5 Reasons to Give Up on Self-Help

by Jamie Bufalino
Originally Published: 
American author Tony Robbins in a black suit and shirt waving with one hand during an event

We live in a world where everybody is supposed to be constantly striving to Discover the Power Within or Awaken the Giant Within or Fire the First Shot in the Revolution. If you scan the bestsellers lists, you’ll see self-help guides on everything from “decluttering” your life to sketching out a “universal blueprint to success.” Once I hit my 40s, I realized I’d feel a whole lot happier if I freed myself from the clutches of the Self-Help Industrial Complex.

A perfectly tidy home might be aesthetically pleasing and practical, but it erases any traces of the actual human being who lives there. And, as anyone who’s succeeded at anything in life will tell you, there is no “universal blueprint”—it’s all about connecting your idiosyncratic skills to an environment that lets them flourish.

Having decided to simply accepted the quirks, flaws and endearing shortcomings that make me who I am, here are the five self-help tropes I am unshackling myself from. Come join me.

1. Stop Freaking Out About Your 401(k)

I’m someone who’s currently in the midst of a life upheaval—I recently moved from New York City (where I lived for 25+ years) to a small, oceanside suburb, and went from being lucratively employed to meagerly self-employed—so, basically, I’m the type of guy who would make Tony Robbins pull his perfectly-coiffed hair out.

Yes, Tony, I realize the socioeconomic risks I’m taking, but I made a choice to live in the present and have faith in my future. Of course, I’m occasionally wracked with financial worries, but that’s when I take a moment to remind myself why I made the choices I did.

Every day, I wake up in the midst of natural beauty. The pace of my existence is gratifyingly slower. I have more time to focus on soul-nurturing hobbies, instead of just my full-time occupation. Change feels good. So whenever I feel anxiety creeping in, I make myself reconnect to my immediate environment (scouting out a blue jay sitting on a snowy tree branch, basking in the joy of watching my dog run along the beach, rediscovering the pleasure of baking a blueberry pie) rather than fruitlessly dwelling on all the stuff that might possibly go wrong in my future.

2. That New Diet Book Is Not Going to Help You Get in Shape

You’ve known for decades now exactly how to improve your fitness: eat less, exercise more. Buying a book or downloading an app is not suddenly going to rock your flabby world.

The fact is, most normal human beings go through phases when their gym time decreases as their fro-yo eating increases, and that’s perfectly okay—as long as you don’t let your indulgence phase get too out of control. I’ve learned to not sweat the times when I’m staring at a 10-pounds-heavier me in the mirror and simply look forward to the moments when my motivation kicks back in and I get the endorphin high from circuit training my pudgy butt into submission.

3. We All Have a Judge-y Voice Inside Our Heads—Get Over It!

Like most human beings, I have a resident internal critic who doesn’t ever seem to give me rave reviews. “You’re not smart enough, handsome enough, successful enough.” In my younger years, he had the power to wreak serious emotional havoc, but now I know how to shut him up.

First, I acknowledge his critiques (rather than just letting him ramble on in the background). Second, I refute his opinions by pointing out examples of how awesome I am. Simple as that. No months of therapy, no prescription meds—just the simple acceptance that you somehow internalized a bitchy self-critic. Although you may never figure out exactly how he got inside your head, you can at least make the most of his existence by using his barbs as a reminder to practice self-acceptance.

4. There’s Really No Great Mystery to Good Relationships

Whether we’re talking romantic or platonic relationships, there’s basically one rule of thumb that will serve everyone well: Speak your mind!

As a man who’s spent most of his life being a people pleaser, one of the hardest but most rewarding life lessons I’ve learned is how gratifying it is to have a nice, cathartic argument with someone. Not the yell-y, finger-point-y kind, but the productive, “this is why I was hurt by your action A, statement B and attitude C” variety. Not only are those kind of arguments great for your self-esteem—”look at me, I’m standing up for myself”—but they also create the strongest bonds of intimacy between you and the people closest to you.

5. It May Not Be Too Late to Change, But Why Should You?

Since I’m a writer, I’ve gotten the following question a lot from people over the years: “Why don’t you write a novel?” My response is always the same: “Just because I’m a writer doesn’t mean I have a novel in me.” That exchange used to activate the shame button inside of me—making me feel like a failure because I didn’t reach the pinnacle of authorship.

These days, I’m just grateful for having such self-awareness. The universe certainly doesn’t need another bad novel, and I’ve realized that success doesn’t only have to come with a hard cover and a book jacket. Letting other people define success for you is a major stress and depression-inducer. Aiming lower and nailing it can be far more satisfying than shooting for the stars and completely whiffing.

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