The Problem With Self Help

Photo by David Lezcano on unsplash.com

I’m writing this on Saturday, just before noon, so, um, oops. Turns out I’m a tiny bit of a liar because here I am, doing the thing I said I wouldn’t do today. In my last post, I expressed my exhaustion and my overwhelming frustration with life. I’ve run out of emotions! I didn’t know that was possible, but apparently, that can happen.

Especially, it seems, if you invest a lot of yourself in things, and those things don’t always show a return on investment. It’s all about ROI’s people. Yeah, I don’t know a gosh darn thing about investing, but I heard that term on a podcast I was half-listening too. It feels applicable, maybe.

Unlike finances, emotional investments can be replenished by a nap, and some time off. So, I gave myself permission to take a couple days away from life. I was going to recharge or just shut down because I’m extremely tired. Mentally spent. Emotional rung out. I. Am. Tired.

Clap your hands because that’s a thing?

So what am I doing, sitting in front of my computer, on a Saturday? Why am I thinking about things and typing words about things? Well, I have zero work-life balance, and my mind won’t shut up.

There are so many things going on in the world right now. Exciting things. Happy things. Sad things. How you feel about those things will depend on your ideology, but let’s leave that hornet’s nest alone. It is interesting, and it’s tickling the part of my brain that goes oo.

But I want it to go zzz.

How do I just ignore everything that’s happening? How do I turn it off? Giving myself permission isn’t working. It’s a nice sentiment, and it still holds true. Give yourself permission to turn off. It will do you a lot of good. Me? It isn’t working right now.

You know what else doesn’t work? Looking at yourself in the mirror, squeezing your head between two hands, and yelling, “Shut up!” I damn near flipped myself off. 

For the sake of my mental health, I need to turn the world off. Without a question or a hint of doubt, I need to shut my brain down. It has, over the last few days, been randomly powering down or wandering off down a dark alley. Get back here. No, stop, come back. Don’t go chasing shadows. No, it won’t be okay. You know how it makes you feel.

Do you argue with your brain? Is that a natural part of the human experience? Does your brain fight back? Calling you names and twisting your words until you’re too tired to fight. Is it something we all do but don’t talk about it because it sounds weird? Heaven forbid that any of us sound, look, or feel weird. Oh, the shame!

No, no shame in the weird game. I’m weird in a way that I hope is endearing. I’m not for everyone or even most people, but the ones that get it are my people. We are the precious few who are learning to embrace our weirdness. After all, somethings just can’t be fought, erased, or covered up with smoke and mirrors.

If you take nothing else, from anything I write, then take this: Embrace your brand of weird. It’s uniquely yours, and no one can take that away from you. It’s your superpower. It’s your survival guide. It’s the thing that makes you stand out in a world full of people who’d rather sit it out. 

That’s cool, and yay, but how? How do I own something that makes me feel insecure? How do I embrace it when everyone pushes me away because I don’t fit in? Oh, and that whole turn off, take a break, concept is great, but how do I do it? Is there a switch I’m missing? A big red button behind a glass case with a sign that reads: Break in case of mental distress.

Is there a button like that somewhere? Can you tell me where it’s hiding?

This is the problem with the self-help, lifestyle, genre! A lot of helpful advice that’s short on actionable steps. Especially when we’re talking about balancing life and improving our mental health. It’s a subject that’s turned abstruse into an art form. 

The people who talk about baking or reorganizing your home have it so good. They actually tell you how to do things, and they put the help in self-help. A step-by-step guide that provides clarity without inspiring more questions. It’s no wonder it’s a popular genre! Also, baking is relaxing and delicious.

Those of us in the mental, cerebral, corner of the lifestyle genre often leave a lot up to the imagination. We paint abstract pictures and leave you to interpret our words in whatever way moves you. You can take what you need and forget about the rest. Use our words, in whatever area you need, but we can’t tell you the how’s, where’s, or whatever’s. Nope, that’s all on you, so good luck.

It’s annoying, isn’t it? I want someone to hand me a recipe that has a step-by-step guide to self-improvement. I’m a visual learner, so pictures would be lovely, thank you very much. Ah, but every article, blog, or book offers broad answers to life’s sticky problems without giving actionable steps. If those steps are given, they conveniently forget the map, compass, and camping supplies.

You’re sending me out into the great unknown with a backpack full of cliches? Thanks, but I don’t know how this will help me in a proper survival situation. I’ve encountered a bear, now what? Embracing my weird isn’t helping. It’s going to eat my weird. What do I do?

In my own writing, I avoid actionable steps, or I keep those steps very wide. I tell you what has helped me, but that’s as far as I go. It’s hard to come up with a one size fits all solution. Our lives are so different, and how we view life is just as complex. What works for me might make your life more complicated. What works for you might be out of my reach. We all have to find our own way, to a certain degree, but I wish life could be an apple pie recipe.

Preheat the oven to 425. Open the box and place the pie on an oven-safe tray. Bake the pie for 25 minutes or until the top is golden brown. Serve hot. Top with ice cream. Yes, the first serving doesn’t have any calories, but the third serving does. Enjoy!

Why can’t self-help, or self-improvement, be apple pie? 

Then again, if you told me how to fix my problems in 96 easy steps, I’d be incredibly annoyed. I don’t want you to fix me! That’s a bit aggressive, but the idea that I need fixing is repugnant. Could it be true? Absolutely, in a lot of ways, but I don’t want someone pointing it out. How rude? Fix me? Have you looked in the mirror lately?

Apparently, it also makes me snarky and a tad bit bitter.

I’m hardheaded at the best of times. Which is a kinder way of saying I’m a stubborn, self-destructive, pigheaded fool. When someone tells me I have to do something, even if it’s for my own good, my first instinct is to do the exact opposite. Run, the buildings on fire, you need to get out. No, I don’t think I will. I’ll sit here until I’m good and ready to do it myself. You don’t own me!

What?

It’s a bad trait when my life is on fire, but at least peer pressure doesn’t work on me. If you’re trying to convince me to do something, the worst thing you can say is, “Everyone’s doing it.” Herd mentality is notoriously faulty, and it often inches towards insanity. If everyone’s doing it? Well, that’s a damn good reason not to get involved.

Which is why those tv “doctors,” with their miracle cures, make my nose contort. It’s why I don’t buy into the guru lifestyle, and I won’t purchase their magic fixes. They feel like cattle rustlers, and I’m headed for a truck that’s taking me on a one-way trip. No thanks, you sound too good to be true. You can keep your step-by-step guides. I’ll keep muddling up my life, on my own terms.

But their guides are just abstract solutions to a complex labyrinth of problems and struggles. If we really look close, we see the broad strokes and the same old colours swooping across a reused canvas. They can’t tell me how to fix my life in specific ways, any more than I can tell you what to do. 

And it’s so frustrating!

I just want someone to tell me what to do and how to do it. Mommy? Daddy? Can I be little again, and you tell me what to do, and I do it because you’re a grown-up? No, I’m a grown woman now and I should act like it? Yeah, well, that sucks. Did I just stamp my feet, hold my breath, and pout?

That’s a secret.

I’m caught in this cycle of wanting answers, seeking out the steps, but I’m too stubborn to run out of the burning building. Fear, uncertainty, and self-doubt block my view. I want a hand to reach through the smoke and pull me out. But would I take the hand, or would I slap it away?

It’s a rollercoaster, but instead of squealing wee, I’m screaming how. How do I get out of this cycle? How do I make this work? How do I find words when the words are hiding in the shadows? How do I tune out the world when it gets too overwhelming? How do I breathe when the room is full of smoke?

The answers are abstract, and the only solid line is: You have to work that out for yourself. 

When you’re transitioning from child to adult, no one warns you that you’ll spend the rest of your life looking for answers. You’ll have a million questions, and your the only one who can answer 99% of them. Is that comforting or terrifying?

I don’t feel like I have the answers to almost every question I have, but when I stumble on a solution? Oh, that’s a good feeling. The puzzle piece falls into place, and I sigh with relief. I got it. I figured it out. That’s one question solved. Only 99,999,999 to go! Progress?

If it helps, these abstract answers offer a starting point. For example, I can’t tell you the meaning of life, but I can tell you that today I found meaning on a long hike. That’s what I did before sitting down to write. I needed time away from my technology and thoughts, so I went to the forest.

That hour in the trees was a good start and a deep breath. The break wasn’t nearly long enough, and I’m about to do a movie marathon with a friend. She’s about to call any minute so I should hurry. Eep, where does the time go?

That small break didn’t completely recharge my battery, but it was long enough to come to a realization. I’ve been so focused on the big picture, the grand plan, that I’ve started to feel a sense of hopelessness. It seems so unattainable, but what would happen if I shifted my focus? Instead of the big picture, I look at the small brush strokes that can, with patience, add up to a much larger image. 

Oh, that feels attainable, doable, and maybe it feels a little hopeful too.

That’s what these words are; they’re a place to start. Abstract, yes, and aggravatingly vague, but you can take them and put the self back into help.

Yeah, that last sentence made me groan too.

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