Have you ever found yourself reaching for yet another self-help book or on-line course, hoping that this one will reveal the ultimate secret that you’re desperate to know? The guaranteed weight-loss formula, the champions peak performance strategy, the ultimate happiness habit, or the enlightened pathway that will soothe your pain and allow your true radiant self to shine.
For a month you are a diligent disciple following all the guidance with zeal. Kombucha tea and kale smoothies. Ten thousand steps with staircase intervals. Chirpy affirmations and empowering lists. Mental stretches and emotional massages. You start out with a mix of giddy hope and knotty fear. Yet soon enough you find yourself snagging on the jagged corners of your life again. Nothing has really changed, nor have you, despite your best efforts. And then there you are once again, googling the humongous menu at the self-help buffet.
The idea of self-improvement makes you salivate with hopefulness because who doesn’t want to be a happy, healthy, untroubled person? Who doesn’t want an easy, prosperous, stress-free life 365 days of the year? We step into the self-improvement journey with oodles of good intentions fuelled by a glossy picture of our future self and our future life. Yes I can, and this is how I will do it, and this time I won’t give up. Optimism is a powerful energiser.
But sometimes our desire to help ourselves can have an insidiously destructive nature. In our quest to improve a perceived deficiency or to achieve a worthy goal, we may be acting against ourselves. This happens when we ignore the immediacy of who we are right now, doing what we’re doing and what we’re feeling, because we’re fixated on being the better version of our self.
If we are caught in a cycle of constantly trying to change our self in some way before we can relax and enjoy our present life in our own body and mind, then this is harmful.
When self-help becomes self-harm
In my twenties I was a self-helpaholic and a devotee to the alluring promise that I could be a higher version of myself and have a more satisfying life than the one I was living, because at that time I was depressed, unfulfilled and lonely. Why?
I had left my first job as a graduate lawyer defeated and traumatised by months of daily verbal abuse from the partner I worked under (polite version: I was a useless good for nothing waste of space). I changed careers several times looking for renewed purpose, and that was as effective as getting a different hairstyle. My romantic relationships were superficial and loveless. The seeds of being not good-enough had been hurled at me and trodden deep into my psyche. I didn’t know how to bounce back and recover my self-esteem, but I was willing to try just about anything to feel better about myself. I sought to medicate my angst and insufficiencies with regular transfusions of positive encouragement. I gorged on empowerment bestsellers, accumulated a wall full of alternative therapy certificates, and filled countless journals with my scribbled anxieties, hopes and dreams.
Yet my self-help aspirations merely morphed into self-harming outcomes. Every method I tried that gave me no lasting alleviation became another reason to torture myself for my hopeless attempts at making myself better. Of course, this was just more manure to heap on the growing pile of my not good enough-ness and eventually I was suffocating under the mound. I couldn’t understand how in the prime of my life I was so unhappy.
In a crazy act of desperation, I enrolled myself into a week-long silent retreat. For seven days I stopped expecting myself to be anything other than who I was: a discontented, pathetic mess trying too hard to be happy and fulfilled. I stopped looking to someone else to give me answers on how to help myself. I stopped ranting and I started listening.
Stop harming yourself
So, what do you do when nothing that you’ve tried has had a profound effect?
You stop looking to others to give you answers, because no-one else knows your truth. You allow the ‘not knowing’ to be okay for the moment.
You see, you are a unique individual, and even if you have a doppelgänger on the other side of the world, there is no-one else with your DNA and upbringing who has lived your life, suffered your lows and enjoyed your highs. Accordingly, there is no one-size-fits-all method for self-improvement whether of body, mind or soul.
All these various self-help systems and treatments and strategies are merely tools, which may, or may not, help you to heal and transform yourself in beneficial ways. You’ve still got the same shit to shovel, whether you use a teaspoon or a bulldozer. Its dirty, stinky, sweaty work, and sometimes you have no choice except to shovel all the other crap that people have dumped onto you, as well as your own, to find a clear path forward.
You stop trying so hard to change yourself. You stop trying to force yourself to be different or better. You stop abusing your mind and body with harsh thoughts and compulsive behaviours. You put down the tools you’ve been using and allow yourself collapse into a chaotic heap of helplessness. Tough self-love doesn’t have be hurtful – it can be accomplished with kindness.
‘Through refraining, we see that there’s something between the arising of the craving – or the aggression or the loneliness or whatever it might be – and whatever action we take as a result. There’s something there in us that we don’t want to experience, and we never do experience, because we’re so quick to act.’ Pema Chodron
Those seven days of silence changed the course of my life. I found within myself strength that didn’t require force and compassion that warmed my soul. I didn’t become a better person, instead I discovered what it truly felt like to be me. I left with courage, confidence and vigour.
Keep shovelling for as long as it takes
And that’s the magic. At your very core you have a reservoir of untouched potential for goodness and accomplishment, but it’s not within easy reach for some of us. It isn’t a guaranteed result at the end of the book or the course or the retreat.
It took me several years of wandering through the self-help maze before I found myself gravitating towards yoga and meditation. With consistent practice, most days, it steadily helped me to regenerate my self-esteem and a healthy relationship with my body. Since then I’ve done quarry loads of shovelling and fallen face first into my own dung numerous times. But each time it gets a bit less awful and a little more revealing.
Start gently. Begin with the intention not to cause harm to yourself. Allow yourself to become acquainted with all of your qualities – don’t put the virtuous ones on a pedestal and despise the parts of yourself that make you uncomfortable. Treat your weaknesses and insufficiencies with respect, because they are sign-posts leading you towards growth and understanding. This is a basic act of kindness towards yourself.
A simple aspiration
Begin your day with the simple aspiration to be free of the thoughts and feelings and habits that cause you harm, or cause harm to anyone else. Remember that this includes not judging yourself poorly when those disturbing thoughts and feelings arise again, and again, because they will.
Oh, and keep that teaspoon handy, because there will always be some more mucking out to do.