Sometimes, life can be a profoundly upsetting thing

On January 1st 2021, I had a neat, excel spreadsheet of resolutions. These were habits and goals that I was determined to achieve by the beginning of my third year, each under all-encompassing headers like ‘health’ and ‘hobbies’. I would get over my internalised biphobia and ask a girl out on a date. I would actually stick to consistently running this year and make a Herculean effort to understand what was going on in my medieval English language classes. I would join as many societies as I logically could. It didn’t matter that life as I knew it was falling apart around me. Not even a month later, traumatic events and several overdue nervous breakdowns meant that I had to suspend my studies – something that I’d only ever joked about doing months before during my worst essay crisis.

I quickly plummeted into a world of disorder. Suspending my studies was the only feasible decision I could make, but it felt like I had forfeited the last symbol of structure in my life in those first few days. Everything that I had constructed my sense of self around seemingly disintegrated overnight. Looking back now, it makes sense why I drove myself deeper into the world of toxic productivity and self-help. They offered the perfect remedies for the feelings of loneliness and inadequacy that I couldn’t bring myself to confront. I wasted no time on recovery and was convinced that I now had ample time to engage with everything that a compact Oxford week couldn’t accommodate. I told family and friends that nothing was lost because self-improvement promised me a stronger sense of control over my life. And I had all the time in the world to engage with it. So I threw myself into yoga, morning routines, and Ted Talks, only to run myself into an inevitable burnout weeks later.

In a more general way, what I experienced isn’t foreign to many students, especially in the context of the pandemic. When aspects of your life feel severely out of your control, a common reaction is to assert stronger control over the parts that you can. For me, a list of resolutions and over-the-top ideas for a better version of myself was a great distraction from the turmoil I faced in my life and what I saw in the world. As it turns out, there’s a whole industry built on the exploitation of these feelings, and there is a lot of money to be made from selling the ideas of control and happiness.

From the pseudoscience of the Law of Attraction to productivity Youtubers, the narrow idea of what an accomplished life looks like has created buzzing communities of goal-setters, encouraging everyone to place a measuring stick against most aspects of their lives. It’s even trickled down into how we engage with activism: on Instagram, you can find infographics on everything from ‘Nine Ways to Manage Your Anxiety’ to understanding white feminism. At their worst, they can come across as reductive and performative, allowing their posters to be seen as morally virtuous with little praxis or work. Some of them are intimately weaved into how celebrities and companies market themselves to younger generations without them needing to make tangible change. The amount of infographics and the fact that anyone can create and post them means that it isn’t the information that has sparked their popularity. The information that these infographics spread can be valuable and accessible. Still, their format operates on the same assumption, as Alexandra Schwartz says: “we are being sold on the need to upgrade, all parts of ourselves, all at once, including parts that we did not previously know needed upgrading.” They fit under the overarching cultural impulse of self-improvement that spreads the message that anyone, regardless of their unique circumstances, can optimise themselves by becoming the most efficient, politically conscious, and happy person that they can be.

You hate yourself? There might be a book you can read to fix that

The glamorisation of self-care is where the cracks begin to show. Behind the facemasks, modern concepts of self-care buried the reality that self-help can be an uncomfortable process. Instead of bubble baths, it can mean unlearning harmful belief systems we’ve held since we were children. That even if you’ve found a book on self-love, this should supplement the need to confront things that you usually wouldn’t, that you should exercise the emotional labour of putting up healthy boundaries. You should reward yourself with patience throughout difficult mental health periods, and if you can access it, request therapy or other mental health resources. Self-care is persevering and embracing uncertainty in how we view ourselves and the world by recognising complexity and asking ourselves the more important questions. It can be ugly. It’s conscious and can’t be achieved through scented candles and hot chocolate.

Even alternative self-care, a movement that goes against traditional materialistic culture and instead values emotional maturity, spirituality, and redefining what success means, remains rooted in the tension between confronting more complex feelings and the ‘perfectionist presentation’ (“the tendency, especially on social media, to make life look like a string of enviable triumphs”) we’re taught to uphold. The two waves of self-help are both commercialised and often ignorant of the personal and socio-economic factors that prevent people from becoming the ‘best’ versions of themselves. They can be helpful, but it is essential to recognise how they lack historical and social awareness through their widespread applicability. Their tendency to reach large numbers of people with the same generic message ignores that we don’t all face the same adversities, and therefore, self-help can become a reductive landscape. They still attach abstract emotional rewards to material ideas of success and imply that people who cannot access these are lazy or emotionally immature.

More importantly, they displace us from the true origin: our emotions and how we understand and express them,  the unifying power of vulnerability, and the importance of simultaneously looking inwards and outwards for emotional redress. 

It’s time to give yourself permission to feel

Even if we know that vulnerability and emotions are healthy, giving ourselves permission to feel them is challenging. Our culture attaches inferiority and shame to feelings that aren’t related to happiness, success, and confidence. In his book, Permission to Feel (2019), Marc Brackett explains how our parents, education systems, and society at large, no matter how well-meaning they are, set us up with negative ideas surrounding how we should experience, process, and express emotions. We’ve been conditioned to view our inner lives as inherently ‘risky’ places to explore. The outcome is a worldview that propels us to suppress our feelings until they’ve bubbled over. Loneliness, hopelessness, and insignificance are emotions we are taught to avoid at all costs since childhood, and today, they are just as scary as they were when we were five years old. No one told us that anger is often a response to perceived unfair treatment, and as a result, we are culturally taught to avoid and shun it. No one told us that it’s okay to feel those difficult things – that identifying the messages our emotions convey is a superpower. The ability that vulnerability and emotions have to normalise compassion and empathy connects us to one another and issues that are distant from ourselves.

With the awareness that I’ve spent almost the entirety of this column bashing the self-help industry, I should say that this isn’t meant to be a self-help column and I am not a mental health expert. I’m just deeply passionate about how emotions saturate and influence our lives and behaviours, and how they help us receive information around us. This column will primarily focus on the power of vulnerability, self-compassion, and granting ourselves the permission to feel and understand our emotions in a society that makes us believe that this is scary. Over the next few weeks, I will explore how emotional literacy allows us to access aspects of ourselves that are often misunderstood and interpret others’s feelings in compassionate and empathetic ways. Self-help can still be valuable, but understanding the emotions that drive our actions and realities is, as I see it, far more useful.

Artwork by Alessia Daniel

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