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