|People of the Lie, by Scott Peck (Photo credit: elycefeliz)|
Charlotte Pearson Methven says these books probably won't improve your life - but we read them anyway ... but I’ll read it anyway, says self-help addict Charlotte Pearson Methven. Here she wonders why so many of us are hooked on the latest snappily titled self-improvement tomes.
Shutting the door behind me, I take a deep breath. Right. Children in school. Time to get to work. Not real work, mind you. I must - in self-help parlance - ‘work on myself’.
First, I will write my three ‘daily pages’, a stream of consciousness to unblock my creativity, according to The Artist’s Way. Next up, I will be reciting the ‘Five Fear Truths’, according to Susan Jeffers, author of the bestselling Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway, and plotting my progress on her ‘pain to power chart’.
And once I’ve done that, I will squeeze in a few chapters of the parenting bestseller French Children Don’t Throw Food. Given the amount thrown by my own two, this one is essential.
The prospect of all this is exhausting. But the manuals were so irresistible in my local bookshop, winking seductively at me the way a pair of Louboutins might at some women.
I am newly divorced, thus single; a mother; I work; I am a perfectionist; I wrestle with anxiety.
I am addicted to self-improvement. In true ‘positive thinking’ spirit, I’ve chosen to view divorce as a chance to regroup and ‘be my best me’.
But alongside the yoga, healthy eating and reinvigorated social life, I’ve developed a self-help habit that at times feels as though it could take over my life.
‘These books are clever and gimmicky,’ says psychologist John Stewart. ‘People think that just because they come with a glossy cover they have the wisdom, but 90 per cent are rubbish.’ Stewart is quick to add that there are some good ones.
The concern is the way in which they can consume our lives, tethering us to the sofa at the expense of actually doing the things - work, exercise, seeing friends - that fulfil us.
I must admit I feel foolish thinking about how much time I have spent inhaling information on how to be bolder and more creative, rather than - ahem - being bold or creative: writing a novel, say, or pursuing hobbies such as tennis and running.
Stewart warns: ‘In most cases, people aren’t using these books as a springboard for real change; they are just stuffing information in without thinking about what it means. There needs to be less obsessive reading and more reflecting, followed by doing.’
One need only look to the bloated self-help - or, as it’s often grandly called, ‘Mind, Body and Spirit’ - section of bookshops to see that the appetite for these manuals is growing. And self-help authors are clever at coming up with irresistible titles. What single woman wouldn’t buy Why Men Love Bitches or Smart Women/Foolish Choices?
‘Women,’ Stewart adds, ‘are particularly susceptible to the lure of these manuals, being more bent on self-awareness than men, but also more competitive with one another.’
And it seems today that even many highly educated women cannot make simple decisions without detailed analysis.
For me, it is a daily struggle not to be one of them. But I don’t want to heed the advice of Why Men Love Bitches and play cold and pretend to be busy when I’m not if I like someone. Nor do I want to be the type who has to solicit the advice of a gaggle of friends (if not life coaches) before replying to a text from a man.
I do still, ultimately, believe in the power of good old gut instincts.
It’s ironic that as our quality of life has appreciated in real terms, there has been a shift towards navel-gazing. When, in harder periods, people were labouring physically just to put bread on the table, there was little time to ponder inessentials.
‘I think it’s fair to say that - in some ways - people were more content in the former Soviet Union, where there was one brand of soap powder which was just called “soap powder”, than they are in Britain today,’ says Stewart.
‘We are so saturated with choice, and people can’t cope with it. Technology has a lot to answer for. Families are not spending time together in the traditional way, with one generation passing down wisdom to the next. Instead, people just want to go out and buy a manual; they want a quick fix.’
One self-help-addicted mother I know admits, ‘I actually start to panic if I hear people discussing a title I haven’t read - I feel terrified that there is some pearl of wisdom that I am going to miss out on. I would hate to know how much I have spent on these books over the years, especially as I am not quite sure what I have to show for it. I still struggle to multitask, probably not helped by the fact that I spend so much time with my head buried in a self-help book!’
And it is single and married women alike who are seeking a spiritual fix. ‘I’ve been on every course there is,’ one 40-something singleton career woman tells me. ‘I own every book; I’ve seen psychics; I’ve done the 12-step programme to change my pattern with men.
Once you’re on that path, you’ll do anything. I see it with lots of women my age who are alone. Sometimes it works, but in my experience, it’s a temporary fix.’
At the root of the problem, according to Stewart, is our obsession with happiness. ‘These books - not to mention the courses and retreats that have sprung up around them - sell people the promise of getting rid of things like anxiety, but I’m afraid this is just part of the human condition. It takes real courage to finally accept that life has as many downs as ups and to face that with dignity, rather than hiding behind endless books.’
The Road Less Travelled by M Scott Peck is one of Stewart’s few favourites among the self-help titles.
‘The lesson is simple. It’s just those three important words that people don’t want to hear: life is difficult.’ Similarly, for frustrated singles, He’s Just Not That Into You by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo is wonderfully to the point, repeating the basic truth that if a man doesn’t ring or want to see you, he’s not keen, so move on. Harsh. But it’s hardly rocket science, is it?
And, perhaps, herein lies the key to handling self-help books.
The message must be plain enough to be distilled into one sentence: life is difficult; he’s just not that into you; feel the fear and do it anyway. Anything more complex is taking too much focus away from actually living. Feel the Fear advised me to repeat ‘I am powerful and I am loved’ 25 times in front of my mirror each morning. I couldn’t say it once without erupting into giggles.
When I manage it, using my instinct and getting off my bum to do things has been infinitely more satisfying than absorbing self-help mandates.
A well-meaning friend lent me her copy of Getting to Yes - a manual on negotiating - when I was divorcing last year. But, in the end, I never opened it, trusting instead in my own knowledge of our situation; and I have derived great confidence from having reached an outcome that we can all be happy with.
Many of my greatest ‘moments of clarity’ - a popular self-help term - have come after I’ve gone for a run or been absorbed in writing.
There is still a stack of tomes on my bedside table, which I flick through in testing times.
Lately, though, I’ve been tucked up with novels instead. Who needs Smart Women/Foolish Choices when you can read Anna Karenina to be reminded, far more eloquently, that smart women have been making foolish choices for centuries?
Says Stewart: ‘I advise people who are depressed to read great works of literature, which offer so much wisdom and insight into the human condition, coupled with escapism.’
I realise that, because of the way I am, self-help books will always be enticing. Just last week, when I popped into my local bookshop, a new title caught my eye and I found myself shuffling towards ‘Mind, Body and Spirit’.
Seize the Day: How the Dying Teach Us to Live, I’ve no doubt, is one of the good ones (how could it not be with that title?).
But I’m not going to buy it - for now - as I feel that most of the dying would agree that we should all spend less time reading about life and more time living it.