Girl Talk: How I Overdosed On Self-Help

This is how I used to start my day: I’d meditate for five minutes, read the daily passage in The Language of Letting Go by Melody Beattie, and do the daily reading and writing exercises from my Buddhism book. Then I’d log onto my computer and type my gratitude list of 30-50 items I was grateful for, followed by the 3-5 affirmations I was currently working with, written 1-10 times each. I’d email this to the approximately 40 women I exchanged gratitude lists with, and then read their lists in my inbox. Before turning off my computer, I’d scan Twitter for inspirational quotes to retweet. 

On the subway to work, I’d listen to an uplifting playlist on my iPod, and/or recite affirmations in my mind.

And then I realized: my self-help habit was not making me feel better about myself or bringing me any closer to my dreams. It was doing exactly the opposite.

At the office, I’d check my email for more gratitude lists, and read the inspirational e-newsletters that I subscribed to. During lunch, I’d go to Starbucks to pour over whatever self-help book I was currently reading (or rereading), and write my Morning Pages, three stream of consciousness pages of journaling prescribed by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way. At night, I’d listen to a soothing station on Pandora as I handwrote my affirmations, filling at least a page in my (college ruled) notebook with each one.

I was also in therapy, worked with a life coach, practiced yoga at least three times a week, and wrote out my Top Five Priorities monthly, all with several sub-priorities. At the beginning of every year, I created my Best Year Yet! Plan. I own The Secret (both the book and DVD). I’ve worked with career coaches, enrolled in personal development courses, attended spirituality lectures, dialed into complimentary teleclasses, listened to motivational CDs, participated in a financial book club, took pole-dancing classes, collaged, visualized, intended, and thought positively. All in the name of increasing my self-esteem and improving my life. Or in self-help speak, in order to manifest the life of my dreams.

Despite my many efforts, about a year and a half ago I found myself, one cold October night, at rock bottom. I was curled up in a ball on the floor, crying hysterically. I cried all night and called in sick the next day. I was “doing the work.” I was gratituding and affirming and intending and prioritizing up the wazoo for a beautiful, nurturing home, total financial freedom, a fulfilling job that utilized my skills and passions, and a healthy relationship with a wonderful, available man. But still, after all these years, I lived in a small studio apartment. I was broke. I worked as an administrative assistant. I was single, and I hadn’t even been on a bad date in a year.

And then I realized: my self-help habit was not making me feel better about myself or bringing me any closer to my dreams. It was doing exactly the opposite.

In working so hard to improve myself and my life, my self-helping was turning into self-hating. Underlying my frantic efforts, there was the belief that who and where I was, was not good enough, and that I’d only be happy when I got there and achieved that. So I decided to detox from self-help, and see if—free from my gratitude lists and affirmations and top priorities—I could find some shred of self-acceptance.

At first, cold turkey seemed like the best way to go. I wanted nothing to do with the self-help that had so betrayed me after I’d given it everything I had, and the mere thought of seeing a tip or tool to make me somehow “better” made me shudder. Eventually though, I saw that some things in my self-help regimen actually did help me and those could stay, but others hurt me and would have to go.

What I Ditched:

  • Gratitude Lists: Writing out what I was grateful for every day was way too time-consuming and triggered my compulsive perfectionism, and reading others’ lists had harmful side effects. When I was overwhelmed with excruciating loneliness, I would receive someone’s list that said, “I am grateful for my thoughtful, loving husband who downloaded all my favorite shows onto my iPod while I slept so I’d have something to watch on my morning commute.” Or when I was feeling confined in my cramped studio and longing for a spacious home, I’d receive a list that said, “I am grateful for our huge duplex with a big backyard and roof deck.” Reading about what people were grateful for in areas where I was struggling so much made me feel like even more of a failure, and could easily plunge me into depression.
  • Affirmations: As I was making copies at my administrative assistant job and reciting in my mind, “I have a great job I love that uses my skills and passions!,” I felt like I was having a nervous breakdown. The disparity between what I was doing in the moment and what I was affirming in my mind was too great, and my affirmations only served to bring into focus how far away I was from where I wanted to be.
  • Coaching: While I’ve had positive experiences working with coaches and achieved several goals in this way, I have deeper issues that do not respond well to coaching. As someone with depression, anxiety, and OCD, the exercises that coaches assigned didn’t treat these underlying conditions, and many wound up exacerbating them by giving me more to do.
  • Books That Promise To Make Me A Better Me: I do not even want to be in the same room as a book that gives me activities and promises that if I do them, I will be better, my life will be better, I will meet my soul mate, and all my dreams will come true. Period.

What I Kept:

  • Gratitude In My Heart: While I no longer write and send out my gratitude lists or read other people’s lists, it’s important for me to feel grateful for big and small things in my life so I don’t slip into victim mode, which is characterized by thoughts such as, “Everything sucks and it will never get better.” So, throughout the day, I notice good things and feel grateful for them in my heart. And this takes far less time than typing a lengthy list each morning.
  • Morning Pages/Journaling: I still write at least three pages in my journal every day, preferably first thing in the morning. If I don’t, I feel out of whack, and like I’m just responding to demands and obligations and have no idea what I want and need. Writing in my journal is also helpful because it gets the depressed or anxious or obsessive thoughts that are swirling around in my head out of my head, and onto the page. The act of writing these thoughts down often creates some distance and perspective, and gives me much-needed relief from being incessantly tormented by them.
  • Yoga: Yoga gets my body moving and quiets my mind. After class, I feel clear-headed, hopeful, and serene. Practicing yoga reconnects me to an essential part of myself and my enthusiasm for life. I think of it as a form of anti-depressant/anti-anxiety medication, because it gives me the energy, vitality, calm, and focus I need to navigate my days.
  • Therapy: As someone with depression, anxiety, and OCD, having a skilled therapist who is trained in treating these conditions and does so with wisdom and compassion has been invaluable, and crucial to my healing process.
  • Books That Foster Self-Acceptance: I can’t say that I totally abstain from self-help books. I still read them, and they still sometimes bring on that familiar heady rush. But I have strict criteria for self-help books, and will only read those that encourage self-acceptance and preferably don’t give me anything to do. The Language of Letting Go by Melody Beattie made the cut, and I am comforted by its daily readings. And books like There Is Nothing Wrong With You by Zen teacher Cheri Huber and The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown soothe me, and remind to accept exactly who and where I am instead of frantically flailing to find happiness by trying to improve.

As a recovering self-help addict, today I have to be very careful about how I use it. It’s so tempting to believe that I will be happier once I’ve manifested my ideal life and have that perfect home, relationship, career, and bank account balance, and there are countless books and seminars and teleclasses ready to reaffirm this belief. I could easily get intoxicated by the tips and tools and promises to a better me, and exhaust myself with endless activities and exercises. But after all those years of working on myself, and the frustration, disappointment, pain, and desperation that culminated in my self-help overdose, the only thing I want to work on now is sober self-acceptance.