In the second part of our philobservations on the process (and industry) of self-actualization which has taken the past two generations by storm, this week Erica has written a review of Jen Sincero’s best-seller, You are a Badass. As with all things Recovering Academic, this is book review-as-self-reflection; Erica examines the life experiences which she brings to the text, and how those experiences shape her response to Sincero’s commandments of actualized living. We’d love to hear your responses in the Comments section below!
You are a badass, says Jen Sincero, and you will be if you read her book, says me.
After reading Nicole’s piece for the first time–such an honest and yet humorous account of intersections with twenty-first century cures and acculturations of Eastern meditation and yoga, therapies and ahimsas–I started to think again about self-help books. First, I want to talk about one particular item from this genre, and then I want to talk about how reading these types of books dovetails, or not, with dealing with long-term, chronic, mental un-wellness.
I had just read Sincero’s You Are a Bad Ass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life (Running Press, 2013). The first time I picked up this book I was in the Barnes and Noble at Kenmore Square by Fenway Park in Boston. The cover is bright yellow and the biggest word in thick black letters is YOU.
I was intrigued. The page before the Table of Contents had a dedication to her father and brother and a quotation from Rumi. I moved on quickly. The quotation before the first sentence of the introduction was some nonsensical adage from a recovering addict. I was ready to put the book down and inwardly berate the publishing industry. Yet, Sincero’s first sentence was this: “I used to think quotes like this were a bunch of crap. I also didn’t understand what the hell they were talking about” (2013, p. 10). Intrigue turned into amusement. Maybe this book isn’t so bad, after all. Finally, someone to turn a cynical eye on the self-help industry! Finally, a cringing compatriot to hold my hand whilst I vomit from the pit of my over-cheesed stomach (in fact she riffs on this very premise from her first sentence).
But that’s kind of what her book is all about. Those hesitations that we all have. The negative voices in our own heads, and the negative take-aways from our interactions with others and their judgements and accidental insults. I later found that Sincero calls these negative voices “squirrels” because the thoughts run around your head, moving nuts and bolts here and there and arranging your thoughts, and thus your emotions and behaviors and outlook on life, all willy-nilly and seemingly beyond your control.
At work, glib adages had become meaningful to me. What would once have incited scorn and ridicule in me had started to convey meaning. Phrases like “I cannot change yesterday, but I can change today” and “You can’t pour from an empty cup. Take care of yourself first” or “Dream until your dreams come true”. These short, sweet life lessons had started to take on a meaning that had heretofore been dismissed or perhaps had not been transmitted to my faulty receivers, plugged up with the dust of derision and despair. This recent shift in perception was, in part, because I work with college students to explore their dreams, to set goals, and to motivate by way of positive psychology. So we inserted these phrases into our course packs and hung them on the walls of our offices. (To my great content, my 40pt font cut-up quotation from Vonnegut remains on the back of the Advising Room door: “Writing is a very human way of making life more bearable”. Amen.) While I had started to think about my life in terms of these snippets of advice, the skeptic in me would not give up. With Sincero’s book, I thought finally here is a self-help tome that understands the inanity of seeking platitudes and riddles in the face of true adversity.
I didn’t buy Sincero’s book that day. I was on my bicycle and, honestly, I’d already found two books I would purchase: Alec Ross’s Industries of the Future (2016) and All the Single Ladies (Rebecca Traister’s 21st century feminista’s-must-have). Plus I felt awkward reading a book that says in big black letters on a bright yellow book jacket: YOU are a BADASS. Surely a kindle version would be more suitable for my rides on the T.
Months later, a colleague of mine handed me the book one day with a post-it note on front: “Erica, I couldn’t help but think of you as I read this. Hope you enjoy.” (I later asked him why he had written that, and he said: “Because you’re an author, too”, which was very encouraging and uplifting.) At the time of receipt, I thanked him profusely and put it on my shelf. He also had given the badass book to one of our mutual friends. She started reading it and raved. I hesitated. There it sat on my shelf.
I had been in the country for two years since leaving my ex-husband and my life in Wales, where I had lived for seven years. The transition back into US culture and society, after a total of ten years abroad (my entire adult life to date), was shaky. I had a job and a great team to work with. I lived in a shared apartment with two men who were also becoming my friends. I didn’t miss the UK but I did miss having a “life”: a group of friends who knew me, a band to play music with, a network of colleagues who offered me projects and jobs. In Boston, friends were proving hard to come by, especially when you move to a city in the dead of winter where the average age is 31 and you don’t drink alcohol. Little by little, I was making strides to turn my life into what I wanted it to be. Keeping the job was the first priority. I excelled because I worked very hard. I excelled because I had an excellent and supportive boss and a reliable, trustworthy, and positive set of colleagues. I excelled because I wanted to excel.
I went to the doctor about my migraines (now frequent and debilitating), I went to the psychiatrist about my depression (cyclical and tiring); I even tried to go to the Unitarian Universalist Church. “I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains, I looked to the children, I drank from the fountain.” And then I realized that the Indigo Girls had been right all along: “The less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine.” Just like Nicole’s meditations had an adverse effect on her recovery, I often felt that focusing too much on the problem made it more of a problem. I was focusing on the symptoms of a life unexamined, and not on the root causes for this unexamined life I was living. What I needed to do was accept myself for who I was, to finally accept that I would live with these conditions. To finally accept that I am who I am because of these very real roadblocks, and to be thankful for the ways in which these barriers had shaped me as a person.
I yam who I am (Photo taken by Dr. Marla Lowenthal, one of my personal heroes).
I could rather perceive of depression and migraines as part of the me that I could grow to love. In fact, Sincero does a clever thing in her book. Each chapter ends with a reason to love yourself. Here are a few examples:
“Love yourself: Unless you have a better idea” (p. 100)
“Love yourself: No matter who you really are” (p. 83)
“Love yourself: Be grateful for all you are and all that you’re becoming” (p. 120).
This is all harder than it sounds. If you’ve had a lifetime of depression and migraines (or any other debilitating conditions or illnesses), this is perhaps even harder. Since age 11, I have had migraines. Since age 15, depression. So as a young person I was trying to grow up, to become “who I am”, to find my way in the multitudinous maze of dialogues, advice, unprecedented events, puberty, relationships, friendships, familial affiliations, public behaviors, while missing out on a lot of interactions because I was lying in bed, suffering, and hating myself. Why am I like this? Why can’t I just be normal?
And then there are the “what is normal?” questioners . And then the “snap out of it” crowd. And the “look at all you’ve got” people; the “how can you complain?” cajolers. And the “it’ll get better” motivators. All the while, I thought, yes, I know, I have thought about all of these things that you say and I agree, but still there is something inside of me that just won’t awaken, or won’t go to sleep, or some poison that invades my brain. What can I do? Just keep going, they all would say. “You’re not as bad as many others,” said the college counseling center. So I walked away. I’m not that bad. I’m actually fine. But I wasn’t fine.
I knew that I would be fine someday. Yet, as I started to get into my late twenties I wondered when “some day” would arrive. Could I have children? Could I have a stable job? Could I do the things everyone else seems to do so easily? Is everyone living in a mud puddle of low energy and lack of motivation and just covering it up really well? Why does no one else seem as confused I am?
What is fine?
So when I read self-help books like Sincero’s, and when I read sincere accounts like that of Nicole, I try to remember that these books and this advice must be viewed through a slightly different lens; it’s like we who suffer from long-term chronic conditions must wear special glasses that allow us to read the words in ways that are meaningful to us. Like these books are written for those who wake up most mornings and think: “Today is another day,” rather than waking up thinking, “Oh god, why?” Self-help can help anyone who is open to its adages and advice. Yet, as Nicole’s therapist imparted: “If it’s not working for you, stop doing it”.
Sincero emphasizes that we should: “Focus on that which makes you feel good and ye shall find (attract) that which makes you feel good” (p. 31). She talks about this in terms of “Source Energy”, which is some sort of universe energy that she says we can all tap into. Basically, it’s about being positive. Like, if you’re positive, then people will respond positively, and positivity will just envelop you and swallow you up until you’re so happy and content that you really are a badass and no one can mess with you. Or something like that. Here’s one way that she describes this process:
“The trick is to have both parts–energy and action–working in unison: unless your energy is lined up properly with that which you desire, really desire, any action you take is going to require way more effort to get you where you want to go, if it gets you there at all. Once in a while you may get lucky doing one without the other, but if you get very clear on what you truly want (rather than what you think you should want), believe that it’s available to you regardless of your present circumstances by staying connected to Source Energy and keeping your frequency high, and take decisive action, you will eventually succeed” (p. 33).
Positive psychology and optimism ooze from this book. It is certainly uplifting and you will feel better if you read it. You may disagree with some points (I know I do), yet overall I would say the status of this tome as a New York Times Bestseller seems justified. What I like most are statements like this:
“You get to choose how you perceive your reality. So why, when it comes to perceiving yourself, would you choose to see anything other than a super huge rock star of a creature?” (p. 50). Or: “We are all perfect in our own, magnificent, fucked-up ways. Laugh at yourself. Love yourself and others. Rejoice in the cosmic ridiculousness” (p. 50).
Since I can remember, I have shaped my life according to what I wanted to do. I have rarely fallen into the trap of another’s life plan for me. Working with first-year international students who often have demanding and/or over-bearing and/or just very caring and worried parents, I realize the reaches of my untethered existence, which I have reveled in, and rebelled in, and perpetuated because it is what I want. Like Sincero urges:
“If you have to, make massive changes in your business and your personal life to include more time doing what you love. Figure it out. Don’t just hand your life over to your circumstances like a little wuss. You can take your life wherever you want it to go so grab it by its nether regions and make doing the things you love a priority” (p. 107).
Many of us millennials try to inhabit and execute this mindset. I try, too. Yet sometimes, just like my students cannot disentangle their parents’ goals from their dreams, I cannot separate my history of depression and migraines from the decisions I’ve made and the actions I’ve taken in my life. While I have always done “what I want to do”, I have also been imperceptibly bound to my existence as someone who–with varying degrees of frequency–simply cannot get up to face another day. I live with this. This is me.
I will love myself because I have tried hating and it hasn’t worked. I haven’t got any better idea. I give in. I am eating the cake without remorse. It’s part of who I am. I’m eating the yam, too.