Self-help books are terrifying. Admitting to owning them is like confessing your most embarrassing moment because you’re confiding in a paperback or eBook to tell you how to live your life. Reading them in public makes people look at you funny and sparks unwanted conversation. “Feeling a little stressed, dear?” Then, when you’re finally feeling confident about the book you’re reading and someone asks you what your current literary obsession is and you tell them it’s, “how to make drinking eight glasses of water a day into a soul cleansing experiment,” you begin back-pedaling, defending the book and how “it’s not really a self-help book, it just sort of sounds like one.”
The self-help book industry is a billion dollar one so clearly, you and I aren’t the only people reading these short, but sweet guides on how to be happy and functional. One of the first self-help books I picked up was How To Stay Sane by Philippa Perry, psychotherapist, professor and writer. The book has a pretty bold title to say the least, so I was terrified to start reading it.
Here’s the reason for my purchase: I was really busy at my new-ish job, utterly overwhelmed with my personal life, I hated my commute (three hours each day on public transit) and I felt myself just thinking about the next time I could fall asleep. I was constantly wishing for the sun to set so I could catch some shut-eye. Organically, I came across How To Stay Sane at a gift shop in Toronto, fell in love with the concept of a shared tip (introduced with an anecdotal lead or backed up by research) paired with a thinking or writing activity and started reading.
How To Stay Sane is one book in a series by The School of Life, an organization founded in 2008 with branches in Melbourne, Paris, Amsterdam, Belgrade, Antwerp, Istanbul and London. The School of Life offers services and classes that focus on how to live wisely and well, while finding fulfilling work, staying calm and ultimately changing the world. The School of Life shop sells a range of items produced by the organization including pencils, hourglasses, blankets, book sets and cards.
In her book, Perry writes about how to be happy with yourself and how to grasp that you cannot hold expectations of yourself on others. In other words not everyone can be the way you are or can do things the way you think is best.
“We need to allow ourselves to be open to the impact of others if we are to impact upon them,” Perry writes. This has become one of my favourite quotes from How to Stay Sane.
Another favourite passage invites the readers to challenge themselves to stop predicting bad things that could happen. How many nights have I stayed up thinking about all the things that could go wrong? Why am I worried about something that hasn’t happened yet? Here’s a snippet: “If we practice more optimism, disasters will still happen – but predicting disasters does not make them more tolerable or ward them off.”
Though I didn’t have the chance to sit and talk with Perry, I did interact with her briefly on Twitter in an attempt to understand her reasons for writing How To Stay Sane, and she too agreed that self-help books don’t accompany an outpouring supply of positive support.
“I said no to writing it, then they offered me money. Then I said yes. Against self-help as one size does not fit all,” she tweeted. Knowing the author wasn’t even so sure about the self-help industry made me relax. “Got over that hurdle with how I structured it. It’s more about how to do therapy on yourself,” she added.
In only 160 pages, this paperback somehow manages to explain the crazy ups and downs we all face in life, while identifying how we constantly compare the status of our own lives to the lives of others. Perry easily identifies that the word “happy” is entirely subjective, even though we are led to believe otherwise.
For 20-somethings, there is constant change. People our age are getting engaged, breaking up, moving away, landing dream jobs, getting fired, being too busy to meet up for dinner once a week and hardly have a weekend free. With our aging families, we are busy attending doctor’s appointments, or Skyping them. We’re working weekends or going away. We’re taking freelance jobs when there’s not even enough time to enjoy an evening, work-free. Some of us may be starting families of our own. Even with all that we have going on, there are people telling us how we should and shouldn’t live, what should and shouldn’t make us happy.
How do you stay sane amidst all of this? Perry won’t tell you, but she’ll give you tips and guidelines so you can teach yourself. If you’re like me and could never grasp the idea of a self-help book (unless maybe, really funny ones by people like Kelly Cutrone and Amy Poehler), I recommend giving How To Stay Sane a try. I can’t guarantee you’ll be 100% sane after you’ve read through each page, but you’ll definitely remember to breathe in all the moments that make you question your stability.