Waylon’s post Self-Help is Bad For Us made me really, really happy.
I kept talking about it everywhere I went, posting on Facebook, clogging my airways with it.
Yes, I thought, Yes. Absolutely.
I am just about to turn 36 and I’ve been in therapy since I was 19. I read a lot of self-help literature, from Dance of Anger (awesome) to The Power of Now (suck). I take it all in—and, I teach Buddhism in creative forms to hundreds of students in-person a year, as part of retreats and classes. So I dare say I am pretty steeped in the stuff, whether I like it or not.
Of course, there are no ultimates: self-talk and positivity, affirmations and picturing universal light can all be phenomenally helpful.
In my experience, personal and professional, often they are not.
Here is what I have noticed from seven years of teaching*:
1. Affirmations feed shame. If I say to the Universe “I am beautiful and worthy” (believe me, two messages I personally need to hear), I overlook and accidentally feed the deep monsters that get shoved down by such speech. They are not evicted by positivity, they are enthused by it.
2. Positivity puts up a face. When we try to present ourselves as more functional than we are, to ourselves or to the world, we are faking it. You cannot fake it until you make it. Cannot. Not when it comes to being real.
3. Replacing negative self-talk with positive self-talk is still self-talk. In Buddhist teachings, the issue is that we are talking to ourselves at all. Period. Especially when we deny the effects of that self-talk, or strangely, recognize them by saying that it is powerful, then changing what it says. It’s powerful, take away some of the power by being present.
4. There’s nothing wrong with anger. Disappointment. Nothing. In fact, wishing we felt them less only makes them stick more. The dark, oozy, sticky stuff—we have to work with it, through it. There’s no way around. There’s no secret.
5. Self-help easily becomes self-blame. I have had so many students come through my classes writing, saying, thinking: If I only thought better about this, this wouldn’t keep happening to me. I flinch whenever this happens. There is so much potential for self-blame behind positivity talk—if I only stayed positive, this wouldn’t happen, etc.
6. Self-help, ultimately, can feed self-hate. Why? Because it is selfish, narcissistic.** Wanting to change ourselves is overall bad news. The inherent message in the majority of self-help writings/speeches/programs is that there is something wrong with us. Guess what? Then there is something wrong with all of us. Really. We suffer. Not cool. I am very clear on that one. Practices like Tonglen, exchanging oneself for another, help us to really connect with the raw, paradoxical truth that, as Suzuki Roshi said: “All of you are perfect just as you are and you could use a little improvement.”
Well, thanks, Miriam—now you have pooped on my positivity parade. So now what?
1. Notice when you are clinging to the idea of an outcome as the answer.
Affirmation: I am beautiful just as I am.
Issue: I am actually overweight and need to lose weight to be healthy.
Try: I sincerely want to and need to lose weight. Accept this while not beating myself up. Actually connecting with my body as is, rather than some ideal or pretending I don’t experience self-hate. A constant effort, with fruitful results.
Affirmation: I am flexible and open to life.
Issue: I am pretending to not feel rigid a lot of the time.
Try: Feeling that rigidity in my body, working with it, being kind to it. That’s accepting it, deeply. So instead say “I want to be more flexible and open to life” and feel that wanting in your body, as well as feeling when you “are” flexible and when you “aren’t.”
3. Let all your self-talk (especially the negative, but also the positive) run itself dry.
Affirmation: I am a positive person.
Issue: Really? Honestly?
Try: Feel that negativity. Don’t feed it by denying it. Write it, say it, let it run itself ragged. It will. It is not endless and acting as if it must be denied only feeds it more. Feel how it effects your life, your body, every moment. Then you’ll really want to renounce it, as Chogyam Trungpa says: you’ll become nauseous about Samsara.
4. Let the negative beliefs reveal what they are hiding.
Affirmation: I believe in myself.
Issue: You need to believe in all of yourself, not just the parts that will get you what you want.
Try: Working with Basic Goodness, with Enlightened Society. Find the goodness that is under all of us, way under all these issues we want to blot out or ignore or even transform. Keep the faith. Deep faith.
5. Realize we all suffer. Really. It’s not your fault.
Affirmation: I am a being of perfection.
Issue: Blame and shame (as opposed to guilt, which is simpler and shorter-lived) don’t help us accept responsibility for our actions.
Try: Working on being responsible. See what truly is your fault and what is actually a condition of circumstances beyond your control. (Read/listen to some Brene Brown for oodles of practical help on this.)
Affirmation: I am at peace.
Issue: Really? Maybe sometimes. Great. Great when that happens—what about when you aren’t?
Try: Getting down and dirty. Get ready to feel awful, then, slowly but surely, get ready to feel really good. Like a runner’s high, you have to put in the miles to get to the goods. Ironically, you are already good enough. All that effort is to—for real, permanently, dismantle your disbelief in your own and others’ inherent goodness.
No affirmation, no positive mantras are going to stem the tide of a lifetime of self-hate, self-blame and feeling unworthy.
You’ll need to put in the effort you have put in so far, and then some—effort that is constant and subconscious.
Once you see just how far down you are not helping yourself, you can start really helping yourself, bit by bit, until you can also start helping others and help all of us be exactly who we are, already.
*These certainly don’t make me an authority—everything in this article is based on my opinion. However, it does give me a lot of personal and intimate experience watching, over time, people work with different modes of healing and mindfulness.
**These two words are what one of my students, who is a great teacher to me, says are “loud words” —ones that provoke a lot of people and trigger a lot of defenses. I use them because they are loaded with what I intend to say and no more: the idea that we exist alone. You don’t think you believe that? Listen, I believe that. Inherently, underneath. And the only way to counter that kind of belief is to do the gritty, compassionate work of really feeling your feelings and feeling for others and seeing there is no difference.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise
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