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ASK THE THERAPISTS: What to do when self-help books don’t help


Is there such a thing as too much self-help? Therapists Blair Abbas and Jenny Kierstead offer their thoughts about how actions can have more benefits than words.
Is there such a thing as too much self-help? Therapists Blair Abbas and Jenny Kierstead offer their thoughts about how actions can have more benefits than words. - 123RF Stock Photo

I have been reading self-help books for 20 years and the only ones getting ahead are the authors taking my money. I still feel stuck. What can I do to feel better about myself and actually see some progress in my life? Tired of trying things that just don’t work!

Blair

Every once in a while, I see someone in my practise who has read all the right books and has all the answers to their problems but the knowledge doesn’t translate into their lives. We live in an academic-centric society that acknowledges education, causing us to mistakenly believe that if some is good, more must better. This equation may work if we’re talking about medicine or engineering, but when it comes to self-help, too much reading and not enough application can become a form of escape from reality, which doesn’t lead to growth.

Your situation reminds me of food (okay, everything does). Your current situation is like clumpy frozen butter on toast that sits on the top and remains separate from the toast. Your knowledge is there in your head, but it’s not integrated into the wholeness of who you are. Now imagine softened, creamy butter that seeps into the toasted fibres of the bread. When you let your knowledge drop and sink into your life, you’ll be able to enjoy the delicious flavour of melted butter on toast.

Here’s my recommendation. Instead of buying or borrowing that next book on your list, I invite you to take a self-help book holiday. By this I mean, stop reading, stop searching for new solutions and start living it. Take a week, or maybe a month off and just be present to your life as it is, without trying to change or fix anything. Just live. After some time, you can revisit a previous book you’ve read and take just one concept and apply it into your daily life for one week. Then take another concept and live that one etc etc etc.

Personal growth is hard work. Even though we may long for change, the comfort of our predictable life may be too compelling. There’s safety in the familiar, isn’t there? Sometimes misery can give us a false sense of power or control over others, as they run circles around us trying to help or improve our lives. But this victim stance only binds us to our problems, and I bet, if you get really honest with yourself, you’d much rather find your power through freedom, not pain.

For the sake of your dreams, be brave, put the books down and step into your life.

Jenny

To build on what Blair just mentioned about slouching back into the comforts of our old habits, this is not just human nature, it is a biologically based safety mechanism which reminds me of a story I read about Mohini. Mohini was a majestic white tiger who lived most of her life at the Washington D.C. National Zoo, in a standard twelve-by-twelve-foot cage. Day after day she would pace over the cement floors, around the small cage. Over time, zoo employees pushed to have her moved to a more natural, expansive habitat, but when they released her into her new home, they quickly realized the damage that had been done. The tiger was so conditioned to live in that cramped cage that she sought out a small corner of her new environment and lived out the rest of her life within the imaginary twelve-by-twelve cage she had grown up in.

So many of us become adults and don’t realize that our limited conditions are just memories from past experiences, not a reflection of current reality. In my therapy work, I call Mohini’s conditioning, her old, outdated story. One of my questions in our yoga teacher training program is “What would you be without your story?” In other words, who do you truly want to become? Once you identify this, you let the answer guide your life, not the deep conditioning of your past.

Reading books can certainly help to put you on the right path, but they likely won’t be able to guide you through the maze of transformation. It’s been my experience that until you feel the teachings in your body, and heal at the level of your cells, change will be something you will continue to chase.

Here is a body-based practise that will help to generate forward momentum in your life, at a cellular level. Come to standing and take a moment to reflect on an important teaching you’ve read about or a vision that you hold for who you want to be. Deepen your breathing and let that teaching or vision drop into your throat, your heart, your gut. Take a step forward with one foot, then the other so you’re standing in a new spot. Imagine yourself stepping into your future as your new self, feeling grounded and balanced.

Reading self-help books can help you expand your mind, but remember that the work has to be done in your life before skipping to the next.


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Blair Abbass and Jenny Kierstead are certified therapists, award winning educators and partners in life and business. They are the co-founders of Breathing Space Yoga Studio/Teacher Training, Yoga in Schools and Girl on Fire. They have been married for 17 years, but who’s counting. Write them at askthetherapists@herald.ca.

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