All those "Self-Help" Books

In Portland, Oregon, I've made an obligatory stop at the famously enormous Powell’s Bookstore. Refreshed by the fact that people still enjoy the act of flipping through pages of paper, I aim to peruse their impressive collection of new and used books.

Upon entering the store, I notice that the books that are specifically designed to grab my eyes and pull me into the store to read more, are “self-help books." They promise confidence, assertiveness, achievement, money, and love. There's an entire wall of books with the word “happiness” in their titles, and it's hard to look away.

OK, I want “happiness,” but which book do I choose? The one that says what the true secret of happiness is, or the one that debunks the myth of happiness?

My favorite display was the famous book by Japanese cleaning icon Mari Kondo, “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up”, and right next to it is its sassy response-book, “The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck.” This hilarious meta-message playfully invites the reader to opt for their own kind of self-help. Or in other words, the kind that they already believe in. The ones who think that tidying is the answer, will pick the tidying book. The ones who don’t give a fuck, will pick the latter. Someone else is wondering, “What do I do if I give a fuck but I don’t want to tidy up?” 

Like many other psychotherapists, I’ve been obsessed with the goal of enlightenment, self-actualization, happiness, or whatever you want to call it, for a long time. But I’ve realized that I merely enjoy being seduced by the writing of an Other, a knowledgeable Other who acts as a surrogate ideal-ego when I am feeling alone, far from enlightened, and at times just ridiculously unaware. 

Rather than seeking to understand my own experience that is defined by its invisibility to others, it was easier to just grab the next best thing to read and feel temporarily relieved from uncertainty. But the books are always an inadequate response to what I am ultimately looking for. Most of them end up in the giveaway pile when I’m tidying up.

Here’s what I have arrived at: The search for how you should be won’t be found in a book. Read them, but beware, don’t succumb to the temptation to be cured. Instead, try on the work of exploring yourself in therapy, where the Other just listens to you and all of your unenlightened thoughts and feelings. You will be surprised by how original and articulate you actually are. You will find yourself in the position to create your own answers. 

All I ask is that when you do, don't write a self-help book.