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My Type-A tendencies began to wear thin a few months ago, though. I found myself deeply unhappy: in my relationships, my living space, and most disturbing to me, my career. And no amount of external soul searching seemed to make it better. It wasn't the first time I'd felt that way, either. My speed in life tends to be set at 100 MPH or not at all, and I'd experienced intermittent periods of burnout before.
Yet deep down, I'm an instinctive person. Whenever life has thrown problems at me, from being laid off to having to find a September 1 apartment in less than two weeks, I've relied on cat-like reflexes to land on my feet. I knew I could take back the reins I'd passed off to other people—if I could view self-help as an aid instead of an addiction.
So I proposed a challenge to myself: one month without self-help. No reading inspirational, motivational or how-to books, articles or blogs. No horoscopes. No pinging my friends and family with texts that start with, "So, I'm curious what you'd do in my situation." No life coaching, which frankly had become a massive drain on my finances. No listening to my beloved Tony Robbins audiobooks. I did allow for short therapy appointments, but only because I felt like needed something to keep me in check.
But did I really need a check? Do we? Self-help is a $10 billion dollar industry that spans back hundreds of years, with—no surprise—Americans as its largest consumer base. In other words, there lots of people getting rich off of other people's perceived shortcomings. And the whole thing acts as a hamster wheel, since our problems are not something that happen once and then go away forever.
I pondered that question after sharing the details of my experiment with my therapist (who seemed flattered that I chose to "cheat" on my detox with her.) She reminded me that self-help is partly about sharing your burdens. I tend to empathize with people who pick themselves up by their own bootstraps, but as my therapist put it, no one gets by in life alone.
Like any good junkie, I started my detox with a binge, finishing any and all self-help books and articles before I removed Mr. Robbins' Ultimate Edge—my workout soundtrack of choice—from my iPod. I told the friends I usually pester for advice that, unless the circumstances were truly do or die, they were not to grant me even a modicum of guidance during my fast. One friend, Lis, who's been on the receiving end of everything from my pitches ("Is this something you'd read?") to romantic affairs ("He can't kiss, but he's charming. Second date: yay or nay?") seemed dubious, but supportive—and wished me "godspeed" before signing out of Gmail chat.
The month started off strong, like those early cake-free days of a diet. I'd deleted my horoscope app to avoid temptation, so skipping my daily forecast was a breeze. But instead of using that time on something productive, I trolled my Facebook feed. No bueno.
By the end of the first week, though, I'd kicked those early morning Facebook sessions to the curb, and felt victorious when I passed a newsstand displaying Inc.'s "How To" issue. That feeling lasted a full 30 seconds until I backpedaled, picked up a copy, carried it to the register, and then, when the cashier asked for payment, blurted "I forgot my debit card!" and ran.
Mid-month, things were kind of dicey: I felt PMSy, and to top it off, I heard from my summer romance. But instead of asking my girlfriends what they thought, I merely mentioned the incident in passing. While advice was doled generously, it flowed naturally, and felt more like it was part of our conversation than me targeting them and putting them on the spot for free therapy. I also found that I was writing more than I had in a long time, with pitches accepted at a few of my favorite outlets.
I was beginning to wonder how I'd be able to break my so-called fast. Could I ease off of it, allowing top 5 lists and Oprah magazines to circulate freely again? Or would I go overboard and book a weekend at Landmark Forum?
Both Lis and my therapist pointed out past attempts I've made to deprive myself of things I enjoy and, in some cases, need: alcohol, food, sex, sleep. My therapist also suggested that my being drawn to self-help was merely a replacement for connection. At various points in my life, I've been a loner—sometimes by choice, sometimes not—forced to rely on myself for emotional nourishment. It might also have something to do with the fact that, despite establishing myself as a professional writer, I have imposter syndrome. I dropped out of both college and high school, and even though I know I'm good at what I do, I'm afraid of being found out. To quash my FOMO and feelings of inferiority, I've turned to self-help.
While I agreed that I've gone overboard with a Spartan approach to life before (I once purged my closet to the point where, the next day, I realized I literally had no pants left to wear), I didn't think my preference for self-help was really a way to swap friendship for enlightenment. I felt more like I'd been sucked into a lifehacking way of living that appeals to a lot of people—which can be beneficial, if you think of the way Uber and Airbnb have disrupted the taxi and hotel industries, respectively, and detrimental, funneling our preference for a Photoshopped, instant-click way of living that leaves humanity in the dust.
The puzzle pieces began to snap together during my last week of the detox, which is coincidentally when I came down with a bad cold. I was literally forced to slow down, canceling appointments and meetings so I could take care of myself. Instead of days filled with back-to-back everything, I found pockets of time where I was, frankly, not doing much of anything.
It was then that I realized how little time I usually give myself to reflect and take pause—and how being on the go, go, go winds up costing me in both quality of life and quality of work. With my self-help addiction, I was constantly seeking out quick fixes to patch together a broken system. Case in point: whenever I try to go to a museum, it's only because admission is free, and I have to cram in the visit in between other plans. But what's the point of rushing through something where you're supposed to purposely stand still?
Admittedly, I may have been slightly high during this epiphany, thanks to some potent cough syrup. But I digress. Trusting in yourself, and knowing that what truly matters will get done, is a marvelous feeling. Self-help is guilty of the band-aid effect: a temporary solution for things that are more complex than we give them credit for, like overcoming procrastination and mastering our finances—that require time and thoughtfulness, not just a checklist. I also realized that I, too, was guilty, not only of relying on my friends for validation when self-help wasn't enough, but forgetting that part of being human means being very imperfect. Expressing vulnerability is one of the things that makes us accessible to other people. To some extent, it's what makes us likable.
It's now the middle of December, and I still haven't checked my horoscope for the month—yet. I also forgot about that Inc. issue until I read through the notes I took during my detox, though I did welcome the serendipitous arrival of two books I wanted to read last month—The War of Art and Never Be Late Again—on December 1. Perhaps more importantly, I see empty days on my calendar, and instead of feeling anxious about how I'm going to fill them, and with whom, I'm okay with letting them be. For now.