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How to live your life and make yourself happy

Posted Jul 07 2010 2:35am

And, yes, I really did just say that.

Because over the past few months now, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what it is that I do as someone working in the field of well-being or personal and professional development or whatever term you prefer for it. OK, I am constantly giving it thought but lately I’ve been giving it extra turbo-charged thought and asking myself, rather frequently, whether all my stories about being a therapist sit easily with me.

Is being a therapist really congruent with who I feel I am? Are the particular stories I’m telling myself about what a therapist does and how I think a therapist might be perceived by others really helpful to me? (You know, at parties, when people ask me what I do, I have two things I can say: “I’m a therapist’ or ‘I’m a therapist and a poet.’ Yes. Exactly.)

But seriously. Passing on advice that might be helpful to people in living their lives is not exactly a new phenomenon. We’ve been doing it since ’society’ as such began. It used to take place in a tent or a hut or a cave or around a camp fire. Women or men passing on their knowledge and experience to one another, sharing stories, offering advice about everything in the human experience from how to bake the best bread or make the best tools to how best to deal with particular emotions – grief, loss, anger, love -  or care for a sick family member or deliver a baby.

Now we have the internet. And self-help books. If we’re lucky, we also have access to good medical and health care professionals and a supportive network of friends and family to help us to process our experiences as we move through life in progressive ways.

We might even enlist the support of a therapist or a coach. Because sometimes we don’t have that support network or it fails us in some way – by judging us or some bit of our experience or by just not being there for us in a way that is helpful.

And if, like me, you find yourself in this simultaneously completely natural (see ancient tribal systems, support networks, your granny) and also rather odd (see the Popular Psychology  section of any major book store) role of offering support to people, people who are challenged by something in their lives, whether that is fear or sickness or anxiety or the temporary  break-down of their ability to make meaning out of their life, that is one weird thing.

If you then blog or write about it too, perhaps you do open yourself up to the possible accusation that you might be telling people what to do, raising yourself above others in some way or claiming to have all the answers.

At this point, I am chuckling into my keyboard. Because, oh my goodness, the extent to which I just don’t have all the answers (whatever having all the answers might mean).

There are people who do appear to set themselves up as gurus, who appear to cultivate (consciously or subconsciously) a sense of status around who they are and what they do in the field of personal development. It may be fair to say that some people are attracted to this field for reasons other than trying to be of benefit to others.

But I don’t want this post to become all about How I Am Not One of Those People.

I want to share with you the script in my head that goes something like this: ‘I have discovered a few things, a few tools and approaches that are really helpful to me in my life and for my clients and I read all kinds of research that seems to hold some promise for what we are discovering all the time about how to develop the skills of happiness and resilience, but if I blog about them or write about them, people are going to think I am a Great Big Know-All. They might even attack me because they might think that I think that I am somehow better than them. Which I am not. They might think that I am claiming to have all the answers. Which I clearly don’t have. So I’d better just shut up and not try to share this stuff. In fact, maybe I shouldn’t be a therapist. Because who do I think I am?

Do you know that script? Or maybe you have something similar that applies to your stuff? You know, something like ‘I won’t send this poem out because then people might think that I think that I’m a really good poet, when actually I don’t think I am. And how embarrassing if it really is a bad poem and then they’ll think I’m stupid.’

I catch myself having these sorts of conversations with myself from time to time. Better shut up. Better not say anything that might make people think you are somehow better than them. Who do you think you are? It happens a lot less than it used to – and it’s usually a sign that I’m tired and need to rest.

And then a couple of days ago, Paul sent me (thanks, Paul) an excerpt from an interview in The Telegraph with the philosopher Slavoj Zizek . The Telegraph calls him ‘the world’s hippest philosopher,’ which is another example of how the media loves to create a persona for someone.

The article is about Zizek’s new book and the excerpt Paul sent me reads like this:

‘When I ask Zˇizˇek if there are any pointers I’ve missed, he explodes one final time: “I despise the kind of book which tells you how to live, how to make yourself happy! Philosophers have no good news for you at this level! I believe the first duty of philosophy is making you understand what deep s— you are in!” ‘

Hmm, I thought, as I read that. Tell that to the people with clinical depression who want to work with a therapist because they feel they have nowhere else to turn. Tell that to the young 19-year-old boy who can’t even leave his house or create friendships or do meaningful work because he is so incredibly anxious. Tell that to the client who hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in years. What if we just said to these people ‘Go away. We’re all in deep s— anyway.’

Would that be helpful?

The interesting thing about Zizek’s argument is that he seems to be on the side of impossible dreams. Earlier in the interview, he argues against what he calls ‘the standard liberal-conservative argument against communism’ which says that ’since it wants to impose on reality an impossible dream, it necessarily ends in terror.’

Zizek argues that we should be able to build something new, maybe a new kind of communism. He asks: ‘What, however, if one should nonetheless insist on taking the risk of enforcing the Impossible onto reality? Even if, in this way, we do not get what we wanted and/or expected, we none the less change the coordinates of what appears as ‘possible’ and give birth to something genuinely new.”

Well, yes. Exactly. Reach for the moon. Travel joyfully. It’s not about arriving but about the journey, the process. These are central tenets of most personal development systems and approaches.

It seems that Zizek isn’t personally in deep s— after all. He has hope, he has ideas. He has a sense of purpose and passion. He sees that the impossible really can become possible.

I hope people realise that I don’t presume to tell anyone how to live or make themselves happy. But I do passionately believe in the value of the camp fire (virtual or otherwise), in story-telling and sharing. I believe that people have a right to as much information and discussion as possible about what might be helpful and what seems to work for others.

It’s easy to scoff, to say ‘why bother?’ or to talk about the ‘luxury’ of so-called developed world psychological problems. You might as well say to someone ‘Pull yourself together.’

In the end, we do need more and better ways to help people to feel good and live ordinarily every-day wonderful, even ‘impossible’ lives.

Zizek has reminded me why I continue to write about them.

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