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Between Self-Help and Self-Change

I’m pretty sure that we live in a generation which is, in many ways, unprecedented. We have  more material and access to avenues of growth and self-improvement than ever before in human history. Just type “mental health” or “personal growth” into a search bar, and you’ll find hundreds of options. Want to improve your mood? There are books to read that can give you some ideas. Thinking about switching careers? We’ve got that too. Relationships getting you down? No shortage at all. 

There’s a downside to it. (I’m pretty sure the benefits are obvious.) When it comes to relationships, there are many people who feel that they’re doing “OK” in their relationship. When I say OK, what I mean is that they’ve come to terms with the impression that their relationship is what it is, and they’ve resigned themselves to the status quo even though they’re distinctly unhappy about it.  

Let’s check in on our friend Alan, from a few articles back. He and his wife have been married for close to three decades, and there are still things he wishes would be different. “The way she speaks to me, well, I honestly don’t feel good about it sometimes. I love her,” he says, “I admire her and respect her, but I often wonder how mutual those feelings are. When I bring it up, it turns into a whole blowout.” Alan pauses. “You know what makes it worse, though? I read. I know that relationships can be better, in theory. I know that men can feel respected and admired by their wives, and it hurts me so much that I just can’t have that. I just wish I could.”

Alan’s not alone. There’s so much out there about improving communication  in relationships, parenting, financial management, and physical and emotional intimacy, to name a few. It can give off the impression, though, that major improvement is available to anyone who just wants to make a change and can read a book. This may be a less-than-popular opinion, but it’s just not always so. Sometimes it is, and that’s great. For the majority of us who struggle with relationships, though, those struggles are the product of two distinct sets of deeply ingrained patterns of behaviors and emotional reactivity bouncing off of each other. A self-help book can give you an understanding of what those patterns might look like, or how to better understand the cycles you’re living. It’s very possible, though, that they won’t help you re-write the script. 

A book can give you a jumping off point, though. The feeling of resignation Alan gets from these books comes from something resonating really deeply, something that he really wants, and a knee-jerk “Oh, that will never happen” message that his brain sends up in response. It’s that feeling that gets him so down from reading books. 

So what will help? How can Alan get past that? 

Yes, I’m biased. I think therapy will help. Hopefully, you do too. Aside from that, there are a few ideas that can help you to where you’d like to be.

  1. Focus on the feeling of resignation. What tells you that it’s hopeless? You may have very good reasons for feeling that way, and thinking them through and understanding them can direct you further.
  2. Identify a specific change you want to see. Much of our desire to change is motivated by discomfort, or something we want to not see. We want something to stop. Identifying a replacement can determine how to get to it, especially in relationships.
  3. Think about what makes the situation so difficult for you. What feelings come up? How do you experience them, and what do they tell you about yourself? The more specific you can be, the more you can split the big picture up into smaller snapshots, and deal with them one by one.
  4. Find someone to share with. It doesn’t have to be a therapist, it can be a friend or even an acquaintance. When we try to tackle challenges by ourselves we’re essentially locked into our own perspective and mindset. Adding someone else can help you feel less isolated, and can give you useful input on how to navigate. AS long as it’s someone you honestly trust, it can be really helpful.

Books are like tools. They can be really useful, and can give you different perspectives as well. Learning how to use them effectively can take away some of the feeling of resignation that many experience, and can set you on the path to real and enduring change.

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