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Journaling and Self-Help Books for Personal Growth: Tools for Building Self-Esteem?

Posted Mar 03 2009 2:49pm 1 Comment

Despite my post yesterday that indicated journaling is not a sufficient tool for personal development, I do believe, strongly, that it is necessary.

While my Fellowes PS-12Cs shredder has been getting quite a workout chewing up my old journals here lately (and performing like a champ the whole time), you may be curious why I am such a strong proponent of journaling. If you are a client of mine and were tempted to take this as a sign that I'm "over that journaling thing" and won't be nudging you to do it anymore, think again, Sparky.  But before you start making faces at me behind my back (I can see you, you know), let me give you a bit more perspective. We can talk about specific approaches to journaling, and I can give you prompts in other posts but let's take a larger view of the role journaling can play first.

From where I sit, it is fairly evident that many adults simply are not taking (making) much time in their lives for honest, deep personal reflection. Admittedly, this is not at all easy to do simply by virtue of the sheer number of demands everyone is trying to meet in a day. Between work expectations, parenting demands, home care, pet name the time most adults actually get two minutes to themselves they are often too wiped out to make much use of it. The thought of picking up a journal, especially if you don't know what to say or why you would say it, can just fall flat.

Unfortunately, particularly for those in mid-life, the questions that have to be wrestled with are huge and often overwhelming.  Questions raised by the aging of one's parents, one's career choice, the state of one's marriage and the needs of one's almost but not-quite ready-for-prime-time children loom large for many. On top of that comes the creeping awareness that one is no longer in the best shape of one's life and questions of future health, financial security and, if you are really brave, end of life issues, start to roll around your head. If you don't make time to really sit and get clear on these issues, what are you setting yourself up for?  If you don't think ahead, how will you handle things when crisis strikes? 

If we could just limit these questions to the one's I have posed so far, that would be more than enough, right? But it's trickier than that. We haven't even touched on self-esteem yet. Self-love. Facing regrets and the realities that there really were some paths you didn't take. There really are some things you can't do over. You aren't as sexually potent as you once were. You don't bounce back from a lot of things the way you used to. So, it isn't just about how you handle life and getting all your security ducks in a row but it's about who you have been in it. Who you are being. Who you had hoped to become and whether that person ever showed up in actuality or whether that was just someone you intended to be but lacked the courage to express. How you feel about the waning of the moon...

You have to be willing to deliberately sit with those questions and to really listen to the person asking them. Without self-knowledge you cannot truly achieve unconditional self-love. Your self-esteem will always be at risk.

Think of it this way: When we first fall in love with someone, we become consumed with the object of our desire. We find ourselves insatiably curious about them, fascinated by them. We wonder what kinds of things they like, what they think about, what they are doing now. Big things, little things, we enjoy learning about all of it.  And if you are in a good relationship, you never stop being interested. It may not be as intense after 20 years as it was in those early months, but if you are paying attention you'll see that there are still things to learn about your partner. Still more surprises. They aren't any more static than you are and that's exciting. (I'm speaking from personal experience here...I find the evolution of my husband, my parents and the several friends I have had for more than 15 years to be fascinating and I'm kind of hooked on all their stories.)

People who avoid, almost willfully, spending time with themselves with the same loving attention and curiosity are demonstrating a blatant disregard for themselves. No regard: No esteem. Self-esteem isn't even part of the picture if the Self, itself, isn't.

For those who want to improve themselves in some way, failure to get to know yourself very well essentially hobbles you. How can you grow yourself (and answer all those questions that start with "why am I..." "how can I be..." and the fall back "What's my problem?") if you don't engage in honest exploration of the state and nature of your current issues?  If you aren't willing to diagnose your disease, how can you hope to find a cure?

Many people wrestling with difficult periods in their lives turn to self-help and personal development books. Unfortunately, since the books don't know you personally, they often only roughly approximate giving you what you need.  You are almost satisfied, but not quite, so you grab another of the recommended books on Amazon and before you know it you have half a dozen books on your night stand (not to mention all the blogs you check out).

You start to read them more and more rapidly, with no integration, looking for the answer. The more you read, the easier it becomes to skim because the information is so often the same, just with different metaphors or examples. Even knowing this, it's hard to stop reaching for the next one because that one "thing" you are looking for is still eluding you. Part of the mystery of you remains unsolved. You understand the woods better, but the path out of them is still hard to discern.

All the reading and surfing is the equivalent of going to the pharmacy and taking 1 or 2 or 3 pills from each container with absolutely no clear understanding of your ailment. Not only are you exposing yourself to "cures" for the wrong "disease" but some cures may actually hurt you. Even if you do find the right solution, you may not be allowing enough of it to "get in your blood" to actually change you before you are off to the next book/class/blog post. You get to the end and sigh, "But I've tried everything!", when in reality you have not sincerely and genuinely even begun.

And let's not forget, every author, teacher and "master", no matter how eloquently they express themselves will have things they don't write about and don't say to you because they can't. Those who have truly found what you are looking for and have made peace with some of the devils that tormented them (and still do you) have done so because they have integrated the teachings they themselves have been given. They literally have embodied their lessons and have been fundamentally altered by that process. They are continually in the process of pursuing mastery in whatever area they have chosen to study (whatever questions of life they are immersed in) and that commitment and dedication infuses everything they do. (And here I speak of those who truly love the learning process themselves and are not writing simply to establish themselves as celebrities and experts for marketing purposes, of which there are painfully few.)

So, these masters (forgive the term, I don't wish to go all "guru" on you, but I refer here to those who really have tapped into some true wisdom in their lives that has the power to stand the test of time), no matter how much they wish, cannot fully impart what they know because no one can ever adequately articulate embodied qualities.  Could Michaelangelo teach you to paint? Maybe. But like Michaelangelo?   You have to be in relationship with these individuals (when you are lucky enough to have the opportunity) and attention order to get to the heart of the matter.

That is why a book cannot take you the whole way. Too many people are caught in the foolish egotism that keeps them from working with great teachers. "I'll do it and my 1,000 books." But put one author in the room with them and they reject them outright.  We give books authority that our pride refuses to let us grant other people. It is a shame more people do not let themselves learn what heights they can reach through a little humility, willingness and a sincere desire to learn.

There is a universe of difference between humility and humiliation.

Does this mean there are no good self-help books? Is there nothing to be gained from reading?

Not at all!! However, when someone recommends a book to you , use discernment before you buy it yourself. Consider the quality of the student and look for the evidence of their studies. Many people become enamored of best sellers (the newest drug in the pharmacy) only to have forgotten what they have read completely in less than one month's time.

(In my pre-session prep form, I ask my clients, "If you are supplementing our coaching with a personal development or similar book, what are you reading now and what is one insight that you have gained as a result that will make a difference in your life?" My clients tend to be avid readers but I have yet to get a strong answer to the second part of the question, which in my mind is one of the most important questions you can ask if you are reading books in this genre. Validation, entertainment and the occassional "Ah ha! That sounds just like me!" do not qualify as life changing insights. You have to digest the meal. Make it a part of you. Ask yourself,  "What are the implications of that insight? What am I going to DO differently now that I understand this?")

When someone recommends a book to me, this is what you would see if you could read my mind,

"I can read the book just by watching you."

Quite often I'm not impressed, especially when I see the "grab every pill in the pharmacy" pattern. I know I'll have another book recommended to me just as enthusiastically a month from now.  If it was a book someone got through in a night, that tells me a little bit about the psychic nutritional value (at least for them) and I take that into consideration as well.

If you want book recommendations, ask instead of the people who truly embody the qualities you wish to cultivate in yourself...peace, happiness, contentment, joy...what they are reading. Follow the ones who are quietly living it and you will find gold but before you do this make sure you cultivate the proper attitude in yourself. If you are simply in a rush for "the treasure map" it will elude you completely even if it lands square on your foot.

Comments (1)
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Funny enough I've read a great many self-help books and done a considerable ammount of journaling aimed at personal growth.  But sometimes personal insights come about in unexpected ways.  I recently read the novel The Lost Daughter by Daralyse Lyons and it has enriched my soul.  I found so many of my own emotions parallelled in Lyons' text that I'm telling all the women I know to read the book and they've all found it hugely touching and helpful.

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