Self-help is a big market. Like you, I’ve felt the pull of varying authors proffering a solution to life’s big questions. I’ve spent much time and money devouring those words, and felt the creeping overwhelm that comes with information overload.
All we’re really looking for is something that cuts to the heart of what it means to live!
No morning routines or complicated plan. Just simple and easy ideas that help galvanise the mind and boost confidence.
You want lightening-bolt moments and eye opening wisdom, right? You want chapters that can be dipped into, again and again. You want words that nourish your soul. You want to be able to do it your way!
If you feel this, read on! These four favourite creative self-help books are apt to be the only ones you ever need.
Be prepared for some hard truths, yes. But truths that just might make life a little easier.
And all without the killer morning schedule.
You will never be rid of fear (but that’s ok!) — Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
Our fears often prevent us from achieving goals. And so they destroy us, or become an enemy to be vanquished. But while it has a bad rep, it is an irritating necessity. It’s what keeps us alive, teaching us caution in the big wide world.
So how do we live with fear, without it swallowing our dreams?
By asking: “Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures hidden inside you?” Liz Gilbert neatly sums up the substance of this book. Quoting poet Jack Gilbert throws in more urgency, insisting:
“we must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of the world”
These two quotes, side by side, hint at the real truth of life. The world is ruthless, and fear is prominent. Today, the list of things we should fear grows ever longer.
But so does the list of joyful pursuits.
Creative thinking and leaning into joy uncovers greater avenues of possibility than a lifetime of worry.
And this is where Gilberts passion lies. Inspiring a creative life inside of everyone she can touch. This life is not reserved for the ‘artists’ of the world. Creativity takes many forms.
“A creative life is an amplified life”
And this spark is a form of transcendence, unshackling us from drudgery, filling us with the wonder of our own private possibility.
So that we might find ourselves “living a life more strongly driven by curiosity rather than by fear”.
Notice the use of the words more strongly. Gilbert recognises the power of curiosity, and yet understands the role of fear in trying to keep us safe. So, since we cannot do away with it, she draws up a letter to fear prior to pursuing a creative endeavour.
“Dearest Fear:” she begins, “Creativity and I are about to go on a road trip together. I understand you’ll be joining us, because you always do […] there’s plenty of room in this vehicle for all of us, so make yourself at home, but understand this: Creativity and I are the only one’s who will be making any decisions along the way […] above all else, my dear old familiar friend, you are absolutely forbidden to drive.”
Gilbert respects fears presence, and understands that eradication is futile — a waste of creative energy.
Fear only has as much power as we allow. Drawing up your own contract refuses to give any more than is absolutely necessary.
Addressing Your Fear:
Draw up a letter and address your fear. If writing isn’t your thing, record a voice note, or talk to yourself in the mirror.
Paint a picture or make a collage — whatever best emulates the relationship you want to have with fear. No matter your creative pursuit, create your boundaries respectfully. It is as much a part of you as joy and creativity.
Allow fear a seat in your vehicle. But Make sure it knows where it sits. Feel the strength of your conviction as you create the rules of your road.
Big Magic is super soothing and delicious — a book for anyone who wants to find freedom from the trappings of fear. And if you want to explore your own creativity at the same time, that’s a bonus.
So often change is a thing that causes surges of fear. But finding the courage to create changes in your life is often what makes it better. So go seek it out. Find your passions, the things that light you up. That is true living. Whether for your own private pleasure, or for the world to see, it is valid. It is art. It is life.
You are not your thoughts — The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
I’ve often thought consciousness the curse of our species (spot the irony of this statement). It has had its benefits in setting us apart from animals, giving birth to the modern world. Yet it’s been responsible for much pain, as we grapple with who we are and how we should live.
What I did not see, however, is that consciousness and thought can be viewed as separate entities. In separating the two, Eckhart Tolle is better able to explain how to navigate the mind.
The Power of Now explores this boundary. In turn, exploring how to strengthen and protect the mind from a world that demands our attention. Adverts, billboards, smartphones and people fill our heads with thoughts. They clamour to be heard. And our thoughts swirl to make sense of everything we see, hear and read.
And I know I’m not alone in feeling the stress of this.
Within the book, Tolle extols the virtues of living in the present. But he also explores the ways in which our thoughts can harm us. They create comparisons, separate us from the herd, and make us doubt ourselves. Our thoughts can often create a cyclical spiral if left unchecked. And they so often are.
Associating too deeply with our own thoughts is found to be hugely damaging, and very addictive.
But surely our thoughts make us who we are?
As Eckhart Tolle tells it we have got this profoundly wrong — going even so far as to reject Descartes assumption “I think therefore I am”.
He asserts that those percolating thoughts form our ‘ego’ — the identity we inhabit via our likes and dislikes, thoughts and feelings. Connect too deeply with this created identity allows those thoughts constant and total control.
Tolle believes that there is the ‘I’ behind that constructed thought identity. One that is impervious to the minutiae of daily life, its wounds and wins. And it is one of deep interconnectedness with the universe.
Perhaps Tolle’s perfect quote would perhaps then be “I have consciousness, therefor I am”.
When become too interested in listening to the ego, the connection to this essential self disintegrates. And so we find ourselves feeling alone, fearful and confused.
How often have you found yourself muddled by your swirling thoughts?
Tolle’s conclusion is that, the less controlled by your thoughts, the better consciousness works. You are more vibrational aligned with the universe, set into a state of allowing.
And if this sounds like hippy hooey, the study of flow states as characterised by Daniel Goleman may alter your perception.
This is where a person is so engrossed in a task they transcend conscious thought and enter a state of active flow. If you have seen the amazing Disney/Pixar movie ‘Soul’, you will know what I’m talking about. This is arguably similar to being in conscious awareness of the present moment. Life flows best here because we are not fighting for, or against, our thoughts and (by extension) feelings.
Tolle notes that most of our thoughts are pointless worry and anxiety, an “opaque screen of concepts”, separating us from others.
How often has your analytical mind set you apart from others by categorizing difference?
Yet, when we start “watching the thinker”, we become more aware of the eternal presence of a unified ‘I’ behind those thoughts. One not connected to the thoughts swirling around, but to everyone and everything.
Freeing Your Consciousness:
Tolle encourages you to think of your mind as a tool, one to be used for specific tasks. It will take time to settle into this notion, but these simple steps will help:
Begin by observing your thoughts curiously. No judgment or engagement, merely bearing witness. As you gently disentangle yourself from the swirling thoughts, you may become aware of a conscious ‘I’, standing behind it all.
Allow yourself time and space each day to settle in. You can do this while waiting in traffic, or sitting in your favourite chair. This is the threshold to meditation.
Whatever time and space you have will work. Disconnect from the thoughts on an emotive level. Listen for patterns, watch without judgment. And remember:
“Thinking and consciousness are not synonymous”
When “watching the thinker”, you start to peel away the layers of thought, gently detaching from them. In doing so, you can build a stronger relationship with consciousness. This space, where we are present, stops the constant replaying the past and projecting into the future.
And this is where we are whole.
It is the ego, and accompanying thoughts and feelings, that utters “I will be happy when…”, attributing happiness to some external factor we haven’t achieved yet. We have been coached by our society to seek happiness outside ourselves.
But happiness is internal, and we have the power to find it. The perfect, free and happy you is standing right there, behind those thoughts.
Clear a path, so that you can see them shine.
You are standing in the way of what you want — Ask and it is Given by Esther and Jerry Hicks
The pinnacle of our goals often seem a distant dream, with a treacherous journey stretching out from where we stand. When we feel this way, it’s easy to sink into reveries of that we lack. When this becomes our central focus, the thing we want is imbued with negativity.
“I’ll never get there. I don’t have the time/money/skills/support”.
But Esther and Jerry Hicks are here to tell you that this negativity energy is the difference between success and failure.
This is something that many of us have heard before. Vast swathes of successful people talk of PMA (positive mental attitude) and ‘fake it ’til you make it’ mentality. But this is paying lip service to the unexplored traits of the mentally strong.
But they want to give you the secret.
The key to their belief is in the way in which we regard our emotions. And how these emotions form a “vibrational set-point” through which we get what we want. Or get the opposite of what we want.
See, that vibrational set-point is responsible for what’s drawn towards us. And we can only receive things vibrationally aligned with how we are feeling.
So, if we are feeling the lack of something, guess what? That lack becomes our constant, if we continue to focus on it.
The challenge, then, is leaving negativity behind and moving to a positive vibrational set-point/feeling.
“If you will make the improved feeling or emotion be your real destination, then anything and everything that you want will quickly follow.”
But how does one get to the point where a good feeling or emotion becomes a real destination? So often it seems intangible.
Changing Your Vibrational Set-point:
Often negative emotions are met with distaste. We try to deny them. In doing so we either drown them out, or drown. Eventually, all will succumb to the latter.
Ask and it is Given brings you the “Emotional Guidance Scale”. This list of twenty-one emotions ranges from Fear/Grief/Depression/Despair/Powerlessness, to the antithesis of Joy/Knowledge/Empowerment/Freedom/Love/Appreciation.
They then give you a way to climb, setting the range of available emotions as rungs on a ladder.
Let me explain: you cannot move from feelings fear to joy in one shot. It takes time to move through your emotions. Especially when felt strongly.
There are a range of processes outlined, the more obvious being the Rampage of Appreciation (designed to bring your mind to a positive outlook on the present moment), to The Process of Clearing Clutter for Clarity.
Moving up the Emotional Scale, however, is one that can be used in even the darkest of mental states.
Say you have feelings of depression or fear around your chosen career. You are not where you want to be, and see no way to change the situation. It’s causing you tremendous pain.
In order to get back to a comfortable emotional level of “Positive Expectation”, you have to use the available emotions to climb to that point.
The idea is to take your emotions one step at a time, moving first into jealousy:
That person has the career I would love. If only I’d been given their opportunities.
Feel this emotion, before moving further up the scale to anger:
I bet they don’t appreciate it. And I am stuck here.
This can then progress to blame:
My teachers/parents didn’t help me enough — before moving on to pessimism.
Perhaps saying “I’ll never get there” feels too negative, but it is a better place than fear.
From here, you might play with elements of boredom: “I am bored with my current job because…”
This can help in understanding where you could find more avenues of enjoyment.
Moving on, you can take your time to look for other jobs that might be better suited to you. This is moving into hopefulness.
In doing so, and perhaps applying for a couple, you can help move into a more optimistic mindset. You are doing something to change your current status!
This might seem long-winded — perhaps counter-intuitive — but the more you get into the groove of altering your thoughts using your consciousness, you can find a happier thought for each emotion.
It requires stepping back from the feelings and observing them as they change with each though.
In doing so, you can slowly build up to a positive mindset.
‘Ask and it is Given’ explores how to get what we want out of life. But the Hicks’ also acknowledge that our desires will never diminish. Such is the way of ego that we will always be pining for things that will ‘make us happy’.
Early on, Esther and Jerry establish the necessity for us to be passionate about life. To be excited about the things we do not yet have!
This is key.
Desiring something is not as simple as we think. For often, in desire, we wind up focusing more on our lack of it, than of the acquisition.
Be excited about the journey toward your desires. Once obtained, it will likely lose its shine. You will move on to yet more desires.
Practicing joy in the journey is the sturdiest pathway to satisfaction.
Life is not meant to be easy — The Road Less Travelled by M. Scott Peck
So often we are tripped-up by our desire for things to be easy. For what we want to just land in our laps.
I know certainly have.
Even writing this article was a total trip! I wanted the words to flow off the tips of my fingers. In reality, it took a lot of re-reading, re-writing and general struggle.
Lucky for me, I re-read this book first!
If you read only one psychology or self-help book in your life, let it be this one.
This will change your life — I shit you not! M Scott Peck imparts so much wisdom in psychology. Whilst also drawing on elements of spirituality and mental hygiene.
In short, he wants to make your life easier. How?
By acknowledging that life is difficult.
Let’s begin with delaying pain. We’ve all fallen foul of tasks we don’t want to do. How do you handle it?
It’s all too common to procrastinate, ignoring the urgency. Then we get nagged, miss a deadline, or (worse) a great opportunity! So we find ourselves commiserating our situation.
The root of it is this: delaying the difficult thing is always going to make life harder — and the pain more significant.
Peck notes that in order to live a fulfilled life, we must become more acquainted with discomfort now.
“Life is a series of problems. Do we want to moan about our problems, or solve them?”
Discipline is required to solve our problems, and this comes with understanding life isn’t meant to be easy. Avoiding difficult emotions simply delays the pain, whilst we collect neuroses.
“Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.” ~ Carl Jung
We face legitimate suffering when dealing with our issues. You can spot neurosis as it often comes with shame attached. Legitimate suffering has an external quality. To be seen more as an object to be surmounted, rather than something to hide from.
The truth is, in struggle we can unlock parts of ourselves. In facing challenges head-on, we are simultaneously refilling and drawing from a well of strength.
Taking The High Road:
In The Road Less Travelled, peck divulges the tools of success:
· Delaying gratification
· Acceptance of responsibility
· Dedication to truth
Delaying gratification is simple: do the hard thing first — then reward yourself with the nice thing.
Acceptance of responsibility is fairly obvious, it requires us to take control of the things that are ours. Though Peck does explore this further.
You may seek happiness from a person or an old addiction. But accepting that this is your own responsibility will make life easier as your autonomy blooms. Disconnecting this desire to have others take the burden of your private happiness will make relationships better in the long-term. And it will eventually save you from seeking external sources to ‘fill the void’.
Suffice it to say “we cannot solve life’s problems except by solving them”.
This is a wonderful mantra for when things get tough. Scorch it in to your minds eye.
Dedication to truth is more nuanced, but requires you to build “a life of continuous and never-ending stringent self-examination”. This might sound tiring, but life is hard. We must get used to that.
The final tool holds yet more nuances, requires more brushes with pain. Balancing, as Peck tells it, harnesses the ability to navigate our many responsibilities, mediate their value or necessity, and ‘give up’ things we cannot do, or no longer serve us. This is difficult. It requires the strength to say goodbye to things we might not want to.
But — similarly to accepting responsibility — in doing so we’re able to gain higher understanding of what we can control. And this is both empowering and enlightening.
So how do we begin to put these tools into practice?
In order to overcome the avoidance of pain, we must look earnestly at our lives. What do we moan about? Where are we creating neuroses whilst avoiding legitimate suffering?
Do you fixate over relationships or things that don’t matter? Do you spend all morning scouring the kitchen to avoid sitting down and writing that draft of your novel?
It helps to make lists or journal each day, reading back over the entries on a Sunday. Take time to see where you are stuck, and make small plans for overcoming difficulty. If you can carve our 20 minutes for yourself each day, this is the perfect place to start.
Delay gratification, do the hard thing now, enjoy the good thing afterwards. Start small, do not overwhelm yourself.
Practice, Progress, Reward
Reward is an important part of this. Sometimes merely finishing a task will be enough, though not always.
Oftentimes the hardest challenges we face are in not doing something. Perhaps you’re on a diet, or else are resisting the desire to see your ex-lover. That instant gratification will cause more pain in the end, but it would feel so good in the moment.
These moments of self-restraint require reward. Otherwise you’re likely to fling yourself from the precipice of a rewarding life, into the winds of empty hedonism.
Be strong, remind yourself of your goals by keeping them close. Write them down, stick them somewhere you can always see them. Create small but memorable mantras for when you are tempted.
Most importantly: keep refocusing, keep enquiring. Create a habit of reassessment and stop sliding (or skidding) through life. Pull focus on what it is important. And if this seems hard, remember this:
“Delaying gratification is a process of scheduling the pain and pleasure of life in such a way as to enhance the pleasure by meeting and experiencing the pain first and getting it over with. It is the only decent way to live.”
True to the sentiments of this book, Peck notes the “journey of spiritual growth is a long one”, noting it is “a complex and arduous lifelong task”.
This could easily put us off.
Until we realize that pain lies in both paths. And, in the long-run, there is more joy in challenging yourself and coming out stronger.
So roll up your sleeves and meet challenges with courage. As you face them, again and again, an armory of tactics can be built for battle, bolstering you for the hardships.
After those battles, the pleasures can be enjoyed all the more.
In doing so, life becomes easier. Because we know it is hard.
We don’t always share our deepest fears and worst anxieties. We are not taught how to be a human in school. We take what we are given and we live the best we can.
Within this, Self-help books have become a way to access a better understanding of what it means to live.
What I love about these four is how interconnected they are:
· In The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle speaks of a poised and unfaltering ‘I’ behind the thoughts and feelings that we have. This ‘I’ is formed of consciousness, not thought.
· In Ask and it is Given, Esther and Jerry Hicks focus that ‘I’ and our consciousness on harnessing thought to a better end. All that we want to be, do or have is ours — if we focus on positivity and abundance. Not what we lack.
· Liz Gilbert re-conditions our relation to fear in Big Magic. Forming a pact with it instead, she gives fear a place. Thus changing its shape, and lessening its power. She continues on with the difficult path of creating the life we want, in spite of that fear.
· In The Road Less Travelled, M Scott Peck brings forth the notion that we can make life better simply by acknowledging and surmounting our difficulties. He understands that delaying pain only creates more pain. When we face it head on, we reduce its damage and build a better future. One full of all the things we want.
These books attest the value of strengthening the mind, and building on resilience.
These wonderful authors and creative thinkers have built upon their ideas in differing fields. Each has built a pathway to better strength and courage, with skills that can imbue our lives with positivity.
Make a deal with yourself to read these four texts. In doing so, you could have a life beyond your wildest dreams.
My life is certainly going that way now. One day at a time.