I used to believe. Like really believe. In self-help. I read self-help books, took classes and seminars, recited affirmations, wrote daily gratitude lists, made and listened to inspirational playlists, and much, much more. Until, one fateful October night two and half years ago, I overdosed on self-help and had a total meltdown.
I joke with a friend that this was what my life used to be like: me, crying in heap on my floor, wearing ripped pajamas and surrounded by self-help books. But it’s not so much of a joke; that kind of actually is what my life used to be like. I worked really really really hard via every self-help avenue available to me to improve my life. But after years, I was still a broke, date-less, depressed administrative assistant, plus I was exhausted from compulsively reading about how everyone else was rising up out of their Dark Nights of the Soul to transform their lives and achieve greatness, and depleted from all the exercises and activities that were supposed to help me do the same. Except I seemed to be permanently stuck in my Dark Night of the Soul.
Sick of lying in a crying heap on my floor, I did the only thing I could–I shunned the self-help that had done me so wrong. I stopped perusing the Self Improvement section at Barnes & Noble, and if I accidentally caught a glimpse of some stylish, smiling, smug self-proclaimed guru who had it alllllllll together on the cover of some cheerful book promising me 5 easy steps to a new, improved me, I shuddered and turned away as fast as possible.
My gratitude lists had become an exercise in OCD and Compare and Despair. At the height of my gratitude, I wrote out 40-50 things I was grateful for a day, emailed my list to about 40 women, and received daily lists back from most of them. While I desperately wanted to be not-single, not-broke, not living in a studio apartment, and not an administrative assistant, I’d read others’ gratitude lists about the thoughtful things their husbands did for them, or how much they were enjoying a new duplex or phenomenal career success, and get plunged into a deep depression about how much of a failure I was. As part of my self-help detox, I gratefully abstained from writing and reading gratitude lists.
Earlier this year, someone invited me to join an email gratitude group. I had to decline, and explain my gratitude list trauma. Last month a friend told me that she was thinking of throwing a vision board party and asked if I’d be interested in going.
“Thanks for asking,” I replied, “but I’m recovering from an addiction to self-help so I can’t really collage.”
But here’s the thing. Before self-help failed me so miserably, it used to work. That’s why I believed in it. And it felt so good and hopeful to believe. Before my gratitude lists spiraled out of control, they brought me joy, and made me feel connected to and supported by the women I exchanged them with. To acknowledge what I was grateful for, to hope that things can be different, better, not always so hard, to have a vision and believe that it can come true, is an amazing thing. Before self-help made me feel like a complete failure as a human being for not being further along, having this kind of belief and hope had initially helped me enjoy my life as it was, and also brought more good things to me, which then made me feel even more hopeful and joyful.
After my self-help overdose, I threw the baby out with the bath water. I became so averse to all things self-help, and the expansiveness I used to have, pre-meltdown, contracted into cynicism and thinking that everything was nauseating bullshit. But now, two and half years later, I’m ready to shed that cynicism. I’ve been craving the hope and possibility that belief brings.
I recently picked up a scrapbook I made seven years ago during my self-help heyday. It was overflowing with my lists and visions and collages and dreams. Tentatively, I flipped through the pages. Some things in my vision had miraculously come true, like being a writer who writes for websites and magazines about the exact topics I write about today: dating, yoga, and spirituality. Some of the things in my vision had not (see: husband, child, brownstone, abundant bank account balance). In all fairness, though, it was a 10 year vision; I still have three years left to manifest the rest, so check back with me in 2015.
Page after page, whether they contained parts of my vision that have materialized or pieces of it that went by the wayside, my 29-year-old enthusiasm, hope, and belief leapt out at me at every turn. Holding the book in my lap, I felt like even though that hopeful girl may have been lost for the past several years, she still existed somewhere within me and I could find her again.
I also felt like parts of the scrapbook were somewhat hyper and manic. If I resurrect the me who believes in self-help, I’d have to do it differently today, with some discernment. Maybe I lost the all-encompassing, absolute belief of my younger days, but that’s what led me into destructive magical thinking. Instead, now I’d want to have a belief that’s more grounded and stable, that won’t mutate into desperation and despair, that won’t leave me crying in a heap on my floor.
Last month, after a long period (years?) of constantly ruminating about everything that did or would go wrong and stewing in catastrophic thinking, I felt compelled to start focusing on things I was grateful for. In list form. I started small, taking a baby step back into gratitude, sending my daily list of only about 10 things I’m grateful for to one friend who sends me her list in return. It felt so good to sit at my computer first thing in the morning and write my list. Like returning to an old friend. Who’d I’d forgiven for betraying me. No hard feelings. Maybe I’ll expand my list to include more things or more people, but for now, this feels right.
Last week, my friend who’d mentioned her vision board party sent out an email confirming the date. And I said yes! I even volunteered to make the inspirational playlist for the party! This feels good and right, too. After being so skittish about self-help for so long, I can’t believe I’m actually going to be collaging my vision again, and I really can’t believe how excited I am about the party and my playlist (I’m accepting any song suggestions in the comments below).
There are still some things about self-help that make me want to barf. Like those books with their extravagant promises (provided you do all the exercises and follow all the tips) that convey the message that you’re not good enough as you are and have to DO this, that, and the other thing to have more and be better. Like the stylish, smiling, smug self-proclaimed gurus raving about how AMAZING their lives are and that (for several thousand dollars), yours can be, too!
But I don’t have to throw it all out. Because other things about self-help, like the hope, enthusiasm, energy, and optimism it can provide, bring me joy. I’m finally ready, in my own grounded way, to welcome it back into my life. To write gratitude lists. To collage. To make the playlists and read the books. I’m finally ready to believe again.