My first purchase of a self-help book was at around 12 years of age. As a very shy young girl I timidly purchased a book titled something like How to Talk to Boys and Other Important people. Soon to follow, over the next thirty years, would be many self-books essentially focused on building self-worth, managing successful intimate relationships, learning to say no, overcoming anxiety and so on. I was drawn to the Self-Help section of each bookstore, though in a kind of retreating, uncomfortable fashion, perhaps the awkwardness of this part of the bookstore highlighted in the hilarious and wonderful movie, When Harry Met Sally, as Sally’s friend points out to Sally that ‘someone is staring at you in Personal Growth’.
My addiction to self-help books was further invigorated with my career choice to be a clinical psychologist. Hence-forth I could even claim a tax deduction on books that supported not only my craving to be given direction in life matters but also offered wisdom and guidance for my therapy clients. Life events such as pregnancy, child-birth, parenting, motherhood, and associated at least desirable characteristics such as how to be organised, adept with time management, a domestic Goddess pretty much superhuman to cover all roles, offered more opportunities to turn to the guidance offered by self-development books. My bed-side table was stock-piled, my book case overflowing.
It took a complete mental breakdown which stripped away any sense of who I was, back to the absolute core, to help me realize that my worth or the meaning in my life was not to be found in these well-intentioned books pertaining, in my perception, to be able to fix me or somehow give me the happiness and contentment I so desperately searched for. In fact, much of the constant companionship of this literature throughout my life had essentially been about learning to not be myself — to try to change myself and never accept that perhaps I was ok just as I was or that I could walk alongside the emotional pain I experienced and still live a rich and meaningful life.
Reading self-help book after self-help book did bring some clarity in terms of some key elements to manage my experience of significant anxiety based on low self-worth that had always pervaded my life. Poignant concepts and strategies included: how to breathe fully for calming the nervous system; the power of acceptance and letting go; and that I really should be able to say “I am ok” whilst recognising the need for important boundaries to sanctify one’s personal needs. Often these principles and skills were more of a theoretical foundation to aspire to rather than really taken on board.
My addiction to self-help books has therefore born witness to the typical cost-benefit ratio associated with the myriad of activities/substances we can become addicted to. To be free of the self-help books though is to lighten my soul — to accept that who I am, as who I am now, is ok. I leave this addiction slowly — giving away books from my extensive library of personal development here and there. But are the current ‘Bibles’ around my bedside that relate to the power of self-care; how to meditate; and autobiographical stories of strength from adversity simply another form of self-help books?
So perhaps I’m not quite a free spirit yet and not yet ready to completely trust that I can navigate a passionate, meaningful life from within and in terms of the daily steps I take to live in line with what is really important to me. But I am considering placing all my remaining self-help books in a big box, sealed firmly and sent to a better home wherever that may be. And I envisage I shall nervously yet proudly wave this box of books away with the message that I am, and always was, enough.
Originally published at medium.com