Okay, the title is a little dishonest.
In reality, I’m not going to give you any finite number of simple steps toward anything. This is a cliche I don’t mind employing from time to time: nothing worth doing is easy.
The gist of my title piggybacks on the blogging trend in vogue these days. Every article is fashioned into a list, with the aim of grabbing the attention of a culture who seems collectively to have the attention-span of a six-year old. This is completely benign when it comes to the subject of the “10 Child Stars Who Still Look Like They Did When They Were Child Stars” or “15 Ways to Get Laid, Paid, and Never Be Afraid.”
But I have some serious reservations when this editing approach is employed to articles attempting to give serious advice to those who feel their well-being suffers. I understand perfectly why there are dozens of web sites catering to the legions out there who feel fat, lonely, miserable, or otherwise unfulfilled in their lives. I was, and to a degree still am, one of those people. I think the intentions behind all the advice columns out there are noble, and I still regularly consume many of these myself.
However, there’s a danger in framing the solution to overcoming some serious problems as if it was “Easy as 1-2-3.” The solutions aren’t that easy. I understand that, to reel people in who are feeling not great about themselves, you have to think of ways to get them in the door with offerings of hope.
I’m not sure false hope is much of a sinecure for any despair these people feel. And it seems to me these editors – because I bet the bloggers didn’t write their articles this way – are sacrificing the self-esteem of people who genuinely suffer. They dangle dubious promises of hope with blogs edited down to an unrecognizable husk of their original depth to increase readership which feeds advertising revenue and blah, blah, blah.
What happens? People who are suffering read the 10 steps to happiness, try them out for a week or two, inevitably fail, and then ask “what the fuck is wrong with me?” The simple solutions have added a section of naysayers to the stadium of negative self-critics already in their head. It’s another nail in the tattered self-esteem of anyone who has struggled with an issue that has dogged them for years.
The truth is, the things we need to do to get out of our ruts vary widely. But the ruts we are in are all rooted in the same issue: a distorted mental view. Because we are all human, and most of us have a mind, we tend to face certain shocks to our psyche in the same way.
That’s where things went south for most of us. We need to find that nugget of pathos, put it in our hands, smell it, and get to know it. Then, and only then, can we start to build a new road for all the spheres of our lives where we may, or may not, be succeeding. New eyes driving a new road can also lead to new perceptions of our “failure,” something few of these blogs ever touch upon.
So, here is my list. The list of things, the nugget, beneath every big issue written about in the self help industry: abuse, depression, anxiety, body image, relationships, career, and happiness. Wait for it …
1. Your Ego
Here is another list of what you can do to change this:
1. Tons of Fucking Work
Easy as pie right? And with fewer ingredients too.
I realize, these lists are a hell of a lot less appealing as blog titles go than “Eight Ways to Liberate Your Soul.” Let’s try it out, “You Have to do Tons of Fucking Work To Figure Out Why Your Ego Keeps You: Depressed, Eating When You’re Not Hungry, Sabotaging Your Chance of Having a Good Relationship Because It’s Choosing the Wrong People to be in Your Life, Choosing Goals That Are Vapid, Shallow, or in Disharmony With Who You Are, and Acting In Ways You Know for a Fact You’ll Regret Later On”
Wow. That is a long title. I bet folks will probably not be crashing the server of the blog-site where that article was posted.
Now, I’m not a PhD psychologist whose articles are edited down by some dude with an MFA from Fordham. I’m not a “Life Coach” or Yoga teacher. But I have been meditating for eight years and doing yoga slightly less. And I’m also not giving you any lists. I’m just sharing my realizations about this stuff because I did a lot of hard work to get them.
I don’t meditate sometimes. I meditate every day, except when I don’t want to. I do retreats where I don’t read, talk, telephone, or anything other than meditate, and they suck a lot. But they work, magically.
I do Mysore yoga, which doesn’t allow me to compare myself to the rest of the class as I pose. I basically force myself to be with myself. All the time. It sucks sometimes too, but ditto above about working, magically.
That stuff is way harder than reading a list, for sure.
But now I know my ego. All I have to say is “that little fucker.” He’s the one who purports to act on my behalf before I can intervene with wisdom to stop him. He’s the one telling me I am not good enough all the time. And now I also know where he placed all the shit he couldn’t, wouldn’t, or was too scared to deal with.
I understand the reasons why he did those things, but it’s kept me emotionally swinging in the dark, which screwed up many parts of my life. I know how he rationalizes his dysfunctional way of dealing with emotional turmoil in the same way: avoidance, denial, distraction, defensiveness, posturing. I know he sprung out to protect me at an early age against some pretty deep emotional traumas.
I’ve seen how the same single pile of emotional shit seems to stick to the bottom of my shoes, and is there no matter where my ego goes. But it was the SAME emotional pile stinking up every sphere of my life.
Dealing with that one pile would negate having to deal with what appeared to be separate piles in ostensibly separate parts of my life. That would obviate the need to remember the self-help blog list for my eating problem, another for my sad problem, and another for each of my partner, mother, brother, best friend, boss, and co-worker problems.
Added up those lists are about 174 things, plus a 1/2 because I don’t care so much about one of the things on one of the lists that could make my co-workers like me. That’s a lot of things to remember. It’s a lot of compartmentalizing of a human being. It re-inforces the lie that we are somehow capable of switching ourselves on and off so easily without any residual damage to our psyches.
The switch-off leaks out if we don’t address it. Ask any professional who regularly attends crash scenes, a soldier in a war-zone, a police officer, a social worker about swiching-off or compartmentalizing. It’s bullshit. To a very small degree, this amount of dissociating from ourselves to function in certain spheres is functional. Until it becomes pathological for the infinite ways we try to shield our emotions with our egos.
That’s a lot of big, fancy-pants talk. Ego? What’s that? I bet you’re wondering where the easy part comes, right?
There is no easy part. There never was, nor will there ever be, particularly if you are in your mid-life and have been dealing with your issues for a long while. There are some ingrained perceptions and distortions perpetuating your problems. Your ego – the persona most of us tend to identify with, that generally perceives the world and then behaves accordingly – has kept you where you are because he has been doing the mis-perceiving and distorting of your reality. He’s done the best he can, but it’s time to give him the shove-off if you’re stuck dealing with the same problems.
You cannot just take a list created by some random blogger’s “happy mind” and stuff it in your ear so your mind will adopt all the perceptions, and feelings, and outlook that combine to make the blogger’s happy view even possible. Your ego will easily reject all the foundations upon which that list is built. It will want to place you back in the zone it is most comfortable, which is outside the mental bounds the list springs from.
Something in your mind sees the attraction in the list. So, the work is, you need to get behind the ego and see your mind for who and what it is and what you really are. You are not the things your ego says you are.
Throw away the lists and find a way into your mind. For me, that was meditation and yoga, for you maybe it’s therapy or something else that removes you from the nutty world your ego put you in. If you don’t retreat from that place to a demilitarized zone, your ego will continue in the dysfunctional tactics it evolved to defend you.
In other words, there is hope for change. The change lies in coming into direct contact with who you are. Then you can start to walk the earth with a mind that is more objective in its view of things, including how it views yourself and your place in all of this.
But it takes work. It took years to get into the problem and it will take years to get out of it. This shouldn’t be a source of discouragement.
That’s the other thing I really, really hate about many of these easy-peasy self-help articles. They are just another insidious voice in the Western rhetoric that puts little gadflies in our heads about how easy conquering all the problems in our life should be. That idea is an accelerant for low self-esteem, because it is false and bound to fail. People offering self-help advice should not be putting a recipe for failure in the hands of people with poor, vulnerable self-perceptions.
After eight years, the massive shit-pile I discovered in my self-study isn’t gone but it is smaller, more manageable. I can step around it most days without having it stink up my behaviour in all the facets of life I have to juggle.
That’s progress, and that is reality. It is one hell of a lot better reality than the one my ego saw before I started doing the work. In order for it to stay that way I will have to keep at it; life and my ego created the pile before and they could do it again.
The work of overcoming my problems forced me to cultivate lasting habits, and disciplined practices that I don’t need to remember from a list. The functional habits I have are based in perceptions crafted by my mind, for my mind. I promise, you can go and get your own better mind too, with some considerable effort.
So I lied. I am going to proffer a list.
Three reasons your hard efforts to heal are worthwhile:
2. Your loved ones