’s not “easier” we need. Change usually requires destruction from which something more precious and durable can emerge, and destruction usually hurts.