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‘I found self-help at the lowest point in my life,’ says Toni Jones, founder of The Shelf Help Club, the world’s first self-help book club.
‘I was a busy and successful woman with everything going for me but inside I was shattered, and lonely, and sometimes really sad, and these feelings were manifesting themselves in careless and increasingly self-destructive behaviour that with hindsight I can see was a big fat cliched cry for help.’
Since finding and reading a self-help book she found in a charity shop over five years ago, Toni has since transformed her life and built The Shelf Help Club with a large global audience, which is now recommended in the UK by doctors, therapists and counsellors to those struggling with mental health challenges.
‘I love that we’ve created a platform to bring together books and people and ideas based on principles of kindness, confidentiality and no judgement, to take the stigma out of self-help, and to create a brilliant, empowering community that can really make a difference to its’ members lives,’ she says.
On the eve of Mental Health Awareness Week, we talk to Toni about why a self-help book can improve your mental health:
Why is having a couple of self-help books on your bookshelf a good idea?
Most people reach out to self-help books when they are at rock bottom, or in the middle of an emotional disaster. But my dream is for people to work on themselves constantly, so they don’t reach crisis point. Wouldn’t it be great if we all had an emotional toolkit available to us when disaster hit?
We have no qualms about looking after our physical health. It’s a real badge of pride if we go to the gym or we run a marathon. But we need to find similar methods where we are excited and proud to build the muscles of our mental health.
Self-help books are a fantastic tool. In the past, self-help has been seen as slightly naff but my mission is to make self-help cool.
If someone is reading this now and struggling – where do you start?
Start with small steps – self-care and self-kindness and with basic physical stuff – like sleeping, eating good food, getting out in nature, moving your body. I had a really intense job which started at 7am and finished at 7pm and I wasn’t looking after my physical health never mind my mental health.
I wasn’t getting any sleep. I wasn’t eating good food. I was sitting hunched over my desk, I lived on nervous adrenaline. My husband used to say to me ‘it’s not normal to feel so stressed at the end of the day. It’s not normal to never sleep because you’re so worried.’
My Sunday night blues used to start on a Friday. Adrenaline was my constant physiological state. Now when I’m in a car and I have to swerve, I feel that surge of adrenaline and panic. And I think ‘I used to feel like that all the time’. My husband was right. It’s not normal. A great book to read if you’re in that state is Self-care for Tough Times: How to heal in times of anxiety, loss and change by Suzy Reading.
What’s the first self-help book that you turned to?
Paul McKenna’s ‘Change Your Life in Seven Days’ fell (jumped?) on the floor in front of me in the local Oxfam. The first question posed in the book is actually really simple: ‘What would it be like if you woke up one morning and a miracle had happened – your life had become exactly what you wanted it to be?’
But I didn’t know the answer. What was my dream life? What did the best future version of me look like? How was I planning to get there? No clue! And not knowing the answer led to me to start questioning everything, about myself, my life, my childhood, my choices, and all the experiences that had shaped me into this person who didn’t even know what made her happy anymore. That first journey into self-analysis was uncomfortable, fascinating, painful and enlightening all at the same time. And when I finished that Paul McKenna book the self-help seed had been well and truly planted. Now I understand it’s working backwards from how you want to feel and seeing how differently your life is now. And then figuring out what you need to do to make those changes.
You’ve read so many self-help books – what’s the secret of happiness?
The idea of happiness as a constant state is unattainable and unrealistic. Self-help books teach you that happiness is simply one of the many emotions that we feel, and we’re meant to feel all emotions, not just happiness. Sometimes we need to feel sad. Sometimes we need to feel lonely. Sometimes we need to feel jealous.
One of our Shelf Help Book Club picks was Atlas of the Heart by best-selling author Brené Brown, and it lists all of the emotions, and I didn’t know some of them and I’ve definitely never felt some of them. For me, my goal now is contentment and for me, that means being comfortable with feeling all spectrum of emotions. It’s understanding that emotions – be it happiness or sadness will come and go.
It’s hard to tell people just to learn to sit with feelings if you’ve never really addressed them but aiming for peace and contentment is actually a great goal.
How do you cope when things get things get challenging?
I love the quote by Jon Kabat Zinn who says, ‘you can’t control the waves, but you can learn to surf’. It’s the basic premise of most self-help books – you can’t control what happens in life, but you can control how you react to life. All you can do is control yourself and your own state of being.
I love the next book we have coming up in the book club as it’s all about this. It’s called Drama Free by Nedra Glover Tawwab, a therapist and relationship expert who specializes in helping people become themselves by establishing healthy boundaries. She explains that you can’t control other people so stop trying. Work on yourself. Start there. It’s not fixing something that’s broken. It’s understanding and taking responsibility for your mental and emotional health and how you show up in the world. If you do that, lots of things will change and happen as a result of that.
Do you think a self-help book alone will be enough or do we need to go to therapy too?
Self-help books are simply a tool, one of many that can be used to help you support yourself in what you’re trying to achieve. It’s usually a brilliant entry level into the world of self-development and going forward you might go on to look for a therapist or a yoga class or try another healing modality.
People can be snooty about the self-help genre. Why?
People don’t like self-help books because they think they’re naff or they think that they’re telling people that they’re broken. But one thing is true is that if you don’t do the inner work, if you keep doing the same old things then nothing will change.
So reading a book is a great place start. Then what?
I found I wanted to discuss what I had learned from the books I read. That’s why I started The Shelf Help Club. It’s useful to be part of a community talking openly about their feelings and experiences. So you feel less lonely, and supported. It’s peer support.
Most of our Shelf-Help readers come to the book club, because they want accountability to actually do the inner work because we’ve all read books but never take action. My job is to try and get people to do their homework! Because ultimately, that’s where the magic happens.
In the Shelf Help Club, we’re all journaling geeks and we talk about what we’re doing in our therapy sessions. I’m not a mental health professional but I’m a self-help nerd. And I started this community to meet other people who are self-help nerds too. But the Club is recommended by mental health professionals now – doctors, teachers, counsellors, therapists will point people our way.
We’re in a community where we keep talking about why mindfulness is important, why gratitude and connection are important. If deep healing is going to take place, you need to place to talk honestly about what’s happening.
5 self-help book recommendations:
1. Self Compassion: The Proven power of being kind to yourself by Kristin Neff
‘At a most basic level, self compassion simply requires being a good friend to ourselves.’
2. Your Best Year Ever: A 5 step plan for achieving your most important goals by Michael Hyatt.
‘A powerful, proven, research-driven system for setting and achieving your goals.’
3. Attached: Are you Anxious, Avoidant or Secure? How the science of adult attachment can help you find – and keep – love by Amir Levine, Rachel Heller
‘A road map for building stronger, more fulfilling connections.’
4. Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown.
‘Give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, take control of our schedules and time, let go of people pleasing.’
5. Happy, Sexy Millionaire by Steven Bartlett
‘We are losing ourselves. We’re chasing the wrong things, asking the wrong questions, and polluting our minds. It’s time to stop, it’s time to resist and it’s time to rethink the fundamental social blueprint that our lives are built upon.’
Shelf Help Club is launching a new lunchtime author series for small business. Find out more.
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