Several years ago when the relationship I assumed was both nearly perfect and my last turned out to be neither and ended car-off-cliff style, I experienced an unexpected and profound personal awakening.

This awakening arrived convincingly disguised as the most miserable and debilitating period of my life; a life which would now be trimmed short from the disease of ruination.

So complete was this state of psychological collapse, it even followed me into elevators.

Because as I stood in a hotel elevator one afternoon on my way back to my room, it stopped on that floor with all the conference rooms, where they keep the people with name tags.

One such person stepped into the lift, pushed the button for her floor, then took a step back and angled her body so that she was not quite facing me but neither was she looking straight ahead at the seam where the doors meet, as common American Elevator Etiquette dictates.

Even out of the corner of my now suspicious eye I was able to register the, “I’m a people-person” body language such a stance suggested.

No sooner had I formed the silent thought, “God, a people person. She better not speak to-“ I heard this: “It’s not that bad.”

I’d been scrupulously careful to keep my thought about her to myself; she had not done the same.

What’s more, she’d spoken these words much louder and with more conviction than you would think necessary for a space roughly the size of four caskets standing on end.

“I’m sorry?” I said.

She was looking at me with an expression of incredulity mixed with boldness.

The highlights in her spiky hair had a greenish cast in the unflattering elevator lighting and her lipstick provided her with an upper lip that I saw she did not actually possess.

“I said, it’s not that bad,” and she gave me that frank, eyebrows up, let’s be-real-here,” look. “Whatever it is that happened, it can’t possibly be as bad as it looks on your face. How ‘bout trying on a smile for size. And if you’re all out, I’ve got one you can borrow.”

My first thought was, “It’s leaking out of me? People can see it?”

My second thought was, “And how the hell would you know?”

But I am much too polite to say something like that so I said, “I’ll try.”

Encouraged, she continued.  “It’ll lift your spirits. The first thing I do every morning is smile at myself in the mirror and say, “You are a powerful, positive person and nothing can get you down today.”

Thank God the elevator doors were already open and she was on her way out as she finished yammering at me, but just to be on the safe side I reached forward and began stabbing the Door Close button.

Now, I have an uncommonly high-threshold for most any category of stimulation you can think of, but especially when it comes to being shocked, horrified or enraged.

But I was all of these things now. After what was only an elevator ride that could not possibly have lasted longer than thirty-five seconds. Maybe forty seconds, if we passed through some sort of a time-expanding warp.

Once in my room I had to think, what the hell just happened there? Why do I hate Lipstickmouth so much?

I am not a spiritual person, as I was in childhood. But occasionally, one event in my life will so quickly be followed by a second event that so perfectly replies to the first, it gives me pause and makes me wonder if I still have my St. Christopher medal somewhere.

Glancing down at my laptop, I noticed the following bold headline in my news feed:

Self-help ‘makes you feel worse’ Bridget Jones is not alone in turning to self-help mantras to boost her spirits, but a study warns they may have the opposite effect.

I immediately clicked on the link and was taken to the BBC’s website where I read the report.

Canadian researchers found those with low self-esteem actually felt worse after repeating positive statements about themselves.

They said phrases such as “I am a lovable person” only helped people with high self-esteem.

The study appears in the journal Psychological Science…They found that, paradoxically, those with low self-esteem were in a better mood when they were allowed to have negative thoughts than when they were asked to focus exclusively on affirmative thoughts…”Repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, such as individuals with high self-esteem, but backfire for the very people who need them the most.”

And it was all so perfectly clear. No wonder I had found that woman so offensive. Sometimes things feel that bad.

Sometimes you just feel like shit.

And telling yourself you feel terrific and wearing a brave smile and refusing to give in to “negative thinking” is not only inaccurate -dishonest- but it can make you feel worse.

Which makes perfect sense. Because if you want to feel better, you need to pause and ask yourself, better than what?

Better than how you feel at this moment, perhaps.

But in order to feel better than you feel at this moment, you need to identify how you feel, exactly.

It’s like this: if California represents your desire to “feel better,” you won’t be able to get there -no matter how many maps you have- unless you know where are starting from.

Finally,  trained researchers in white lab coats with clipboards and cages filled with monkeys had demonstrated in a proper clinical setting what I myself had learned several years earlier in a rehab setting: affirmations are bullshit.

Because affirmations are dishonest. They are a form of self-betrayal based on bogus, side-of-the-cereal box psychology.

The truth is, it is not going to help to stand in front of the mirror, look into your own eyes and lie to yourself. Especially when you are the one person you are supposed to believe you can count on.

Affirmations are the psychological equivalent of sprinkling baby powder on top of the turd your puppy has left on the carpet. This does not result in a cleaner carpet. It coats the underlying issue with futility.

If affirmations were effective, a rape victim should be able to walk in her front door following the attack, go into the bathroom, and with her silk blouse hanging in shredded strips from her collar bones, scratch marks bleeding on her breasts –one nipple missing- and her bangs pasted to her filthy forehead with dirt and dried semen and say to her reflection, “I am too strong and independent to be hurt by negativity. I feel unafraid and powerful. I am grateful for the opportunity I have had tonight to experience something new, learn a little more about myself and triumph in the face of adversity,” and then feel perfectly okay, maybe even a little bit rushy on those feel-good endorphins runners are always going on and on about.

When in fact, what does help the person who has been raped is to chew it up and then spit it the hell out. And by chew it up I mean, talk about it, write about it, paint it, make a movie about it, and then be done with it and move on. Because here’s the truth about rape: you do not have to be victimized by it forever. What’s more, you can take this awful, bottomless horror the rapist has inflicted on you, and you can seize it and recycle it into something wonderful and helpful and useful. You can, in this way, transform what was “done” to you into something which was “given” to you in the form of brutally raw material.  You can, in other words, accept this hideous thing and embrace it and take complete control of the experience and reshape it as you please. This is not to deny the experience and how devastating it is; it is to accept the experience on the deepest level as your own possession now. An experience that is now part of you. Instead of allowing it to be a tap that drains you, you can force it into duty in service to your creative or intellectual goals.

Many people do not want to admit to themselves or others when they are feeling distressed, anxious, insecure, lonely or any of the other emotions people feel that exist uncomfortably outside the super-upbeat umbrella. So it’s chin up and sprinkle, sprinkle, sprinkle.

Should I have smiled when that woman stepped onto the elevator?

“Good afternoon. You must be here for a conference. I hope you’re enjoying it.”

“Good afternoon to you, too. And I am enjoying the conference very much. Always nice to be out of the office for a change of scenery.”

“I hear you. Well, this is my floor. You have a terrific day.”

“I will. And you do the same.”

Is that the scene as it ought to have played? Would an exchange of greasy, zero-calorie pleasantries improve the world?

Is the act of making an effort to remain positive and speak in familiar, nonthreatening clichés, better, healthier for us, emotionally?

I don’t think so.

Why couldn’t that woman just speak the plain truth and say  something like, “I don’t know what’s wrong but I do know that I’ve looked into the mirror and seen your expression on my face. And, I don’t really have a point, I just wanted to say that.”

Now, there’s nothing nasty in what she said; she wasn’t crazy or rude.

It’s just that, there was nothing useful in what she said, either. No nutrition at all.  Truthfulness itself  is almost medicinal, even when it’s served without advice or insight. Just hearing true words spoken out loud provides relief.

It’s not that I wanted her to say something helpful; I hadn’t needed her to say a word.  What was offensive and kind of vile was that she obviously saw on my face a mood dark and powerful enough to warrant an intrusion. And she then proceeded to both express her disapproval of my mood and suggest I wear a mask that projected the opposite of how I felt.

It was just disappointing that dishonesty was her automatic response to my obvious unhappiness.

In our super-positive society, we have an unspoken zero-tolerance policy for negativity.

Beneath the catchall umbrella of negativity is basically everything that isn’t super-positive.

Seriously, who among us is having a Great! day every day? Who feels Terrific, thanks! all the time?

Nobody, but everybody.  Because this is how we say hello to one another.

“Hey, Karen. How are you?”

“Hi, Jim. I’m great, thanks!”

It doesn’t matter if what we say isn’t really the truth because they’re not really asking how things are in our life and we’re not really telling them.

Just like when somebody sneezes, we don’t say, “Bless you,” because we’re worried a demon may seize this open-mouthed, closed-eyed moment and take possession of the person; we say “bless you,” because that’s the thing to say.

If you said to a person, “Hi, how are you?” and they told you they were very anxious because they suspected their teenage daughter might be sexually active and this was just not okay, you would probably feel extremely awkward, try to look concerned and empathetic, but also get away as soon as possible by explaining you were late for a meeting. And if you’re at all like me, you would suspect the person had some sort of mental illness and from that moment on, you would do your best to avoid them.

Because they answered truthfully the question that you, yourself, asked them.

Please believe me when I tell you that I am not suggesting you suddenly start yammering on about all your problems next time somebody asks, “how’s it going?”

I’m saying, wait. Look at this thing we all do without even thinking about it.

I’m also saying, Look at this little lie we tell. Do you think there might be others that we aren’t even aware of?

I’ll go ahead and tell you right now, yes, there are others. Some, not so much lies as misunderstandings. Or inaccuracies.

In fact, you can be a very honest person and yet not be living a truthful life.

And not even realize it.

This matters because stripping away all the inaccuracies, misunderstandings and untruths that surround you is exactly how you can overcome anything at all.

Truth is accuracy.

Without accuracy, you can’t expect to manifest large, specific changes in your life.

It’s not enough to believe something is true.

Knowing in your heart of hearts that the world is flat has absolutely no relationship to the actual shape of the planet, which will continue to spin on its spherical ass despite your belief in its flatness.

Because we only rarely have the opportunity to know the full truth about something, we have to try for as much accuracy as possible.  Accuracy can be thought of as an incremental percentage of the truth.

Once again, by “truth” I don’t mean “your truth” or “my truth” or some stretchy, pliable, and fully-customizable definition of Truth that suits our ever-changing needs.

I mean only the in-your-face, ignore-at-your-peril, star-sapphire-bright, no-wonder-therapy-failed, singular, shackle-cracking, like-it-or-not, rock-bottom, buck-stopping, mind-reeling, complete-transformation factual truth that resides at the center of every one of your issues and dreams and road blocks and tragedies and miracles.

This is not the truth you tell yourself in order to not rock the boat, or to smooth things over or keep everyone comfortable.

The truth is humbling, terrifying and often exhilarating. It blows the doors off the hinges and fills the world with fresh air.

This is why our search for the solution to the problems, issues and obstacles you’re dealing with in your own life must begin with your mouth.

Specifically, the lies that come out of it.


Excerpted from This is How: Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Grief, Molestation, Disease, Fatness, Lushery, Spinsterhood, Decrepitude & More


AUGUSTEN BURROUGHS is the author of the autobiographical works Running with ScissorsDry, Magical Thinking, Possible Side Effects and A Wolf at the Table, all of which were New York Times bestsellers. Running with Scissors remained on the New York Times bestseller list for over two consecutive years and was made into a Golden Globe-nominated film starring Annette Bening.  His only novel, Sellevision, is currently in development as a series for NBC.  Dry, Augusten’s memoir of his alcoholism and recovery, is being developed by Showtime.  In addition, Burroughs is currently creating an original prime-time series for CBS.  He resides in New York City and Western Massachusetts.

(Photo credit: Christopher Schelling)

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TNB Nonfiction features some of the web's best essays, excerpts of up-and-coming books, self-interviews, profiles, and humor from a wide range of authors. Past and future writers include Emily Rapp, Mira Bartók, Nick Flynn and Melissa Febos, among many others.  Our editorial team includes:  SETH FISCHER is the Nonfiction Editor. His work has appeared in Guernica, Joyland, Best Sex Writing, and elsewhere, and he was the first Sunday editor at The Rumpus. His nonfiction was selected as notable in The Best American Essays, and he has been awarded fellowships by Jentel, the Ucross Foundation, Lambda Literary, and elsewhere. He is also a developmental editor of nonfiction and fiction, and he teaches at Antioch University Los Angeles, UCLA-Extension, and Writing Workshops Los Angeles.

6 responses to “Excerpt from This is How: Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Grief, Molestation, Disease, Fatness, Lushery, Spinsterhood, Decrepitude & More, by Augusten Burroughs”

  1. Bibi Chernikoff says:

    I agree. I always thought that self-help and the Cult Of Positivity Or Perish was very much an American thing. How disappointed I was when realized how popular self-help publications are in Mexico City. So I say: My soul hates your chicken soup. It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to.

  2. jmblaine says:

    This book is excellent. Last three chapters on sickness, death and children are the finest things Burroughs has written.

  3. This is good stuff. I could use his kind of advice on how to ride elevators, not to mention what to do about decrepitude. Will be picking up a copy of this one.

  4. Shelley says:

    What a wonderful study! Now I know why the command to “cheer up” always makes me feel worse.

    The truth is always best as we speak with our fellow humans, as long as we keep in mind that they’re having as bad a day as we are.

  5. Alex Pieske says:

    I agree that blanket positive affirmations are not helpful, especially in truly painful situations as Mr. Burroughs describes. But in more common, everyday sorts of anxiety and pain, many of us tend to focus on the negative even if they are only negative possibilities. There is research that shows that we are more honestly happy when we take the time to recognize things that we are truly grateful for, things we often take for granted, like the affection of your dog, or the support of friends and family.
    Honesty is the key, but it should not be confused with pessimism.

  6. […] book for the self-help averse from Augusten Burroughs.  Here’s a chunk, excerpted at TNB Nonfiction: Canadian researchers found those with low self-esteem actually felt worse after repeating positive […]

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