Saturday, 28 January 2012

Self help... does it help?

I love to people-watch. I wouldn't call it voyeurism, I don't own a pair of binoculars. But I do constantly observe and note people's behaviour, and I try to make sense of what they do, and then I guess I use my musings to try to make sense of what I do. Or is it the other way round... haven't worked that one out yet...
I see happy people and I see sad people. And I see that they don't see it in themselves.
In general terms, there are people I know who are having it tough right now: overworked, stressed, anxious and lonely. There are other people who are having a whale of a time: in exciting relationships, doing jobs they enjoy, financially comfortable (and I don't mean rolling in it, I just mean they are making more money than they spend on basic living, so that they have a little spare to use on things that make them happy.) And from an outsider's point of view, it isn't exactly rocket science to see why the first group of people are miserable and the second are not.
But do we see it in ourselves? I don't believe we do.
'I'm so hyperactive, I don't know why! It must be that coffee I had 3 days ago!' Exclaims one friend.
'I just don't understand myself. I can't work it out. I don't know what to do.' Another quietly admits.
In simple terms:
a. coffee doesn't give you a three day buzz- you're hyperactive because you're happy, and you're happy because generally speaking, things in your life are great right now
b. it isn't you that's the problem- you don't understand what to do with yourself because you're unhappy, and you're unhappy because your life is stressful and lonely right now.
It's so easy to see from an outside perspective, and so difficult from a personal one. We overcomplicate things. We look for answers and in doing this we miss the obvious.
And time also warps and bends around our moods, and by this I mean that during happy times, it seems to fly by. We are not particularly aware of it passing, except that occasionally we may look over our shoulder and go 'wow, how did I get here... oh please slow down time, I don't want this to end!' During unhappy times, we feel as though we're wading through a metaphorical swamp of time: it slows right down and we are soooo aware of it. Days drag, it seems as though we've been here forever and we cannot imagine an end.
So person b, in the depths of the swamp, looks for a way out. He takes responsibility for his own position. He says 'Only I can get myself out of this mess, what shall I do to make it better?' He analyses his feelings and makes decisions that he believes will improve his mood. He is going to fix himself!
So he goes online, he reads what other people have to say. He speaks to his friends. He comes away with a plethora of tips and lessons in positive thinking and mind-over-matter. He's given a list as long as his arm of books to read, boasting exciting titles like 'Five Steps to Emotional Healing, The Last Self Help Book You Will Ever Need', 'Change Your Life In Seven Days', 'Free Yourself From Anxiety' and 'Fix Your Life'. He puts a posters up that remind him 'whether you think you can't or think you can't, you're right,' 'You may believe that you are responisble for what you do, but not what you think. The truth is that you are responsible for what you think, because it is only at this level that you can excercise choice. What you do comes from what you think' and 'Determination is power' to remind himself that he is in control of his thoughts and his life, and he must work hard every day to get better.
And he does feel better for it. He feels like he's taking steps in the right direction. He feels strong... for a while...
But the question I pose to self helpers and positive thinkers is: can you really change the world around you just by trying to look at it in a positive light? And so many people will say YES a resounding YES YES YES. Good things will only come to you if you believe in them. You must attract positive energy. If you are negative and unhappy, then you will only attract negative energy. You must think positivly, you must make yourself happy.
And to a certain extent, I agree. At least, I agree up to the point where you find yourself frustratedly attempting to be positive whilst blocking out the fact that you've had a horrible day working at something that you're not enjoying but must be done; or that you've got more work to do than is possible in the time available; or that you're still sleeping in an empty bed after years of being single; or that the person you loved simply isn't there any more; or that you've got the best job you've ever had, except your boss treats you like crap; or that you're working your ass off to make not-quite-enough-money-to-live-on; or any number of other things that no amount of positive thinking can change!
I recently read a quote that suggested a person who is unhappy because they've lived their lives according to what they were taught by the people who influenced them as a kid deserves to be unhappy. I suppose the purpose of this quote was to make people realise they must 'do it for themselves'... all very well and good. But there is a flip side of the coin. For a person who (like me) learnt lessons from the people they loved and admired, truly believing it was all for the best, but still found themselves unhappy, the message reads 'you've done it wrong, you shouldn't have listened to them, this is all your fault.'
In the same vein, in reading theories on self help and mind-over-matter, you are giving yourself rules to live by that state 'if you are not happy, it is your own fault.' Maybe it's not your fault! Maybe you are doing nothing wrong. Maybe your life just isn't that great right now!
I'm not saying that it's completely out of your hands. I know there are many situations in which you find yourself unhappy and you will only become happy again by actively doing something to change it. But there are also many situations (usually temporary ones) where you just can't do anything other than ride it out. During these times I think the only 'fix' is to SEE IT and remind yourself of the transitory nature of the situation, and to have hope for the future. Forget 'living in the moment', picture yourself on the other side of it because it is there.
I guess what I'm saying is that we shouldn't be too quick to try and change ourselves, because a lot of the time there's actually nothing wrong with us at all, it's not what's inside our heads but outside them that is unhappy. And if one thing IS certain, it's that things change...

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