My aversion to self-help books began on Christmas morning my sophomore year of high school. As always, my sister and I woke up ridiculously early and ran to the tree to see what Santa brought. The highlight of the morning was my first cell phone (back when kids had to wait until they were sixteen to get a cellphone). But there was one other present that definitely stands out from that year. He’s Just Not That Into You by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo.
My mom maintains that I asked for the book. I think I must have made a self-deprecating joke about needing it, undoubtedly after watching a Sex and the City episode and wondering if any boy would like me at all, ever.
Reading the book was the opposite of helpful. “He’s just not that into you if he doesn’t want to marry you,” the book told me. Duh! I wanted a homecoming date, not a life partner. “You already have one asshole. You don’t need another one,” the book told me. Gross! Also, it was high school. I desperately wanted another asshole, as long he was dreamy and/or willing to hold hands in public. “Do not go out with a guy that keeps you waiting by the phone,” the book said. Hello?!?! I’d only had a phone for less than 24 hours.
He’s Just Not That Into You was not actually my first brush with the self-help oeuvre. As a child and teenager, I used to sneak into my mom’s room and read parenting manuals like Raising a Daughter, Reviving Ophelia, and I’m Not Mad, I Just Hate You. I wanted to know what tricks my mom was going to try on me. At the same time, I also wanted to check that my feelings and experiences were normal.
A note to authors of parenting books: you might want to address appropriate responses to your teenage daughter asking for a dating guide meant for bitter thirty-somethings. Hint: it probably involves a conversation, not getting her the book. Despite my early self-help experiences, with advice that was irrelevant at best and disempowering at worst, He’s Just Not That Into You turned me off to the genre in a major way.
Until…my 29th birthday, bell hooks, and the election of Donald Trump changed all that.
At my birthday party, my roommate slyly slipped me a wrapped copy of All About Love, by bell hooks. I knew I would read it…eventually. But then, a month later, in the days after the election reading the book became more urgent. Soon, I was quoting from it all the time, copying passages into my diary, and recommending it to everyone. Remember how dramatic and dark those days felt? Unlike my sophomore Christmas, it was like fate and my roommate conspired to give me the perfect book at the exact moment I needed it most.
Quotes like, “Cultures of domination rely on the cultivation of fear,” and “A love ethic presupposes that everyone has the right to be free, to live fully and well,” helped me process my reaction to the election. Reading the words, “Accepting death with love means we embrace the reality of the unexpected,” gave me a new way to think about the recent passing of my grandmother. And wisdom like, “We cannot know love if we remain unable to surrender our attachment to power, if any feeling of vulnerability strikes terror in our hearts…” made me reexamine my complicated feelings about being almost thirty and single. These words, along with many others I found in those pages, also made me reexamine my feelings about self-help in general.
Since then, I’ve read The Highly Sensitive Person, by Elaine N. Aron, and I Thought It Was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame and The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brené Brown. And I’ve started reading more memoirs that feel self-help adjacent too.
I usually love books because of their ability to transport me away from my own life. I love taking a break from my problems and completely losing myself in story. Reading self-help gives me the opposite experience. Sitting down to read a chapter of a self-help book feels akin to a therapy session. While reading the words on the page, I start thinking intensely about my own life. My thoughts begin to fee associate, I make connections I hadn’t consciously thought of before, sometimes memories even resurface.
Of course, there are a few I’ve picked up that made me role my eyes or seem counter-productive. But I just put those down. Not every novel is for me, and that’s true for self-help books too. I’m not going to let the ones I don’t connect with stop me from helping myself.