Self-knowledge, the problem with self-help books and how to truly change your habits

practicemakespurposeYou know when you hit 30 (or 25, perhaps), and you start reading self-help books to address an identified problem or figure out what your life’s purpose is?

Unhappy in love? Relationship on the rocks? Feeling unfulfilled at work? Kids driving you crazy? Stress and anxiety ruining your life? Depression dragging you down? Unable to pay the bills? Feel empty inside? There’s a self-help book for that, I’m sure. And most of it is probably fairly good advice, especially if it’s penned by a PhD, medical doctor, scientist, therapist or psychologist with decades of experience behind their words of wisdom.

But does reading, intellectually understanding and even applying some of what you’ve learned ACTUALLY help you? Not the ego you, but the REAL you? The you that all those self-help books promise to help reveal?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately as I’m currently eyeballs-deep into several self-help books. It’s all fascinating stuff, and while some of the wisdom and advice has definitely helped me to understand myself and others better and to see certain situations with more clarity, I’m curious as to how it’s actually affecting my true self. Although intellectually I understand the advice and have been working on applying some of what I learn into my everyday life… is it really me? It’s like when I give a new client a strength training program or nutrition plan: Intellectually they know what to do and can even take steps to incorporate it into their lives… but is it their default state? Is it something that truly resonates with who they are, their desires, their values, their beliefs? Is that why changing habits — especially ones related to fitness and health — so hard to do?

The other day I was listening to the Rich Roll podcast and something said during an interview with Dr. Gabor Maté, a Vancouver-based physician who specializes in the study and treatment of addiction on Vancouver’s downtown east side, caught my attention. Rich and Dr. Maté were discussing this very topic, and Dr. Maté explained that this disconnect between knowing something and actually embodying it has to do with self-knowledge and knowledge about the self. From the interview:

“You know about yourself intellectually, but that’s not self-knowledge. Self knowledge is experiential, where you actually experience your true self. It has nothing to do with the intellect. You could read all these books, or even write them yourself to be full of insight and wisdom and science, but that’s only knowledge about the self. [We have] several different levels of knowing: intellectual, intuitive, and experiential. The deepest is experiential. [That’s when you go] ah, here I am. That takes practice to maintain that space, as the world so quickly robs you of it.”

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, self-knowledge “standardly refers to knowledge of one’s own sensations, thoughts, beliefs, and other mental states,” whereas knowledge of the self refers to how a person distinguishes themselves from others. Although reading and following self-help books, fitness programs and diet plans are part of the process of understanding and transforming yourself, it’s the consistent practice that will help you embody it. Live it. Be it.
self knowledge vs. knowledge of the self

I feel like that’s why fitness, and running in particular, is a natural state for me now — because I’ve been practicing “being a fit person” for close to eight years now. It takes hardly an effort to get out the door for a run anymore or to work out at least three days during the week, but finding time to do yoga, meditate, relax and breathe is so challenging for me, even though I KNOW the benefits of it and would like to be a “zen person” one day, too.

I suppose the good thing is I’m starting now, and am determined to practice at it until I can embody it. Even if it may be another eight years before that happens.

I guess practice really does make perfect.

Or should that be practice makes purpose.

Do you think self-help books are helpful? Which self-help books have changed your life/helped you become who you are today? What have you practiced at enough that it’s just a part of you now? What trait would you like to embody?

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Thanks Amanda for the link-up!