The Fundamental Flaw of How-To Self Development Advice
Stop wasting your efforts and start removing the obstacles to well-being
If your a regular reader of Medium, it may have occurred to you how much people seem to love self-help how-to articles. We are suckers for an interesting story about a clearly defined problem- one that personally resonates with us, and then we want to be told how to solve that problem with actionable steps. We want a quick and dirty list, a step-by-step map to becoming a better/happier/more productive human.
The problem here is that suggesting action, without talking about what is getting in the way, is a half-baked solution. It can feel inspiring, but it is a backward and ineffective way to achieve inner growth. As a culture we are focused on “doing” (more, differently, better), but what if we just need to remove the things that are getting in our way?
Our Natural State is Well-Being
Our bodies and brains are designed to move towards homeostasis, just like the rest of nature. When we are hot, we can simply remove a layer of clothing. We could also seek out shade, or turn on a fan, but if we did those things without taking off our sweater, they are not going to be very effective at cooling us off.
Just like our bodies, our mental state also strives towards equilibrium. Both external stimuli and our thoughts and emotions affect how regulated we feel mentally. If we are striving to achieve more mental equilibrium (positive emotion, contentment, connection), and we are only looking at the actions we can take (turning on the fan), without removing what is getting in the way (the sweater), then we are ignoring simple solutions while wasting time on only mildly effective ones.
Remover of Obstacles
Let’s start talking about what is getting in the way. Many of the states we most desire, like joy, connection, or peace, are states that are most easily attained not by chasing after them, but by removing the conditions that are preventing them. Those conditions are often shame, fear, vulnerability, and other unpleasant emotions we would rather ignore.
If you know the work of Brene Brown, this trio of uncomfortable topics might sound familiar to you. After pondering our collective desire to follow the proverbial “7 steps to becoming a better human,” I revisited Brown’s book, “The Gifts of Imperfection.” What is brilliant about this book, is that it lists the 10 Guideposts to Living a Wholehearted Life, not just in terms of what traits lead to wholehearted living, but also with a focus on what tendencies may be standing in their way.
If you don’t pull the weeds out of your garden, no matter how often you fertilize or water it, your plants will not do well. In fact, you will end up encouraging the growth of the weeds.
Brown’s 10 Guideposts can really encourage a shift in thinking away from how-to, towards simply weeding out what is not serving you. If you can’t help but want more how-to, you can find that in her book, but my purpose here is just to get you thinking about your own obstacles. It’s a perspective that may save you a lot of wasted efforts when it comes to creating more well-being in your life.
10 Guideposts to Living a Wholehearted Life
1) Cultivating authenticity- which starts with letting go of what people think.
2) Cultivating self-compassion- which starts with letting go of perfection.
3) Cultivating a resilient spirit- which starts with letting go of numbing and powerlessness.
4) Cultivating gratitude and joy- which starts with letting go of scarcity and fear of the dark.
5) Cultivating intuition and trusting faith- which starts with letting go of the need for certainty.
6) Cultivating creativity- which starts with letting go of comparison.
7) Cultivating play and rest- which starts with letting go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth.
8) Cultivating calm and stillness- which starts with letting go of anxiety as a lifestyle.
9) Cultivating meaningful work- which starts with letting go of self-doubt and “supposed to.”
10) Cultivating laughter, song, and dance- which starts with letting go of being cool and always in control.
An Act of Resistance
I am definitely not suggesting that removing any of these obstacles is easy- it’s not. But I hope that you are with me in thinking that it feels less daunting to remove what is in the way of a desired state, than need to create that state by changing your habits, relationships, patterns, environment, etc. It is a relief to know that our natural state is one of well-being; a place of equilibrium and positive emotions. It doesn’t have to be created, because it is a place that we naturally return to when the obstacles to equilibrium are removed.
As I read down the list of guideposts, I am struck by the thought that most of what needs to be let go of, is socially and culturally constructed. Why are we perpetuating this game of perfection, comparison, exhaustion, and conditional self-worth?
Letting go of all of this is an act of resistance. These obstacles are not you- they were learned, and they can be unlearned. Resist the forces that strengthen them, stop perpetuating them, and practice letting them go, and feel yourself start returning to your natural state of joy, connection, and contentment.
Thanks for reading,
Aimee O’Neil LLMSW