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Finding yourself is impossible, and other lessons self-help has taught me

"Attaining lasting happiness requires that we enjoy the journey on our way toward a destination we deem valuable. Happiness is not about making it to the peak of the mountain nor is it about climbing aimlessly around the mountain; happiness is the experience of climbing toward the peak." ~ Tal Ben-Shahar

I’ve thought about how to properly start this blog post for a while now, but haven’t quite figured out how to put my feelings into proper words. Until now (I think).


The other day, my friend told me I’m the kind of person who’s always seeking more and better. And I do this in all areas of my life. Relationships, fitness progress, mental health, story ideas, books, experiences, material things. I doubt she meant this to strike me as hard as it did. But it did. I remember when this realization sunk in. The fact that this was deeply true, and frankly, something I had heard before from other people in my life.


And like always, I related this back to my blog post in-progress.


The self-help industry is always leading us toward “more and better”. Shiny new objects glinting in all directions, sitting on the tippy tops of mountains that will be difficult to climb but we climb anyway, risking everything because we want the shiny new objects. We want the “more and better”. We want the new versions of ourselves. In fact, we want to find ourselves--where are you, self? We seek out happiness and good fortune because we trust that these things exist outside of us, and will take just a 200-page motivational book to get there. We trust that losing weight will make us feel whole. We hope that decluttering our old clothes will give us purpose. And so we reach, and we search, and we end up right back where we started, because finding ourselves is impossible. Because we will never find what we are looking for.


Let me retrace my steps.


I’ve been deeply infatuated with self-help since the beginning of high school about seven years ago, gobbling up every book I could get my hand on. From Wayne Dyer to Elizabeth Gilbert to Gabrielle Bernstein (my mom and I’s favorite) to various authors no one has ever heard of. Even now, I have an entire book cart filled to the brim with nonfiction books, the majority being self-help. Owning books on getting rich, learning resilience, finding happiness, guides to meditation and tapping. You name it--I probably own it or have read something like it. Due to my love of self-help, I became enveloped in the rat-race, the constant chase for something more, something better. And while in the moment, soaking up this information did make me feel whole, purposeful, intelligent, happy… it never stayed. That fulfilled feeling that overcame me was all but temporary, dissipating quickly, before I ever had a chance to latch on.


Have you ever heard of the placebo effect?


Usually involving medicine, the effect goes like this: two people are experiencing elbow pain. One takes a sugar pill, one takes a pain reliever pill, and both experience a decrease in overall pain. This is because the person taking the sugar pill truly believes that they are taking the pain reliever pill, and therefore the sugar pill magically works the same way, the brain being fooled and sending neurons to assist the elbow.


I believe this same principle goes for the self-help industry. You think you’ve found yourself, finally, and you believe you’re on the right track, heading toward true happiness, mindfulness, your real self, and yet you’re not moving at all. All you’re doing is reading more and more books, watching more and more videos, perhaps writing things down but mostly staying stationary, working toward goals you didn’t previously think you needed to work toward. And all the while, you’re still, perhaps even wandering in circles, never actually going anywhere but thinking you are and feeling temporary happiness, fleeting achievement, before moving onto the next must-read, life-changing book.


This is not the case every time. Although I may be biased, the most impactful books have always been either fiction, or creative nonfiction. Stories, real or fake, that cause me to look at the world in a different way, to feel my surroundings with different fingertips, taste the air with someone else’s tongue. But, this is not to say that I hate self-help books, because as I mentioned previously, I have read several that have impacted me positively and stuck. In fact, I enjoy reading self-help every now and again, and I have read multiple books that have helped me tremendously, have opened my eyes to new things, have given me creative methods to solving problems and constructing space and mental energy to write.


This is why I had such a difficult time writing this post. This, and the fact that I technically write self-help posts occasionally and I didn't want to come across as a hypocrite. Don't worry, I've learned. (Check out my last post to hear more into this.)


But, when my friend told me, calmly, upfront, that I was constantly searching for stimulation, was never truly satisfied, I knew that's where I needed to begin.


Self-help, in my experience, teaches us to search. Within, beyond, in others, our eyes tracing the formation of paths before us, our minds using this new knowledge to tell us which way to go. It doesn’t, however, teach us how to enjoy the journey. Not really.


Of course, sometimes we can’t stop and enjoy the journey. We have bills to pay, mouths to feed, we need to hustle, make real progress, shake off our old selves and step into our new lives for the sake of mental and physical health.


However, there comes a time when this constant hustle can be dangerous. This never-ending spiral of productivity--What are you even truly working toward?--that only leads you to have more time so you’re more productive. And you’re climbing that mountain, yes. You’re doing it. You’re leaving your lazy friends behind, you’re carving out the body you’ve always wanted, you’re making time for meditation and reading so that you can become the guru you’ve always admired and you’re working hard, waking up at 5 a.m. like they tell you to and you’re mindlessly spilling out affirmations and gratitude, but you’re so tired you forget what you’re even saying at all and you don’t want to get pizza with your friends because you’ll sabotage your weight-loss progress and shit you forgot to get in your tapping for the day and--for what?


No, really, for what?


What is this all for?


Happiness? Success? Freedom? Mental clarity? Purpose?


And what do those things look like, truly? Do they look like this?


Why?


When I was trapped in my own rat-race of self-help, I thought I had found those things,

but in fact, I was the saddest I’d ever felt in a long time because I wasn’t doing anything I actually wanted to do. I wasn’t fulfilling my dreams. I didn’t know who I was.


I thought that finding myself meant to do everything right, every day, just like everyone else. But, by doing this I became further from myself than ever before. I’d schedule every moment in my day to be optimally productive and I dove straight into my blog and I ate the broccoli and lean chicken and I worked out at the gym and by the end of it all I had gained 40 pounds, I was burnt out, and I wasn’t happy.


I wasn’t happy. What had I done wrong? I was reading the right books, I was eating the right foods, I was doing the right things. Right?


Well, I was living life according to others, and not for myself.


Sometimes, we may feel like we don’t know ourselves. We don’t know what’s best for us. Thanks to our past mistakes, we can no longer trust ourselves, trust our judgements. We may feel lost in this vast world filled with people from all backgrounds, some with more brilliant minds, better bodies, more creativity. Where do we go? What do we do? Did we make the right choice? We don’t know, so we turn to self-help.


I can assure you, however, that you know yourself, better than anyone else. You are the only person who is alone with your thoughts, the beholder of your secrets, the mind behind your eyes and the observations and judgements that stem from those eyes. You are the only person who experiences your dreams, who feels that rush of passion at the thought of your life goal, who cries your tears late into the night when all feels lost.


You know yourself, and you know what works best for you. You know you like avocado toast so you ignore those who tell you it’s basic. You’re scattered, and you love to follow your thoughts as they come, chase them like rabbits in an open field, and you feel contained with schedules, you just do--you can’t stand them. And you like to swim, and you like to write, and you’re not a fan of high fantasy, you just aren’t.


I know myself, and yet I turned to self-help books to guide me, to tell me what I needed, that what I had wasn’t enough just yet. And I believed them.


That is until I didn’t, when I realized that finding yourself, finding happiness, finding success… it’s impossible. These things are not only up to interpretation, but they’re fleeting. Everything in life is fleeting, because everything in life is changing. Always. Some days, I don’t like avocado toast, and sometimes I want to read high fantasy--I don’t know, you tell me. But, it extends much deeper than this; some days you love him, some days you don’t. Sometimes you’re happy, sometimes you’re deeply emotional. Some days you feel like you’re on the right track, and then you’re lost again, spinning like you’re deep in space with no up or down or right or left just you, spinning, lost in the abyss. You’ll find your footing, in time. You always do, but right now, you can't. You just can’t.


Yourself is an ever changing allusion, something to say to reaffirm that you exist in opposition to those around you. You can’t find yourself. You can only, simply, be yourself.

I don’t want to bash on self-help. Honestly, I don’t.


But, my friend helped me realize something.


I like goals. Yes, I do. Right now, I want to build my abs and glutes. Right now, I’m working toward my third novel. Right now. I’m writing this post to upload for the world (or for a handful of people) to read and judge for themselves. I enjoy shiny, new things. I want more and better.


And this isn’t necessarily wrong. Not at all.


What’s wrong about this is the fact that I’m not pausing to take a breath and look at what I already have, what I’ve already done. Life already moves too quickly, so why would we always be facing forward? Sometimes, we need to stand still and enjoy it. Feel their hand slip into yours at the movies, observe the way the light bleeds in from your dirty bedroom window as you lie in bed for just 10 more minutes, feeling the soft sheets beneath your skin. Watch your cat race widely in the night while you stay up late, way past your bedtime, to finish the book you’re absolutely engrossed in. Look at the sun as it descends down the horizon, welcoming a new night to once again welcome a new day. End, begin, repeat.


Sometimes, we don’t need to keep chasing. Sometimes, this does more harm than good. Sometimes, we need to embrace the objects in our lives that already are, embrace our slow formation of abs, our messy work in progress, our imperfect, bitten nails and lack of “nice” clothes, our fluctuating mental states and tiredness.


Sometimes, we just are. Moving through life one day at a time, learning as we go, picking up pieces of ourselves, as well.


And, from what I’ve learned so far, this is okay. In fact, this is more than okay.


I have an analogy about this. I'm always making analogies, accidently; they help me understand.


While seemingly confined in this chase, I felt like I couldn't stop running, reaching out for my goals, for the versions of myself I wanted to take on too early, for the story ideas and the mental clarity and the intelligence and the dream body and everything I've ever wanted, I've ever reached for, frantically chasing after it in never-ending circles. Eventually, I stopped, watched my dreams vanish ahead of me, and miraculously, I felt okay. More than okay.


And before I knew it, my dreams caught up to me, slamming me in the back from behind. The story ideas, the dream body, the mental clarity... they all latched onto me. Slowly, but they did. They had found me, and that's what I was missing the entire time--our dreams will come to us, in time, when we're ready, and not the other way around.


I'm going to continue reading self-help books. Of course, I am. But, I'm no longer going to allow myself to slip into the never-ending spiral, the chase for "more and better", unless I really need the "more and better". Life is about the journey, as cliché as it sounds, but even more so; life is about the progress, and the patience to get there, and what it feels like, what it looks like. You will never get this moment back, so don't try to fight it, observe it. Feel gratitude for it, the silence and the laughs and the tears and the overall confusion because life is weird, for the "incomplete". Keep learning, yes. Keep growing. But, stop chasing so much; you really don't need to chase anything. You don't.


All life demands of you is that you live and in a way that you desire. So live it.


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