Queen of Your Own Life!

Kathy Kinney (best known as Mimi on The Drew Carey Show) has co-authored a book with a publishing exec I’ve never heard of named Cindy Ratzlaff – the book’s website states: Ratzlaff is a publishing executive, who created marketing campaigns for more than 100 New York Times best-selling books, including The South Beach Diet, as though that’s something to proud of – entitled Queen of Your Own Life due out soon.

In my opinion Queen of Your Own Life is yet another vaguely prescriptive tome of the “You Go, Girl” variety. While I found its premise – though not necessarily all the actions prescribed – not entirely terrible, but still ultimately riddled with lots of problematic analysis of why folks struggle in their lives.

From the book:

By letting go of things like self-doubt, fear of being judged and worry about how to look younger, we were setting ourselves free to admire who we were right now. We were overjoyed to discover that we did admire the women we had become. We were two strong women, who brought with them to the second half of life courage, wisdom and, most of all, the knowledge that they could survive anything with their dignity and humor intact.

Now on the surface this appears all well and good; finding the path towards self acceptance. However, it’s a bit presumptive and problematic to flatten various life experiences so individual blues are somehow analogous.

Since Ratzlaff is in fact a marketing maven, she has taken the message to Oprah. Take notes, kids – 90% of effective marketing is targeting the right audience for your product; well she’s hit the jackpot.

Even the seemingly altruistic article posted on Oprah’s site reads like a thinly veiled infomercial for the book, which is certainly their prerogative, but I mean we can all be the queen of our lives if we’ve got access to Oprah’s powerful platform! And what a glorious platform it is!

I opted to rearrange the list in 1 – 10 order rather than utilize the Casey Kasem top ten format seen in the article. Mostly to illustrate there’s nothing new here, even if one hasn’t read the slew of happiness related books currently blanketing the market, from The Happiness Project to The How of Happiness.

  • 1. Pass it on. “Hear ye, hear ye,” says the queen.
  • 2. Place the crown firmly on your head. You queen up well.
  • 3. Learn the simple trick to finally being happy. As we say in the Midwest, “It’s time to poop or get off the pot.”
  • 4. Set strong boundaries. Mean what you say and say what you mean.
  • 5. Build and nurture trusting friendships. Face life’s joys and challenges with a friend by your side.
  • 6. Admire yourself. Give yourself a Windy Mountain Moment so you can appreciate who you’ve become.
  • 7. Language matters. The words we choose to speak to ourselves and about ourselves are important.
  • 8. Claim your beauty and power. End the mirror’s reign of terror.
  • 9. Keep. What do you really like about yourself? Identify your strengths and decide what you want to keep from the first half of your life that’s still working for you.
  • 10. Banish. Let go of a thought or action from the first half of your life that is no longer working for you.

My problem with the book or others of this zeitgeist genre is not with concept of action steps folks can take to better their outlook on life, but rather the notion that faithful application of said action steps ought to result in finally getting all the things one believes they so richly deserved. These books are often framed from the premise-behind-the-premise folks have the right to be “happy” and “fulfilled” – a worldview I simply do not support. I don’t even wish to open the can of worms these books present from a privilege/oppression standpoint, though it’s chief among my quibbles. What happens if you follow the instruction to the letter and find that life does not dramatically change or unicorns do not magically appear on your lawn, prancing about? Do you then attribute such failure to your inability to thoroughly grasp the concepts? Do you get your money back? Do they parade you through the streets wearing an “I am the court jester of my own life!” t-shirt? The book did not guarantee anything in writing the way – say Midas guarantees its mufflers and the work by its mechanics – but there is an implicit suggestion that any failure to make the magic happen can be attributed to the reader. I can imagine the “If only…” rebuttals readers who aren’t able to rule their queendom in style have in store for them.

[sarcasm] Good, victim blaming times, indeed.[/sarcasm]

If I sound a bit harsh – though, honestly I don’t think I do – I attribute it to longing for something different from the book, which had me at…Kathy Kinney. I was looking for some of the wit and astute observations I’d noticed in interviews and what I believe I observed in her portrayal of Mimi, which I found in a few instances to both trade in and subvert fat tropes simultaneously.

And before you – the editorial “you” – jump in to tell me maybe I could use a little “happiness” literature in my life, I should tell you I am quite satisfied with my life. Is it perfect? HELL NO. Do I expect it to be? HELL NO. I am dazzled each day by the things in my life that are going well. I am grateful for the wonderful family, great friends, meaningful work, agency over 75% of my time and loving partner I have. Do I feel entitled to any of this?

Nope.

I believe you do the best you can and you get what you get; it’s all fine to work to dismantle systems of oppression, but in the meantime you have to live your LIFE in the here and now. Hmmm, maybe I should write a book and get mine on the shelves in time to profit from the inevitable happiness lit backlash.

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A version of this entry previously appeared on Snarky’s Machine.

101 thoughts on “Queen of Your Own Life!

  1. I usually feel like these self-help guide-to-happiness books are a bit like the Fantasy of Being Thin, except they’re about the Fantasy of Being Happy. Striving to be ultimately happy through these books is a goal just as surreal and unreachable as being ultimately thin through dieting and following those lists of diet/exercise rules you find in weight loss books and magazines. Follow these 10 tips to become and stay thin! Except it’s ‘follow these 10 steps on how to become and stay happy!’

    Whilst striving to be thin and dieting does a lot of damage to your body-image and even your body, striving to be happy is perhaps less physically agonizing but it can certainly make you unhappy. When you’ve followed all the steps and it leads to no magical feeling of ultimate happiness, and your daily life is just as up-and-down and stressful-with-some-good-moments as always, you start feeling like a failure. You start thinking there must be something wrong with you, you keep falling off the happy wagon, you must be a sick and twisted person because all these other people are out there being happy and content and dancing in the rain and crap like that.

    There’s nothing wrong with following some steps and making improvements in your personal life and getting some personal development done. But becoming unhappy because you fail to become permanently happy, that’s not exactly a good thing. It’s the fantasy of being happy, and if you’re not careful with those self-help books they’ll make you feel just as crappy about your life as the fantasy of being thin makes you feel crappy about your body.

  2. “It’s time to poop or get off the pot.”

    That’s some deep mantra Snarkysmachine. As far as I’m concerned, I feel that having read this sentence, I have actually found some sort of a Holy Grail. This is the stuff of champions…and I’m basking in its spiffingness.

  3. I found the prose in the section you quoted clunky. I’m not sure I could read a whole book written like that.

    I understand that Kathy Kinney isn’t the typical actress and it has probably been a difficult journey for her, working in an industry that fetishizes youth and thinness and being neither, and it’s wonderful that she has learned to accept herself. And I also think that self-confidence and boundaries are important things for everyone to learn (truly those two things are ubiquitous in self-help happiness books). But I’m not sure how helpful it is to learn about happiness from people with so much going for them already. Not everyone can have what Kathy Kinney has, or what Oprah has.

    I realize that many people who are currently rich and famous had to work hard to get where they are, but there’s also an element of the stars aligning for them that nobody wants to admit, and there are people who work just as hard who never get to that level of fame and fortune. I’d rather read an autobiography, personally.

    If happiness is an attainable goal, then everyone has to find it for themselves.

  4. Paintmonkey, personally I take offense to the framing mid Westerners as a euphemism producing bunch. While I haven’t spoken to every single one, I believe there are some who feel “shit or get off the pot” works just fine!

    As far as the book itself, “Greetings from Planet Self-Help Tropes” would have been a much more apt title.

  5. I don’t usually wear T-shirts, but I would silkscreen onto a favorite long-sleeved T “I am the court-jester of my own life.”

    The idea that “you can be happy if you let yourself be” — is so, uh, I don’t know where to start.
    Thank you for calling this out.
    I don’t think you were harsh. The book is a moneymaking endeavor.

    I agree with Danielle that “The Fantasy of Being Happy” is just as potentially damaging as the “Fantasy of Being Thin.” I’m at one of my life’s pinnacle of happiness at the moment, and it has way more to do with being able to appreciate where I’ve been than anything else — my sadness of the last more-than-year was grounded in really hard life stuff. I had that same appreciation for what was going well, but to expect people can be happy no matter what is unrealistic and, frankly, cruel.

  6. I realize that many people who are currently rich and famous had to work hard to get where they are, but there’s also an element of the stars aligning for them that nobody wants to admit, and there are people who work just as hard who never get to that level of fame and fortune. I’d rather read an autobiography, personally.

    Exactly. The book trades in fallacy of “meritocracy” as though other factors (privilege/oppressions) have almost no impact – or very little – on the kinds of opportunities afforded to many people.

    The target demographic (based on its creators seeking Oprah’s rabid fanbase) seems to be largely middle to upper middle class, not especially politically engaged – though lip service might be paid to Pink Ribbon issues or “Things we all agree are bad” – and nevertheless this is a group generally “comfortable” folks. Leaving aside, individual stories (while acknowledging they exist and provide the lens for a person’s view of the world) there is something classist about the book and many of its ilk. The idea that goodness, happiness and fulfillment is directly tied to the ability of one to know the right way to fold towels (since this a part of Oprah’s fan base too) keep their marriages spicy thus the domain of middle class comfortable women is like really quite cheeky.

  7. I think happiness is an attainable goal, as long as you realise that it isnt a static goal. It moves around and changes and dips, so if you are looking to skip through fields of bliss forever, you have to accept that sometimes your foot will go down a rabbit hole, or tread in a cowpat.
    Being the change you wish to see in the world is very powerful, and sometimes its a pain in the ass too, because it requires bravery, and I don’t know about anyone else, but somedays I’m not remotely brave.

  8. The main problem with these books is that no matter how vague they are, they do seem to fit only a small box of people. Maybe this one is slightly different, I’m assuming based on this post that it’s not, but telling people to dance at parties and talk to strangers and stare at yourself in the mirror until you’re blinded or until you feel pretty is not the answer to everyone’s question. And whenever I read these books I always end up feeling like I’m not happy because I do none of these things. It can take me days to realize that before I read the book I WAS happy and doing what it told me to do only made me UNHAPPY.

    All this may have worked for her, but it’s probably not going to work for someone else not identical to her, even if they share all the same privileges. And it’s really not going to work if they don’t share the same privilege.

  9. Alibelle – Yes! Even though it’s framed in a quasi memoir style, there is the still the underlying message these are the things YOU should do if you wish to find the happiness they’ve found. It’s couched in lot “make your own kind of music” chow chow, but ultimately the message behind the message is quite clear.

  10. I went to the web site — The book’s subtitle is making me mad and dyspeptic — “grown-up woman’s guide to claiming happiness and getting the life you deserve.”
    Blech. “The life you deserve.” I will happily preorder your “happylash” book.

    I have a five year old daughter who is enamored of princesses. So far, this has been fairly benign, but I do wonder what it’s setting her up for in life. The idea that each of us is a princess or a queen (to me as a cis-gendered woman — different for transgendered women or for men, I think) is problematic on so many levels. I sometimes try to translate “princess” into “foreign dignitary” or “secretary of state” — and it is about power and privilege. I haven’t banned princesses from my daughter’s play — I am not the sort of mom who does banning, other than physically or verbally hurting another person — but I don’t know what the princess stuff is about for my daughter. I know for Disney and others, it’s about making money off of societal and maybe some “innate” presets (let me just say we didn’t start out with princesses — we started out with books and blocks and animals and vehicles and more books — the princess stuff she got exposed to initially outside of the home — and I’m also not a hovering parent when it comes to what she is exposed to outside of the home as long as it’s not unlocked gun cabinets and such). The upside of the princess stuff for us is we can use it to encourage hygiene in an otherwise intense and strong-willed child (“princesses brush their teeth and hair”) and she is quite an artist and her focus on drawing girl children with long brown hair wearing large gowns and crowns has provided her structure within which to experiment with color and design. Being an only child, I think she identifies with the stories of parents who desparately wanted a child and prized their sole daughters highly.
    Don’t mean to threadjack. But the whole regal “Queen” (in a cis-gendered woman aspect) construct SO needs to be taken down. If everyone is a queen or a princess — that only works if we serve each other, not if we expect to be served.

  11. I wish I could find studies that show our level of happiness is pretty innate–I know I’ve read them before. Basically, we tend to move through life with the same level of happiness, regardless of what we do or don’t do, based on our personality and only slightly on our circumstances.

  12. “Learn the simple trick of being happy” as a list item indeed. That’s not just the usual “it’s all up to you,” it completely fails to actually tell the person what to do.

    And I grumpily wonder, okay, what if I build those strong and trusting friendships, and it turns out I chose wrong? Yes, that’s always a risk–I can’t prove that my partners won’t leave me–but this sounds as though they’re saying “do this and you’re all set.”

    To be fair, I haven’t read the book–I really don’t care for that genre and it’s insistence that everything is personal. We choose our actions, but we don’t choose the circumstances in which we act. I’m guessing that those women, and their partners if they are partnered, are basically healthy and able-bodied. Not that that’s required for happiness, but that “it doesn’t matter how you got here” definitely has overtones of thinking that all middle-aged women are in a similar place.

  13. I struggle with the concept of happiness and I damn well don’t need a book to tell me how to follow steps to make me feel happier. It’s a recipe to make me feel inadequate, frankly. So much of life is absolute, total luck of the draw.

  14. The tips in these kinds of books are so similar, so all-the-same. They don’t acknowledge any kind of difference, so if you’re not all the things that the text assumes, you don’t belong. Disabled? Sorry, we’re not talking to you (how can disabled people be happy anyway, amirite?) Trans? What is this “trans” of which you speak? And on and on. Bleh. I don’t need tips aimed at Nice White Ladies. Even Nice White Ladies (which I am, except for the pesky disability) are all different and need different things to be happy! We are not cardboard cutouts.

  15. I definitely agree with the discussion going on about privilege, and I’m pretty sure I am not going to be able to articulate my thoughts any better than those who have previously posted. I do want to add, though, that this kind of philosophy is frustrating to me for another reason.

    I was diagnosed with depression around my first year in college, and about a year ago I was diagnosed bipolar II (translation: serious chronic depression that follows a cyclical pattern but leaves out the manic stages normally associated with bipolar disorder). I grew up with a mother who was severely depressed and bipolar. And let me tell you, when I hear people talk about how depression is over-diagnosed (which may be true) and that popping pills is never the answer (as if my doctors and I haven’t thought long and hard about how best to treat the disorder) and that if me, my mother, sisters, and aunts all practiced pop-self-esteem rhetoric, we wouldn’t feel so bad… well, sometimes you just don’t have the energy to launch into an explanation of why things just might be a little more complicated.

    Heh, I didn’t mean for this to turn into a “woe is me” comment… I’ve been incredibly lucky with how well my depression is treated, and by having a father who understood my mom’s depression and was able to explain it to me when my mom couldn’t (and as the years passed, she eventually was able to discuss it with me herself). So yeah, my life is really good, but I just thought I’d share another element that makes the “Queen of Your Own Life” philosophy seem even more ridiculously oversimplified.

  16. Although now that I re-read my comment, it really is just another observation of the privilege of the authors…ignoring any other possible narrative other than that of the Nice White Lady with no disabilities or disorders (to steal from Millicent). This is why I’m always reluctant to comment… all y’all say it so much better than me!

    (Also, Millicent… laughed out loud at “What is this ‘trans’ of which you speak?”)

  17. So with Millicent, Alibelle, Danielle, and – of course – paintmonkey. Oh, er, and Snarkys. Yeah. Snarkys. ; )

    Yet another self-help book, yet another mealy-mouthed top ten tips, yet another steaming pile of Hotspur.

    Too bad. I would have hoped for better from Kathy Kinney.

  18. I love happiness books, basically for the reason Danielle mentioned hating them. I’ve given up (by choice) the fantasy of being thin, of being in power, etc., etc. The Fantasy of Following a Checklist to Ultimate HAPPINESS is one of my last guilty pleasures. Maybe it helps that I don’t actually attempt the how-to lists in any of the books?

    @Name: I think this is the study on happiness returning to the same levels, whether you become disabled or win the lottery:
    http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/extract/331/7531/1489

  19. Thank you for this! I’m resenting the hell out of this you-make-your-own-happiness crap since I had my performance review last week. It was mostly positive, but I was told to not be so negative, even when I’m being pulled in 12 different directions and straining under 80 deadlines at once. WTF? I’m supposed to slap a happy face on a crap situation? Why? So my supervisor can feel good about himself? WTFever.

    And do not get me started on Oprah’s “Live Your Best Life” garbage. Please! If I was worth a billion dollars, you bet your ass I’d be living my best life.

    Barbara Ehrenreich’s latest book Bright Sided addresses my biggest pet peeves about the constant pushing of positive thinking, and how it works to mask anger at real problems (http://www.barbaraehrenreich.com/brightsided.htm)

  20. Great post.

    This isn’t fully formed in my head, yet… But it kind of reminded me of an internet fight I got into the other day, in which some folks swooped in and started tsk-tsking at folks for being too critical of tea partiers. They admonished us to “keep it positive.”

    To me, that often signals that the speaker is basically well-served by the status quo. In this case, what galled me particularly was that these folks, by taking over a conversation, indicated an almost breathtaking lack of awareness of the possibility that other people might not be just like them. They honestly thought that other people’s “negativity” could only be due to the fact that it simply hadn’t OCCURRED to them to turn that frown upside down and go after what would make them happy. (Which, I mean: unlikely, right? Who is it who has managed to evade chirpy exhortations to think positive? Sheesh.) So the point I tried to argue with my internet opponent was basically: look, if your life were actually being made materially worse by tea partiers and the effects of what they say, and you spent some time articulating why and formulating your criticism of the movement based on your actual experiences, can you see how frigging IRRITATING it would be to have someone with no real dog in the fight swoop in and chirp “keep it positive!” Can you see how it would sound more like “I’m positive the status quo works well for me and the people I care about, and everyone else can just keep it to themselves.”

    Well, anyway. There’s some crossover, I think. If you’re so well-served by the status quo that the only thing standing in between you and the life you like is ‘negative thinking,’ whatever that means, then perhaps this advice is useful, but golly, that’s not everyone’s situation.

    It’s also interesting to me how this genre tends to elide “Not thinking I suck” (a good thing) with “Thinking I’m entitled to the life I ordered from the menu” (not a good thing.) That’s what the last paragraph of the Snarky’s post got me thinking about. Because for me, unless I’m awfully careful, thinking “There’s no law of physics that should present me with the life I think I’d like, as a reward for being the goodest laydee I can be!” slides ineluctably into “Clearly I’m not good enough to be worth a happy life.” When in fact, the two concepts are entirely separable. Intrinsic awesomeness does not translate into extrinsic comforts or fame or whatever. Sometimes life just sucks and the suckiness is not a referendum on my personal value (NOT EVERYTHING IS A REFERENDUM ON MY PERSONAL VALUE, as shocking as that was for me to learn and to keep re-learning). I may still be awesome, but probably not the kind of awesome that needs to have an exhortative book written about it instructing others how to be awesome too. Let alone use a scale where awesomeness is measured by whether someone finds love and a nice house and “balance” and “wellness” and a career with meeeeaning! Or something.

    As I say, it’s all still bouncing around in my head. Is it especially a nice white lady issue, I wonder? I sort of think it might be a function of being formed to be striving for that extrinsic approval which is always juuuust a little bit out of reach… and then becoming, in turn, with one’s own personal shortcomings. And the weird combination of privileged narcissism and self-loathing that comes with that. I’m not sure.

    Well, thanks for the food for thought.

  21. Awesome post, Snarky.

    I am incredibly wary of all self-help book for exactly that reason- the inherent assumption that how we liv our lives is completely in our control and that what works for one will work for everybody. It is such a pervasive narative,the idea that everbody got where zie is based only on thier own merits, and it upholds the kirarchy so nicely. You get to blame people for every problem they have, because if only they followed these simple steps…

  22. I would love to read a self help book written by Linus, complete with free blue security blanket. It probably wouldnt solve mysteries, but might make the perfect Sunday read.

  23. Is it especially a nice white lady issue, I wonder? I sort of think it might be a function of being formed to be striving for that extrinsic approval which is always juuuust a little bit out of reach… and then becoming, in turn, with one’s own personal shortcomings. And the weird combination of privileged narcissism and self-loathing that comes with that. I’m not sure.

    To some extent, I would say that it is, even though I engage in the happiness striving myself. On Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (an imperfect but useful model), we start with trying to meet physiological needs (food, water, etc.), then move up to safety, love/belonging, esteem, and finally self-actualization. Being able to focus on the self-actualization usually means you’ve had the privilege to get your needs met on all the other levels. People who have to fight every day for food, safety, respect from people in power, and so on usually won’t have the time to worry about whether they’re leading a self-actualized life, which is what the happiness books are really selling.

  24. @Jenya – You put into words what was in my head – only better than I could have.

    @Snarky’s Machine – You are on fire with your recent posts! Thanks for giving me such interesting things to think about.

  25. I really love what you say about people not deserving the perfect life, Snarky. I had one class last semester that the best thing I gained from it was the teacher telling us that not everyone could overcome and be Will Smith’s character in the Pursuit of Happyness. No one had ever told me that before. Ever. My entire life I had been told I could be whatever I wanted to be and that those rags to riches stories were possible for everyone ever who worked hard enough.

    It’s a huge fucking wake up call when you realize that your parents and teachers were lying to you for 18 years, and I think a lot of people turn to these books because of that.

  26. The idea of meritocracy is so attractive, because it gives people a feeling of complete control over their own lives, and that’s a powerful draw. On the other hand, though, it’s extremely deceptive, because so many people don’t have that control in reality. Self-help books are popular because they let people continue to believe they have more power than they actually do.

  27. I’ve been looking at the past few threads, and what strikes me is how many of them are fundamentally about entitlement. Random strangers feel entitled to conversations with women they don’t know. Nice Guys feel entitled to girlfriends. Nice White Ladies feel entitled to happy, fulfilling lives. My own sense of entitlement is something I’ve been working on and will probably have to keep working on indefinitely as one of the aforementioned Nice White Ladies. “The universe owes me nothing” can be a really scary thought for people (like me) who aren’t used to thinking that way. Snarky’s Machine, I’d definitely buy your book to use as a regular reminder.

  28. I guess I’m torn. I’ve gotten a lot of good out of some self-help books, and I did, at a certain point, reach self-help fatigue, when it all seemed so repetitive and self-evident to me, so I stopped reading them. I guess I was majorly self-actualized at that point. :o) I guess I don’t really chafe at the prescriptiveness that can come across in these books, because I’m perfectly willing to ignore that kind of tone, to the point of putting the book down if it gets ridiculous.

    I think for a lot of people, the messages in self-help books have been heard, but not really received, and until you’re in the right frame of mind to hear it, you’re not going to. I had a cousin who really pushed me to read Women Who Run With the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, when I was 21. At that point in my life, I passed and filed it under goofy hippie weirdness. 8 years later, it found me in a bookstore, and I picked it up as a different person, and it’s not overstating things to say that it changed my life in really good ways.

    As for happiness, I agree that happiness isn’t sustainable; it is ephemeral by nature. I do think that contentedness with one’s life IS largely sustainable, when combined with a feeling of efficacy that when challenges and difficult problems crop up, you can survive them. I really do think we’re here to experience all aspects of life, not just the good ones. We deny the shadow, internal and external, at our peril. Being positive isn’t a bad thing, when you can manage it; bad stuff will happen with or without our help. Being insistently positive, though, is to cut yourself off from half the experience of humanity, and to stuff down a lot of stuff that’s just going to make you hurt down the road.

  29. “Women Who Run With the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes” – I read this too years ago, and I remember it as being a real eye-opener at the time and very positive for me.

  30. Oh, no! Another thread I want to read instead of doing my work … :)

    Snarkys, thanks. This current “happiness” genre is clearly just another repackaging (and re-selling) of the old “power of positive thinking” genre. Anybody remember the Stuart Smalley parodies of this stuff on SNL in the 80s?

    I acknowledge that there’s some good in the self-help genre under some circumstances — I’ve actually gotten a lot out of Neil Fiore on procrastination, Julia Cameron on creativity and Davin Allan on keeping organized, but these are the rare exceptions in a sea of b.s.

    The value of the shallower stuff (like this book) runs pretty quick into the real limits of real life. I think people who are too invested in the happy-talk devalue that real, lived experience — especially when it happens to other people. I think when someone’s experiencing their circumstances as shit, **they just might be right.** Their perception may, in fact, be accurate! Dismissing that out of hand with happy talk is crazy-making.

    Likewise, the now-common usage of “positive” (“she’s a positive person!”) and “negative” (“don’t be so negative!”) annoy the piss out of me. The use of these words is grating, much like the use of “nice” in the last thread — imprecise and superficial. In addition, the concept of “being positive” and “being negative” is really, really, really problematic to me — it’s damn close to “being good” and “being bad” with all the moral judgment that implies.

    And re Midwest — yep, I grew up in the Midwest, on a farm no less, and we absolutely said “shit or get off the pot.” Poop??? wtf

  31. Sorry to post again, but I liked your comment Kristie …
    Made me think about how most great literature is not all happy-happy, it’s about sadness, anguish, tragic flaws. THIS is the richness of human experience … not top 10 to-do lists.

  32. Lynn, I wouldn’t place Julia Cameron in this category since she’s not promising anything. Any more so than Stephen King does in his book “On Writing”.

    I’ll be back to address all them kick ass points y’all made while I took my Sunday siesta.

  33. Yes, yes, YES to what has been said about the sense of entitlement. It seems to me that such an attitude is, in itself, far more likely to scuttle one’s own happiness than almost anything else. If life sucks right now, I can deal with that and move on, but if life sucks right now and I’m all, “but I deserve better than this,” now I’m in an epic pity party that I can’t recover from. I will be mopey and wallowing in my own entitlement until either a) my circumstances improve, or b) I decide I must actually be a gross enough person to merit having life kick me in the shins. You know, because life is really discerning about who it does that to, and it definitely only happens to bad people.

    No thanks.

    Every time a commercial tries to sell me something because “You deserve it,” I want to throw things.

  34. While I agree 100% with the notion presented here, and while I THISTHISTHIS A Sarah’s comment about hating admonitions to “keep things positive,” I think there’s definite value in the idea that one’s attitude and the trajectory of one’s life are linked. That is, if you expect bad shit to happen to you, you’re less likely to be able to deal healthily/productively with a bad situation and more likely to be stalled by it, as well as being less likely to pursue new opportunities and take chances you want to take. But I feel like that’s a fundamentally different thing than this “put a happy face on it” bullshit that makes me see red, because you can expect good shit to happen to you (the opposite of above) and still be perfectly capable of getting upset, getting angry and accepting negative emotions. So that’s a difference that I’m not sure how to elucidate, but it’s one I find really really key.

  35. 3. Learn the simple trick to finally being happy. As we say in the Midwest, “It’s time to poop or get off the pot.”

    Gah! GAH! I am in the midst of a serious fight against depression, and GAH. This is just a cutsey’d up version of “just get over it” as far as I’m concerned.

  36. gillyrosh: I’ve been really looking forward to reading Bright Sided — the women’s book club at my church is doing that one this fall. (I go to a slightly unusual church.)

    And, to everyone who’s had their clinical mental illness responded to with “just get happy!” — I hate that. With the burning fire of a thousand suns. I have two stock responses to that one that work pretty well. One is to look earnestly perplexed and say, “I’m confused. How will that cause my brain to make more serotonin/norepinephrine/dopamine/whichever neurotransmitter is relevant?” Then I just keep repeating the “my brain doesn’t make enough serotonin” line, sometimes drawing a parallel to Type I diabetes and the inability to make insulin. The other one is similar but more condescending — I do the wearied sigh and begin oh-so-patiently explaining how neurons work, and how neurotransmitters work, and how neurotransmitter reuptake works, and how my current medications affect those things. Sometimes there are diagrams. I don’t know if they believe me, but I do know I never hear it twice from the same person.

  37. Thanks sara l.

    I’ve had some very emotionally difficult experiences in my life and how I’ve learned to cope is changing my attitude. When I was younger there were some fabulous pityfests going on that resulted in poetry that should probably be destroyed, but I currently keep around to amuse myself every few years.

    Life can really fucking suck sometimes and no one’s life is all peaches and roses. All I can do is take care of myself, to whatever degree I am able to at the time and just keep on going.

  38. Well, anyway. There’s some crossover, I think. If you’re so well-served by the status quo that the only thing standing in between you and the life you like is ‘negative thinking,’ whatever that means, then perhaps this advice is useful, but golly, that’s not everyone’s situation.

    This. was. so. hot.

    The other thing this “getting the life I deserve thing” brings up it idea that lots of folks have limited self awareness, and really they do not WANT THE LIFE THEY DESERVE. It could harsh a few mellows.

  39. I think there’s definite value in the idea that one’s attitude and the trajectory of one’s life are linked. That is, if you expect bad shit to happen to you, you’re less likely to be able to deal healthily/productively with a bad situation and more likely to be stalled by it, as well as being less likely to pursue new opportunities and take chances you want to take.

    That’s assuming you have choices and opportunities in the first place or tour guide to point them out to you as they whiz by your double decker bus of a life. It’s still on some level blaming the victim – albeit in a less shaming and seemingly more productive way.

    Again, the idea these statements can be applied across the board is what’s problematic, not the statements themselves.

  40. It’s hard for me to condemn these types of self-help books. They’re entirely different from books that offer you some tangible prize, like a more successful marriage, or more money. Happiness is something completely abstract. Through my years of depression, atheism, and studying psychology and philosophy, I’ve come to the conclusion that happiness is what we make of it. Even someone with depression can theoretically convince them self that they are happy. We really are our minds.

    I subscribe to the view of faking it until you make it. If I’m feeling lonely, and want to socialize with people, I can ignore my anxiety for an hour and pretend that I’m outgoing (in conjunction with medication, of course) And it does seem to get easier every time.

    This might not work for some people, but I feel like I can overcome my depression eventually.

  41. Yes, so yes. The idea that happiness is desirable or sane no matter what.

    Other Becky, good one – I want to see that chart!! But also the conflation of depression (the illness) and unhappiness (the emotion) drives me bat shit. I have been both depressed and unhappy and ( thanks to SSRIs and therapy) not depressed but still unhappy – the objective reason for the unhappiness not being under my control. Sometimes unhappy is healthy.

  42. It’s like The Secret for self acceptance! *facepalm*

    Sometimes you walk tall, sometimes you stand in front of the mirror wiggling your own underarm fat and wishing you were someone else. I hate the Ten Easy Steps* To Change attitude. Life doesn’t work like that, there’s no switch you flip to make it all better.

    “It’s simple, just do x!” Why how wonderful, why didn’t I try burying my head in the sand
    or talking out of my ass before! Surely this will solve all the problems in my life, and I’ll be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. I just need a positive attitude and the world will hand me rainbow colored kittens that poop miracles. Or you know, I’ll go about my day still struggling to get in and out of buildings because nobody cares if the Queen of Her Own Life needs accessibility.

    *Or 12 steps! AA and it’s clones works for some people, but I’m so fucking sick of “self help” recovery being thought of as a one size fits all prescription. For those it doesn’t help, they’re often thought of as failing the program, and not the program failing them.

  43. SnarkysMachine wrote: ” What happens if you follow the instruction to the letter and find that life does not dramatically change or unicorns do not magically appear on your lawn, prancing about?”

    Thank you for saying this, because there are SO! MANY! out there who believe that the happiness of your life is solely based on the “choices” you make. GAH! This is my biggest problem with most of the finger pointers out there. They act as if the playing field is equal for everyone and that all you have to do is CHOOOOOOOOOOOSE to do the right thing. Dr. Phil is infamous for this verbal moniker of bootstrap self help bullshit that often ultimately leads to a worse state of being than before because all the effort didn’t make a damn bit of difference in your life. It’s victim blaming toast slathered with happy butterflies and cornfield jelly served on a plate made of kiln dried horse shit.

    Im all for being positive and trying to make the most of the hand you’ve been dealt in life, but when that is preached without even a glance at the very real, very strong handcuffs one has been shackled with all of their lives, then you’ve just got a bunch of people trying to feel better about the world without making any substantial changes for themselves or anyone else.

    Why not address the real issues? The issues that directly impact a person’s “happiness” like poverty, abuse, access to food and healthcare, freedom from crime, building job security, and fighting prejudice and inequality….you know…THE IMPORTANT STUFF. Oh, I forgot….fixing those things is just toooooo haaaaaaaard. We’d rather ignore the role our privilege plays in comparison to others and “find inner peace” *eyeroll*

  44. I’ve always felt that on the continuum of life, contentment was the baseline, happy was above the line and unhappy was below.

    If we’re lucky we live our lives mostly in contentment with forays above and below the line.

    But to try to live life happy all the time is a ridiculous goal.

  45. Here’s a real life example of the outcome of following The Secret as told to me by my newlywed daughter:

    Mother in law reads The Secret and decides she wants to live her middle age in Hawaii (she’s 47). She meditates on it, thinks positively, keeps copies of her dream under her pillow, visualizes life in Hawaii, etc etc etc.

    Her husband gets a job opportunity in Hawaii! Wow! The Secret really works!

    They move to Hawaii, buy a new house, set up new house, settle into island living.

    Six months later, depression settles in as Mother in law realizes she misses her grown kids who have lives of their own and can’t afford to visit every 3 months. Feels increasingly more lonely. Life begins to feel as if she has no purpose. Communication breaks down between self and kids. Bitterness sets in with each passing island sunset. Kids can’t stand to talk to Mom anymore because she’s always crying. Mom begs kids to visit more often than once a year. Mom gets a new puppy and finds purpose. New puppy starts chewing up the new house they live in. Mom bitches about new puppy to kids. Kids and Mom now miserable.

    Some “secret” huh? How happy does this woman sound now?

  46. Regina T: That kind of thing illustrates my biggest problem with all this “magical thinking” bullshit. “My life will be wonderful/better/bearable once X happens!” Then X happens, and your life is still your life, and now everything’s even WORSE than it was, because the wonderful magical thing that was supposed to make everything okay… didn’t.

    I’m guilty of this one a lot — Mr. Other Becky travels a bunch for work, and when things are rough for me, I find myself thinking, “If I can just hang on until he gets back, it’ll be okay.” As if that will somehow make all my other problems disappear. So when I see people actively promoting that kind of nonsense, it makes me angry.

  47. Having a chronic illness (MS), I come across quite a bit of forced positivity that is illness-linked; eg. “If you keep up your positive attitude, you’ll be healthier!” Oh really? Maybe there is a link (I don’t think it’s been indisputably proven that “positive attitude” has medical efficacy), but that doesn’t entitle you to tell me that my illness is somehow my fault because of my attitude, Captain Happy.

    I see it in medical practitioners too — the bias toward patients who have a “positive attitude.” I get monthly IV infusions, and the nurses have many times complained to me about other patients* and how “negative” they are. I guess I’m interpreted as “positive,” but really I’m just extremely not interested in engaging during this experience. Ugh. And I feel pretty strongly that those other patients? Are allowed to feel unperky while they are receiving treatment that has serious, potentially deadly side effects, for their incurable, chronic degenerative illness. Sorry if that harshes your mellow, nurse.

    And rereading this, I thought maybe I’d come too far away from the topic, but no. The popular ideas of “happiness” and “positivity” and all that stuff, which boil down to “You are in total control of everything that happens to you, ever,” do end up influencing medical decisions and practice. It’s all over “women’s health” campaigns. I see it in the infantilizing pinkitude of breast cancer “awareness.” Be happy! Smile! Entertain us with your positive attitude! Don’t bring us down with the facts about your illness, that’s grody!

    *I should note that they never noted identifying details about other patients. That would have been a serious breach of conduct.

  48. I must say I think it is interesting to ask the question of what makes people happy, because certainly there are many people who are far less lucky than I am who are happy despite very difficult circumstances. But maybe “interesting” would be the limit of this question’s usefulness because as many people have pointed out, one size doesn’t fit all, and nobody should be offered a trite list of steps to take that will supposedly guarantee them happiness… it’s just so cold, I guess, if nothing else. Not that anyone said you shouldn’t ask this. Just throwing it out there as something that is interesting to me.

    This was touched on upthread, but it all reminds me of how invested people are these days in believing that you completely control your own health and longevity (through those very low-calorie diets, or a 100% whole organic local raw blah blah blah diet, or whatever). It absolutely leads to a sense of superiority, lack of sympathy, and blaming those who get sick, which is horrifying to me.

    (I hope I don’t sound like I’m buying into a sort of converse of the question I was asking above, a belief that if one person in crappy circumstances has managed to be happy by his or her own definition, that everyone in equally or more or less dire circumstances also has a responsibility to be happy.)

  49. Well, when I’m in tough circumstances, I find it helps, happiness-wise, to become really, really unobservant.

  50. Someone once told me that the collected wisdom of a culture can generally be found in an assortment of sayings, often sayings which directly contradict one another; the reason you need life experience is to figure out where to apply which ones.

    The problem with this approach is not that it is applying simplistic wisdom towards psychological well-being. The problem is that the framework it is working from is not solely motivated to help people who need wisdom–it is, not very consciously, also strongly motivated to maintain the existing class structure, and a beneficial position for certain groups within it.

  51. @Millicent, “but that doesn’t entitle you to tell me that my illness is somehow my fault because of my attitude, Captain Happy.”

    This idea of “attitude causing illness” always makes me think of Sigourney Weaver’s character *Deborah* in the movie Jeffrey. I don’t know if you’ve seen the film, but her character is a send up of what a lot of that “positive, self-actualizing” jargon really is, sly (sometimes not so sly) victim blaming. Jeffrey tries to ask her how he can go about seeing past his fear and pursue a relationship with an HIV-positive man:

    Deborah: “What you’re talking about is “evil”, am I right? Why is there disease? Where you don’t have love, illness makes a home.”

    Jeffrey: “Are you saying people get sick because people don’t love enough?”

    Deborah: “It may sound simplistic. It may sound cruel. It may sound like I’m blaming people for their illness…and maybe I am. That’s *Deborah*!!”

    Wild audience applause, joyful weeping from her followers, etc., etc., hilarious.

  52. “Happiness” self-help books are something I’ve been thinking about a ton lately. Danielle’s comment makes me think well, if these “happiness” books are like “get thin now” books (which I think they are), then what would be the “health at any size” general self-help equivalent?

    I really agree with this article – I’m totally invested in things one can change about her thought processes and behavioral patterns, but there is so much wrong with this promise of “happiness,” and it frustrates me as much as the romanticization of depression.

    For me I want a self-help book that doesn’t promise shit except: “ok, here are some suggestions to make some changes in your behaviors and thought processes that make the shit that will inevitably come your way a little more bearable and help you put it into perspective a bit more, because you’ll inevitably encounter great shit and crap and the ultimately disappointing notion that things often just stay the same. The shit in this book will help you enjoy and find fulfillment in the great stuff more while it will help you tolerate the bad shit more.” I find that moving towards an emotional state where you can accept “sometimes it just is what it is” is oddly enough a positive move towards more potential fulfillment.

    As you suggest here and in your nice guy post, I actually think that people, especially those with privilege (and to some extent, more or less, I think most audiences for any potential self-help book have at least enough privilege to sometimes get into this state), are tied to this notion of “justice” in a way that is way too narcissistic. It’s hard for me to say what I mean, but there are some emotional pathologies that are themselves born of privilege, and while it’s useless to just condemn them for this, a self-help book I’d want to read would acknowledge it. The steps you list in that book, as you say, aren’t so bad except insofar as they supposedly end in some reward.

  53. This is exactly how I feel about these kinds of books. If the person had not succeeded in whatever endeaver they had going on..they would not be writing the book to begin with. Just like all the millions of people who hadn’t succeeded before them and so their books are not on the shelf.

    I find this self-help stuff rather self congratulatory in a ‘we’re all special snowflakes’ kind of way. It’s egotistical in that it’s all “I did it and therefore so can you!” If you just follow some bat-crap crazy joy jargin that they’re pushing since they’ve suceeded, and that somehow translates into them being able to distill down their success into viable steps that everyone who follows will then achieve…. And if you don’t then you did it wrong, weren’t trying hard enough, weren’t positive enough, weren’t rich enough or well endowed enough, or just enough! As others have said, it’s just an excuse to blame the person who didn’t achieve the “happiness” that the writer(s) of the book did. So it’s a back-handed rah-rah yay-yay for them having made it really…and so they did it and so can we! Codswallop!

  54. Somebody at work referred to the faked positivity/happiness trope espoused by certain bosses as “the sunshine enema”-we’ve been chortling about that ever since

  55. I would totally buy a shirt that says “I am the court jester of my own life!” Anyone planning to make them?

  56. Leah – It sounds like you are describing cognitive behavioral therapy?

    It’s interesting to see sadness/pessimism conflated with psychological issues like depression and bipolar disorders. I’ve had mental health issues since puberty and know that I always will. Yet I’ve always looked for and found the bright side. It’s how I’m wired – and it’s not dependent on my mental health status (just like it’s independent of my physical health status). I don’t know how to be any other way. My biological parents are the same, even though all kinds of crap has happened to them. I’ve known people who’ve seen their families slaughtered in front of them, people who’ve almost starved to death, yet they were upbeat, positive, optimistic folks whom you would think lived charmed lives from the way they went around expressing gratitude for everything. I don’t think they can help it.

    I’m a materialist, and based on what I know so far, I suspect being “happy” even in the midst of a shitstorm or seeing the glass as half full is a survival and coping mechanism that some humans evolved to have; it’s just not the ONLY survival and coping mechanism. It’s not right or wrong or better or worse, it’s just that at this point and place in time it happens to be highly valued in our society.

  57. I suspect being “happy” even in the midst of a shitstorm or seeing the glass as half full is a survival and coping mechanism that some humans evolved to have; it’s just not the ONLY survival and coping mechanism. It’s not right or wrong or better or worse, it’s just that at this point and place in time it happens to be highly valued in our society.

    I’m one of those “I’m so freaking happy to have a glass!” type people and as you astutely pointed out there’s probably not a lot I can do – short of a personality transplant – that’s going to affect lasting changes in this regard.

  58. A good book about happiness – contains lots of references to studies on the subject – is Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness.

  59. What makes me suspicious of these self-help books is two things, really.

    Firstly, their advice often contradicts the experience of the people whom I know personally who have been able to find a deep, abiding, self-actualized, spiritual type of joy, of the sort that endures in the face of tragedy and loss. The buzzwords of this genre of writing — such as self-admiration and control over one’s destiny — don’t do it for me, when the folks I know speak of, and live out, the transformative power of ‘living a life centred not on oneself but on others’, and of ‘letting go and letting God’. Frankly, if I’m going to take anyone’s advice on happiness, I’ll go with that of the world’s great spiritual figures, past and present, not that of never-heard-of-them pop-psych authors.

    The other reason is that, over the course of my own life, I have experienced my own levels of happiness fluctuate in ways that don’t correspond with any particular set of objective circumstances, as far as I can tell. I’ve been depressed (clinically) when living through ‘good’ situations and through ‘bad’, and been deeply joyful and fulfilled in both sorts, as well. I’ve been happy living with friends, and unhappy living with other friends. I’ve been happy when driving myself hard at educational goals in some periods of my life, and anxious, stressed, and falling apart at other times, despite similar circumstances. I’ve been severely physically ill and in horrible mental torment because of it, but at other times have been just as ill but profoundly at peace. And so forth.

    It sounds appealing, of course, to think that one might discover a particular set of things that work infallibly to create constant happiness. But, over the years, I’ve increasingly come to believe from experience that one’s best chances of true happiness come from surviving the very ‘dark nights of the soul’ in which happiness is absent — those circumstances which I wouldn’t choose of my own accord. Snarky’s aphorism, above, about answered and unanswered prayers has proven spot-on, in my life at least.

  60. I find this site very “helpful” in that it is made up a big collection of people’s honest thoughts and differing opinions, which helps to get a better sense of balance. I often read things on this site that completely clash with my own opinions, but after a bit of thought I end up reflecting and altering slightly because of it – which can’t be bad.

  61. Thank you for this Snarky.

    I am so sick of being told that if I did this thing or that thing then I would be happier.

    My life is not good at the moment (and by moment I mean for the last 20 years) and any amount of ‘positive thinking’ is not going to change that.

    It is so hurtful when (even well meaning) people infer that it is my own fault because I am not trying hard enough.

  62. “If you’re so well-served by the status quo that the only thing standing in between you and the life you like is ‘negative thinking,’ whatever that means, then perhaps this advice is useful, but golly, that’s not everyone’s situation.”

    Beautifully put, that. A few years back, I actually had to go to a training at my workplace to “deal with” my perceived negativity. It was thought that I was putting up barriers to change- and the powers that be wanted my input to quiet. The whole day was spent blowing rainbows up each others arse; I rightly walked away smiling my most plastic smile and echoing the mainline that was regurgitated all day long. I recall (in shame) that I even said something like “Gee- I never knew. I just thought people who were happy all the time must be stupid, since they never looked under the surfaces of things. Guess maybe I should take things at face value only from now on…” just to cover myself.

    Of course, you can fast forward to the next “change” idea that comes along. In my mind, I can see multiple reasons why the proposed change was not really such a great idea- components of it had been tried before and failed miserably, etc etc. but the new management had no history of that failure. Ultimately, I kept my mouth shut, knowing that I couldn’t deal with another re-education event. And in the end, I was right. To the point where the failure cost our company so much money, my department was eliminated. And thus began my adventure in the recession…. Gee. Keeping all that negativity to myself and letting everyone be open to change was SUCH a great idea!

  63. The best “self-help” book I’ve read was one my counselor gave me. I can’t remember the title, but the point of this one was not, “There’s a simple trick to being happy!” It basically said, “You know what? Sometimes life sucks, and sometimes you’re sad. That’s life. All we can do is try to accept that suffering is part of life too, and not worry that there’s something horribly wrong with us if we feel like crap some of the time.” I actually found it really helpful.

    This, on the other hand? Sounds terrible.

  64. The “positive thinking/moar exerciiiiiiise!/biodynamichyperorganicised food will fix any so-called ‘depression’ you think you have!” crowd really bother me.

    I have experienced major depression and anxiety on and off since I was 16. I’ve tried everything. Therapy and medication, a combination that I am now using for the first time* seem to be working rather well for me so far.

    The message that abounds about depression only being in one’s head (ha!), and the idea that “virtuous” eating and exercise regimens cure all possible ills can be harmful (and triggering as all hell for me, personally).**

    People extrapolate from their own experiences, or what they *think* they’d do *if* they were ever a position like mine – not that that would eeevverrrr happen to them, of course! Then they paint/view people like me as saps taken in by the medicalisation of human experience and the power of Big Pharma at best, and failures as human beings at worst.

    I just want to hire a plane to write a message in the sky over Melbourne:

    “Not everyone is like you! People have different experiences! Things that apply to, or work for you may not apply to or work for them!”

    *I had tried therapy on its own for a few depressive cycles. And, for another, I spent a year flagellating myself at my inabillity to fix my neurotransmitters and shit with diet and exercise like you’re “supposed” to be able to.

    **These sentiments are far more triggering when the come from health professionals. There are shrinks who reckon that “depression” cannot possibly exist, and that it’s all “about how you deal with things.” Thanks, healer! The stigma has really cleared up now!
    /overlong, overly personal rant.

  65. Perla, your comment sent me right back to an afternoon during a bout of depression of running frantically on the treadmill, and sobbing, and protesting “This ISN’T HELPING.” I felt like it couldn’t be TRUE that it didn’t help, because that’s what everyone *said* to do. What a crock. Just wanted to second your comment that some of this happiness expectation is really harmful.

  66. @leedevious:

    Happiness is something completely abstract. Through my years of depression, atheism, and studying psychology and philosophy, I’ve come to the conclusion that happiness is what we make of it. Even someone with depression can theoretically convince them self that they are happy. We really are our minds.

    I’ve been staring at this for a while because I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. I mean, I think I understand what you’re saying: that happiness can be a point of view more than a circumstance. (Must not quote Obi-Wan…) At least, I think that’s what you mean. But at the same time I’m nonplussed because in my experience, this usually isn’t the case. There used to be days I couldn’t convince myself I deserved to be breathing, let alone happy; my depression made it impossible for me to reorder my thinking that way.

    I’m glad this is working for you, but I was still left with the strong taste of “if you just fix your thinking you’ll be fine” in my mouth.

    @Snarky’s:

    More tears are spilled over answered prayers than unanswered prayers.

    Oscar Wilde said, “When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.” I have to say, I often think he had a point. I also rather prefer the idea from Greek myth that the gods distribute either sorrow or happiness mixed with sorrow, never happiness alone. Only the gods, someone wrote, lived without pain. (Of course, I have no immediate citation for this.)

  67. Another thought: Self-help authors put me in mind of cold-reading “psychics”. Much of what they espouse is so general and devoid of genuine instruction and the people at whom they are aimed are often the most vulnerable. Before this I had never connected why the genre seemed so sleazy to me.

  68. More tears are spilled over answered prayers than unanswered prayers.

    Isn’t this the truth. 5 years ago I was praying hard to get pregnant- we’d been trying for 10 months, felt like it would never happen. I got pregnant. Then I lost the pregnancy (at the same time that friends/neighbors/coworkers were all announcing their pregnancies/healthy babies). You know, in retrospect I wish I’d never been pregnant in the first place. I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy, and I would rather know that I would never be pregnant than go through that hell again.

    I don’t pray for stuff like that anymore. I pray for the grace to accept whatever I get.

  69. Seems to me that this is a pop-art version of watered down cognitive psych, which works for some in all sorts of bleak situations (dying, illness, unemployment, etc.)

    One of the tools depression and helplessness use is the one where they whisper messages that you suck, are undeserving of space, should be more like X, etc. Depression that has lack of privilege involved – poverty, lack of access to health and education, etc. – can feed especially on the idea that you don’t MERIT these things. How much you internalize oppressive messages and/or situations can change the level of pain you experience: or at least, that’s true for me. It hurts to be unemployed, impoverished, and sick. It hurts worse when I think I deserve it and if I were just a better person I’d be something else. Internalized, the situation is toxic: externalized, it’s more managable, and at the end of the day a challenge to cope with and vent about.

    In my experience, coming out of depression is a bit like opening a box of joy and unicorns on the lawn, since all of a sudden food stops tasting like ash and the sun feels nice and a shower is an enjoyable experience. If you hate yourself – and a lot of people do, whether it’s clinical or not – then all of those things are less in the moment enjoyable, because you’re suspicious of the person doing the enjoying. My situation isn’t changed, but with community and self-worth I can actually trust myself and find happiness in moments and contentment overall.

    Sounds to me like they’re documenting their particular path – which won’t work for everyone, because it’s not generalized, and so I can understand why it seems silly to people who have other struggles to fight.

    But I’d say that happiness for me is found in the difference between hating myself and not hating myself. Not Hating Myself is the most important thing: when I have that grounding, than the world can bring it ON.

  70. The “positive thinking/moar exerciiiiiiise!/biodynamichyperorganicised food will fix any so-called ‘depression’ you think you have!” crowd really bother me.

    I am generally positive, I exercise and yet I still need chemical restraints for my depression, anxiety and ADD. I can’t think myself out of these problems. I can’t even think the issues less annoying. I can just do the best I can and be grateful they don’t zap people like me with downed telephone wires anymore because we won’t stop being depressed. (nothing wrong with ECT for the folks it works for, but my people (jews and blacks) have had an unfriendly history with that shit so we’re all set.)

  71. Thank you to Snarky’s Machine and to everyone commenting on this. As someone who once suffered debilitating panic attacks, there was nothing more unfortunate than books and ideologies that told me that positive thinking would “fix” me. And as a straight, cis-gendered, white lady, I have a whole lot of privilege holding me up.

  72. “The “positive thinking/moar exerciiiiiiise!/biodynamichyperorganicised food will fix any so-called ‘depression’ you think you have!” crowd really bother me.”

    I am pro-drug for those that it helps.

    I react extraordinarily badly to anti-depressants and am not alone in that. I have therefore needed to use cognitive/behavioral methods for depression and anxiety and it has worked for me (the success rate is good overall). If therapies other than the current antidepressants weren’t out there, I’d be fucked.

    Cognitive methods, exercise, and making sure I’ve got Bs, Ds, and magnesium is what I’ve got and it works although it takes me about 4 months of concerted effort. (But then I tend to be good for a long while: I went a decade last time, and was only thrown back by 3 years of rather stunning life shit.)

    Of course, this Queen book is to serious approaches as 5-HTP is to Paxil, and much of pop-art methods sold by Oprah similarly give an insufficient understanding of serious work. But there IS a baby in the bathwater, which I would like to stress is for some the only choice available.

    So if anyone else is like me, where anti-depressants are dangerous to your life and you’re at the end of your rope, there ARE effective treatments out there for those like us, and yes, it WILL at first look like positive thinking (and maybe exercise or changes to diet. Celiac, for example, can cause depression.) This doesn’t make you annoying or helpless, and it doesn’t mean it won’t work or will be ineffective.

  73. (I should say, about behavioural-cog methods, that studies have shown about 2/3 of people it provides ease to: which of course means there are 1/3 of people it won’t help. Finding a group of people to help you through the most dangerous parts is the first most important things: if you’ve not been treated before try drugs! try therapy! try whatever works because you’re worth fighting for! But don’t give UP on yourself, that’s all I’m saying. )

  74. Number three there is confusing me. Is the secret to happiness brief, regular toilet use?

    I thought shit or get off the pot meant “make up your damn mind already,” or “stop stalling”. I would guess based on the “simple trick to finally being happy” bit step 3 is the “feeling sad? Try being happy instead!!!” step. But is it saying that the key to happiness is to stop being indecisive, or to stop procrastinating? Is it saying to decide now whether you will learn the simple trick to being happy? I can’t tell.

  75. I do find myself wondering about the kind of people that Kathy Kinney was intending to help through her book. I get the impression that it’s aimed at people who already enjoy relative health, wealth, and privilege, but don’t know how to appreciate it. You know, the people who oh-so-realistically expect to 100% happy, all of the time.

    I wish someone would write a book in defense of pain and suffering…and I don’t mean that in a snarky or sarcastic way. Pain and suffering really suck, but I’d rather acknowledge their existence than pretend everyone’s life is or can be a stroll through a garden of roses. Although I’m incredibly grateful for my happiest moments in life, and I keep looking forward to life’s next peak, I also know that it’s the shitty, rock-bottom situations in my life that have helped me learn about myself and define who I am. I guess I think of pain as a prime mover, an impetus to postitive change. Like A Sarah said, if you’re well-served by the status quo, you don’t have any motivation to change it.

    Admittedly, talking about perspective and life lessons is not much consolation to people who are in the middle of a horrible situations…but when I’m down, hearing “Cheer up!” or “Think positive!” just enrages me. My short skirt and pom poms were retired a long time ago.

    On a lighter note, in the wake of The Celestine Prophecy, Will Ferguson, a Canadian comedian and author, published a book called Generica (which was later renamed HappinessTM, to appeal to a larger marker *eye roll sprain*). It’s about what would happen if a self-help book actually worked, and people became “happy”. It’s not without flaws, but it is an interesting piece of satire.

  76. (I should say, about behavioural-cog methods, that studies have shown about 2/3 of people it provides ease to: which of course means there are 1/3 of people it won’t help. Finding a group of people to help you through the most dangerous parts is the first most important things: if you’ve not been treated before try drugs! try therapy! try whatever works because you’re worth fighting for! But don’t give UP on yourself, that’s all I’m saying. )

    The best thing I ever did for my mental health was to STOP GOING TO THERAPY. Therapy is framed from a fairly white experience and generally shuns any discussion of the way in which -isms play out in various people’s lives. More over there is a paucity of lived experience practitioners available to work with clients, meaning unless you’re a cis white man or woman you’re not going to easily find a therapist who will have had anything approximating your lived experiences and will deftly try to derail any attempt to unpack the way in which institutional forms of oppression contribute to whatever mental issues you’ve sought treatment for.

    And they don’t really give this area much of the way of nuanced consideration during the schooling either.

  77. And Xena help you if you’re Trans, poor, disabled or of color. Yeah, therapy is gonna be the last place you’d want to look to get some help around mental illness, unless your idea of help is being placed on a “non bargaining unit” (nice way of saying locked ward/involuntarily committed) until they can rid you of your belief in the -ism monsters hiding under your bed.

  78. I know there is that experience and have had similar – and I know there are a raft of white middle class therapists dealing mainly with middle class white anxiety problems for whom it will be true.
    But I found help through street-resources dealing pretty heavily in issues and -isms, including trans, queer, and issues affecting First Nations: honoring of personal voice and cultural space was first and foremost. It was these resources that both helped me out and radicalized me.

  79. Just who defines what “happiness” is anyway? Just like “healthy weight” is pronounced by the mystical magical BMI, is there some objective (cough cough) measure of “happy”?

    I am an introvert and that is just fine with me. But according to many of the Happy Horseshit types, I would be “happier” if I were more outgoing and more social. I have strong emotions–tv commercials sometimes make me cry–but according to many of the HH types, I would be happier if I weren’t so labile. I swear, I have a dear friend who tells me “you think too much”–the day I stop thinking is the day I won’t want to go on anymore.

    When will people learn that what works for them won’t necessarily work for me, you, or anyone else? Not only is there no one true answer to life’s situations, it’s insulting to every one of us when folks think there is.

    spacedcowgirl said it beautifully upthread: “it all reminds me of how invested people are these days in believing that you completely control your own health and longevity (through those very low-calorie diets, or a 100% whole organic local raw blah blah blah diet, or whatever). It absolutely leads to a sense of superiority, lack of sympathy, and blaming those who get sick, which is horrifying to me.”

  80. Isn’t the problem that racism is everywhere? I’m not sure there’s anything under the sun that hasn’t been used in racial abuse, and definitely therapy is one of them.

    But the strongest anti-hopelessness and loathing behavior-cog statements re: body image I’ve found is HERE, and Shapely Prose is very aware of -ism.

  81. Alibelle,

    I had one class last semester that the best thing I gained from it was the teacher telling us that not everyone could overcome and be Will Smith’s character in the Pursuit of Happyness. No one had ever told me that before. Ever.

    The first place I found that message clearly expressed was Anna Mindess’ book Reading Between the Signs: Intercultural Communication for Sign Language Interpreters. Even though it’s focussed on sign language and the Deaf community, it’s a very good primer on intercultural communication generally, and she spends quite a bit of time explaining that not all cultures give that message to their children.

    Self-help books are set in a world defined by what was once called the “American Dream”, though it’s certainly prevalent in Europe too nowadays. The idea is that you can be entirely independent, a self-made man (usually; women may be admitted on sufferance). But it doesn’t work. So books set in that paradigm don’t work either.

    I wonder what a self-help book written in a more collectivist society would look like.

    TRiG.

  82. @Snarky’s Machine:

    This is what I mean: this is a really effective behavioral-cognitive statement:

    “Marianne and Kate know that “fat” doesn’t equal disgusting. Or lazy. Or undisciplined. Or stupid. Instead, it’s just the single most efficient description of bodies that aren’t, you know, thin.”

    Then there’s the work of feeling hate and depression about the hopeless and unchanging fat body in the mirror and saying, IT JUST IS FAT NOT THIN and that DOESN’T mean lazy or undisciplined or… (and that’s where the technique needs personalization, since we all have our own shit we’re carrying). Now, you might be a fat person with a thin and privileged therapist who doesn’t see the ramifications culturally and is wedded to fat=bad_concepts who’s trying to make you thin – just like not so long ago being gay was pathologized.

    Which is why I don’t doubt you’ve had really fucking shitty experiences with privilege in therapy, and of the worst sort: I’ve had cog- methods given to me for weight loss, and I’m sure there’s some therapists still trying to make gay people straight.

    But finding the nugget of *reality* and blasting through the bullshit is really the point. You can’t *actually* do that without confronting -isms you’re experiencing, though I’m sure some privileged therapists will try.

    — And the ONLY reason why this matters and I’m bothering, when it’s obvious trigger space for you, is that for a non-zero population, and much of the youth population out there, anti-depressants have the side effect of making people suicidal, and it’s not because “you’re feeling better and finally can take action”, it’s because it whispers extinction songs in your veins.

    There is hope in other methods. I’ve heard tell God works for some. This works for some. Maybe eating differently for some. There IS HOPE in other methods, and it is sometimes hard to find.

  83. I’m sure there’s some therapists still trying to make gay people straight.

    More than you might imagine. There was an exposé in The Guardian a couple of months ago.

    TRiG.

  84. @TRiG – Oh, I have a pretty bleak imagination. At least they no longer have DSM support. Or maybe, at most they no longer have DSM support.

  85. I know my fear of rejection leads me to miss opportunities and close myself off from people who’d have nothing for me but acceptance… but that doesn’t mean that my fear of rejection is the only thing that’s stopping the whole world from opening its arms and heart to a trans woman with an invisible disability. A lot of literature and help out there that’s aimed at people who are working through something like an overwhelming fear of rejection are phrased as if the only thing that’s out there are puppies and rainbows and just being yourself is all it takes to make the whole world fall in love with you when in point of fact, there are a lot of us that large and influential segments of the world would like a lot better if we would be a little less obviously ourselves, to say the very least.

  86. @Arwen, when I was a kid, I was depressed and anxious as I am now, and my parents took me to a few therapists. I was absolutely convinced all my problems were because of my weight (I was in elementary and middle school, what do you want) and not one of these therapists was the least bit interested in disabusing me of this notion. One of them told me to eat Shredded Wheat & Bran for lunch so I would feel fuller and not overeat later in the day. Another encouraged me in my quest to have a “perfect day” on whatever diet I was on at the time. In retrospect this was a shocking and complete waste of my parents’ money as I am only now learning things that could actually have helped me back then.

    Obviously I can’t speak to Snarky’s or anyone else’s experience with far more damaging issues like therapists pooh-poohing, negating, and attempting to subjugate other cultures and ideas of privilege and oppression, because I am white, but IMO there is a slight shadow of that stuff when seeking therapy as a fat person, and it really messed me up when I was younger, before I learned that the therapists were biased by their own life experiences, hangups, and in this case specifically fat hate and fear of getting fat, the same as anyone else. (The same is true of doctors.) The unfortunate thing is that people who are miserable with depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses are probably particularly susceptible to being unable to sort out what is crap from what is helpful, because they are having to expend so much mental energy on simply getting through the day. When this is the case, how do you begin to stand up to and think critically about this person who is a “professional” and supposedly objective, and who you are paying to help you? And even if I could have, as a child, it’s not like I would have been able to convince my therapists to take another tack. Fat was bad as far as they were concerned, period.

    (This is OT so I will ask: I recently started on vitamins, electrolytes, and natural thyroid and it has had a startling and totally unexpected positive effect on my anxiety and OCD. Do you have any blog posts or favorite resources regarding treating mood disorders without antidepressants, as you were talking about upthread? My email is spacedcowgirl at gmail if you have time but would rather respond that way. Thanks.)

  87. @Alexandra – Prejudice IS everywhere, and it makes everything more challenging, or dangerous, or impossible for people who are discriminated against. The only puppies and rainbows part, I think, happens when people are able to turn the corner and accept their own truths. It IS be hard living trans in a cis-prejudiced society; it CAN BE worse to be living the wrong gender and hating yourself for feeling fucked-up and different; deciding to prioritize and honour self can be a very, very big puppies and rainbows moment for people, even if nothing around them changes.

    I think that’s why there’s sometimes a puppies and rainbows focus in people’s self-help anecdote books – I make no claim to address The Secrets of the world, *g*.

    Books written in the self-help vein with respect to oppressive structures (like Lessons From The Fat-O-Sphere), migh say things like ‘publically, shamelessly, unshakably fat and happy’ on the dust jacket *g*, but generally are a bit more subdued about how much mental real estate you’re going to be able to shift clear for yourself in a society where it’s coming at you all the fucking time.

    It still ends “… Giving up the Fantasy of Being Thin and trading it in for the Realistic Prospect of Being Happy with Who You Are.”

  88. And the ONLY reason why this matters and I’m bothering, when it’s obvious trigger space for you, is that for a non-zero population, and much of the youth population out there, anti-depressants have the side effect of making people suicidal, and it’s not because “you’re feeling better and finally can take action”, it’s because it whispers extinction songs in your veins.

    I’m not triggered any of the talk, but rather I don’t like flattening of experiences and then prescribing the same course of treatment for all.

    Some folks of any identity benefit from various forms therapy. Some don’t. All I can tell you is in a state where I live there are 2000 folks claiming to be mental health professionals (in a pop of 650k people) and NOT A SINGLE ONE OF THEM is of color. It goes beyond “Racism is everywhere” and speaks to the very heart of the issue, “My blues are not like yours, thus your cures may not be appropriate or applicable to me.”

    Same goes for other marginalized folks and god help them if they don’t live in a large city.

  89. @Snarky’s – I have tried to be very clear that I am neither flattening experiences nor proscribing the same treatment for all.

    In fact, my MAIN POINT is that therapy in and of itself is not necessarily this: “Yeah, therapy is gonna be the last place you’d want to look to get some help around mental illness, unless your idea of help is being placed on a “non bargaining unit” (nice way of saying locked ward/involuntarily committed) until they can rid you of your belief in the -ism monsters hiding under your bed.” or that cognitive stuff is not necessarily slap-happy affirmations on the mirror that make you suddenly able to land a job.

    At its best, cognitive work is about dismantling the oppression inside you on a moment to moment basis, and *some of us have food, exercise, behavior and thoughts, and that’s all we’ve got at our mental health disposal*. That includes all sorts of people – it’s not just white, cis-gendered, straight women and men who have bad reactions to chemical antidepressants, for crying out loud. Plus, in a different direction, meds can be fucking hard to source and take on schedule for folks with serious substance abuse problems.

    And there’s still hope if the meds don’t work, and it’s going to be behaviour, thoughts, food, and exercise on some level. It might be activism, recovery, church, group, therapy, art, thoughts, or whatever, but it will in the end be how you’re thinking, doing, and consuming.

    I agree your blues aren’t everyone’s blues, and my blues aren’t everyone’s blues, and everyone has their own path. But the idea that therapy “is the last place you’ll look” when dealing with mental health issues when dealing with other oppression is also flattening and dismissive. I fit your description who *shouldn’t* look to therapy: and my first counsellor was queer and First Nations. Lessons from the Fat-O-Sphere is a cognitive self-help tool that I regularly point people to.

    Reframing thinking to a more positive place in order to feel less like shit (which is what cognitive approaches are about) CAN be powerful for some people – and some people won’t get anything out of it.

    So what I am saying is that all sorts of approaches can work. And that’s important when one door has been closed. For me, the door closed is drugs. For you, it’s therapy. (And frankly,I was talking about cog/behavioural methods, which is not the same as therapy, but I have used therapy and that’s what introduced me to that way of coping..)

    I agree all blues are not the same blues.

    *However, all blues can become dangerous to people, when no doors appear open. *

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