The self-help industry is bumming me out. As a blogger, I subscribe to a myriad of health, nutrition, and wellness sites and newsletters. While this allows me to keep up with the latest thinking on a topic I love, and while some of the writers I follow are a total inspiration, I’m bombarded with postings telling me that my life falls short in the departments of mindfulness, stress-reduction, nutrition, hydration, supplementation, cardio, strength-training, flexibility-training, social connection, solitude, stillness, goal-orientation, time-management, reading, writing, cooking, parenting, spending quality time with my kids, spending quality time with my spouse, community involvement, political activism, continuing education, and, paradoxically, both altruism and self-love. Apparently, I don’t even breathe correctly.
Here’s what happens when the self-help message du jour arrives in my inbox. I quickly scan it to see if I’m guilty of the specified failing. If no, I delete. If yes, which is almost always, I read the post a little more thoroughly and reflect on my inadequacy in that area and whether it offers any realistic ideas for self-improvement. If no, I delete. If yes, I spend another few seconds reflecting on the matter, then I move on to reading more pressing emails, like my Edison e-bill or the sale announcement from J. Crew. The self-help email then slowly travels to the bottom of my inbox as new mailings flood in. From time to time as I purge the inbox, I revisit it briefly and mournfully note that I just don’t have time to deal. It continues its southern migration. Finally, perhaps months later, I banish all delusions and hit delete. But I don’t have to feel like I gave up on that particular concept; rest assured, another blogger has already emailed me on the same topic with similar advice. This new email then embarks on its journey through my email system. . .
Now, I don’t deny that K&K is guilty of some of this—we bloggers so love to share the Kool-Aid—but being on the receiving end grows tiresome. Blogland of course has a remedy for that too: don’t be too hard on yourself, accept your failings, love yourself unconditionally, etc. The question is how to address this complaint without offering more self-help advice. Is this even possible?
Further reflection suggests not really. The reason we even consider these emails is that human beings are preternaturally goal-oriented and aspirational. My dog, Mike, would tell a dog-blogger to step off at any suggestion that he should work on peeing less on my white flokati rug. But we humans can’t help ourselves at striving to be better, stronger, and smarter than we are right now.
This is actually a phenomenal gift, and we can capitalize on it by focusing on what is realistically within our power to improve—assuming we want to improve it. And here’s the rub: If you are fine with, e.g., your sedentary lifestyle, don’t hand-wring over every email that comes in touting a new workout regimen that’s “too easy to fail.” If you do not want to start working out, even the one-minute ab-blast system will fail. This should be your litmus test. Not “should” I try this new form of self-improvement, but do I truly want to improve in this area? If yes, consider whether the post offers you realistic steps for doing so; if not, hit delete.
Sticking with our workout example, what if at the meta-level you want to want to start working out? No good. Hit delete. Meta-aspirations do nothing to address your current lack of motivation and are no friend to self-esteem.
Here’s a better solution. Reflect on why you want to have a stronger, healthier body, but never get off the couch. What is stopping you? One of my coaching clients did this with brilliant success. After some deep conversations, she realized that she found working out lonely. She looked into more social forms of exercise, found a very social cross-fit studio, and now happily goes there five days a week. She actually enjoys and looks forward to it.
Another client had a different outcome, but no less important. He came to me desperate to lose weight and start turning around some of his weight-related health problems. He said he’d “tried everything.” We kept working on finding changes to his eating patterns that were small and incremental enough for him to incorporate and build upon from meeting to meeting. But he’d inevitably come back having not followed the steps he’d committed to. After a few go-rounds, and again some deep reflection, he let on about his rather heavy drinking and frequent pot-smoking habits. Despite wanting to want to improve his lifestyle, he was not willing, or perhaps able, to address the fact that his substance abuse made this virtually impossible. After gently suggesting AA and counseling, we went our separate ways. Wanting to want something will get you nowhere and, sadly, there was nothing I could do to offset that.
So I have indeed offered you self-improvement advice, which was inevitable and for which I apologize. You can overcome the annoying self-help email deluge by deleting unwelcome posts (including this one), or better yet, unsubscribing to offending sites (but please not this one!). But if you are past merely wanting to want to improve something about yourself and are actively ready to change, consider how you may be standing in your own way. Once you’ve deconstructed that issue, by all means go ahead and see if any of those formerly offending emails offers some real guidance on how to move forward. If not, there’s always delete—and the next day’s email.