Self-help, self-delusion or self-destruction?


I didn’t use to read self help books. But over the last few years, as I muddle through midlife and try to make sense of aging and come to terms with the fact there is more of my life behind me than in front, I’ve started reading self help books. I’m looking for insights, explanations  and support structures. 

Originally I wanted to ask myself questions but was not sure about what. To be honest, I was alarmed, confused and overjoyed to discover I seemed to be morphing into my 19 year old student self. My mindset had switched. I felt carefree, fight-to-the-death-in-a-debate passionate about big issues and much less concerned about looking the part and following social norms. I felt irresponsible and wanted to play hooky. Suddenly going to see a play or going for a walk in the woods became more important than writing a report or finishing household chores. What had happened to the responsible me, mindful of my role and responsibilities? I frequently felt disconnected and disinterested, especially in my career. 

But did all this mean that the main chunk of my life had been lived in denial or playacting? Was I only now re-establishing the real me? So had it all been a waste of time and worse, should I have lived my life differently? Could self help books help me resolve all this or at least make some sense of it? The answer I discovered is – yes and no. 

Armed with these huge questions I began to explore the world of self help.

Self help book books come in all shapes and sizes from the thoroughly researched perspective of life (Brene Brown and Susan Cain), through the spirtual path (think many of the Hay House authors including Gabby Bernstein) to the personal life story as a starting point (from Kris Karr to Elizabeth Gilbert). I’ve read them all. 

Many I have enjoyed because they let me into the lives and minds of others and several helped me to see other people differently, which I discovered was frequently more helpful and interesting than thinking about myself. I don’t think one book stands out as my bible, though I have a few favourites usually because I warm to the authors. 

It was a revelation that there are a small number of life support mechanisms but an infinite way of communicating them to others and executing them in real life. It is reassuring to be told the same things over and over. The lesson is reinforced by repetition rather than deminished. 
You need to read a lot of self help books to realise what you do and do not know about yourself. You need to read a lot of self help books to learn which ones are for keeps. You need to keep an open mind and draw on a wide range of writers. Treat yourself as a research project. Be prepared to surprise yourself. You may be drawn to authors you least expect, reflect on why, that maybe a lesson in itself.

I realised how easy it would be to become addicted to self help books. It wouls be so easy to become reliant on a suite of platitudes and exercises to navigate life. To be honest that is not a disasterous way to live, assuming the platitudes are not unreasonable and you apply them responsibly. But it is a very passive way to live. Potentially you lose your freewill and become cultlike in your behaviour; more and more susceptible and persuadable but little wiser and probably increasingly gullible. It is no way to resolve your problems or to answer your questions.

I’ve learned a lot about how to read myself, about who I am and my attitude to life. Self help is about the reader not the book and like learning anything new, you need at least one teacher to show you the ropes and stretch your capabilities. But at some point you have to leave school.

Meanwhile I keep reading, dissecting and playing hooky (sometimes).

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Day-to-day happiness

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May has been a busy month and I suddenly realised while planting new lavenders in the garden that I needed to write my second blogpost for this month. But what to write? What aspect of my midlife might be of interest? Inspiration was at an all time low.

So as I’ve been worndown by work and minor obstacles this month, I decided to share with you my five favourite ways to relax. I am not sure whether being a midlifer has changed the list from previous decades but maybe I want to treat myself more these days. If not now, when? What am I waiting for? Here we go….

1. Lying in a bath with a good magazine and a scented candle. My favourite is diptyque

2. Filling vases with cut flowers bought by me, given in love or picked from the garden. What could be more uplifting than bringing the colour and smell of nature into your home

3. Lying on my bed reading in the afternoon sun with the Welsh hills in the distance

4. Playing with my cats throwing catnip stuffed fabric mice up the stairs

5. Gardening – the process of gentling controling, shaping and celebrating nature.

Are you happy?

Are you happy right now?  Happy about your life, about the way you feel about yourself, your job, your relationship, your family, your friendships? If the answer is no to one or more of these and you are a midlife woman then, according to a recent survey, you are not alone.  The Office of National Statistics (ONS) survey on wellbeing, found that people aged 40-59 are the least happy, have the lowest levels of life satisfaction and the highest levels of anxiety of any age group.  A coalescence of factors are cited as possible causes including financial pressures, having children later which means your parents are aging at the same time as you are caring for young children, and an uncertain job market coinciding with the time you reach the peak in your career.  Interestingly life satisfaction is higher for people aged 65+.  Will I become happier as I reach a magic age or rather are the current cohort of 65+ happy because they are retired on a good pension?

I suspect this is more a question of our generation.  Women like me – aged 50+, living in an affluent democracy in the Western world – are the first generation to have very real choices and high expectations of life.  My education, my career and my financial independence have enabled me to do a lot supported by a gradual change in society towards equality between men and women. My generation of women believed and spoke up for our rights and we continue to do that.  It is all good.  Yet recently I sometimes feel ‘So is that it?’  Doors are closing but it is hard to find new ones to open.  I was brought up to believe I could open all the doors, if I wanted.   I do understand why so many people in their 50s don’t feel happy with their lot.

But happiness is a state of mind.  We all know people who in the face of huge adversity remain optimistic about the future, philosophical and pragmatic about where they are in life right now and find happiness in the everyday.  However to achieve happiness you do need to make sense of your life and make a deal with yourself that you will commit to being happy.  I’d argue you owe yourself that.  The one person you have to live with forever and for whom you are 100% responsible is YOU, no one else.

There are numerous tools out there to advise on how you find happiness – from wellness gurus, books on mindfulness, yoga and meditation classes to a list of anything between 3 and 15 things you need to do to be happy.  Type ‘how to be happy’ into google and see what comes up.  Clearly the findings of the ONS survey suggests we are either not taking the advice or not doing it right. But maybe there is a first step that doesn’t appear on the average self help list.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is the title of a book by the wonderful Jeanette Winterson and published in 2011.  It is the story of a life’s work to find happiness. It is a very personal story in which Winterson revisits her own childhood and her relationship with her mother to make sense of her life and find peace with herself.  Looking up Winterson’s age, I discover we are both 56, she is just 10 days older than me as it happens. While her life story is very different to mine, the book contains some universal touch points that give you pause for thought.  The book reminds me just how much places and people’s attitudes have changed.  It can be salutary to remember that you view your past in the knowledge of today and you are in danger of judging it by a set of values that didn’t apply at the time.   The title of the book is a quote from her mother. It captures something many women of my generation will find familiar; a mother who cannot understand striving for happiness.  Money, security, respectability and vocation might all be legitimate goals but not happiness.

What Winterson’s book taught me is that if you want to be happy you first need to slay your own dragons or at least put out their fiery breath. Then it will become a lot easier to follow the 3 or the 15 points to happiness.  In fact you might choose to write a new set that you discover works for you.

I think most of my dragons are slain, though occasionally I find one sleeping and I disturb its slumbers accidentally.  Largely I am happy.  In fact happier now than I’ve been for a long while.  I don’t have a magic formula or even a list of how to be happy but I do recommend everyone goes in search of their dragons.  You might find one or two lurking in a wardrobe somewhere.  And on the days when I think ‘Is this it?’, I either remind myself just how good ‘it’ actually is or say ‘No it isn’t because I still have to ……(fill the gap) to do. And I need to get started today’.