What Most Self-Help Gurus Get Wrong About Big Changes

what it takes to really make a change
 

Getting Real About Change

How the self help aisle can do more harm than good
stop before you shop

Change is hard. Like, real earth-moving, deep down in your bones change is hard. That should seem like an obvious statement, but for me, for years, it really wasn’t. I was being flanked on all sides by industry professionals telling me that change was easy. I just had to genuinely want it.

If I devoted all my mental energy to wanting this change, the Universe was going to intervene and say, “I got you, girlfriend!” and all was going to be right. If it wasn’t, it was my fault for not wanting it badly enough.

I once read a book where the author claimed she was battling alcohol and cocaine addiction. She claimed to be a party chick wrecking her life. Then one fateful day she woke up and heard a voice say, “if you get clean, you’ll have everything you ever dreamed of” and everything changed from that day on.

Really??

That’s all it takes?

When the Self Help Aisle Does More Harm Than Good

I don’t know about you, but no such voice ever intervened in my life. No magical switch ever flipped in my brain and made all my pain and struggles go away.

The nameless author I mentioned above isn’t the only one who has peddled the “one day I just decided enough was enough and I never looked back” narrative. There are many others.

I don’t mean to suggest that this wasn’t their experience. Maybe it was. But for me, and I imagine many like me, this isn’t realistic or helpful.

In fact, it can add an additional layer of “something must be wrong with me” because no matter how many nights I literally dropped to my knees begging for some intervention, I would still wake up a horrible mess.

As a matter of fact, read any sobriety memoir and you will see a universal theme: the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I’ve never read a recovery memoir about someone who just threw away an alcohol or cocaine addiction one morning and went about their life.

Perhaps it’s just that these self-help authors leave out the gory details of what happens after you decide to get it together. I don’t know. I just know I couldn’t replicate the little miracles I kept reading about in my own life and it was making me depressed.

I’m not alone. This is a trend.

 

Sometimes the self help aisle adds to your stress, making change even harder

The Reality of Sobriety & Personal Development

So what is the real deal with change? Sometimes people ask me how I managed to get sober or they tell me that they can relate to a lot of things I went through, but don’t see how they can stop.

I understand both sentiments perfectly and my response is usually the same: you have to be ready for it to work and you’ll know when that time comes. It probably won’t be instantaneous and it definitely won’t come out of nowhere.

I firmly believe that it is important to be honest, so honestly, it took me six years to get to the place I am at right now. I invested nearly four years reading the entire Self Help aisle looking for answers, solutions, strategies, anything really that could help me get on the right track.

What I got was a lot of snake oil.

The Back and Forth of Getting Better

During my self-help, “change your life overnight” days, it was not uncommon for me to have a good couple of weeks, maybe even a month. No drinking or smoking, eating right, meditating, convincing friends that this was the new me. I basked in the glory of my newfound excellence.

Suddenly, I had a notion that I could be a health coach! I was going to change lives even though I had barely scratched the surface on fixing my own.

And then the inevitable backslide. Something would happen: I would start dating somebody who wanted to go for drinks, or I would STOP dating somebody and be devastated. My job would get to me or I would feel too good and think that I was all better.

I’d go for drinks. It would be fine. BALANCE, right? I can drink differently this time. Or so I thought.

Before I knew it, I was back to running to the bar after work each day. After the bar, I spent the rest of my night hanging my head awkwardly out of my living room window, chain-smoking while inhaling bottles of Angry Orchard. It just wouldn’t stick for me.

Ignoring The Signs That It’s Time to Stop Drinking

I remember getting shit faced at a friend’s party once. I didn’t want the good vibes to end so I drunkenly forced my way into an afterparty hangout with my friend’s younger sister’s boyfriend (you read that right) and his friends – none of whom I knew before that night.

We meandered to someone’s apartment. They were a close-knit group who had known each other since college and I was about 8 years older and barely coherent.

We went up on the roof and somebody tried to make small talk with me about what I did. I slurred my way through an explanation of being a teacher but training to be a health coach and all I was going to do with that. She took one look at my cigarettes and drunken sloppiness and asked, “Shouldn’t you be healthy?”

Shortly afterward I was told they wanted to hang out with each other and catch up, so maybe I should go home. In retrospect, they had probably been trying to get rid of me for over a while. Somebody just finally had the wherewithal to say it out loud.

Taking The Hint

I stumbled my way off the roof and towards my own block, vomiting in people’s plants and tripping over my own feet the entire way home. That embarrassing night and interaction perfectly encapsulated the grand delusion of my life. 

I was a thirty-something, adult woman hanging with a bunch of recent college grads I’d just met on a rooftop in Brooklyn, drunkenly rambling about being a health coach and lord knows what else.

This would’ve been a great point for me to realize that the problem was bigger than what the Self Help aisle could offer. I’m certain I woke up mortified the next day. It should’ve been a wake-up call. There were a lot of mornings like that in my life.  How many potential “a-ha” moments did I let slip by?

Seeking Help(Sort Of)

When your problem is too big for the self help aisle

I tried to do therapy but was unable to find somebody who was a good fit. That was the story in my mind, anyway.

One therapist refused to treat me unless I started attending AA and that rubbed me the wrong way. I didn’t want to do AA.

Another dropped me because I struggled sometimes to keep our 7:30 AM appointments. She said she didn’t think I was taking her time seriously. Maybe she was right. I wasn’t a good patient in those days.

Therapy only works if you want it to work. You cannot show up with a bad attitude or thinking you know everything. That’s exactly what I did. I would barely speak. Often times it was because I wanted to cry every time I tried to talk. Other times, I just didn’t want to be there.

Imagine being so shitty that you get dumped by a therapist. That was me.

Perhaps a better move would’ve been to leave New York altogether and enter a proper rehab facility, but I didn’t fit the profile of who I thought needed rehab.

I was also way too afraid.

What if I go and I can’t get my job or apartment or friends back? What if I have to break up with Brooklyn to get better? Besides, how would I pay for that kind of thing? It was out of the question. (Excuses, excuses, excuses)

That stubbornness is exactly why it took me six years to get it together instead of two or three. I try to not do the thing where I look back and say, “what if…”, but not getting help sooner and not recognizing just how bad things had gotten for me are some of the biggest regrets of my life.

A Case Study In What NOT To Do

I don’t dwell on it too much, but I can say with utmost confidence that my life would be greatly improved had I done more sooner. Conversely, my life would be total shit had I never done anything at all, so I take both lessons at face value and try to move positively forward from there.

I realize now, however, that no matter how much I begged God, or whomever, for some intervention, I was not mentally prepared to make the change. Had I gotten proper help and care, I could’ve gotten there faster, but I didn’t. I strongly urge anyone in a similar position to be smarter than I was and get the help you deserve.

You have to be mentally prepared for transformation. Maybe you wake up one day and realize you can’t do it anymore and it actually leads to the rest of your sober days. More than likely, though, it will not be the first or even one-hundredth time you’ve woken up to say, “I just can’t anymore.”

The thing is that at some point, you will say that and it will be 100% true. You’ll finally do what you should’ve done a million times before to get on the right path.

Just probably not on your first try. And that’s okay.

What It Actually Takes to Change

what it takes to really make a change

There’s often a catalyst that supercharges sobriety. It usually isn’t enough to wake up one day and say, “I can’t do this.”

Don’t we make that joke with our friends? How many times have we woken up with a horrible hangover, feeling absolutely wrecked, and swear off drinking forever only to go out that same night and do it again? We have great laughs over these times. These are not the moments that save you.

The moments that save you are one last horrible, drunk mistake that finally knocks some sense into you. It’s getting really sick and being off booze or smokes for a couple of weeks because you couldn’t have indulged in either if you’d wanted to, and realizing that maybe you CAN actually do this.

During one of my longest abstaining periods, it was getting my wisdom teeth out which gave me enough distraction via mouth pain and an all liquid diet to get past the initial hump of those first weeks. Or maybe it’s seeing two little lines on a pregnancy test and realizing your bullshit has to stop.

It’s going to be something, an event, a moment, or a major realization that finally flips a switch in your brain to produce a moment of clarity where you know you REALLY can’t keep doing what you’re doing. That’s when you’re finally ready to get the help you need. It is not a magic bullet moment that makes everything okay. It is not merely wishing yourself well.

And you know what? It doesn’t end there. Not by a long shot.

When You Decide To Keep Going

There are some hard days ahead and work to be done, but once you make the decision to go all in, sobriety gets a little easier to navigate. Be advised though, some days are really going to test you. You cannot avoid those days, but you can prepare for them.

Expect that it will be challenging and filled with uncertainty. There will be temptations to relapse (which you might even do). None of us actually know if we’ve made the change for good. That’s why they tell you to take it one day at a time.

I won’t pretend that I’m all better and I’ll never pick up a drink again. Hopefully, I don’t, but who can say for sure? I can tell you that today I’m not drinking and for the rest of my pregnancy I can see no circumstance that would lead me to do such a thing.

Once this little girl is out in the world, however, a whole new set of pressures are going to come down on me and it will be back to one day at a time, just as before.

Final Thoughts

Change is not some momentary flash that reboots your brain. You’re not going to wake up tomorrow a brand new person. I call bullshit on anyone who suggests otherwise.

It is slow and painstaking and full of false starts, but it’s possible. If you can’t seem to get that flip to switch on its own, find the courage to admit you need help.

By questioning and agonizing over how to change, you already started on the path. It’s the shitty part of the path, but you’re on it.

You’re not going to quit drinking overnight and when you do stop, it’s going to be a bumpy road. Once you accept that and still feel motivated to try, you’re ready and things will start to happen for you. That’s when the good stuff begins.

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Alicia is an American expat, writer living in the Middle East. She chronicles the highs and lows of early sobriety on her site www.soberish.co. To contact, please e-mail contact@soberish.co.

9 thoughts on “What Most Self-Help Gurus Get Wrong About Big Changes

  1. Great post, I was exhausted by the end of my drinking. I ran out of steam…I was full. However, I have been through some of the toughest times in my last 7 years of sobriety but if I hadn’t been sober I wouldn’t have made the right desicions. I had numerous light bulb moments before I got sober. But my resolve to stop drinking faded like the bruises. Finally got back into Aa nearly 7 years ago now and that and some outside help have really helped get back ” into the big bad world” I really enjoyed reading your post, thanks S x

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