am a meticulous keeper of lists. I keep lists of boys I’ve kissed, boys I’ve more than kissed, boys I hope to kiss. I keep lists of movies I want to see, movies that I would be willing to see because of my MoviePass membership. Paddington 2, for example, finds its place on that second list. And every year, I keep a detailed list of every book I’ve started and finished.
Every year’s book list tends to begin with at least a sprinkling of self-help. I am extremely susceptible to the whims of capitalism, particularly the marketing strategies that revolve around the “New Year, New You” rhetoric. By the early months of 2018, however, my list had more than a sprinkling. With titles like Maybe It’s You and I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), it looked more like a cry for help.
There’s a very specific type of shame that I experience when buying a self-help book, or more specifically, when asking where I can find the Personal Growth section of a bookstore, and yet I continue to do it anyway in lieu of ordering titles on Amazon. Each time I approach the register with a book with a title like The Dance of Anger, or its companion, The Dance of Intimacy, I’m overcome with the same emotion I feel when I tell people that I go to therapy: a reluctance to provide an answer to the question I assume they want to ask: “What, exactly, is wrong with you?”
I’d argue that reading self-help is a more culturally-maligned way to pursue personal growth than going to therapy, however — maybe because self-help is a $10 billion-a-year industry that seems to profit off human vulnerability. And yet, even though I know so many of them are full of promises that can’t be kept, I still find that every time I purchase a self-help book, I discover within myself an honest desire and willingness to change that keeps me going back.
What I was seeking to change this past winter was myself, of course. But the particulars of that pursuit hinged on the status of a new relationship — one to which I’d decided I’d become “too attached.” Boundaries have always been difficult for me, and I was having an especially hard time sussing them out in my fledgling romance. I wanted to stay over, and I wanted to stay over forever. I had work and school and friends and I was ready to give them all up for him, at least for a while. I would have called it a honeymoon phase if it hadn’t been so one-sided. He had work and school and friends too, but he was much more hesitant to sacrifice them, as he should have been. As I should have been, probably.
Everything is fine, I thought, as I found myself once again in the middle of the Relationships & Romance section of my local bookstore. I decided on a copy of Getting the Love You Want. I was very excited to get the love I wanted; less excited about getting a look from the cute store clerk at the register. The book had been championed by Oprah, my personal guru (in my head), but that didn’t stop me from making a few self-deprecating jokes while he rang me up. It’s possible, in fact, that I asked him if he was single and cracked a joke about whether he was the love I wanted. I don’t remember him finding this funny.
Embarrassment aside, I actually learned a lot from Getting the Love You Want, and not just about how to get comfortable with referring to my “inner child” (the book is rife with pop psychology). I may be well-acquainted with check-out line sheepishness, but the truth is I don’t actually feel sheepish about reading self-help. Many of the books I read this past January, and many January’s before, have proven vastly helpful to me.
It’s worth noting, however, that the second half of Getting the Love You Want consists of exercises you’re meant to do with your partner — ones I suspected me and my new boyfriend would never get to. My self-help improvement project was, much like our current entanglement, a bit one-sided. And yet it still shocked me when when he broke up with me a few weeks later.
When I returned home that night, I found a stack of books waiting for me on my nightstand, a teetering tower that seemed to indicate, by simple measure of its height, a bigger issue than the titles themselves: that all the hours and dollars spent on books like Codependent No More were an investment in something that might never have seen returns anyway.
I spied the book at the top of the pile, Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment, and recalled buying it. “Oh, I’m just researching an article about attachment theory,” I’d lied to the sales clerk, unwilling to admit that what I was really trying to do, what I really wanted, was to feel less attached to someone who didn’t seem very attached to me at all. I still firmly believe in the power of self-help, with declaring, if even just to myself, the desire to change with the purchase and perusing of a book. But there’s also nothing wrong, I have now learned, with walking away from something that’s not worth changing or fixing in the first place. That may be the greatest self-help of all.
Illustration via Getty Images; collaged by Emily Zirimis.