I have always loved to read. Growing up in Siberia, my mom worked as a bookstore manager, and in my younger years, she always brought me home books to read, but they were mostly fiction.
When I was 13, I developed a desire to read self-help and psychology books. At that time, I became really curious about personality tests and learning more about myself, discovering who I was and why I was wired a certain way. So, I spent my time in the self-help section of bookstores, looking for books that included personality tests and astrology.
My mom’s friend, who was a therapist, had a big influence on me in my childhood. She gave me my first psychology book called The Games People Play by Eric Berne. It fascinated me. Because of this, I would read one book after another on the subject of human relationships—I averaged one book a week.
When I picked up Carl Jung’s Personality Types, I realized that I could study psychology theory but also take the personality tests that were included in the book. On the other hand, my family didn’t have the same enthusiasm I had for psychology and self-help books in the 90s. They thought it was a waste of time, because in Siberia, where I grew up, psychology was not a well-paid profession. So my family helped me realize that a psychology degree might not get me as far as I wanted.
After my sophomore year, I moved to the US at the age of 18 and transferred to the University of California at Santa Cruz to study molecular biology. The move caused a number of panic attacks while I was in college because it was such a big transition. I remember the first attack happened shortly after I moved to Santa Cruz. I was studying for my finals when all of a sudden my heart rate quickened and the whole world started to seem unreal. It was very scary, so I went to the medical center, where the doctor confirmed that it was indeed an anxiety-induced panic attack. After that, I learned everything I could about anxiety and panic attacks. Books like Anxiety & Panic Attacks by Robert Handly helped me learn to deal with them.
I graduated from college when I was 20 years old. I wasn’t a big fan of biology, but I decided to give it a try and see if I’d like it more if I got paid for it. But I didn’t, so I focused on marketing because I was always interested in human interaction.
That’s when I started reading most of the self-help books that shaped who I am now at 39 years old. After I graduated, I rented a studio in the San Francisco Bay Area. Even after spending my career in marketing, I still didn’t feel happy. I decided that my sadness had to do with my parent’s divorce that happened when I was 4 years old and my lack of clarity about my life’s purpose.
When I was 22, I started seeing a therapist and continued to read all the books I could find on relationships, life purpose, and meaning. The two books that gave me strength during that time were “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl and “Becoming Attached” by Robert Karen. I learned that people with anxiety-related styles, something I had learned about myself, need to be fulfilled and have a purpose. Then I realized that I had to do things that brought me joy.
Therapy helped me process my feelings about my parent’s divorce, and as a result, I stopped using it as an excuse for my sadness. Instead, I researched and became even more curious about the human brain. My focus began to shift from blaming my circumstances and upbringing for my unhappiness, to taking responsibility for my life. It gives me strength. One of the books that helped a lot with this is “Pulling Your Own Strings” by Wayne Dyer. It helped me determine that, in my opinion, I am solely responsible for my own well-being.
Since then, whenever I had a problem, I found a book about it. Whether my question was about relationships, children or finances, there was always something to read. I was reading so many self-help books that they started to blend into a huge pool of self-help knowledge in my mind. I began to notice common themes.
An overarching theme that came up again and again was the idea that we are all subconsciously driven by fear. For example, the fear of hurting someone can cause us to filter how we are with that person, or how we tell them what we want and don’t want. The fear of being alone can drive and change our behavior in hopes of trying to avoid that feeling.
It took years of therapy and tons of books to realize that I was good enough just the way I am without trying to change myself. Tara Brach’s “Radical Acceptance” played a role in my learning to accept myself as I am.
The more I read, the better I felt about my life. My panic attacks lessened over time as I better understood the fear behind them. I learned about catastrophic thinking from the book Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn and started to become more aware of my own thinking traps. I got better and better at catching myself every time a destructive thought crossed my mind. I knew then that I had a choice in how to respond to the thought. I was the one who decided what to do next. Often, I like to breathe out the fear and move on.
Over the years and reading more than 300 self-help books, there have been three key points that have helped me navigate my life:
It’s okay to feel pain
Whether physical or emotional, pain is a part of life. This was a message I saw in at least ten books I read; The Untethered Spirit by Michael Singer is one of my favorite books because it helped me understand that pain is a normal part of life and that when we resist pain, we can continue to suffer. We cannot control pain, but we can acknowledge the feeling in order to reduce the amount of suffering. Another book called “Letting Go” by David Hawkins also gave me a framework for processing pain in a more efficient way. The books I read led me to believe that feeling uncomfortable emotions, rather than suppressing them, can allow us to heal more quickly.
Through reading these books, I woke up to a constant theme that people often spend their lives resisting and avoiding pain, but by resisting it, we can cause ourselves more suffering. The books I read looked at how if you focus on feelings, emotions and sensations while being present with them, you allow yourself to feel them. Scientifically, emotions only stay with us for a duration of 90 seconds at a time before they change into something else. In just a few minutes, you can let your pain flow. I do this all the time whenever I feel overwhelmed by a strong emotion.
For example, when my children are hurt, it is really hard for me to see them helpless and in pain. Sometimes it makes me feel frustrated, angry or sad. I spend a few moments observing all those emotions in my body and let them run their course. As they pass, I feel lighter and have more resources to help my children efficiently. Of course, I don’t always have time to do this, but I try to at least notice my emotions instead of reflexively reacting from a place of pain in the moment.
Accepting my reality as it is
At some point in my search for an explanation of the meaning and purpose of life, I came across a book called “Many Lives, Many Masters” by Dr. Brian Weiss. It is a book that is controversial to some as Weiss discusses his theories on past lives and reincarnation and how past life therapy can help people overcome their problems, but I enjoyed it because it gave me the answers I wanted – says that we are born into this world to fulfill a karmic lesson or a greater purpose. I searched more on this topic and read “Reality Unveiled” by Ziad Masri, which looks at spiritual fulfillment in life.
I believe that every experience is a learning opportunity, no matter how difficult it is. Another book I read called Radical Forgiveness by Colin Tipping talks about how we can apply this knowledge to challenging situations and improve the quality of our daily lives. Reading these books helped me to come to the belief that nothing is given to us in life that we cannot handle. For me, it’s more about knowing the things you can control and accepting the things you can’t. For example, when wars happen, especially in my home – the former USSR, it is really difficult to understand. But believing that reality is exactly as it is supposed to be allows me to understand that kind of evil.
Being open to the mind-body connection
Another big theme I saw come up while reading self-help books was the mind-body connection and how our emotional problems can manifest physically in our bodies. This led me to look at the scientific connection between mind and body, and what was written about it by medical professionals, as well as to explore some of the more spiritual texts written on the subject.
Mind Over Medicine by Lissa Rankin, MD, which explores the idea that the mind has a role to play in physical healing, was the first book I read on the subject. After reading it, I attended a Hakomi introductory workshop. Hakomi is mindful somatic psychotherapy and the course looked at using the body to heal emotional trauma. Of course, I later read a book on the subject called Mindfulness-Focused Somatic Psychotherapy Hakomi by H. Weiss, G Johanson and L Monda. I also read a more spiritually focused book, Anatomy of the Soul by Caroline Myss. Although it takes a more anecdotal approach, Myss’s book combines some Eastern and Western knowledge about the body and how energy flows within it, and I find some of the information very interesting to think about.
Many of the ideas I read in these books made sense to me because when I was a child I used to get sick right before major exams at school. It got so bad that my mom thought I was heating the thermometer.
I also remember that my grandmother was always reluctant to ask for help because she didn’t want to bother anyone. She was afraid of becoming a burden, to the point where she couldn’t take care of our children because she couldn’t ask a friend for a ride to our house. She wanted to be one hundred percent self-reliant. Finally, she became ill and could barely move. It seemed to mirror what I had read that if you are very tired or burned out, it will start to show in your body and your body will make sure you address the issue.
Although I have read so many books, I never thought that reading was a waste of time. Since audiobooks became available, I started listening to books while driving and reading other books when I’m not. Consuming these many self-help works was helpful for me to see common themes that were applicable in my life.
I love reading. Whenever I have a question, or when there is something I don’t understand, I turn to books. It may take something different for other people, but I’ve been able to find answers to questions I’ve asked myself by reading self-help books.
Masha Finkelstein, 39, is a marketing manager. Her goal is to help others find ways to make their lives more fulfilling, balanced and happy by reading and recommending self-help books.
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
As Carine told Harb.