Self? Help!

Posted by on February 27, 2023 in Blog, Humour, Living today, society | 2 comments

Primal scream/Glamour UK

How female aspirations have changed! Victorian diaries and books like Little Women bear witness to a desire to cultivate virtues such as humility, self-restraint and kindness. These gave way to a more ambitious view of self-improvement that can be summed up in French pharmacist Emile Coué’s mantra ’Every day, in every way I am getting better and better,’ and now we have the altogether snappier exhortation to ‘be the best that you can be.’

Where to start? I’m sure there is a calculation to be done about how many times around the world all the self-help books published since Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People would go if laid end to end. Add to that the central contradiction that seems to emerge from these books, taken collectively, and you’re in a real quandary.

The contradiction is this: when it comes to anger and other strong negative emotions is it best to let them all out whenever they arise through, say, primal screams or GBH to punchbags; or should you focus on building a harmonious and constructive inner landscape to maintain balance and positivity – if need be by ‘faking it until you make it’?

I think we can see all around us evidence of what has become the received wisdom that it’s not good to repress our rage – if only through the volume of spleen vented down mobile phones. (Everyone is venting: I even overheard a conversation in a pub a few weeks ago in which a three-year-old was described has having ‘anger management issues’ – when you’re three, tantrums are your job, for heaven’s sake!)

But there are those who maintain that this approach only serves to reproduce and reinforce these extreme emotions. The solution is planet positivity, where all is calm. The things that drive us to distraction have been reframed as opportunities and challenges. Visualisation and relaxation soothe the savage breast and offer a way forward. You can create your own refuge through guided meditations, though many of them seem to take a white sandy beach as their starting point. I’d like to put in a request for more sofa-based meditations, preferably in front of a roaring fire with a box of chocolates. (And I predict that such carbon-emitting fantasies will become more prevalent in the future.)

Mrs Overall/BBC

Given my dislike of confrontation, I’m firmly on the side of project positivity. But I can’t help thinking that in its current form it’s all a bit, well, un-English – a bit American, in fact, all pom-pom waving cheerleaders with gleaming white teeth with little spangles coming off them.

How to make it more relatable? Well, you’ll have heard of Kleinian analysis, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs etc. I think it’s time we had our own school of thought to promote positivity: I give you the Mrs Overall school of positive psychology. Just don your flowered pinnies, fold your arms over your chest, and repeat after me ‘Mustn’t grumble’!


  1. A mantra for us all!

    Keep calm and carry on…

    The Carnegie book is remarkably relevant despite its 1937 publication and worth a re-visit.

    • I’d forgotten about ‘Keep calm and carry on’! It’s so ubiquitous now (and the various permutations on it) it’s almost become invisible.

      I’ll take a peek inside the Dale Carnegie next time I’m in Waterstones.

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