I started getting interested in the so-called “self help” literature sometime in college. A friend of mine had recently broken up with a micro-managing and judgmental guy because he was constantly criticizing her and trying to get her to “better” herself (well, mostly her appearance so he could show off his “hot” gf). She told me that it all stemmed from his obsession with self-help and self-improvement books. It was the first time I had ever even heard those terms before. As awful as that guy was, I was immediately drawn in. Why do you think that is? Why would your average 20 year old be drawn to such a perverse and twisted image of “self-improvement”?
On top of that, it took me ten years to finally start understanding what “self-improvement” might even mean and learn how to actually utilize those tips for my own life. I’ve read so many blogs, books, lists, guides on time management, study skills, relationship improvement, weight management, finding “my style,” discovering my passion, Oprah-esque “being your best self,” and every other generic “self-help” topic out there. Of course, nothing helped – I was no zen master in a Pinterest Perfect life by the age of 25, you know. Yet I figured that all my confusion was proof that I needed even MORE help! Why do you think all those “self-help” tomes were…well, were just not helping my self?
Both answers come down to a simple truth: I am an emotional person.
Well to clarify, most people would not describe me as “emotional.” I do not cry very often, even when I’m stressed, and am not overly sentimental or angry. When I say I’m emotional, I mean that I’m human. I’m insecure. I’m jealous. I get cranky and moody and don’t know how to diffuse the energy in a healthy way. I am judgmental and then feel bad about it. I am down on myself, especially when I feel lazy or unaccomplished. When the day is rough, I want to lie in bed instead of “rallying” to finish my to-do list. I’m vulnerable. I’m prone to anxiety attacks. I don’t have confidence in my work. I don’t know how to recover my energy or motivation when things go to shit. I’m sensitive to random bullies or plans gone awry. I prefer to daydream instead of pushing myself into uncomfortable places. I dislike discomfort. I just want to eat donuts, okay?
I was initially drawn to this image of “Self-Improvement” because I wanted to fix all these horrible things I felt about myself without…well, without really ever confronting those feelings. Instead of working through my anxiety over feeling fat and unpretty at age 20, I was more invigorated at some promise that anyone could “get their best body in 30 days!” or whatever. Instead of trying to understand my insecurities about my dissertation, my academic career, my intelligence, and the vague collapse of higher education in America…well, it was a lot nicer to read a book called Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes A Day or charting action plans in Getting Things Done.
That isn’t to say that those advice books were misleading or bad. They are okay and they usually help those who are chronically unorganized or clueless on how to go about a long, multi-pronged task. But they do not help me on those days when “everything goes wrong” and I can’t get my shit together to type out even the minimum 750 words to push the dissertation forward. They don’t help me focus, keep calm, and stay confident when the weekly writing plan collapses and I am teetering on the edge of a panic attack because “everything is ruined now.” (Again, I’m making myself seem like an emotional wreck but I swear these are the emotional variances of your typical grad student).
The relationship between those sparkly promises of Productivity! Time Management! Self-Improvement! and the much more mundane and difficult emotional management only started making sense to me a few years ago. I had finally fallen into a mild depression and briefly saw a campus therapist to help me manage stress. I thought we were going to go over the feasibility of my research plan but her first question to me was, “Is this something you’re going to kill yourself over?” As extreme as her interview was, it reframed the entire paradigm for me and put me on a much more, er, productive path towards true self-improvement. True self-improvement, whether it involves productivity or time management or building on skills or finishing a goal, will always involve the nitty gritty step of emotional management.
I decided to blog about this today because today was a shit day. Like, a really shitty day. And I realized that at the age of 32 (hormones aside), I’m still not able to manage the emotions well enough to ride my workload. I realized that it isn’t about emotional repression but about learning how I react to stress or pain, how to diffuse unhealthy build up (to avoid lashing out, tantrums, road rage, throwing dishes, whatever. <– didn’t do these things, I promise), and how to anticipate these roadblocks ahead of time so I don’t get thrown off so badly.
And I told myself that it is okay to have shit days too. Sweeping step forward, shuffle a bit backward, and you’re still dancing towards the goal.