5 Tenets of a Negative Self-Help

Look, I know what you want to hear. I know you want to hear that everything is going to be alright—no, better than alright, that it’s going to be fucking amazeballs. I know you want to hear that the pain in your life will one day be gone, that those dreams will one day become reality, that the only thing standing between you and destiny is yourself. *Cue inspirational music* 

I know you want to hear that you’re a “new you,” that your hair looks fucking great, that the nuts in your shit have gold in them—and if they don’t, all you have to do is sign up for my 1-2-3 step program and you too, can mine your toilet for fine precious metals. Sign up today!

I know you want to hear that. Everybody wants to hear that.

But I say fuck what you want to hear. Because let’s be honest, that’s not what you need to hear.

Because I’m a bit fed up with all that positive self-help crap. You would think that after about seven decades of this “just stay positive!” nonsense we’d start to see some goddamn results around here. Yet, staggering rises in anxiety, depression, suicide and hopelessness across the world and we’re all sitting in Kumbaya circles yelling, “Just believe in yourself!”

How about you go fuck yourself? Because, really, it’s our obsession with our “self” that probably started this whole mess in the first place.

Watercolor abstract painting of man's face

If I gave enough of a shit, I’d find a big stage somewhere and a fancy microphone and declare this a great day, a new day, a day that, in my great and unmatched wisdom, I declare a new genre of personal development. It will be a new approach to improving lives, an approach based not on feel-good back rubbing nonsense or mid-afternoon dance parties, but based on solid science, pragmatic applications, and a bit of old fashioned “go fuck yourself” wisdom.

Don’t worry, this approach doesn’t require you to sign away your life savings. It doesn’t require you to stand in front of the mirror and repeat inane shit to yourself every day. It doesn’t even require you to get out of bed, you lazy fuck.

I’m christening this new approach, “Negative Self-Help,” an approach to personal growth based not on what feels good, but rather on what feels bad. Because getting good at feeling bad is what allows us to feel good.

Whereas positive self-help believes that we’re all wonderful and destined for greatness, Negative Self-Help admits that we’re all kind of shitty and we should come to terms with that. Whereas positive self-help encourages you to create ambitious goals, to follow your dreams, to reach for the stars—*vomits*—Negative Self-Help reminds you that your dreams are probably narcissistic delusions and you should probably just shut the fuck up and get to work on something meaningful. Whereas positive self-help obsesses over “healing” old “wounds,” and “releasing” pent up emotions, Negative Self-Help gently reminds you that there’s no end to the pain in this shitstream called life, so you might as well get used to it.

Yes kids, you too can get your shit together and live a more satisfying and meaningful life by pursuing less, by letting go of all the stupid assumptions you’ve accumulated throughout your self-absorbed life, by forgetting about happiness and accepting that everything meaningful in this world requires struggle and sacrifice. So you might as well start picking out the scars you want for your birthday, kiddos, because we’re all going to get them anyway. Negative Self-Help can completely alter your perception of life, the universe, and everything. Just sign up now for a limited time offer of…

…oh, what am I saying? It’s fucking free.

OK, how about this? Let’s pretend I’m Moses standing on a hilltop yelling at all you people for being such fuck ups. Let’s pretend I brought two stone tablets and was going to read out 10 Tenets of Negative Self-Help, but then I got halfway through and decided, “Fuck it, five is good enough.”

Here’s what they would say…

1. Humans suck—try to suck less

Whereas positive self-help believes that everyone is inherently amazing and talented and can let their shit shine and heal the world, Negative Self-Help recognizes that humans are deeply flawed and fucked up creatures.

Here’s the truth: the science shows that we’re all a little bit delusional in our own special snowflake kind of way. We all overestimate our own importance and underestimate the works of others. We are each biased towards our own desires and the groups we identify with while being deeply biased against the desires and groups of others. We remember things poorly, imagining what we thought or felt in the past, inventing beliefs that suit our own needs in the present. We are also terrible at predicting the future, both in terms of what will happen but also in terms of how we will feel about what may happen.1

When it comes to ethics, none of us are innocent. Studies show that pretty much all of us will lie, cheat, or steal if we believe we can get away with it. Sit with yourself and you will likely realize this is true. You have lied and cheated and possibly even stolen or committed violence. Chances are, when you’ve done this, you’ve felt justified. That’s because we rationalize our own bad behavior while judging and condemning the same behavior in others.

Unfinished painting of man's eye

Our desires are fickle, often self-serving and based in entitlement. We overestimate what will make us happy and vastly over-value others who have what we want. We are status-obsessed, vain, and often cruel creatures. The science suggests it doesn’t take much for even a normal civilian to become violent or even malicious, given the right context and authority. And when someone disagrees with us, we are more prone to judge their character as bad rather than their ideas.

Humans suck. There’s no “greatness” lying dormant here. Just a tangled web of faulty beliefs, selfish impulses, and desperation.

True greatness is the rare ability to step out of the muck of our own nature—those special moments when we are able to act rationally, compassionately, objectively, and fairly.

Why are we like this? Our psyche didn’t evolve for truth or compassion, it evolved for survival. The vast majority of human history, people never met more than a few dozen other humans, half of whom would have been their own family. Our natural inclinations are therefore not geared towards discipline, empathy, or understanding. They are geared towards impulsive, instinctive judgments, self-serving reactions, and strong in-group biases.

It’s for this reason that we must hold most of our own dreams and ideas and desires as suspect. We must remain skeptical of ourselves and train ourselves to act against our default impulses and desires. We must train ourselves to stand up for what’s right, to sit with uncertainty in the face of outrage, and to let go of dreams and ideas that make us feel good but are likely harming us.

This is painful. But this is why pain must be at the center of any true form of personal growth.

Positive self-help tells you to trust your gut. Negative Self-Help understands that your gut is impulsive and self-serving, and must be questioned via reason.

Positive self-help tells you to believe in yourself, to trust your own ideas as though they were true. Negative Self-Help recognizes that most of our ideas are terrible. Therefore, it’s only action that matters.

Positive self-help promotes supernatural beliefs designed to make you feel good in the moment. Negative Self-Help denies supernatural beliefs as harmful and unrealistic—hell, Negative Self-Help questions whether you should believe anything at all.

Positive self-help encourages you to be more human—to be more emotional, indulgent, and focused on yourself. Negative Self-Help demands that we evolve beyond what makes us human. That we fight against our natural prejudices, that we question our most deeply-worn beliefs, that we remain resilient in the face of our inevitable failures. All that is good in the world came not from indulging our baser impulses and desires, it came from overcoming our baser impulses and desires.

Humans suck. Work on sucking less.

2. Pain is inevitable—suffering is optional

We all like to play a certain game with ourselves. In fact, we all play it so well that most of us don’t even realize when we’re playing it. The game we play is that we convince ourselves that it’s possible to get rid of the pain in our lives.

We think to ourselves, “Man, if I could just have a jetski, everything would be fucking grand,” all the while not realizing that having a jet ski itself introduces all sorts of unanticipated pains into your life—the costs of storing and hauling the jet ski, the necessary maintenance and upkeep of the jetski, the anxiety that comes when your little sister gets drunk and rides away on your jet ski, never to be seen again.

Pain is the universal constant in our life. I could be a magic genie and snap my fingers, play a little song Will Smith-style, and give you everything you want tomorrow, but by noon you’ll be annoyed that the golden throne I built for you isn’t high enough and out of the hundreds of sex slaves, half of them smell funny—and dammit, I said I wanted CHAMPAGNE WATERFALLS, not this nectarine shit. GOD!

Our minds spoil all the fun. And they do this for a very particular reason: innovation.

Oil on canvas painting of a face

Let’s run a thought experiment. Let’s say 50,000 years ago, there were two types of humans: 1) humans who were happy and easily satisfied, and then 2) humans who were constantly dissatisfied and pissed off because they thought they totally deserved better (us, basically).

The happy humans would lay around in the sun, maybe eat some berries, sleep, have orgies, and life would just kind of roll on. The same thing day after day, week after week, everyone simple and pleased with themselves and the world.

Now, let’s say the dissatisfied humans come across the happy humans. They would see them lolling around, sunning themselves and playing hopscotch all day, and the dissatisfied humans would think to themselves, “That is such bullshit! I want to have fun and enjoy life too!”

Then the happy humans would be like, “Hey man, relax, come play hopscotch with us! Everything’s cool!” And then the dissatisfied humans would get pissed off because they weren’t winning hopscotch often enough. So they’d practice really hard to get good at hopscotch.

And then the happy humans would be like, “Hey, that’s cool, you go ahead and win.” And then the dissatisfied humans would enjoy winning for a few minutes but then start hating it. They’d start thinking to themselves, “Are these happy humans condescending to us? Do they think they’re better than us? What makes them so confident that they can just lose hopscotch whenever they want? I’ll fucking show them.”

So they’d stalk out into the wilderness, find a big rock, think to themselves, “I wonder if human eyeballs explode.” Then they’d sulk back to the tribe and brutally murder all of the happy humans to show them who is boss and that THEY DESERVE TO BE RESPECTED, GODDAMNIT. 

But this also wouldn’t satisfy the dissatisfied humans. Because now there’s blood everywhere. And they just ruined their favorite loincloth. So, it’s back to the drawing board.

The point is, being a pissed off asshole of a human has evolutionary advantages because it motivates you to compete and dominate others. And while striving for domination doesn’t make us feel good, it’s a good evolutionary strategy. And while being happy all the time does feel good, it is a terrible evolutionary strategy. Perpetually happy people would just lay around all day and be tiger food.

Happiness research shows that we’re all pretty much mildly dissatisfied all the time, regardless of income or gender or marital status or what stupid car you drive.2 But rather than accept this fact, being dissatisfied humans, our minds play the constant jet ski game with us, telling us if we could just get our jet ski, everything will be great.

Positive self-help makes a lot of money inserting itself into the jetski mind game. “Three steps to achieve your dreams!” Or “I will tell you the secret to everlasting happiness!” Or “Learn how to get exactly what you want, no matter what!”

Not only are these all lies, but even if you did achieve your dreams or get exactly what you wanted, you’d be bored and pissed off by lunch.

Negative Self-Help, on the contrary, accepts our constant dissatisfaction. It works with it, rather than against it.

We will always experience pain, loss, discomfort, disappointment, and frustration. There is absolutely nothing you can do to prevent these things.

We cannot control the pain in our lives. What we can control is the meaning we ascribe to our pain. And it’s that meaning that determines whether our pain causes us to suffer or not.

If we decide that the pain of our break-up means we’re losers and unworthy of love, then we will suffer. If we decide that our break-up means that our partner wasn’t the right person for us, then we will be better off for our pain. If we decide that the pain of losing our job means we’re doomed to be a broke failure, then we will suffer. If we decide that losing our job will be the catalyst that changed our attitude towards work and responsibility, then we will be better off for our pain. If we decide that our health problems are unfair, that we don’t deserve them, then we will suffer. If we decide to see our health problems as a way to practice resilience and discipline, then we will be better off for our pain.

In every case, we can choose to avoid our pain or choose to engage our pain. When we avoid our pain, we suffer. When we engage our pain, we grow.

Therefore, the goal of Negative Self-Help is to engage pain honestly and thoughtfully. Why did she leave you? Because you were a shit partner. Be better. Why does your family hate each other? Because your family is fucked up. Rise above them. Why do you drink too much? Because you hate yourself. Deal with your shit.

Whether we realize it or not, we are making this choice—avoid pain or engage pain—all day, every day. The aggregation of our choices will determine the quality of our life.

Sucky life? Embrace the suck. Find a way to make the suck meaningful and important. It’s the only way.

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.

3. Everything you believe will one day fail you—this is how you grow

When we experience pain, we devise meaning to interpret our pain. We can choose to avoid our pain (“It wasn’t my fault,” “I didn’t deserve this,” “I’m so unlucky.”). Or we can choose to engage our pain (“What could I have done better?” “What can I learn from this?” “How can I use this pain as motivation?”).

Depending on what meaning we choose, we will generate stories that help inform and determine our future actions. We then become emotionally attached to these stories, treating them as extensions of ourselves. We protect and promote our stories. We fight and argue for them. “Fuck you, it totally wasn’t my fault! I had nothing to do with this!”

Some of our stories are more useful than others, that is, they lead us to better problems. Other stories are poor because they lead to worse problems and greater pain.

If I decide that I’m successful because I work hard, then it will likely encourage more hard work. If I decide it’s because I’m ridiculously handsome, then… well, I’ll be too busy getting my eyebrows waxed to submit a draft. And soon I’ll be broke and alone (but still really, really handsome).

Ultimately, every story of meaning we contrive will fail us. What I mean by that is that whatever we choose to believe based on our past experiences will eventually fail at protecting us from pain in future experiences. These new failures should then motivate us to search for new meaning and newer, better, more complete stories to help us manage our pain.

Illustration of man on mountain with rocks falling

When I was young, I was bored. I desperately wanted to get out and see the world. This was a story I built around my pain—if I could just travel and live in various cultures, I would solve my boredom.

So, at age 25, I set out and spent seven years traveling around the world. I had my heart broken, fell in love, learned languages, danced on beaches until the sun rose—you know, all that #blessed Instagram shit.

And a funny thing happened, while I was having the time of my life, I began to feel my relationships fray. I struggled to maintain friendships. My dating life began to feel empty and pointless. I started fantasizing about settling down somewhere, having a community, a routine, a home.

The narrative that saved me from my previous pain had now introduced a higher-level, more desirable form of pain. The story that had been a solution to my pain was now the cause. And now I needed to re-evaluate my story and update it. In this sense, pain is like that annoying notification on your phone telling you to update your apps all the damn time. Except in this case, you need to update yourself.

If we don’t allow our stories to fail, if we latch onto them and insist that they are the one infallible, Capital-T Truth, then we don’t learn and we don’t grow and we don’t improve upon our pain. In fact, if we refuse to change our beliefs, then we will experience the same pain again and again and again.

Whereas Positive Self-Help often implores you to “have faith” and to “stay true to yourself,” Negative Self-Help encourages you to embrace not knowing. Your beliefs are an illusion—hell, your idea of your “self” is an illusion. There is no self to stay true to. There is nothing to have faith in. There is merely an experience, and the resulting narratives that we spin up in our minds. Some narratives generate better problems. Some generate worse problems. Jettison the ones creating worse problems and move on.

We must allow ourselves to shed our beliefs, like old layers of skin, to reveal a newer, harder, sexier exterior beneath. I don’t know where I’m going with this analogy (a sexy snake, maybe?) so let’s just end the section here. You get the point…

Everything you believe will one day fail you—this is how you grow.

4. You don’t deserve happiness—you don’t deserve anything

Of all the human narratives to explain pain and suffering, perhaps the most common and most problematic is the narrative of “deserving.”

The human mind cannot help but think in terms of cause and effect. You study for a test; you get a good grade. You wake up early; you get a lot done. You drink an entire bottle of tequila for breakfast; you pass out in your own vomit by lunch.

Actions have consequences. And in really simple contexts, the consequences are easy to understand. Therefore, as humans, our default setting is to automatically assume that each of us deserves whatever happens to us.

But what about when something awful and unexpected happens? Like, let’s say a tornado destroys your home? Or an economic collapse wipes out your retirement account? Did your actions cause that pain? Of course not. But our minds have a hard time shaking the feeling that we aren’t somehow deserving of our suffering. That’s why the most common phrases you hear around any tragedy is some variation of, “What did I do to deserve this?”

The fact is, due to our shitty human biases, we all tend to believe we’re good people (See: Tenet #1). And, due to the chaotic and unpredictable nature of life, we all experience great amounts of pain at some point (See: Tenet #2). Therefore, we all struggle with the idea that horrible things can happen to us without us deserving it. Let’s call this the “Life Isn’t Fair Problem.”

There are a few ways we all square the cognitive dissonance created by the Life Isn’t Fair Problem in our own minds. Some people buy into a narrative of fate and destiny, choosing to believe that their pain has some higher purpose that is unknowable. Others choose to go the religious route: God has a “plan” and he works in “mysterious ways.” Others internalize the pain, deciding that they must be experiencing such terrible luck because there is something fundamentally wrong with them. They begin to hate themselves and believe they deserve to suffer.

Positive Self-Help enters the equation here, by telling people who have internalized their pain the opposite, that they not only do not deserve to suffer, but they deserve to be happy!

Black and white watercolor painting of a portrait of a woman

This upgrades the person’s problem from that of despair (“I deserve to suffer”) to entitlement (“I deserve to be happy”). Now, I will admit, that entitlement is absolutely a better problem than despair, but it still fucks everything up.

Allow me to propose a less obvious solution to the Life Isn’t Fair Problem: our belief that anyone “deserves” anything is wrong.

You do things. Sometimes they create good results. Sometimes they create bad results. The point is to simply do the things that you believe will more often create good results.

That’s it. If you get screwed by a hurricane or swindled by some evildoer, that’s life. Engage the pain (Tenet #2), learn from it (Tenet #3) and be better next time. Happiness should not be part of the mental equation here. Deserving definitely shouldn’t be. Only improvement.

We all experience tragedy, trauma, loneliness, anger, loss, sadness. Sure, some people more than others. Some more unfairly than others. But no one deserves anything. It may be easy to look at someone else’s pain and decide they deserve it. But through their eyes, they will feel as though they don’t deserve it. Just as you will undoubtedly feel that you don’t deserve much of your pain, and while others may look on and believe that you do deserve it.

It’s this idea of “deserving” that is completely subjective, while the pain itself is objective, universal, and constant. It’s this idea of “deserving” that leads people to attack and take from others, to commit violence against the world or against themselves. It’s this idea of “deserving” that fuels wars and crime and hate.

Happiness isn’t something that is deserved or earned from something outside yourself. Happiness is created within yourself. And it’s created by the simple and constant choice to accept what is. To look at the pain in the face and not blink. To confront one’s fears and struggles and embrace them rather than fight them.

Letting go of the idea of “deserving” is incredibly difficult to do. But once rid of it, it leaves us with a starkly simple view of the world. Inflict no unnecessary pain on others or on yourself. Be pragmatic in all things. Approach problems scientifically and without idealism. Be honest. Be compassionate. Even when it feels impossible.

Whereas positive self-help fosters an insatiable sense of entitlement and a belief that everyone deserves to be happy and feel good all the time, Negative Self-Help views positive feelings with suspicion, understanding that while desirable, they always come at a cost.

Happiness is not scarce, but human dignity is. Choose dignity. And forget the idea of deserving. It’s not necessary to do the right thing.

Because you don’t deserve happiness—you don’t necessarily deserve anything at all.

5. Everything you love will one day be lost—this is what makes life meaningful

I can’t stand most superhero movies. They’re simply not realistic. I know that sounds stupid—of course superhero movies aren’t realistic. That’s the point! Let me explain…

I have no problem with the superpowers. I love fantasy shit. It’s just, for me, if you’re going to have supernatural stuff going on, then your characters need to behave logically based on that supernatural stuff. And in superhero movies, no one behaves logically, almost ever.

For instance, if your body was indestructible—i.e., the cellular structure was impervious to outside forces—you wouldn’t be able to form new memories, to develop new skills or even experience most emotions, such as fear, guilt, excitement, and so on. You’d be a zombie.

Yet, no one ever considers this!

Here’s another one that I often think about. If a character is immortal, how would they care about anything?

Imagine, you have an infinite horizon of experience in front of you, all possible conscious experience will one day be yours—every form of pain, joy, suffering and happiness. You will watch not only your friends but entire civilizations and planets die off, then re-emerge and grow, then die off again. You will witness every tragedy, every cataclysm, every injustice a million times over. You will experience every victory and suffer every failure so many times that you would lose the ability to distinguish which was which.

Immortality would necessitate nihilism. With infinite experience, it becomes impossible to value anything. Everything becomes transient and arbitrary. Everything that would otherwise feel significant is but a mere flutter of matter across the vast expanse of space/time. There’s no scarcity. And without scarcity, there’s no reason to value anything at all.

The reason you value your family members is that they are the only ones you got. You don’t get another mother or a different father. You can’t have the same child twice. Similarly, the reason we value achievements and awards is that not everybody can have them. Only the select few. They are scarce and unique.

Death–that is, the inevitable loss of everything–is the only thing that makes life feel valuable. Every day that passes you are one day closer to dying. And with that finite amount of time, you must choose. You must prioritize. You must value one thing over another, a relationship over work, a friendship over money, a badass pair of headphones over retirement.

Without time being finite all of these judgments would break down and all experience would mean nothing.

We all experience loss. Loss of loved ones. Loss of our past selves. Loss of our beliefs. Loss of ourselves. This loss will inevitably be painful. But there’s also a beauty in that loss. Because the pain that comes from the loss reminds us of the meaning and importance of having lived.

Positive self-help will often tell you that you can protect yourself from loss. You can control your life and the world and make sure you don’t lose your friends, you don’t lose your money or your job, that you will always be successful, that you will never be sad!

But this is the desire for immortality, the desire for an unchanging, static future. This attitude is anti-life because it is anti-death.

Negative Self-Help says don’t run away from loss. Do not try to prevent it. Because the intensity of your loss is matched only by the intensity of your life. And every loss is a reminder, that this moment, and the next and the next, are each unique and special and not to be taken for granted, no matter what.

Because everything you love will one day be lost—and this is what makes life meaningful.

Footnotes
  1. I wrote more about all of this in a post called Why You Can’t Trust Yourself.
  2. Dan Gilbert covers all of this in his book Stumbling on Happiness.