January 25th, 2013

My one and only New Year’s resolution this year was to very simply get to the point where I turn to myself for advice. After years and years of digesting personal development books I have reached saturation point. I can take no more. I have lost count of the number of times I have stood in my local bookshop staring at the new self-help bestsellers that I have yet to read, wondering if the next book is The One to propel me forward in life just by the very act of reading it. It has become a familiar ritual now: I excitedly buy the book, and rush home filled with anticipation at the promise of the words of wisdom contained in these pages. Fantastic, just get reading girl!

The exhilarating high comes as I start to read the book, then follows the determination and hope that come hell or high water, I will continue with my new found mojo and put all of the tools into practice every day, in fact three or four times a day if that’s what the author suggests. Yes, this time it’s going to really work! With diligence I apply the relevant pop-psych spiritu-osophy techniques to my life and expect instant zen. And when I don’t find nirvana I go back to the bookshop and buy another.

But it has finally become exhausting. My head is swimming with thousands of (often conflicting) quotes and affirmations from hundreds of different self-help “gurus.” So how do we navigate in the sea of books, podcasts and meditation CDs available to women and men who genuinely want to improve their lives? Who do we listen to? Who do we read?

On the one hand, the self-help book genre is life saving. Sometimes the right book can be the instrument that finally works where years of therapy have failed. And I’ve often heard people say that it’s also a case of finding a philosophy or lifestyle author that resonates with you personally, because not every single book will feel right to every person. I definitely get this. There are times in everyone’s lives when we need a bit of guidance. And when we read something inspirational it can spur us on, give us confidence and even help us to find a new found purpose in life.

But on the other hand, I feel that we are constantly looking outside of ourselves for answers to our problems, and I definitely include myself here because for years I have used personal development books as a constant crutch. Like anything, self-help books can become an addiction themselves. Each book temporarily satiating a desperate need for inner peace. Another danger I think is elevating the authors themselves to celebrity status which automatically seems to make their words more important than our own.

Ironically, looking up to someone else as the answer to all our problems just adds one more to our list. Worshipping the cult of the spiritual lifestyle advisor seems innocuous enough, but the passive, “Here I am, mend me!” mentality can be more damaging than the original problems we bought the book for in the first place. We are placing quite a lot of responsibility on a few people to sort us out.

So, what if personal development meant literally that, we personally develop ourselves, using our own words, voice and intuition as the actual roadmap, rather than a generic guide that someone else has written? Wouldn’t that be worth a try, too? I’m not sure I’m any wiser than when I started reading self-help books 19 years ago, but somewhere along the line I realised that the answer to all my problems lies within me, not in a book, not in a lecture or podcast or on a yoga mat. The irony being that I don’t remember reading that from any book, it just dawned on me one day when I was eating a sausage sandwich.

I’m not suggesting we chuck out all our self-help books, but wouldn’t it be great if we packed them away, took a vacation from them for a while and remembered that actually we can do it. We are the experts of our own lives. It’s fun to have a companion, but ultimately we can do it on our own, we are amazing, capable individuals who have all the tools within us to do a bloody fantastic job of living if only we would give ourselves a bit more credit! But don’t listen to me, listen to yourself.

Finally, the best piece of advice I received was from a friend who said “Jo, just go read yourself!” Oh yeah, and that friend was me, telling myself in the mirror.

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