why self-help is (sometimes) good

Hey guys. I last wrote to you on Wednesday, approximately 30 minutes before Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, which slightly derailed my writing schedule for the week. I had planned for my next post to be about ADHD, but today I realize that I hadn’t really properly said what I wanted to say about why I like self-help, so I’m back to explain myself.

So: I think I’ve always lacked self-trust, and the root of it (as expected) stems from my childhood. I don’t blame my parents because they’re good parents who tried their best, but I think 80% of people don’t really like themselves, choose subpar romantic relationships, and model unhealthy attachment patterns to their children, who then grow up trying to unwind all the things they’ve absorbed. Plus, elementary/middle school is not exactly a healthy social environment, and children are cruel little brats. As a result of this I grew up with certain messages about the importance of achievement and external validation that messed up my ability to trust myself: I needed to use other people’s judgment like a mirror to ascertain who I was, to feel like I had a right to exist. I think a lot of high-functioning kids turn into relatively high-functioning adults who struggle with this exact same problem, and they continually brush it aside because they keep hitting external metrics of success so really what can be wrong? But something is wrong and it’s a poison that bleeds into everything: unfulfilling relationships and feeling untethered from meaning at work and general low-grade depression.

This isn’t exactly a unique affliction, since we live in a world where knowledge passes for acceptability and the appearance of sophistication makes you venerable. To some extent it’s cool and normal to be unhappy. Instead of focusing on solving your problems, you can deposit your hunger into clothes and achievements and crushes. Caroline Knapp in Appetites: “Things—identifiable objects, products, goals with clear labels and price tags, men you’ve known for five minutes—make such a handy repository for hungers, such an easy mask for other desires, and such a ready cure for the feelings of edgy discontent that emerge when other desires are either thwarted or unnamed.” We browse Redfin and buy clothes on Ebay and read the newest Verso book. We’re good at intellectualizing our discontent: late capitalism, millennial gloom, therapeutic narratives. We look outside ourselves to avoid being along with our dissatisfaction. Specifically, I turned everywhere else except towards myself.

Sometimes I think self-help books are the only (relatively) harmless things in the world that can help you reprogram your self-hatred. (Religions: potentially harmful. Romantic partners: potentially harmful. Nagging parents: potentially harmful). Self-help says, it’s not good to hate yourself, you should do something about that. Self-help says, you keep finding yourself in the same shitty relationship again and again, maybe you’re the one who’s responsible. Everyone in the world is trying to sell you something, but at least self-help really tries to sell you the answers to the questions that matter (even if the answer sold is sometimes wrong).

I went through a period last year where I spent 45 days or so reading nothing but trashy self-help books, and for the first time I was really able to admit that all the external things I’d put my faith in were pretty much worthless. For instance: love. (I’m not saying love itself is worthless lol, just love as a solution to your discontent, or more specifically as a solution to my own). I’m currently reading Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler (it’ll be released in February and I plan on reviewing for this Substack) and there’s this killer section about why people fall in love.

I was totally guilty of the first one: “They want someone who solves—or makes otherwise irrelevant through the delirious happiness they inspire—the umbrella problem of life.” I always believed that if I were really, truly in love, I’d be cured of my anxieties over meaning and progress and the shape of my life. I was always waiting for someone else’s stamp of approval before I could start taking myself seriously.

Letting go of that idea was the most freeing thing in the world. I’ve known that I should let go of it for years, but hearing the thought reiterated in easily digestible self-help mumbo at a time when I was psychologically ready to accept it actually made a difference.

Now I can tell myself, I will make the thing I need to make. I will be the one who gives catharsis to myself. All my life I’ve felt like I was waiting for the right person, right idea—something. But I was always the person I was waiting for. It’s taken me a long time to see that.

Who would’ve guessed? Self-help. More useful than you’d expect.

Small reminder

Same thing as on Wednesday: planning to turn on paid subscriptions soon. Hope you are having a good weekend!