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The Self in Self-Help

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The self helps itself. I know it firsthand, as well as second- and thirdhand, and so do you. But none of us—no matter what anyone says to the contrary—can tell you precisely how it happens. Maybe it was the therapy, in my case. Maybe it was the running. Maybe it was David D. Burns, M.D. Maybe it was two or three or all of the above in combination. Maybe it was some slight incident I didn’t even register at the time. Maybe it was time.

Or maybe we humans change the way species do: through random variation. If that’s the case, then the strategy we’ve arrived at out of necessity might be the best one anyone could design. Try something. Better still, try everything—throw all the options at the occluding wall of the self and see what sticks. Meditation, marathon training, fasting, freewriting, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, speed dating, volunteering, moving to Auckland, redecorating the living room: As long as you steer clear of self-harm and felony, you might as well do anything you can to your inner and outer ecosystems that might induce a beneficial mutation.

The good news is that, in my experience, this is what most of us do anyway. We sample profligately from the vast universe of hypotheses about how to improve our lives: We try organizing our desk according to David Allen, our abs according to Timothy Ferriss, our hearts according to the Buddha. We obey a command: Know thyself. And another: Forget thyself. It might not work. It might not even be how we work. But it does at least pay homage to the day-to-day, problem-to-problem, mood-to-mood complexity of being human.

The bad news is that even if you succeed with this approach, you will never truly know which specific tactic worked—even after the fact, let alone beforehand. In other words, as scientists would say, this method of self-help is an uncontrolled experiment. But so what? Life is an uncontrolled experiment: confounded, confounding, and, above all, completely impossible to replicate—tragically so, and wonderfully so. I try to remind myself of that as often as I can. Sometimes it helps.


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