I have a love/hate relationship with self-help books. I love the concept. Self-help = help yourself. Right on. I’m all in favor of that. That would be the love. The hate part is a little bit harder to nail down, at least in words. Books like The Secret make me cringe. While I believe that our beliefs, thoughts, and attitudes influence our lives in some major ways, fostering a belief that all you have to do is believe strongly enough in something, and practice feeling it as though it has already happened, is enough to make it occur is beyond ridiculous.
If the concepts in The Secret work, explain to me why I was never able to get my Big Wheel to fly? I believed it would happen with all of my heart. I felt the power, triumph, and exhilaration fully. Yet still, my little five-year-old body never cleared the ground on that thing.
I’ve spent countless hours reading, implementing, and assessing dozens upon dozens of self-help books. Some of them are invaluable. Some of them are worse than worthless; they’re toxic. Books that lead to product deals, making the authors extremely wealthy, while unable to show any evidence that the theories actually work, piss me off.
The Secret is that anything worth having is going to require more than belief. In fact, it will require quite a lot from you. You’re going to need a healthy dose of the following:
- Willingness to Fail
- Help from Other People
- A Plan
- Coping Skills
If you’re looking at this list and feeling like you don’t stand a chance, give yourself some credit. You’ve probably exhibited most or all of these traits at different times in your life. What about right now? Assess yourself honestly.
Don’t be shy about patting yourself on the back for the things you’re doing well. It’s not only okay to feel good about the things you’re doing well, it’s critical for you to acknowledge those things if you’re going to succeed.
What about the areas in which you could use some reinforcements? When you look at the things that are holding you back, remember that there’s no need to feel ashamed. Having weaknesses doesn’t make you weak. It makes you human. Being human is a good thing. What’s the other option? And the only way to improve anything is to get very clear and brutally honest.
When you think about your art or your business in terms of what isn’t going so well, what is your primary emotion?
I’m lucky enough to work with artists and creative entrepreneurs on a regular basis, and while the issues we discuss are personal and differ greatly, almost always, when we get to this question, the answer is the same.
The Primary Emotion That Holds Us Back is FEAR.
What are you afraid of? Are your fears realistic? Are they likely to come to fruition? If they did, would your world fall apart? Would you die? Or would you feel the pain and ramifications, recover, and keep living? If you’re ever going to put fear in its place, meaning that it will no longer rule your life, you have to look the beast in the eye.
Remove emotion from your assessment of the fear. It might sound impossible, but it isn’t. It’s actually not that hard at all. Pretend that you’re not looking at your issues at all. Take them in as if they belong to someone else, someone you care about, and imagine that they’re asking you for advice.
Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to be reasonable and pragmatic when offering advice to other people than it is when you’re trying to figure out how to tackle your own problems? It’s because no matter how much you love and care about the other person, you’re slightly removed from the situation. Learning to distance yourself from your own life issues enough to give them this same sort of objective once-over isn’t easy, but it’s a skill worth learning. I can’t promise you that you’ll never feel afraid again (you will), but I can promise you that bouts of hysteria and paralysis will take up residence in your brain less often.
Teeny Tiny Baby Steps
It’s time to put down the self-help book and actually do something. I’m not against reading about overcoming fear. I think it can be very useful. I’m sitting here right now writing about it, and I wouldn’t be wasting my time if I didn’t believe it could be of value to the people who will read it. But it can get a little sticky when you start to confuse reading about something (or talking about it) with doing something about it. If you’ve read eleven self-help books in the past year, but you haven’t started to implement changes in your daily life, you’re no further along than you were before you read them. If you’re like me, it’s all too easy to get stuck in the research phase without taking action.
So I’m asking you to do something for yourself today. When you’re done reading this article, sit down with a pen and paper. Ask yourself what steps you can take, right now, to move through your fears, and write down as many as you can. It might mean that you RSVP for a networking event, even though you’re terrified to talk to strangers. It might mean calling your local library and reserving a room for a free class, even though you’re afraid no one will show up. Or maybe you’ll send out an email to your twenty closest friends and ask them to promote your upcoming gallery show, even though you’re fretting that they might feel like you’re imposing on their time.
Aside from being situations that all evoke fear for some people, do you see the common thread between all of those things? No, I’m not talking about the fact that they are all forms of marketing. I’m talking about the fact that they are all first steps towards doing something bigger. They’re teeny, tiny baby steps. Not one of them will take more than fifteen minutes. If you’ve listed something that will take longer than this, it might be too big for a beginning step. Break it down into smaller, shorter steps. This makes them totally doable. You can do anything for fifteen minutes. You’ll be afraid for just a quarter of an hour, and then that step will be done.
Take one fifteen minute step each day for a week. Next week, aim for two fifteen minute steps a day. Week by week, your distress tolerance will increase, and your fear will decrease. You might still be afraid, but it won’t take you long to discover that even if you’re afraid, that fear can’t really hurt you, because it’s not actually real.
And just like that, you’re doing it. You’re helping yourself.