“You’ve no idea how hard I’ve looked for a gift to bring You.
Nothing seemed right.
What’s the point of bringing gold to the gold mine, or water to the Ocean.
Everything I came up with was like taking spices to the Orient.
It’s no good giving my heart and my soul because you already have these.
So I’ve brought you a mirror.
Look at yourself and remember me.”
I dedicate this book to the truth seekers of the world—those who insist on searching for what is real even when it’s painful, inconvenient, and tiresome. You give me hope.
In my early days of writing this book, a friend asked me what I was writing about. I said something like “self-awareness and the dangers of self-help.” He looked confused.
“In the past few years,” I explained, “I’ve met a shocking number of people who blindly trust self-help experts and their advice. They don’t think they know any better. I’m hoping this book can be different. Instead of playing guru and giving advice, I want to encourage people to be self-aware and trust themselves.”
“So…” he paused, “you’re writing …a self-help book …about …how people shouldn’t trust self-help books?”
“Yes,” I laughed. “I suppose I am.”
Another friend suggested that this book’s opening line should say, “I am an expert in knowing experts aren’t experts.” One of my beta readers joked that I am “a bit like a turkey voting for Thanksgiving.” As this book spreads, I am sure it will seem strange to many people. I admit that it is strange, ironic, and maybe even hypocritical, but not impossible and certainly not useless.
I do have a not-so-secret hope that one day this book will be part of a new “Self-Discovery” section. These books would point you toward the helping hand that you’re already extending to yourself (instead of giving you miracle tactics under studied or blessed authority). At the time of my writing this, only the “Self-Help” section exists. But I do not mean to blame my hypocrisy on the developed world’s book classification system. If anyone is to blame (or thank, I suppose, depending on your perspective), it is me. I just couldn’t keep my hand out of the cookie jar.
In my first book, The Love Mindset, I wrote about the lessons I learned after my ten-year struggle with addiction, eating disorders, and self-hatred almost culminated in suicide. At the time, I thought I was having a mental breakdown. It turned out to be (or, you could say, I reframed it as) an awakening. I could have kept that story to myself. How many people experience mental breakdowns each year? Each month? Each moment? How many people grow up, heal their insecurities, and grow into their potential? I have met thousands of such people over the past few years. And how many of them choose to share what they’ve learned with the world? Compare that to the far larger number of people who choose to keep their experiences private.
It was not the discovery of love that first compelled me to write The Love Mindset. It was neither my struggle nor my healing that first inspired me to coach people through their struggles and healing. It was self-help.
A few months before I had read my first self-help book, I was at a pivotal point in my life. I decided that my life purpose was to help people come together. I realized that many great leaders—Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, John Lennon, for example—had united humankind. Maybe this seems obvious to you, but to me, it was a revelation. It was also my call to do the same.
I also became aware of how self-focused I had been my entire life. Whenever I had found myself in a position of power, I used it to benefit myself—never others. Then I wondered why the people around me were so selfish! Now and again, we all find ourselves in positions of relative advantage. Some jobs give us influence over certain people or policies. Some birth characteristics (unfortunately) come with social advantages. Some situations, such as discovering someone’s insecurities or secrets, give us the upper hand in a relationship. But, at any moment, we can lose our privileges. Then, the way we treated other people will come right back to us. I vowed to keep this always in mind. To remember, at the top, what I needed when I was at the bottom. To remember how it feels to be judged before I judge. To extend the helping hand I yearned for when I was the one grasping. To be the light I needed in my times of darkness. To remember where I came from.
After years of suffering and selfishness, I wanted to do something meaningful. Becoming a self-help guru meant fulfilling that desire—and then some. Encouraged by various motivational speakers, life coaches, and spiritual teachers, I began to see my dark past as a resource. I didn’t have to bury my suffering, my self-hatred, or my former addictions! I could share them. I could use them. I could help heal others.
I started a blog. Then, I started writing for bigger websites. Inspired by Brené Brown’s TED talks about shame, I shared my imperfections, my self-doubts, my painful memories. I tore myself open and let the world see inside. After a lifetime of perfectionism and hiding, vulnerability was difficult. But once I connected with people who understood me, I couldn’t get enough. I had spent most of my life feeling separate, misunderstood, and alone. While I was healing, I realized that I was never alone because I was an interconnected part of existence. Yet healing also changed my personality. I lost many of the friends I had. Taking a leadership role introduced me to my new tribe: people who understood me. The real me. These authentic connections gave me a high beyond that of any drug, any compliment, any achievement. I was hooked.
Writing my first book was an incredible catharsis. It also marked a turning point. My writing was no longer a mere hobby. Now, I had a product to sell. I had to put myself out there. This changed everything.
As soon as I had to sell myself, I realized how little there was to buy. I kept finding proof of how unqualified I was to help people. I wrote The Love Mindset when I was 24—much younger than the self-help gurus I admired. I didn’t have a PhD. I didn’t have a major publishing house backing me. I turned red when I talked to people, and I said “like” too much when I got excited. All my clothes were from the thrift store. I lived in a moldy basement. Who was I to help anyone?
Thus, my writings and teachings warped. Even though I still wrote about healing and self-love, I stopped sharing as vulnerably. I started talking about self-judgment as something I had. I thought that if I revealed how insecure I still was, I would only further delegitimize myself. Instead, I focused on giving people good advice and correct answers. That’s what gurus do, after all.
The trouble with giving advice was that I had no idea what other people should do. So I just regurgitated the concepts I had learned from self-help. All the while, I watched those same concepts fail in my own life. I would tell people to stop caring about what others thought, yet my mood would crash from one critical comment. I would tell people to focus only on positive thoughts, but my mind was a minefield of anxiety and self-doubt. I would tell people to accept their bodies, yet I still sometimes felt ashamed of my skin (where my inner struggle externalized). Every time my practical experiences negated my teachings, I would fall into the deepest pit that a leader can fall into: the Fraud Hole. In that bleak mental underground, there is only darkness and a voice that chants, “Everyone hates me, and anyone who doesn’t will soon. Because I’m a fraud. I know nothing. I have nothing to offer.”
Every time I dismounted the rollercoaster of inadequacy, I would get right back into selling the dream—not only to others but to myself as well. I wasn’t scheming behind closed doors to manipulate and seduce people. Rather, I was weaving a story of how the world could and should be—a story I believed. Every time I arose from the ashes of shame, I would prod myself to hurry up and become a better leader. Every time I failed, I would tell myself I needed to try harder, practice more, do more. I needed to become who I pretended to be. The self-judgment I claimed to have healed once again spread like cancer. I got sick from my expectations. I suffocated my potential with my twisted ideas about what that potential should be.
Before I started my healing journey, I always thought that happiness was only a few pounds away. No matter how much weight I lost, it was never enough. No matter how much my stretch marks faded, they were never light enough. No matter how many blemishes healed, there was always one more. Every time I looked in the mirror, I’d say, “Maybe next time.” Maybe next time, you’ll be pretty. Maybe next time, you’ll be perfect. Maybe next time, you’ll finally be flawless. Not today, but maybe next time. It was the same after every coaching session, every Meetup, every video, every speech. I would pick apart everything I had said and done, and I would always find flaws. Once again, I was chasing the ever-elusive “next time.”
And as I was busy ripping myself apart, I could help no one. I treated other people like I treated myself—like they were in need of fixing—while telling them that they weren’t broken. I stunk of insincerity. Unconsciously, I drove people away. The meeting rooms emptied out. The messages and emails thinned. No one was buying what I was selling anymore, not even me.
It was a vulnerable time for me, not only emotionally but financially as well. A few months prior, I had quit the day job secured by my college education, which left me with five figures of student debt. Of the three life-coaching clients I had when I so optimistically handed in my four-week notice, two (rightfully) left. Of the few dozen people who had attended my weekly groups, only one remained (who was my friend before all this). The person who had been giving me public speaking opportunities not only stopped asking me to work with him but also refused to pay me for my last speech. I was confused and frustrated. I was broke and in debt. I felt like a fraud. I was breaking apart.
I would like to say that I had an epiphany right then and there, but I didn’t. I think that, sometimes, we have to get lost before we can find ourselves. So that’s what I did. I got helplessly lost. I began to wander within myself, searching for answers. Was something wrong with me? Was I not as peaceful and loving as I thought I was? Was I only pretending that I was all better? Did I know nothing about healing and happiness? Why couldn’t I help people? Why couldn’t I do what I was telling other people they could do? What if I wasn’t who I said I was? What if I was just lying to myself to feel better about having wasted a decade on drugs and self-destruction?
I had no idea what to do. In desperation, I began to look outside myself. On my search, I found hundreds of answers from just as many experts. Each answer had a corresponding cookie-cutter solution. I hadn’t designed an effective program. I didn’t have a strong enough “personal brand.” I wasn’t using the correct modalities. I needed better copywriting. I needed a formula. On and on. Some of these tactics earned me money—at the cost of crippling guilt. The Fraud Hole grew deeper as I disconnected from everything I held dear. I tried everything. Or so I thought. I did what the experts said, and I did what my self-judgment said, but I forgot something. I forgot about that excited, red-faced girl in second-hand pants who just wanted to help people and feel understood.
In a moment of frustration, I broke down. I wanted to give up. I cried because I had no answers and no formula. I cried because I had no idea what I was doing, and I never would. I cried because I had lost my way, and I didn’t think I would ever find it again. After my last tear fell, I expected to feel defeat, shame, helplessness. Instead, I found myself face to face with reality—the view I’d been avoiding all along. And reality was as it always had been: without meaning.
Reality was neither ugly nor ravishing. It was neither joyful nor depressing. It was neither good nor bad. It was neither endless suffering nor endless progress. It was not even something in-between. Reality was the raw data I hadn’t analyzed, the full dictionary I hadn’t turned to speech, the endless night sky before I chose a favourite star. They say, “You can be limitless,” but this cannot mean limiting ourselves to only the positive, joyful, pleasant parts of life. True limitlessness includes everything, warts and all.
In reality, I wasn’t a bad leader, but I was not a good one either. I wasn’t a fraud or a liar, but I also was not a saviour or a martyr. I wasn’t ruining people’s lives, but I wasn’t exactly helping them either. I hadn’t cured all my insecurities and anxieties, but I also was not suffering as I once had. I wasn’t perfect. I was a human being. I was doing my best. And, maybe, that was okay.
I crawled out of the Fraud Hole and surrounded it with caution tape. I apologized to my reflection. I reconnected with who I was when I first started my blog. Over the next year, I became more honest, more compassionate, and more intimate with the people I helped instead of trying to fix them. The more I did this for others, the more I reconnected with myself. I reached a deeper, more mature level of vulnerability than ever before. The more I practiced this approach, the more I realized how rare it was in the self-help world. I began to see the work I had so deeply loved in a harsh, new light.
My suffering, my clients’ suffering, our culture’s suffering—it was all connected. Previously disjointed memories came together in my mind. Standing on a scale for the fourth time in a day, obsessing over 0.2 of a pound. Advertisements with brand-new cars, brand-new couches, brand-new TV programs—everything you need to “be happy.” Eating raw celery, hoping to shed enough pounds before a vacation. People talking about the next self-help book like they talk about the next yo-yo diet—like this would be the one to fix it all. Expensive seminars and packed workshops. How smoothly a 4-tips list leads to a 10-step program that segues into a 3-day breakthrough experience.
I realized that the self-help industry makes money more consistently than it makes people happy. There is a difference between helping people and helping people buy. There is a difference between showing people their potential and selling them on a dream. There is a difference between nourishing people’s authentic desires and reinforcing their most tempting idealisms about the nature of reality. There is a difference between a guide and a guru.
Deeper than ever, I began to understand the suffering of the people I was trying to help. I saw how bombarded they were with advice from experts and sages. I recognized their perpetual confusion about which actions to take. I felt their self-blame and shame for not being able to do what other people claimed to have done. I empathized because I had been a victim of this suffering. Yet I had been a perpetrator of it as well. I had chased the carrot of Happily Ever After, and I had dangled that carrot in front of others. I had climbed into a golden throne marked “expert” while leaving those who followed me down on the ground. As a teacher, I had forgotten what I hungered for as a student. I began to see how fortunate it was that I hadn’t succeeded.
I had failed at being a guru, but I didn’t want to be a guru. I didn’t want to pretend I had all the answers because I didn’t have them. No one does. What a relief. Imagine how I felt: trying to find the perfect phrasing, the perfect tactic, the perfect method to change people’s lives. What a load of responsibility! Of course I felt tormented. No one should (or needs to) bear such a burden. Imagine the size my ego must have been to think I had to—or even could—give people answers. Wouldn’t this imply that, without me, they couldn’t find their own? I wasn’t only driving myself crazy; I was also playing narcissist. These were not my brightest moments, but I am not pure light. I am real, darkness and all.
Perhaps this story would be more romantic if I had been a New York Times bestselling author with many letters after my name when I had this epiphany. Perhaps it would be more dramatic if I had gained international fame and fortune in self-help before realizing that I wanted to play a different part in it. But that’s not me, not my story. Alas, this is no great spectacle, no electrifying drama, no celebrity transformation story. This is real, messy, imperfect, and human—just like me.
This book is my gift to you, but the gift is not pure inspiration. This book is here to encourage and uplift you, yes, but it is also here to warn you. The warning I want to give is not about self-help but consumerism. There is a difference between a book that opens doors to your opportunities and a book that opens doors to the opportunities in someone’s business.
A well-known marketing guru once said that smart businesspeople sell their customers on independence while breeding dependence. This model is what makes the multibillion-dollar self-help industry churn. Tell people they can be free, but don’t actually free them. After all, if you genuinely help somebody heal, you lose a customer. This kind of marketing is so widespread that it’s become a source of comfort. Messages that break the mold seem alien and strange. Books that promise magic bullets for unattainable results sell like hotcakes, while books that encourage a slow, conscious approach to sustainable changes remain obscure. We buy into the promise of freedom, but not freedom itself. We buy into the idea of liberation, and we keep purchasing this idea in new packaging. We believe seductive notions about our potential, yet we are too afraid to explore it. As Marianne Williamson said, we fear our light more than our darkness.
Within you is a fountain of wisdom. And you sell yourself short every time you allow some authority to define your limitations and cage your potential. Even if that authority lives in your head. In your experience, you can find answers about who you are and what you want. A major obstacle to happiness is the belief that someone else needs to help you find it. All you need is a healthy dose of reality. And reality is a tightrope between fear and idealism—both illusions.
Consumerism relies on make-believe. We buy fad diets and get-rich-quick schemes because we mistake fantasy for truth. We suffer manipulation through blindness more than force. We don’t understand ourselves, so we believe stories about who we are and what we need. All the while, our needs go unmet.
A hungry person is easier to seduce. What are you hungry for? What have you been craving for so long that you’ve settled for insufficient scraps disguising as real nourishment? What have you desired so much that you’ve allowed success stories and unrealistic claims to cloud your judgment? And whom have you trusted to feed your hunger for you? Have they done what is best for you, or have they done what is best for themselves? And whose job is it, at the end of the day, to look out for what is best for you?
It’s not that we live in a selfish world. It would be too easy to become angry at the misleading advertising and authorities all around us. To pin the whole thing on some individual or corporation. To boycott them. Alas, we cannot blame one person, or even one company, for how things are. It is a systemic issue. It is a cultural issue. It is everyone’s issue.
As a teenager, I became obsessed with “culture jamming.” This means using a method of media to spread messages that undermine the authority of that media. This is not my main purpose here. I am not writing this book as a satire of self-help books, and I am not here only to criticize the way things are. I am not here to advocate for the complete overthrow of consumerism, and I am not here to condemn the economy or the self-help authorities. Rather, I want to make you more conscious of what you buy into—including the ideas that shape your experience. I am here to promote self-awareness, self-trust, and self-discovery.
Hope for the future lies in each of us looking within. By learning to feed your hunger, you can overcome the tempting illusions all around you. By discovering who you are, you can stop basing your self-image solely on other people’s ideas about you. By connecting to your inner strength, you can stop cycling between idealistic illusions and self-hating disillusionment. By taking responsibility for yourself, you can stop relying on others to take responsibility for you.
Even with all the conflict in the world right now, I believe that the most tragic war of our time is the one within. A war between what we knew as children and what we’ve learned as adults. A war between wisdom and intelligence. A war between the natural colour of our hair and the colour we chemically impose upon it. A war between the manicured hedges and the untouched wilderness. A war between reality and fairy tales. A war between what we could learn about the world and what we are systematically taught. A war that can end in peace.
Like many external wars, your inner conflict has been a source of monetary gain for people you’ve never met. To find the peace you deserve, you must know yourself, understand yourself, trust yourself. Only by healing can you ensure that no one profits from your suffering.
I am aware of the irony here. I hope, by this time, you won’t think I’m concealing it. I feel that this message is too important to allow its unsavoury form to erode it. Calling someone a two-faced hypocrite is not a compliment. Yet reality itself is hypocritical, many-faced, ironic. The quest for truth abounds with paradoxes.
I want you to know your truth because the lies have always hurt you, no matter how much you’ve tried to ignore the pain. I want to show you how much you already know and how capable you are of making great changes in your life and in the world. I want you to see that you’ve been the one helping yourself all along while someone else has been taking the credit. That, in the end, is what this book is all about. It is about you. It’s about me. It’s about all of us. It is a mirror.
I have tried my best to make this book into a reflection of the human experience. In case it is not always clear, please keep in mind that each time I say “you,” I am also saying “I” and “we.” I am on this journey with you. Anything I say about you applies to me as well. I have also tried to make this work more accessible by alternating pronouns between “he” and “she” whenever possible. However, older quotes herein favour “he” because that was once the norm, and I acknowledge that there are many people in the world whose gender does not fit neatly into one of two categories. Thus, I ask you to accept these pronouns—he and she—as attempted reflections of me, of you, of us. Language has perpetually interfered with my attempts to design a truthful mirror for the human condition. I hope that, in addition to my efforts to create such a work, you might try to consume it as such.
I invite you to journal with this book and discuss what you are learning with others who are curious about self-discovery. Explore. Experiment. This book has no value if it remains a set of intellectual ideas. If these words drive you to create music or art, create. If you need to cry, cry. If you need to laugh, laugh. Allow this journey to be whatever it must be, and never forget to take me with a grain of salt. Do not follow me. I am not your guru. Instead, follow the words you whisper to yourself in the hidden rooms of your consciousness—both afraid that they are true and hoping that they must be. You’re not broken. You matter. You’re stronger than you think.