My latest self-help find: Feeling Good, by David Burns

Feeling-Good-David-BurnsI hate doctors, but I love self-help books. With doctors, the incentive is for them to either: a) get you out of there as fast as possible; or b) milk you for as many tests and treatments and visits as possible. Self-help books, on the other hand, mostly succeed through word of mouth:  a self-help book needs to not only leave you feeling good, but also feeling good enough about the book that you recommend it to other people.

I have enjoyed a number of self-help books. I think I’ve already mentioned Dave Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People and How To Stop Worrying And Start Living. They’re both delightful and informative books that’ve given me a lot. I also read David Allen’s Getting Stuff Done, which, while not quite as immediately helpful, did certainly get me to start thinking about my approaches to project planning and just generally doing all the stuff that I need to do in life.

More generally, my ethos in life is that if there’s anything you need to know or do, then there’s probably a book somewhere that tells you how to do it. If you want to be happy, then it’s silly to try to figure it out for yourself: someone else has probably already figured it out and put it in a book.

I am also big on self-improvement. Sometimes I am prone to thinking of myself as a machine that is getting faster and more efficient with each year. Every year I need to make finer and more precise adjustments to my functioning in order to gain smaller and smaller improvements in efficiency. It is a wonderful feeling. Going from 92% to 93% is as great as going from 25% to 50%.

However, I’ve mostly been forced to go it alone, because I’ve found that most self-help books are not nearly so good as Dale Carnegie’s. In fact, most self-help books are awful, because they’re, like, they’re basically systems of magic. It’s really weird. You’ll be reading a perfectly ordinary book like The First 90 Seconds, which is about how to make good impressions on people. And, suddenly, it will start talking about positive energy and focusing your auras and stuff. That doesn’t work for me. Positive thinking is one thing, but most books go beyond saying that you’ll be happier if you think positively: they say that the world will actually bend itself, in a quasi- or even outright-mystical manner, to your positive thoughts. No.

And even when they’re not awful, self-help books are often vague and overly general, or they’re focused on short-term results. They’re just about giving you that two-week burst of good feeling so that you tell everyone about it. They’re about helping you lose that 10 pounds in 28 days, and they don’t care whether the pounds come back because during that 28 days you’ll tell everyone you know about how wonderful the book is.

So despite a few good experiences with them, I have not read nearly as many self-help books as I’d like to have read. And I’d almost kind of given up on self-help.

Then came these last 2-3 weeks. Guys…they were terrible. I think you might have noticed a slightly downbeat tone on the blog. I don’t really know what happened. After a wonderful six-week long burst of energy (during which I wrote two short stories and an entire novel and shrugged off a number of pretty calamitous events like my childhood cat dying and my apartment filling with sewage), I just fell into this very blue mood where I couldn’t enjoy good things and even tiny bad things started to seem like huge obstacles.

I've had blue moods before, and I pretty much know what to expect. I’ve noticed that they tend to come sometime in January-February (last year at this time, I was super anxious about hearing back from MFA program). My understanding of my own moods is that they’re pretty cyclical. Bad and good moods basically descend upon you for neurochemical reasons and the only thing to do is to just sort of wait them out. And that’s what I was prepared to do this time. Actually, it wasn’t so bad this time, because I recognized that the things I was worried about were demonstrably minor. Everything in my life was exactly as good (if not even better) as it was three weeks ago.

But yeah, it was slow going. And then I read this post on the Guardian’s book blog (an amazing site, by the way), which contains a list of books that psychologists recommend for patients who have various mental problems. And one of those books was The Feeling Good Handbook, which sounded intriguing. When I looked it up online, the FGH had too many worksheets and exercises and stuff (I hate worksheets and exercises), though, so I read its more texty companion volume Feeling Good: A Guide To The New Mood Therapy.

And I immediately started to feel better.

The theory of the book is that negative moods are caused by negative thoughts? And that negative thoughts are usually characterized by illogical premises? And that if you work out the illogical premises in your thoughts, then you can respond to and circumvent them? I’m not sure that I buy into the paradigm. To me, my negative moods feel very external. I’ll have the exact same thing happen to me, but on a bad day, it’ll set off all this angst and worry while on a good day, it won’t affect me at all. If all of this is just due to my, like, “bad” thoughts, then why do I have bad thoughts on one day and good thoughts on another day? I think there’s more to it.

However, I think the book is astute in noting that one conduit by which we can affect our emotions is by trying to sort out our thoughts. In some ways, there’s a very meditative component to it. You sit down with pen and paper and write down all the thoughts that go through your head. Then you pick them apart and sort out exactly why they’re inaccurate (and I agree that depressive or anxious thoughts usually have an inaccurate or hyperbolic quality to them [although I will note that there is such a thing as depressive realism]). And then you write up some counteracting responses (which, for me, usually take on this Stuart Smalleyish affirmative quality: “No, what I did wasn’t shameful”, “Yes, I am working hard enough” etc) and then at the end of it, you feel loads better.

The book itself is pretty dry and not nearly so fun to read as self-help books usually are. But the exercises are very interesting and practical and well-suited to a temperament like mine (there is nothing I love more than the various modes of self-analysis). There're even a checklists you can use to self-assess how anxious or depressed you are. It’s wonderful.

Also, I enjoyed the underlying promise of the book. The author, a psychiatrist, claims that you basically never need to feel super-depressed. I would certainly like to believe that. I do not enjoy losing weeks of my life to moodiness.

Of course, it’s hard to say whether the book really helped me. I might be putting the cart before the horse. It’s entirely possible that the reason I picked it up was because I was already starting to feel better.

EDIT: I also realized that the Guardian article no longer has the list of 30 books (or maybe it never did? And I just hallucinated it or something?), but anyway, I've copied the list below, in case anyone wants it. They all have that same slightly stodgy feel to them. You can see why I was attracted to the only one with a sexy title:

  • Anger Overcoming Anger and Irritability by William Davies
  • Overcoming Anxiety, Kennerley by Helen Robinson
  • Overcoming Anxiety, Stress and Panic : A Five Areas Approach by Chris Williams
  • Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway Susan Jeffers
  • Overcoming Binge Eating Christopher G Fairburn
  • Getting Better Bit(e) by Bit(e): A Survival Kit for Sufferers of Bulimia Nervosa and Binge Eating Disorders by Ulrike Schmidt and Janet Treasure
  • Overcoming Bulimia Nervosa and Binge Eating Peter J Cooper
  • Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (second edition) by Frankie Campling and Michael Sharpe
  • Overcoming Chronic Fatigue Mary Burgess and Trudie Chalder
  • Overcoming Chronic Pain by Frances Cole, Catherine Carus, Hazel Howden- Leach and Helen Macdonald
  • Overcoming Depression and Low Mood: A Five Areas Approach (third edition) by Chris Williams
  • Mind Over Mood: Change How You Feel by Changing the Way You Think by Dennis Greenberger and Christine Padesky
  • Overcoming Depression: A Guide to Recovery with a Complete Self-help Programme by Paul Gilbert
  • Overcoming Health Anxiety by Veale David and Rob Willson
  • Introduction to Coping with Health Anxiety by Brenda Hogan and Charles Young
  • Overcoming Obsessive Compulsive Disorder by David Veale and Rob Willson
  • Understanding Obsessions and Compulsions by Frank Tallis
  • Break Free from OCD: Overcoming Obsessive Compulsive Disorder with CBT
  • by Fiona Challacombe, Victoria Oldfield, Bream and Paul M Salkowskis
  • Overcoming Panic and Agoraphobia by Derrick Silove and by Vijaya Manicavasagar
  • Panic Attacks: What They Are, Why They Happen and What You Can Do About Them by Christine Ingham
  • An Introduction to Coping with Phobias by Brenda Hogan
  • Overcoming Relationship Problems by Michael Crowe
  • Self-Esteem Overcoming Low Self- Esteem by Melanie Fennell
  • The Feeling Good Handbook by David Burns
  • Overcoming Social Anxiety and Shyness Gillian Butler
  • Overcoming Insomnia and Sleep Problems by Colin A Espie
  • The Relaxation and Stress Reduction workbook by Martha Davis
  • Manage your Stress for a Healthier Life by Terry Looker and Gregson, Olga
  • The Worry Cure: Stop Worrying and Start Living by Robert L Leahy
  • How to Stop Worrying by Frank Tallis

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