The dangers of ‘self-help’

The dangers of ‘self-help’

I don’t tend to go in for self-help books. My preference is to read up on things from the point of view of the professional; the therapist, doctor or academic. Even when I was an out-patient in a psychiatric hospital, attending twice-daily group therapy sessions for months on end, it took me a good fortnight to realise that I was just as ill as everyone else in the room (I had been sitting their feeling like an ethnographer, not a fellow-patient). This tendency to pretend I’m the expert rather than the sufferer is, I’m sure, excellent evidence of ‘intellectualisation’. Ho hum…

My partner, on the other hand, has purchased many well known self-help titles over the years. He invariably fails to read them, but they sit there on the bookcase. Over the last year I’ve flicked through a few of them, but this week I read one through cover to cover in 24 hours (no small feat when you’ve a toddler and a baby hanging off you). This book grabbed me. It’s over twenty years old and has a terrible cover, but by the end of the preface it had already spoken some truth to me and I was eager to read more.

I won’t name the book, but it’s one which usefully breaks down patterns of thoughts and behaviours into several types, suggests route causes (usually from childhood), typical manifestations and issues each one might cause, and explains how someone afflicted by these might overcome them. These include cognitive exercises, behavioural experiments, inner-child work and flash cards. 

I’m sure the authors intended the book to be one which spurs the reader into action, inspired by the possibility of change and the feeling of empowerment which comes with doing better for yourself. 

By the time I had read the last page, I pretty much collapsed into a heap of despair.

I could see elements of myself and my own issues in nearly every one of the types described. I had been reminded of previous traumas, personal failures, and current self-defeating behaviours. I’d experienced flashbacks to painful childhood memories. I was filled with anger, sadness and an overwhelming sense that I was doomed to be stuck in a perpetual cycle of fucking up. I felt physically ill. I had no idea what on earth to do with all these feelings that were threatening to completely drown me.

I am lucky that I am receiving therapy, however my therapist is on holiday for the next two weeks. I’ve done my best to talk through some of what I’ve felt able to share with my partner, who is always an empathetic listener (he was a fellow patient in those group therapy sessions many moons ago). I’ve made plans to sit my parents down and lay out some of the memories that have floated up to perhaps achieve some kind of *shudder* ‘closure’. But I’m still left feeling intensely vulnerable and even more dispirited than I was before I picked up that book.

So I guess this is a caution. Be aware that, even the best intended books, or blogs, or podcasts or whatever, can come just too close to home when you’re already in the grip of the big black dog. Be sure to brace yourself for the potential repercussions. Try to have your support network there around you already. Because I know that if I didn’t have my partner and my beautiful girls with me, if this was ten years ago, that book would have had me straight down the local off-licence for a box of wine and I would be in the middle of a major self-pity-wine-crisps-and-Marlboro-soaked-binge. 

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