Self-help books shouldn’t stress you out

My favourite read of 2019 was Marianne Power’s Help Me: One Woman’s Quest to Find Out if Self-Help Really Can Change Your Life. In this nonfiction page turner, freelance writer Marianne Power recounts her “year of self-help”, in which she studied and followed a different self-help book every month for a year. Without giving away too much, suffice it to say that self-help really did change her life, but not in the way she was expecting. Some memorable moments include her posing naked for a life-drawing class, following the Tony Robbins diet (sounds like it’s essentially a lemon water cleanse), running across hot coals, and creating a lot of friction in a lot of her relationships.

Power recounts her year of self-help as if we are at the pub with her and she is enthralling us with her fun, touching, and at times unbelievable anecdotes. After casually reading self-help books for years, she decides to dedicate a year in which she actually follows everything these books advise. Leading to some contradictory, hilarious, and extreme results. Throughout this journey we laugh along with Power, cry with her, feel with her and love her. Her gently sardonic tone is absolutely hilarious and her raw honesty endearing. We get to know some recurring characters in her life: her Irish mom who calls her once a week, her roommate Rachel, her best friend Sarah, some guys she dates, friends she makes at self-help seminars, her sister. 

This book resonated with me because, I, like Power, like so many of us, am a casual absorber of so-called self-help books. I find them to be easy reads, they are often inspiring, and they can make you feel like anything is possible. I’ve also learned that most self-help books espouse the same philosophy: an idea that the “law of attraction” is real (think The Secret). You have the power to manifest your reality, to create your life, you are in control. In order to live the life you want, all you have to do is create a vision board, imagine the life you want, express gratitude, meditate, work really hard, and the universe will deliver. No wonder this industry is booming. Imagine if life were that easy! All we have to do is envision what we want and we can have it? Sign me up. 

Here’s my take on the law of attraction. I agree that it is impossible to live a life you can’t picture, so I understand getting clear on what you want, envisioning it and going for it. I mean we hear about how important this is all the time. You have to imagine yourself being a parent if you want to become a parent. You have to imagine yourself being in love if you want to fall in love. You have to imagine yourself running your own business if that’s what you want, and so on. Why do you think kids play make-believe all the time? It’s how we learn. Most of us do this automatically.  

And yet, life is random, and fragile and disaster happens. People get cancer, people get hit by cars, entire populations suffer at the hands of genocide, people get murdered, natural disasters happen (I’m going to stop now because this is getting really depressing), you get it. These random acts of tragedy are just that, random. They are not caused by the law of attraction (as The Secret would have you believe 🙄). I find the idea that all things, good and bad, are the result of the law of attraction to be an over-simplification, at times sickeningly so. However, random acts of tragedy can remind us of how unpredictable life is, so we may as well go after what we want anyway.

According to the self-help world, getting results from the law of attraction takes a lot of work. You need to create a vision board, you need to journal, you need to meditate. You need to do these things religiously every day. You must be one with the universe in order for the universe to deliver. Oh and you’re supposed to do one thing a day that scares you, and give away 29 things for 29 days, exercise, eat well, and manifest manifest manifest. 

Don’t get me wrong, meditation and journaling, and plotting out your vision for your best life on paper can be very helpful and healing, but the idea that these are things you have to do in order to live your best life can be incredibly stressful. I particularly find the “do one thing a day that scares you” philosophy to be well, terrifying. It is human nature to crave safety and security. It is perfectly OK to spend a day quietly tucked away at home, well within your comfort zone, in front of the TV. You maybe don’t want to be doing that all day every day however, so you will at some point probably need to take some risks. Seek the support you need when the scaries hit, and go for it. But know that you are not lesser or weaker or whatever for choosing the easy route sometimes and picking your battles. 

What Power’s book taught me is that improving your life shouldn’t drive you crazy. Change is hard and painful. Whether it’s a change in diet, relationship status, moving to a new city, becoming a parent, starting a new job, there are ups and downs and pros and cons to all of life’s changes. But you don’t need to force yourself to change the elements of your life because the self-help book you’re reading makes you feel like you should. Most self-help books will tell you to remove the word “should” from your vocabulary, and then go on to give you a laundry list of things to do to improve your life now. This can be confusing and stressful, especially if you endeavour to follow the book’s instructions to a T.

So if you’re interested in improving your life, and you enjoy self-help books, I recommend a hybrid approach. Take some of the advice. Do what works for you. Don’t beat yourself up if your vision board is out of date. Don’t force yourself to journal if you’re not feeling it. Take a nap rather than meditate if you’re tired. If the self-help world is right about anything it’s that you are in charge of your own choices. Be kind to yourself and ease into whatever changes are going on in your life. Seek support where you need. And know that your journey is entirely your own. Trust your instincts, be kind, move forward with grace, and if you’re looking for a book that’s impossible to put down, get your hands on a copy of Help Me.

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