Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Helping Me Help Myself: Introduction

Suddenly, an idea struck. I would learn how to do the splits on both sides. From an audience standpoint, it would look a lot better if I could slide down on one side, pop up, and then slide down on the other. Goofier. Plus, more symmetrical and showbizzy....I'll do something involving the splits, I thought. I lay back in bed, satisfied for a second with my bout of reflection, and took a sip of coffee. Then, as I started imagining how I would train for such a thing, what kind of stretches I could do to accomplish this feat, a scared, empty feeling took hold....I mean, let's reflect for a minute: That was now my goal for the new year? My resolution? (p. xii-xiii)

Thus spin Beth Lisick's thoughts during her first hour of being awake on January 1, 2006. Now with a new, true resolve, she will look to acknowledged gurus of self-help in order to make sense of her life and work out long-standing issues. Over the next twelve months, she will read books, attend conferences, go on a cruise, reach out to friends and family, and contemplate the knee-jerk cynicism and self-disgust that well up at the idea of "self-help" and "life-coaching." The product of this year of action and reflection is Helping Me Help Myself: One Skeptic, Ten Self-Help Gurus, and a Year on the Brink of the Comfort Zone. (This title is also on BPL's Adult Summer Reading booklist this year, fitting in with the theme of "metamorphosis.")

Beth Lisick is a writer and performer based in California's Bay Area. Among other creative projects, she co-organizes the Porch Light storytelling series in San Francisco and is one half of a comedy duo. She's been possibly the only straight performer invited to go on a Sister Spit tour, and she has even led a band with my vote for best eponymous name ever: The Beth Lisick Ordeal.

Helping Me Help Myself is a funny, easy read, but it's also a deeply personal work. Why is it that so many people are willing to put out into the public sphere their private self-betterment? And why are so many of us eager to read it? People make life goal lists on 43 Things for all to view and comment on (to give an idea of the wide scope here, among the "recently cheered goals" on the day I'm writing this are "NEVER apologize for who I am!" and "Apply to become a glass teacher"). Fortunately, it's beyond the scope of this discussion to get into why ordinary people want to put out into the public sphere parts of their private lives in the first place (though, speaking as someone who finally opened a Facebook account a few days ago, this has indeed been on my mind; incidentally, Lisick is on MySpace, too).

On this end, Lisick's book has two things going for it -- there's the usual voyeuristic/competitive fun time of having someone else's life hanging out in front of you (at least I can clean out my damn closets), and she's an appealing and amusing enough writer to make you want to read about her year anyway.

Stephen Covey, Suze Orman, Deepak Chopra, and Sylvia Browne are among the gurus whose teachings Lisick explores (also Richard Simmons -- which explains the cruise). Using light humor to describe her stumbles through the year, she proves herself a likeable guide into self-helpdom. (On the phone with Julie Morgenstern, author of Organizing from the Inside Out: "'We keep most of our shoes in this wire wine rack thing that we got at a garage sale.' 'Oh.' She sounds amused. 'And is that working for you?' 'Well, no.' 'Okay...' I feel reflective. 'I think it's because a shoe and a bottle of wine are not really the same shape.' 'Good.'" [p. 149])

But another element of Helping Me Help Myself is watching the self-consciously edgy, artsy, Left Coast-er Lisick take part in pursuits valued in mainstream American culture -- including the concept of self-help itself. Sometimes she still comes out on the outside (as with most of John Gray's essentialist philosophies of gender, for example), but she always does try hard to start open-minded. Enjoying this book also requires acknowledging that we're focusing on a particularly privileged, mostly middle class American perspective here (something Lisick does touch on in one chapter).

In the end, despite bouts of near-bankruptcy and depression, Lisick has improved in some ways. She realizes that becoming aware of oneself and how we relate to others opens one's eyes to the synchronicities that show how "there is something cool and mysterious about being alive. A random element that can shock and surprise." (p. 260)

We'll take more in-depth looks at the particular gurus who appear in Helping Me Help Myself, so to start I'll repeat these questions: Why is it that so many people are willing to put out into the public sphere their private self-betterment? And why are so many of us eager to read it? Also, has anyone found a public recounting of your foibles and attempts at redemption to be helpful in self-improvement? Any life coaches out there who have comments on Lisick's journey?

Click on the comments link at the end of this post to participate.


scott said...

I'm interested in hearing what people who like these kinds of books have to say, because I'm someone who isn't a fan of them at all. I'm sure some of my resistance is just knee-jerk cynicism and self-disgust (as you eloquently put it), but I always get the feeling that the people writing these books are motivated more by narcissism and the belief that their problems are the Most Important Issues In The World, rather than honestly trying to help other people. And while I do think a public recounting of your foibles and attempts at redemption would be helpful in self-improvement, I kind of feel that that's what therapists are for. Again, I would love to read the comments of people who like this genre, and who like reading about other people's attempts at self-help. Maybe they are getting something out of it that I have been too cynical to appreciate.

Anonymous said...

At one time, I started making life lists. Then I realized that I was focusing too much on checking off items from the list and not enough on experiencing life. I felt that I was being forced into someone I was not, and a worse person at that. Now, I make lists and throw them into a drawer. I know that I can find them if I ever want to review a list. I focus more on the present experience rather than on what I should do next.
I find that if something is really important to me, then it gets done. Otherwise, it just sits in the drawer. My life seems to flow better with minimal planning.

I also try to ignore these books since they tend to stress me out. I'll read a financial magazine over a self-help book any day.

Melissa said...

That's an interesting tactic...But you must be a pretty self-motivated person to get all or even most of what you need done with little planning. But I'm speaking as someone who often works around the things I really need to do. Stay tuned for my own book, wherein I will tell all...

Scott, that reminds me of the Talking Heads line, "Talk to your analyst, isn't that what he's paid for?" Actually, Beth Lisick approaches the topic with a sufficient lack of gravitas that she's not so guilty of the "Most Important Issues In The World" syndrome. There's an interview with her (I can't find it right now) where she talks about how much she's gotten out of personal accounts of a given subject, rather than more dispassionate books on them, and so that's why she chose to writing Helping Me... the way she did. I also respond that way.

Anonymous said...

I like to read Deepak Chopra's books and consider them extremely helpful in making me understand my psychological and spiritual unconscious rather than numbing it with chemicals, shopping and neurotic escapes. The good self-help books can safely, non-intrusively lead us to compose our thoughts and character, to acknowledge areas where we are not functioning as well as we have the potential for. Self-help endeavors wont help us win battles but may help us achieve tranquility in our life and mind.