After suffering for years from anxiety, doubt and depressed moods, I started doing what seemed the obvious, reading books. I read many Self-help books to address my suffering and live a better life. But now it has me. After over a decade of research, I wondered if all the reading was necessary.
Doubts about self-help started to creep in. What does self-improvement mean? What are we trying to do here? Words like self-improvement and personal growth are often used, but are they the right words to use? There’s a whole self-help industry out there worth billions. How useful is their advice?
After years of reading, I felt only a minor difference in me; I still suffered from anxiety, and my life had not changed much during those years. The pursuit of success made me no happier, and from what I read, it’s not making any of us happier either.
Here are a few words on what I learned about my journey in the self-help world.
‘The ability to let that which does not matter, truly slide.’TYLER DURDEN, FIGHT CLUB
The first one I will pick up on is how addictive self-help can be. In my quest for a better life, I wanted to get better at everything – an enormous undertaking. The feeling ‘I’m not enough’ is what kept me going back again and again. Each post or episode we look at is a way of saying, ‘there’s more to learn, you’re still not good enough, you’ll never be enough, never know enough.’
However, after years of feeling so needy, so worthless, I felt exhausted. I never seem to be satisfied. Reading this stuff can be addictive; the more I read, the more my to-do list multiplies, and the more I felt I was falling behind.
I felt better knowing I wasn’t slacking or complacent. But I felt so tired, spread too thin, trying too much. This darkside of self-help plays on our fears and insecurities. We’re either told we have a problem. Or do we need to be more worthy, successful or happy? So we buy books, seminars, and courses.
Such perfection is insidious, wrong and very harmful. It’s taking life itself and turning it into a competitive sport. Personal development, self-help is making us ill. Our desperation to be successful and happy sucks the joy and fun out of life.
The happiness industry tells us it’s a matter of personal responsibility for our misery; it’s up to us to keep ourselves upbeat and perky. Yet this fails to consider that environmental and social factors drive much of our unhappiness and suffering.
The overburden of happiness and responsibility robs people of the incentive to change the world for the better. The over emphasis on the individual means we never address the toxic institutions that create the suffering we endure. The world changed for the better because people spoke ot and worked to help others and change out attitudes and ideas.
It’s not to say we have no responsibility; but rebalances the equation by reminding ourselves that a healthy society helps create healthy people. Addressing toxic cultures, societal problems like misinformation, and unfair or unjust practices means we get to live in a better world, and so do others.
‘Maybe self-improvement isn’t the answer, maybe self-destruction is the answer’Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
One of the most unexpected lessons comes from Buddhism. The notion Non-Self undermines the whole idea of improvement, as there is no essence, no to work upon. This insight improved my life more than many of the other lessons in those books.
Also if there is no self, it’s a blessing; if the self is fixed, it can’t improve, so all our efforts are futile but is that not the case with Non-Self?
It made a difference because it forced me to question the assumptions and attitude I was carrying on the journey. Those doubts and questions made me understand my suffering more clearly, and in time, I learned how to be happier.
Attitude towards change
‘Your level of success will seldom exceed your level of personal development because success is something you attract by the person you become.’Jim Rohn
A big lesson I learned was how much attitude is crucial in happiness; some self-help books touched on this. The attitude that doesn’t work is where we avoid all unpleasantness and only accept the easy path. Growth only comes through doing the work, facing our fears, and changing our false perceptions for better ones.
It’s a case of seeing with better eyes; the fear that held you back becomes less troublesome once you see through the illusion, and false belief that foster it. We must let go of those of bad ideas and self-destructive habits, removing obstacles in the way of growth.
One example for me was confidence. I had the belief I needed to be confident before I acted. I was wrong; you don’t start confident and then act; you act upon your fears to gain confidence. Another example is the mistaken belief that introverts are no good a socialising. It took a book like Quiet, the Power of Introverts by Susan Cain, to make me understand this.
My quest for personal development lead me to read, listen and watch so much advice. But a part of me became exasperated at how much it felt like work. I thought I wasn’t trying hard enough; I was afraid of missing out but I found myself asking, ‘When will it end? When can I give up with all this learning? I want to sit back and be content for a while.’
There comes a point where your suffering looms larger in your mind than the answers you seek; a flash of insight told me that pursuing the solution to suffering was the cause of my suffering, (There is no Secret Ingredient). I learned the suffering and it’s liberation is a paradox.
‘By making happiness, success the objects of our desire, they becomes the source of our suffering’
After pursuing self-improvement for over a decade, I saw the true extent of my suffering for the first time. How desperate I was to become a better, happier person. I was so prejudiced against myself, so self-critical, I couldn’t accept who I was. Also, being socially anxious, I was desperate for others to have a good opinion of me, to agree and accept me(there’s a thread of narcissistic egotism in Social Anxiety).
Here, I faced the horror of the truth; my insecurity and desperation were the cause of my unhappiness, a lesson I didn’t want to accept. But with nothing else left to blame, and no way to avoid it, I had to face the fact; in my ignorance, I didn’t see the harm I was doing, the suffering I endured.
Our desperate need for happiness makes us unhappy, but if we let that need go, the cause of our suffering is lost, so the suffering goes too.
None of this means we shouldn’t make goals and work towards them, but believing that such achievements will make us happy is false.
Such insight lead to a significant change in my self-image. I learned to accept myself, not as broken or flawed, but as me. Here my self-help relationship changed; I no longer need it so much.
Self-help Personal development books can be enormously beneficial, and some genuinely good advice exists. I learned about cognitive biases and fallacious reasoning, how the mind/brain works from psychology and neuroscience. I discovered I was an introvert, a Highly Sensitive Person and what that meant.
Looking back, I can’t help but feel sorrow and compassion for my younger self. I suffered a lot, so lonely and so unsure. For a long time, I had no one to help me.
Self-help was my guide, I learned many things, but in time I felt its toxic influence. All that reading left me overworked, overthinking and burned out. I had to cut down because it was hurting more than healing; there was a step I was missing. So I focused more on compassion, health, connection and creativity (my journey from consumption to production, as I like to call it). It was here I learned to accept life and myself in all its change, imperfection and insecurity. I can face my fears better now knowing failure is not the end.
My attitude towards these books changed; I still read them occasionally. But I’m far warier, more discerning now because I know something of the suffering they can cause. Self-help plays on our fears and insecurities, but true self-development is coming to terms with those insecurities and fears.
Once I read these books out of fear and need, now I read them with delight and curiosity.
Reading self-help has changed my life, so has letting it go. It marks a period when I grew up, became less afraid, and less self-obsessed. I found a quote online that summed it up nicely.
When you are deluded and full of doubt, even a thousand books of scripture are not enough. When you have realised understanding even one word is too much.Fen-Yang