By Holly Herring
There are a lot of self help books out there.
Someone once told me that they love self help books because it makes becoming a better person so much easier to accomplish. I heard that and I wanted to cry. What I heard was someone who was ashamed of their own self.
Now, I can see how self help books can be great. It takes strength to recognize there are parts of ourselves that could use a little work and I love imagining a world where everyone is improved. The idea of harmony in communities definitely brings a smile to my heart. However, some of us carry a great deal of shame and we search endlessly for ways to “fix” ourselves.
Something I don’t think we explore enough as a society is how we teach people to be ashamed of themselves and how we cause further damage in how we tell each other to address that shame.
Every self-help book out there exists on the premise that we are not good enough.
Think about the impact of self help through the lens of someone who is underrepresented or who has not had equitable access to, well, life. Think about how we tell all the children in a class they can be anything they want to be. It is almost as if we forget studies that show the name on your resume can determine whether or not you get called to interview for your dream job.
I have heard representatives from social service nonprofits say that, “God helps those who help themselves” as they turn away a hot meal to one person who tests positive on a drug test and welcomes another one who tests negative. What about the person who is without a house living with an invisible health challenge who is told to “just get a job” and then their life will be better?
I have heard that people who have a felony criminal record must have done something wrong to catch that felony. I was told that if they had just made better choices they might not have to live with the long term effects on their career and housing.
In the meantime, there are police officers who murdered unarmed citizens out there and at least one white cis gender male who is really good at swimming that hasn’t faced nearly the same consequences to some pretty serious crimes.
Some of these self help lessons are hurting people.
There is some really exclusive self help out there and when we forget that, we are letting society down. When we irresponsibly “forget” about how impactful systemic injustices really are and how many of our community members are not just touched by it but steamrolled over in plain sight, we are widening the divide between who is “manifesting abundance” and who is “giving space to negativity.”
Is it possible that we have overlooked social justice as self help? What if becoming a better person yourself could be rooted in smashing the patriarchy, creating safe and inclusive spaces, changing all that all pervasive heteronormative imagery, and asking what you can do for your neighbors that are struggling. Maybe some of that damage we need all these self help books to “fix,” has been imposed by racism, classism, sexism and all sorts of other -isms.
It’s time to put the shame to bed.
I am changing the way I address helping myself become a better person. It involves challenging my ideas of what “professionalism” is and looks like. I am challenging my thoughts and judgements. When someone needs considerations in how, when, and where, they work I am slowing down my automatic response that used to sound like.
“But this needs to be done in traditional business hours inside this office” could sound like “some of these duties could be performed in a different physical environment at a different time and the rest could be done when it’s more convenient.”When I see how someone else is dressed and my knee-jerk reaction is negative I am learning to stop and question myself, “where did I learn that this outfit is inappropriate?’‘
This extends beyond the professional office environment.
I need to question myself why a person is setting off my internal danger alarm.
What, exactly, appears dangerous? Is it the melanin content of their skin? Is it their uneven gait or assistive device used in walking? Is it the language the words on their shirt are printed in or the language of the words they are speaking? What is producing that feeling I have about the person in the public bathroom stall next to me?
In a store why are my eyes drawn to one individual as a potential “shoplifter?” Why do I have no such concern about a different individual in the same store? When I hear someone has been accused of a crime, why do I feel so strongly that some people need “tough love” and others should be granted a little compassion?
I don’t think we get to be better at life in a vacuum.
I think getting better at life comes as a collective. I think that if we are lifting ourselves up, if we aren’t grabbing every living being and bringing them up with us we probably aren’t making a big enough improvement. I think it’s valuable to be a resilient individual but I think it’s even better to be part of a resilient community. I think it’s great to be promoted as a woman to an executive level in a male dominated industry, but I think it’s better to be part of a business actively searching out more women to be executives in a male dominated industry.
It’s important to remember equity when we address societal and personal challenges. Remember that there are as many different life experiences out there as there are people living those lives. It would help if I remember that I have great privilege and that some of those books out there, while having great intentions, create a negative and shameful impact on some readers. These readers are vulnerable to the suggestions in those books that they aren’t enough.
A really good self help book for me might be a eulogy on my shame. It would read a little something like this:
Today I say goodbye to my shame.
My shame was sometimes called poverty, ignorance, and a lack of self respect. I played the leading role in the death of my own shame. It died quietly after a journey of acceptance of my humanity and learning to see the world outside of my own experience.
As far back as I can remember, shame was there. I went everywhere with my shame, to school, to work, into my relationships with the community. I made decisions for myself based on shame and I accepted every shameful consequence as deserved. Shame was always a huge part of my life and you might say we were bonded.
Shame stood by me giving me advice like “don’t apply for that job, you’re not qualified—not really”. It even encouraged me to “just give in” at times it was not in my best interest to give in. I remember going on vacation once and, while it was very hot and there was a beautiful swimming pool, my shame prevented me from putting on a bathing suit and enjoying the coolness of the water.
There were birthday parties I threw for my children that I refused to throw in my home because shame was right there, reminding me of how ugly my home was and how little I had to offer inside it. I remember a birthday party I was arranging for myself that did not take place because shame told me that my birth was not an event to be celebrated. My shame was very strong, mostly because it was well fed by both myself and the major players shame invited into the spaces I was in.
As it turns out, other forces were stronger than my shame and I know this because, here I am, speaking at the funeral of this shame. I will remember my shame by the years of enjoyment it stole from me. I will always recognize shame when it appears in the lives of those around me. I will recognize that a self help book isn’t going to always be equitable wisdom to all those who also have shame in their lives and that what words serve me will not always serve everyone in the same way.
I know my life will be forever changed by the passing of my shame.
Then, on the heels of this funeral, I celebrate the birth of my new life’s experience. I visualize the emergence of myself on a beautiful lotus flower emerging from the muddy pond. The birth announcement reads:
Please join me as I celebrate the emergence of hope and peace in my life today. I waited, sometimes quite impatiently, for this new life and here it is! This new life is the promise of looking at others differently and is dedicated to promoting equity, acceptance, and love to the world around me and within me. Entering the world kind of small at first, I expect it to grow exponentially over time and as it’s confidence is fed with positive experiences. Soon I expect to also welcome into the family: stronger boundaries, new beliefs and generational patterns, a better ally, and a more inclusive and welcoming spirit.
By leaving this world a more equitable place I think I will have created a living, breathing self help experience. Like they say in camping, “pack it in, pack it out.” Leave each space better than you find it. I think that’s the best self help I can practice.
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