I was the kid in high school who agonized over whether I had interacted with the popular girls the “right” way as we passed in the hallway between classes. Every moment a potential minefield or humiliation. To seem stupid. To look like a loser. There was this fakey hug-kiss thing that started when I was a freshman that was so hard for me to not feel like a dork when I mimicked. I mean, I didn’t feel comfortable in my own too-tall skin let alone embracing someone else, all the while trying to act as if I, you know, actually felt good about myself or something.
It was all so stressful. I would fret when someone looked at me the wrong way, if a teacher said a potentially critical thing (because obviously one’s entire worth as a human being is determined by academic accomplishments), or most mortifying of all, if a “friend” who talked to me in private then gave me shade when a more cliquey group of girls passed our way.
I felt wrong, wrong, wrong.
I don’t know how much was nature and how much was nurture, but I know I was a very sensitive, hyper-aware kid who felt things very intensely. This physical makeup was also molded by a dysfunctional, boundary-less childhood with some trauma along the way.
Then, everything in my life and perspective dramatically changed — when I got divorced at the age of 30.
The dark wrongness now permeated everywhere in my life, and somewhere along the way I think I realized: If everything is wrong, then maybe nothing is.
This is when I first wholeheartedly gave the whole stupid embarrassing oeuvre of self-help a chance.
God, how glad I am that I did.
My brain is totally different now and I know that I control my happiness — not anyone outside of myself.
P.S. One quick contextual anecdote before I get to The List. I dated a guy once who said, very concerned as he saw me poring through some of these books, “It’s like one day you’re into this self-help author and the next you’re into another one. I mean: What’s next?” I believe he was afraid that I was addicted to seeking, which I do think can be an actual problem (see: Scientology), when you don’t trust your own self and intuition, but I also disagree with his thesis.
You would never say to an MBA student: “One day it’s this course, and then the next day it’s this other one. I mean: What’s next, statistics?” I think that investment in your own personal development is one of the best investments you can ever make in your own life and happiness, even if isn’t cool to admit to doing so.
My progress from a weepy self-hating paralytically over-apologetic constantly worrying shy chick to a person who is quite the opposite is absolute testament to that, I believe. (Also: Having done Caron Institute’s exquisite Breakthrough Program, I wholeheartedly recommend their suggested reading list as well. It is excellent.)
And here’s mine.
1. “The Breakout Principle“ — This audio book got me through my divorce. I used the principle of “severing” immediately when I found myself going into a trauma cycle by drawing a picture (changing my state) or going for a walk or taking a shower. It also taught me (through legit scientific examples of functional MRI) that when you work your brain intensely, by giving it a break, you’re giving yourself a chance for the “a-ha” moments to come to the fore.
2. “Awaken the Giant Within“ — Goofy Tony Robbins. He’s ridiculous, sure, but he’s also boiled down a ton of cognitive theory about how to change your interior world view, and he gives incredible motivation that can offer critical fuel in the very toxic at times world we live in.
3. “The Secret“ — Take it with a major grain of salt. All I know is that when I started employing the whole law of attraction hocus pocus, I saw results again and again. Is it placebo? Fine. I’ll take it. Are people responsible for their own cancer? Nope. That’s looney-pants.
4. “You Can Heal Your Life” and “You Can Heal Your Life: Workbook“ — My favorite. My absolute favorite. I buy this book for people on the street sometimes. If you don’t change the way you talk to yourself — or continue slogging yourself down with criticism — nothing will change.
5. “The Road Less Traveled“ — This book almost made me break down it hurt so much at times to read. All of the advice the author gives to parents for teaching children about their inherent value above all else — and categorizing the two fundamental neuroses of the world (you either think YOU are responsible for all the world’s problems or you think the WORLD is responsible for yours) — hit spot on. No one said self-awareness and looking within was easy, but it’s worth the discomfort. I promise.
6. “The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem“ — Another book I will randomly buy for strangers. I like my self-help books like I like my math: straightforward, logical and broken down into units. I listened to this book after a year of sobriety, and I could feel my backbone strengthening.
7. “Many Lives, Many Masters“ — Self-help? Maybe not, but this book gave me incredible peace about death in a way I never dreamed possible. It also contains the beautiful analogy of our souls being shined like diamonds amidst the pressure along the way.
8. “A Return to Love“ — An atheist comic friend, who I had a 48-hour-romance with, recommended this book to me and told me just to ignore “all the Holy Spirit mumbo jumbo.” I love that. My atheist ex-boyfriend saw me reading the book one time and said, “Ah, Marianne Williamson. So what does that charlatan have to say for herself now?” God I do love atheists. They’re so fucking funny. So, sure. Like “The Secret,” there’s a lot of woo-woo hoo-hoo. But it gave me peace. It helped me get better at loving myself. Two things which aren’t easy to do.
9. “How to Survive the Loss of a Love“ — This is one of the most popular self-help books ever written. Millions sold. It is very sweet. One of the only books to gently, as a person might, take your hand and help you through the grieving and mourning process: whether the death be an actual person, a relationship, a job, or even a past incarnation of yourself.
10. “Use Your Body to Heal Your Mind“ — This book taught me how to do EMDR on myself and also helped me to understand to stop bartering for love. I’m getting better. That’s all I ask.
11. “Your Inner Awakening: The Work of Byron Katie“ — Even if you don’t read the book, the Cliff Notes version of her work is worth checking out, or as this Oprah blog on it asks: “Can these 4 questions change your life?” My mom and I listened to this one together, and it was very epiphany generating. Essentially, it helps you break down all those assumptions that might be screwing you up by helping you “turn it around.” Crying that your partner isn’t giving you enough love? Break it down using her process, and you might end up examining how YOU aren’t giving enough love. Challenging, in the best way possible.
12. “Waking the Tiger“ — A dear friend gave me this book, and it altered the way I looked at my body’s responses. For instance, I jump out of my seat at any loud noise, just like my father who is a combat vet. I have in the past started to cry when someone seemed to care and give me love genuinely, because it was hard for me to take. This book is a wonderful mind-body connector.
13. “Courage to Change“ — Even if you don’t do Al-Anon, if you’ve had any kind of dysfunction in childhood, this book reads as if it was written directly for you. So nurturing and life changing.
14. “Anatomy of the Spirit: The Seven Stages of Power and Healing” — I do not care for a lot of Carolyn Myss’s stuff, but this book has always stayed with me. Particularly the idea, the metaphor, of the “cell tissue” you are expending through lower-energy emotions of jealousy, hatred, bitterness, etc. If you like spiritual works, you may find this book healing.
15. “Zero Limits“ — “I love you, I’m sorry, Please forgive me, Thank you.” These four sentences as a little prayer of offering are explained as a “secret Hawaiian system” to all wonder of prosperity. I say it to myself quite often when I’m walking my dog or even as an alternate to stressful thoughts that seem to come on like a panic attack. It’s a beautiful clearing, just like doing one of my favorite meditations, the Metta Bhavana.
16. “New Psycho-Cybernetics“ — Written by a plastic surgeon who dealt with so many people who wanted to cut themselves up because they hated what was inside, he knows of what he speaks.
17. “Your Erroneous Zones“ — One of the original Wayne Dyer books. It’s quite simple, but like some of Tony Robbins’ takes on dealing with emotions, and choosing the way you use them, it’s incredibly practical and positive.
18. “A New Earth“ — Can there be such a thing as addiction to misery? Absolutely. Give this fakey-guru a chance and soak it in. You’ll be glad you did.
19. “Women Who Love Too Much“ — Crappy relationship after crappy relationship where you put up with abuse and keep trying to “fix” someone? Read this puppy.
20. “Mama Gena’s School of Womanly Arts“ — So, so ridic, including making a damn mold of your vagina out of Play-Doh or some shit, but I swear to God, if you need to give yourself some sexy energetic female juju, this book is a good kick in the pants. Bubble baths! Candles! Weeee!
21. “A Gentle Path Through the 12 Steps“ — If you’re interested in recovery, this is a classic. Even if you’re not in recovery, the 12-step principles can be very practically applied, especially the idea of “turning it over.” Doesn’t even need to be to God. Can simply be to just “forces of good.” Letting go is everything. And so damn easy to forget.
23. “7 Habits of Highly Effective People“ — Do you like what I’m writing, reader? Tell me about that. I’m interested in what you have to say… (Ha-ha, gotcha! Just used a principle.) So it’s hokey and a little schmarmy, but hey, if you’re not naturally Mr. or Ms. Charisma by nature, this book will help you learn how to deconstruct the scariness of intimidating social situations.
24. “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway“ — I bought this ridiculous, yet helpful, book when I was 20 years old. It was a start. It helped.
25. “The Power of Your Subconscious Mind“ — Kind of like an early version of “The Secret.” For some reason, it speaks to me. I tried it the night that I read it, thinking to myself, “I’m going to wake up at 8 a.m. tomorrow,” and do you know that I woke up at exactly 8 a.m.? Ha. Yes, that miracle alone is reason enough to recommend.
26. “Love is Letting Go of Fear“ — This is a quick, beautiful little book. Illustrated and sweet, and definitely the title says it all, but like many of the simplest truisms, can be so hard to integrate into your consciousness. The psychologist who wrote this helps you do that, and the entire book feels like a hug to the soul.
27. “iWant“ — Know that tabloidy CNN anchor who got sober and then became a lesbian? She wrote this book. It was on the “free shelf” at The Post where I picked it up. Free meaning a publicist sent it, and whichever reporter received it discarded it for anyone who might be interested. I picked it up in my early days of sobriety, and it helped me a lot to read someone who worked in my field talking about the whole upheaval-inducing (in a positive way) process.
28. “The Wounded Heart“ — If you have any kind of sexual abuse in your past, this book is a must. Stop what you are doing right now and purchase it. I’ve never felt some of my dysfunction related so compassionately to me before as when this author explained about the “weed” of abuse becoming entangled in the “rose” of sexuality, and how the human reaction can be to hate yourself for wanting to be loved. Gorgeous.
29. “The Four Agreements“ — God this book helped me. Mostly the idea of not taking things personally, something I suck at quite often. Many folks do, I think. The book is boiled down here, which is definitely worth a glance. If you can come from that place of not taking things personally (and the other three agreements are stellar as well), your happiness will increase a hundredfold.
One caveat for “not taking things personally”: I do think that there are people who (be they sick or suffering or perhaps clinically sociopathic) are not good-hearted, well-intentioned people. (Fuck, just read “The 48 Laws of Power” or “The Art of Seduction” if you want a little primer on that.) So in those cases of the baddies, I always say STILL don’t take it personally — but protect yourself.
Here’s how: Stop trying to win the unwinnable and do what you need to do to take care of yourself. For me, in the past, that’s meant just agreeing with a sadistic boss, “Oh I agree, yes, yes. I’m wrong, yes, yes, I agree, uh-huh, you’re right, absolutely,” even when I knew the fighting wasn’t fair. My friend Jessica Delfino actually wrote a song about my tactic called “Nod, Smile and Apologize.” I took care of myself, didn’t take it personally and just got through. Life ain’t fair, kiddos. Use what tools you have.
30. “Handbook to Higher Consciousness“ — Last but not least, I found this gem on my parents’ bookshelves. They met when they were getting their masters in counseling at San Diego State University so they have a plethora of crap like this tucked away they’ve never actually read. My favorite idea from this book is the very Buddhist notion that all unhappiness in life stems from your addiction of what you EXPECT to happen and how things “should” be. Let go of that sucker, and boom: Freedom.
Honestly, this list was incredibly hard to put together because I wanted to include so many other books also lodged permanently in my subconscious. Like, even, “The Game” by Neil Strauss, which while largely about picking up women provides awesome bullshit-zapping tactical training for women and also boils down tons of NLP and confidence-boosting skills for those who struggle with shyness or social intimidation.
Strauss’s buddy, the semi-conman-ish (but filled with terrific ideas) Timothy Ferriss also wrote a classic in “The 4-Hour Workweek,” which is worth it for the email and media condensing advice alone. Another embarrassing-ish book I like? Well, the subtitle on “Why Men Love Bitches,” which is “From Doormat to Dreamgirl” explains why that book has a soft space in my heart pretty clearly I think.
I also like “Change or Die,” which pinpoints the reason change is so hard for so many: The human egoic fear that to change would to be to admit that You Might Have Been Doing it Wrong All Along. By that token, zeitgeist-plunderer and idea-man Malcolm Gladwell’s books are all worth the effort, especially the chapter on predicting the failure or success of relationships in “Blink.”
I’m also a big fan of quoting the Olympic athletes who visualized their routines beforehand who then won the gold medal anecdote from “The Success Principles” as a justification or motivation for imagining something going well. (I do it with career all the time; now I just need to be better about doing this in my dating life.)
Gary Zukav’s “The Seat of the Soul” is magnificent, and I only read after Jane Lynch recommended it in her lovely, self-help-riddled (in a good way) autobiography “Happy Accidents.” Lynch also loves “Goddesses in Everywoman,” which is fascinating and thought-provoking and leads me to look at Persephone archetypes in my own life to this day.
Also, special thanks to my Facebook friends for helping me remember “Way of the Peaceful Warrior” a book that I was blanking on and spent a half hour Googling “wheelchair,” “motorcycle,” “paralyzed” and “inspirational movie” to no avail tracking it down — and really loved. At the least, watch the Amazon Instant DVD if you’re looking for a shot in the arm of inspiration (unless you are a born and bred cynic, which means I’ll probably love hanging out with you, but yeah this movie is probably not for you).
So… what books have had the most impact on your life (even if they’re not classically stocked in the “personal development” row, or whatever that hidden way, way in the back section at Barnes & Noble is called nowadays)?
What books on this list do you absolutely despise? Let me guess. “The Secret,” right? I feel you. With all of these books, please know I’m recommending with that old unofficial 12-step-ism, “take what you like and leave the rest.”
Mandy Stadtmiller is Editor-at-Large at xoJane.com.