I have read a lot of self- help books in my time; ‘Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway’ by Susan Jeffers, ‘The Power of Now’ by Eckhart Toll and my personal favourite, ‘When I Say No I feel Guilty’ by Manuel J Smith. The one I am currently reading isn’t strictly a self help book it’s The Artists Way’ by Julia Cameron and is lauded by the self- appointed guru of Essex, Russell Brand as ‘A practical, spiritual, and nurturing book.’
I have enjoyed engaging with Cameron’s advice because it offers ways to access your creativity which, makes self improvement fun, and memorable. Usually with other books my renewed understanding of the world slowly fades within a month of reading it partly because I believe that, if I just follow the instructions everything will be fine.
Yet, happiness as most people know, is not a state we dwell in for long and to expect to live in a constant sense of well-being, joy and contentment is impossible. Yet, I think that is what a lot of self- help books promise to do. They provide people with hope that perfection is achievable if, you just think the ‘right’ way and if you don’t, you’re somehow lacking.
My Mum teases me over the amount of self help books I have acquired over the years and my naïve belief in their power to ‘fix’ my thinking. But I am not naïve enough to think that self- help books can ever take the place of talking to a trusted friend or a counsellor.
But those two things are not always readily available so for me, I find taking practical steps such as exercise and meditation are positive, practical steps which makes me feel better equipped to deal with my emotions.
During Covid 19, negative emotions abound, so there is a greater push for positivity which attempts to gloss over any legitimate and understandable negative emotions which people have. This myopic view of reality is known as toxic positivity.
For example, I recently broke my wrist and before the operation on my wrist I needed a Covid swab which would determine whether the operation could be carried out or not. “But” I asked the tired sounding NHS office clerk “What if the test is positive? What happens then? Do I just have to live with a broken wrist?” My attempts to ask the right questions and be practical were met with “Just try and stay positive”. But I didn’t feel I was being particularly negative, just practical. She probably wanted to give me a better answer but given the lack of knowledge and guidelines about Covid 19, she couldn’t.
I was understandably anxious and in normal times you could say I was ‘catastrophising’- a symptom of anxiety, but, this is the ‘new normal’ and the ‘new normal’ is pretty catastrophic for everybody, with or without mental health issues and dismissing those feelings isn’t going to make it any better.
The novelty of lockdown has faded and the survival mode that we needed to remain aware or productive is an unsustainable way to live yet, a common feature of everyday life. The enthusiasm for ‘making the most of it’, learning Spanish, baking bread and writing novels has worn away, leading to a disconnection with our true emotions.
I see a neurologist to help manage my epilepsy and he referred me to a neuropsychologist who, listened to me and gave me lots of practical advice on how to manage my condition which a counsellor cannot do. She gave me good advice on how to practically deal with stress and loneliness and during one session she showed me this video which totally struck a chord for someone who expects to be happy all the time:
It’s OK to be unhappy, scared or confused these are normal human emotions and no one is defective for having them, even if they are unwanted. I believe it is better to feel something rather than nothing because after all, indifference is not a human emotion and being emotionally numb is usually a sign of falling further down the greasy pole of depression. Although, in tough times, it’s understandable that indifference is preferable.
Now more than ever, life is hard, maintaining relationships is hard, but the need to remain mindful of our emotions and of other peoples has never been so important. Yes, be grateful for what we have, yes, do what we can to be healthy, but just drifting into a state of mindless positivity won’t solve anything. Because trying to hide or deny our feelings can lead to more stress.
Happiness is only one emotion on the spectrum of human emotions and belief that this is the ‘best’ one reduces the ability to differentiate between feelings and truly understand ourselves or the world around us. Being unwilling to ‘open up’ and grapple with difficult emotions stops us from getting emotionally close to people and our obsession with perfect positivity affects work life too; No job is ‘perfect’ no relationship is ‘perfect’ but some are worth putting up with if they add more to your life, than they take away.