My first self-help book was given to me at the age of 13 by my amazing late step mother: Louise Hay’s You Can Heal Your Life. That book was revolutionary for me (and the world), and definitely influenced my life and the years to come. I spent most of my teens and 20’s frequenting the self-help aisle in (mostly metaphysical) book stores, trying out different books and workshops and attempting to figure myself out. In my 30’s I got into Buddhism and meditation, and did my fair share of magical thinking, but it wasn’t until I discovered shadow work that I felt a real shift.
Shadow work has been around since the days of Carl Jung, and the basic theory is that every aspect of our personality, behavior, feeling or physical attribute that we display in childhood that we are shamed for, punished for or taught is wrong or bad is put into our shadow. If we do or display things that we believe are good and we are humiliated, discouraged or told we are not good at or are not those things, we also put those into our shadow. The things we are taught to believe are negative, we try to suppress, deny and ignore within ourselves. But they will keep showing up in the people we attract into our lives as a mirror for what we ourselves have in our shadow & can’t accept about ourselves. We will also project the positive things that we have put into our shadow onto others, and the things we admire most in others is a denied aspect of ourselves. The theory is that we have to face and accept or integrate and merge those denied aspects of ourselves in order to be whole and stop projecting onto others. Therein lies the rub.
On my long journey through shadowy bullshit there have been books that helped me to identify parts of myself that needed attention, and sometimes felt like reading my own journal or experience. These books helped me to take those things out of the closet of my mind and made me feel far less alienated. Some of the books helped me to get unstuck, and out of jobs or relationships that were dysfunctional and only making me miserable. Here are my top 10 self-helpers:
- The Dark Side of the Light Chasers by Debbie Ford. If you got on the (scandalous) hype train of Lacy Phillips, you may have done her Shadow workshop. Same. In that workshop I noticed that most of the exercises had an asterisk at the bottom that said “Adapted from Dark Side of the Light Chasers” next to it. Indeed, most of that workshop is taken from Debbie Ford, with some critical parts missing. In this book Debbie Ford not only shows you how to identify what is in your shadow, she shows you how to accept and own it. This is the big piece that was missing for me, how exactly to accept and own the light & dark parts of me that were in my shadow. I would say if you read no other book on this list- read this one. It will honestly change you.
- Loving What Is by Byron Katie. I read this book probably 10 years ago, and it was revolutionary. Katie’s “Work” is really difficult to do, because the basic premise is that whatever upsets you about another person is just a reflection of yourself. Similar to shadow work, her “4 questions” help you dig in to what triggers you and realize that you don’t control anyone but yourself. For me, I needed to do shadow work first in order to really get Katie’s work. Without it, I tended to use her work as a way to beat myself up more for what was wrong with me (and not everybody else). Once I did shadow work, Katie’s work made more sense and became really helpful in my life.
- When Food is Love by Geneen Roth. I was first introduced to Geneen by an amazing therapist who gave me this book. Geneen’s books feel like having a conversation with your sweetest, most empathetic and sympathetic BF. She has a way of putting things into words and nailing things that is really profound. This book makes the connection between how we eat & see our bodies with our relationship patterns. So good.
- Women Food & God by Geneen Roth. This book was obviously major (courtesy of Oprah) and I have to say- believe the hype. It looks at being a woman and the pressure and value that is placed on our weight and physical appearance, and how that internal struggle impacts every part of our lives. With all the Geneen Roth earnestness & charm.
- Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach. This book is a beautiful introduction to Buddhism and compassion practice with some psychology mixed in from clinical psychologist and Mindfulness teacher Tara Brach. This book and the meditations she provides were so amazing to me, like being in a therapy session with a really nurturing, soothing therapist.
- Finding Your Own North Star by Martha Beck. I heart Martha Beck. She has such a commonsensical, funny approach to disseminating all of the really complex technical shit she has in her gigantic brain. This book was a catalyst for me, one that inspired me to quit my draining job and move to the other side of the country. If you feel stuck, let this book be your crowbar.
- Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. While I was not a fan of Eat Pray Love, I always really liked Liz Gilbert when I would hear her in interviews or giving talks and found her insightful and smart. This book is really that voice- it’s like getting a great pep talk with some cool references and stories mixed in. This is another great book for getting unstuck, this time creatively.
- The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. When I was barely 18 years old I had the great great fortune of being in a class taught by the amazing Ingrid Kincaid using this book. The Artist’s Way is a workbook that gives you exercises and journal prompts that get you in touch with your creativity. Even if you think you are not creative, this book will shift you and get you in touch with yourself and what you truly want in your life.
- Start Where You Are by Pema Chodron. Pema Chodron is just a treasure and one of my favorite people in the world. She is so funny and down to earth and this book is sort of an introduction or handbook to compassion practice and meditation that explains Buddhist principles in a clear, digestible way.
- Sober Curious by Ruby Warrington. This book is really new, but I really dug it. There are so many powerful, heavy memoirs out there about alcohol (my favorites are here, here and here), but this book takes a totally different approach. It digs in to what alcohol does physically and emotionally, and talks about what life might look like without it and how you can make changes without a lot of doom, gloom and powerless before God stuff.