The Self in Self-Help

From New York Magazine:

Selfhelp130107_schulz_560In The Age of Anxiety, W.H. Auden observed that we human beings never become something without pretending to be it first. The corollary is more prosaic but, regrettably, at least as true: We humans never become most of the things we pretend we will someday be. Nevertheless, last Monday, you and I and several billion other incorrigible optimists raised our glasses and toasted all the ways we will be different in 2013.

It’s easy to understand why we want to be different. We are twenty pounds overweight; we are $20,000 in debt; we can’t believe we slept with that guy; we can’t believe we didn’t. What’s harder to understand is why transforming ourselves is so difficult. Changing other people is notoriously hard; the prevailing wisdom on that one is Don’t hold your breath. But it’s not obvious why changing oneself should present any difficulty at all. And yet, demonstrably, it does. The noted self-help guru Saint Augustine identified this problem back in the fourth century A.D. In his Confessions, he records an observation: “The mind gives an order to the body and is at once obeyed, but when it gives an order to itself, it is resisted.” I cannot improve upon Augustine’s insight, but I can update his examples. Say you want to be skinny. You’ve signed on with Weight Watchers, taken up Zumba, read everything from Michael Pollan to French Women Don’t Get Fat, and scrupulously recorded your every workout, footstep, and calorie on your iPhone. So whence the impulsive Oreo binge? Or say you are a self-identified co-dependent. You know your Melody ­Beattie, listen to your therapist, and tell yourself every morning, quite firmly, just what you will and will not do that night. So what are you doing back in bed with that man? Or say you are a professional writer who values being conscientious, respects her editors, and passionately believes that good writing requires time. So—well, let’s drop the pretense. Why am I sitting here typing this at 4 a.m., two days past deadline?

I don’t know, but misery loves company, and such acts of auto-insubordination happen all the time.

More here. (Note: Thanks to Ruchira Paul)