What Is & Wanted vs. Unwanted: self-help

My sister and I were recently sitting in the car waiting for our mother to finish with an appointment. One topic of conversation lead to the next until we landed on this: We are both weary of self-help.

Tired of always trying to improve and fix. Three steps to this and 8 weeks to that.

Just look at any shelf of self-help books.

  • You’ll find you need 365 Days with Self-Discipline and to Procrastinate on Purpose
  • You should practice the 5 Second Rule, Never Eat Alone, and Rise and Grind (that’s really a self-help book title—Rise and GRIND—yech!)
  • You need High Performance Habits and Mindfulness in 8 Weeks

Now, I’m a long-time fan of self improvement. Over the years you’d often have found me hanging out in the Self-Help aisle of Barnes & Noble or Borders. Remember Borders?

In fact, I even wrote a blog post about overhearing two women who were embarrassed to be seen in the Self-Improvement aisle of the bookstore.

I, on the other hand, was standing proudly in the aisle, convinced about the importance of working on myself and feeling a little self-righteous about making my own personal development a priority.

In the wrong profession

In fact, a wall of bookcases full of self-help titles is why years ago I made a career switch to life coaching.

I’ll never forget the night I was in my home office in Chicago working late. It was several years after the launch of my company Red Spade, where my work was focused on website usability. Go figure.

That night I glanced over at the bookcases—they spanned from wall to wall in my office—filled with hundreds of books. In that moment, it dawned on me nearly all those books were self-help titles, personal growth books of one sort or another.

There were only a handful of books about usability—the work I was actually doing—and they were relegated to a bottom shelf in a far corner. Tucked away, nearly out of sight. So, hundreds of books about what I was really interested in—self-improvement—versus 5 or 6 about the work I was doing.

The bubble over my head that night was: Well, that’s really interesting. I wonder why I’m doing the work I’m doing if what I’m really interested in is personal development?

And that’s when I realized I was in the wrong profession. I trace my decision to pursue a life coaching career to that moment—and the books on those bookcases.

From self-help to joy

So I love the idea of growth. It’s certainly not that I’m done growing. As if! But I have made a shift in the past year from self-help to a joy-based philosophy of living.

From fixing to flowing. From problem to solution. From focusing on what-is and rooting around in it—why do I have this problem, where did it come from, what are the steps to fix it…to…here’s what I want, here’s how I want to feel—I’m going to go ahead and feel that way now.

I’ve gone from self-help to Law of Attraction. Which means the books I’m reading these days have a very different vibration.

Now, it’s not that books about Law of Attraction aren’t also about improvement, but they’re coming at it from a very different angle, a different energy.

“We are wanting to awaken within you, your memory of how wonderful you are! How good you are, and how worthy of whatever you are wanting you are.” —Abraham

These days I’m reading Ask and It Is Given and The Optimist Creed rather than Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway and Busy: How to Thrive in a World of Too Much.

Do you feel the difference in energy?

Law of Attraction is all about the Stream of Well-Being that’s always available, always flowing to you and through you.

“We want you to know that the question that you hold has been answered—you’ve just go to let yourself flow toward the answer. We want you to know that the dilemma that you feel faced with has been solved—you just have to let yourself flow toward the solution. You just have to not struggle in the interim. You just have to trust that the power of the Stream and the worthiness of your Being is enough—because it is.” —Abraham, The Astonishing Power of Emotions

The dark side depressed me

I was already noticing this shift away from self-help, but recently I had an experience that really solidified what was going on and how I was feeling.

So here’s the backstory.

I love Debbie Ford. In 2003 I came across her book, The Right Questions: Ten Essential Questions To Guide You To An Extraordinary Life.

This book was life-changing. Debbie helped me realize the amazing, transformational power of a question. How a simple question can change how you think and what you think is possible.

In case you’re curious, my favorite of the 10 questions is: “Am I looking for what’s right or am I looking for what’s wrong?”

I’ve written about Debbie on my blog and shared what an important teacher she’s been to me over the years. In addition to The Right Questions, Debbie wrote a number of other books, and is perhaps best known for her “shadow work” about the dark side of our personality.

“Our shadow is made up of all the parts of ourselves that we hide, deny, suppress, and don’t see in ourselves – both the positive and the negative. Our shadow is all the aspects that we reject out of shame, fear or disapproval. It is made up of any part of ourselves that we believe is unacceptable, will be met with disapproval by others, or that annoys, horrifies or disgusts us about other people or about ourselves. As the great Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung said, “Our shadow is the person we would rather not be.” —The Ford Institute

So recently I picked up Debbie’s book The Dark Side of the Light Chasers, and was halfway through reading…and feeling what I can only describe as residue.

When I was reading it, I felt mired in gunk. I felt like I was in a happy place and then decided, Hey, let me go walk down the scariest, smelliest dark alley I can find. Let me go dig around in the garbage and squeeze all the rotting between my fingers.

Like I said, I love Debbie Ford. She’s had a profound impact on me and on a lot of people’s lives. I am in no way knocking her work or this book. There’s a significant body of work out there about embracing your hidden shadow in order to live more fully.

So if that’s your thing, more power to you. But it’s not my thing anymore.

I rarely stop a book mid-read. I always figure, hey I’ve come this far… But halfway in, I said, This is really bringing me down. Why would I read something that’s actively lowering my vibration, that’s taking me from my happy place to blah, ick?

So I stopped reading. And I got rid of the book. It’s not even in my environment any more.

What you focus on expands

”If you are focused on problems, the Law of Attraction will bring problems to you faster than you can fix them. What you focus on expands.” —Abraham

Now, you can say we need to be willing to look at tough stuff, at the dark side. You can say, Jennifer, life isn’t only unicorns and rainbows.

Sure. It’s not. But I also don’t have to spend hours reading and focusing my attention on negativity, on the dark side. On whatever the opposite of unicorns and rainbows is.

Because it seems to me we spend a lot of time focused on what’s wrong, on problems, on what we don’t want.

Built-in negativity bias

In fact, evolution has given us a brain that’s prone to feeling threatened and always on the lookout for danger. And for most of us, we’re not on the Serengeti anymore, so problems and a focus on what’s wrong is today’s version of danger.

Here’s what Dr. Rick Hanson has to say about our built-in negativity bias.

“Your brain is continually looking for bad news. As soon as it finds some, it fixates on it with tunnel vision, fast-tracks it into memory storage, and then reactivates it at the least hint of anything even vaguely similar. But good news gets a kind of neural shrug: “uh, whatever.” In effect, the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.” —Dr. Rick Hanson

That is not good. Our brains being Velcro for negative experiences does not help us use Law of Attraction to our advantage.

But…despite the evolution of our brain and this built-in negativity bias, there are examples around us of an intentional shift from focusing on what’s wrong to focusing on what’s right.

Focusing on what’s wrong vs. focusing on what’s right

For instance, take the field of Appreciative Inquiry.

Appreciative Inquiry is a change management approach that focuses on identifying what’s working well in an organization and then doing more of it. Appreciative Inquiry believes an organization will grow in whichever direction the people in the organization focus their attention.

Sound familiar to Law of Attraction? The idea that energy flows where our attention goes.

But we’re used to focusing on problems. We often take a deficit-based approach—one that seeks to overcome weaknesses.

But according to Appreciative Inquiry, if all the attention in an organization is focused on problems, then identifying problems and dealing with them is what the organization will do best.

I’m beginning to think that’s what all the reading of self-help books does. When we’re focused on problems, we get really good at identifying and spending all our time dealing with problems. I think that’s why that day in the car my sister and I said we were both fed up with self-help.

Here’s another example of an intentional shift from focusing on what’s wrong to focusing on what’s right—and it’s about psychology.

Traditional psychology focuses on fixing what’s wrong, on treating dysfunction and mental illness. Positive psychology, on the other hand, offers a paradigm shift to what’s right with the study of well-being and happiness and flourishing.

What a flip of the energy switch—going from a focus on what’s wrong to what’s right.

Beating the drum of the problem condition

When you focus on problems, you create more problems. When you focus on what-is, you create more of what is.

“Beating the drum of the problem condition does not bring you to the solution ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever.” —Abraham

I think we know Abraham’s view on self-help with its frequent focus on problems, with what’s wrong.

“Every thought that you think that is directed toward what you want for your future is of great benefit to you. Every thought that you are thinking about your future that you do not want is a disadvantage to you.” —The Law of Attraction

I think Law of Attraction goes even further than a focus on what’s right—to a focus on what is wanted. And that’s the most energetic place to be. On being happy, being an uplifter, having continuing growth.

Expand versus contract

Self-help books and a focus on problems just doesn’t have an energetic vibration for me right now.

I don’t want to focus on problems or fix anything. I’m not broken. I don’t think you’re broken. And I don’t even want to “improve”. I want to grow and flow.

I want to expand with joy versus contract with the rules and steps and formulas of self-improvement.

I’m noticing a shift in my energy with these four distinctions. Look at these pairs and see which is more energetic for you.

  • Solutions versus problems
  • What is wanted versus what is unwanted
  • Allowing versus resistance
  • Flow and grow versus fix and improve

Do you feel the difference?

What does your intuition say about taking a self-help break?

Here’s what might seem like a radical idea: What if you stopped trying to improve yourself?

All the self-help is really about one end goal—to be happy. And so if that’s the reason to fix and eradicate, improve and control, why not cut to the chase?

Why not chose to be happy now? Not wait until you’ve mastered the To-Do List Formula or the 7 Principles for a Stress-Free Life.

There’s nothing wrong with you. There’s nothing to be fixed.

“Well-Being is the basis of this Universe. Well-Being is the basis of All-That-Is. It flows to you and through you. You have only to allow it. Like the air you breathe, you have only to open, relax, and draw it into your Being.” —Ask and It Is Given

What if you shelved the self-help books for awhile. Let yourself off the hook. Put on hold 3 steps to this and 6 weeks to that. Stop with all the rules for “living”.

What if you don’t need to improve so much as relax and enjoy your life? What if you don’t need to fix so much as lighten up and laugh more?