You Need Help: I Want to Work on Myself, How Do I Do That?

Q:

I am looking for advice on books/apps/websites/activities/tangible things that actually helped you change for the better. I am in a long term relationship and both of our mental health has been very bad recently, there have been lots of conversations on the lack of feeling “in love,” we both love each other but neither of us are getting that honeymoon feeling anymore, which makes sense. And I recently began therapy again so long story short I am looking at how to actually work on myself, there is so much talk about it but like HOW do I actually do it because I have behaviors I notice that spill into my relationship that stem from personal issues. I want to be a better person to myself, and my partner. I want to feel like my cup is full as I am, and then be able to use that to help fill our cup. I hope this makes sense. I am feeling really lost looking at how I want to be and what I am currently doing, and it’s a bit crushing honestly. I know I can’t just change who I am and that’s not what I want I just have noticed ways I want to improve myself so my quality of life is better but how the hell do I do that?

— Needing To Grow

A:

Hi Needing To Grow,

Despite my skepticism of “self-care” as an “answer,” I am a big fan of self-help. I don’t like super didactic books or strategies or anything that claims it can “fix” something that’s “broken,” or that relies on gender or other stereotypes, but I am a believer in the power of introspection generally. And of books. So, I have a bunch of book recommendations for you!

Unfortunately, I don’t have experience with any apps or websites, though I did get a free subscription to Balance — but haven’t tried it yet — and have been talking to my therapist about doing something like Habitica. On that note, one tangible practice is I create a weekly habit tracker. I have a list of about 12 habits, and I track every day whether I did them. My goal is to average at least six per day. This is motivating because I have to share my results with my therapist (accountability!) and because it’s data and I am a nerd. Other than the standard activities like therapy, journaling, physical activity, and being in nature, though, I don’t have too much else to offer. Hopefully commenters can chime in! I’m mostly going to recommend books.

Before that, though, I want to quickly address the beginning of your letter. I’m sorry that you and your partner are struggling with mental health right now, and I’m happy you’ve restarted therapy. I hope you both have access to any other resources you need, whether a wider circle of intimate friendships to rely on, good food, rest and relaxation, or whatever else. I also am happy that you understand the diminishing of the “honeymoon” phase makes sense, and I have a metaphor I’ve been thinking about that I want to share.

A frequent negative feeling we often have in relationships is that the relationship has lost its “spark.” But if we want to think more deeply about that common metaphor, what is a spark actually for? If our relationship is a fire, then a spark is for lighting a fire, and is not particularly useful beyond that. The “spark” brings people together and ignites passion — but a spark, no matter how intense, will not keep a fire going.

Other things are necessary to keep a fire going — primarily fuel, oxygen, and shelter. To extend the metaphor: Fuel is the daily actions that we take to keep a fire going, like the daily act of loving each other (a fire must be continually fed logs in order to stay burning). Oxygen is space and time apart to breathe and take care of ourselves (a smothered fire will quickly go out). And shelter is how we protect and care for each other when things are difficult (fire needs some kind of rain/wind protection to literally weather a storm).

I hope it’s not out of place to offer this metaphor to you. I think even when it’s not about relationships, doing work on yourself is necessary for a healthy relationship “fire.” Please note that I don’t believe that any of the modalities in any of these books is “the truth.” I don’t think there are four types of attachment, or five ways to give or receive love or five love languages, or whatever. I do believe that these different ways of thinking about ourselves and how we love are useful frameworks to ponder, not “the truth.” Also, many of these are written from a straight perspective, but the ideas are universal enough that I think everyone can get something out of them. On to my recommendations!

Books Specifically About Relationships:

1. Essential reading: How to Be an Adult in Relationships by David Richo

I recommend this to everyone, and I think all adult human beings should read it, especially anyone trying to love better. It hits on similar notes to the books on love languages below, but frames them differently, and is really about working on and changing yourself as the key to loving others better and thus improving your relationships. I believe that one of our most important goals as humans is to learn how to love, rather than finding someone to love us.

2. Getting philosophical: The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm

Check out this podcast episode for a primer on Fromm and on this book. Existential loneliness is an inevitable aspect of the human condition, and we’re typically taught a “commodity” framework about making ourselves more loveable and seeking out a partner we “deserve” in order to attempt to escape that loneliness. It’s transactional: we think of relationships as something that’s mutually beneficial, whether by soothing each others’ loneliness or bolstering each others’ ego, and a “healthy” relationship is when the transaction is about equal. Fromm says: what if instead of trying to escape that loneliness you learned to accept it? What if you grew your capacity to love others because of the inherent merits of doing so, not because of what you might get out of it? What if love isn’t a feeling but an art we must practice in order to excel at?

Note: writing this had me going back and looking at this book, and I realized that Fromm does, in fact, rely heavily on gender stereotypes/tropes and also has some pretty blatant homophobia in here. It’s too bad — the ideas are really powerful otherwise. If you can’t deal, then listen to the podcast episode and skip this one. If you’re able to shake your head and keep reading (he’s remarkably feminist for 1957, actually, and I had to keep that publication year in mind) then it’s still a recommended read.

3. On love languages: The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts

There are tons of books and websites about love languages, and this probably isn’t one of the best ones, but thinking about love in this way was very helpful for my partner and I. Reading it really helped us to talk about how we give and receive love, and helped us make little shifts in our day-to-day that really supported our feelings of security. It also gets us to think deeply about how we learned what love looks like as young people, and how we’ve created assumptions about it, and how this affects our adult relationships. It also helped us to better understand that there are lots of ways to “put logs onto the fire,” as it were — including having sex, giving gifts, going on dates, writing love notes to each other, spending quality time together, etc. — and they’re all necessary in varying degrees to “keep the fire going.”

4. On attachment theory: The Attachment Theory Workbook: Powerful Tools to Promote Understanding, Increase Stability, and Build Lasting Relationships

I don’t “believe” in attachment theory, but I and my relationship still benefited a lot from reading and working through this. I clearly have avoidant attachment tendencies, and my partner clearly has anxious attachment tendencies — so learning about this and our triggers and fears and childhood messages has also helped us to better love each other.

Books That Are Not About Relationships but Are Important for Self-Work and Introspection

1. Learning to be a trustworthy, secure person: The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom by Don Miguel Ruiz

I think this book can be over-hyped, but like everything else on this list it can be powerful for anyone to take from it what they will. I especially think that making every effort to learn how to take care with your words, mean what you say, and follow through on your commitments is huge. It is one of the only ways to become a trustworthy person, and how can someone love you if they can’t trust you? How can you love someone else if you can’t trust yourself? I also believe that working on taking fewer things personally is an incredible challenge that pays off in big ways the more you work at it. I think some things are personal, though, and finding that boundary is crucial to living a contented life.

2. Overcoming self-sabotage: The Mountain Is You by Brianna Wiest

I am currently reading this book, and it’s really been blowing my mind. A few years ago, I exited a period of extreme mental health crisis, changed career paths, and now I’m doing better mentally and financially than I ever have in the past — and I feel guilty. It’s helping me realize that I created narratives for myself when I was younger about certain types of people. And it’s been transformative as I’ve experienced a crisis of conscience upon becoming one of those people! I think this book can be powerful for a lot of people in our communities who romanticize poverty or struggle or overwork or moral/ethical purity out of necessity as a survival strategy, and who then get older and realize that those narratives might not necessarily be accurate.

3. On doing what feels good: Pleasure Activism by adrienne maree brown

While this isn’t a “self-help” book, it really helped me to understand that one of the most powerful and transformative things I can do in the world is seek pleasure and contentment. “Movement” work doesn’t have to be a slog or a constant struggle. We should pursue justice because it’s pleasurable to, because it brings us joy, because it’s an outpouring of the love we have for humanity. My best work in the world is doing what brings me joy and pleasure, whatever that is. This of course requires us to expand our thinking about pleasure; helping a friend through an intense crisis, or working through a difficult struggle with our lover, isn’t a pleasurable experience in a typical sense, but it does bring us joy and is an aspect of our love for them and that intimacy and shared work is pleasurable in an expanded sense.


I think it’s our work as human beings to constantly be getting to know ourselves better and to grow our ability to love and care for ourselves and others. As some of these books address, there are major structural barriers in our way to building intimate, loving relationships with ourselves and others. True love is essentially anti-capitalist and anti-oppressive, which is why it’s so hard to do. That being said, no matter our circumstances we can always do our best. I hope that these resources give you some places to start, and that your love continues to grow, internally and externally.

PS: Commenters, please make more recommendations in the comments! I’m sure there are so many great books, along with apps, websites, and activities, that I missed.


You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.


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Abeni Jones

Abeni Jones is a trans woman of color artist, educator, writer, and designer living in the Bay Area, CA.

Abeni has written 88 articles for us.

25 Comments

  1. These are some great recommendations, and I LOVE the fire metaphor. Something that is absolutely blowing my mind right now and making me feel like I could be able to connect to people fully and be a better partner is the book “Nonviolent Communication”, by Marshall B. Rosenberg. It sounds a little woowoo and maybe not super relevant from the title, but I have, similarly to the letter writer, noticed that my mental health (or lack thereof) makes me behave in ways that damage my relationship, and this book is currently giving me some amazing tools to just.. relate better.

    • Yes! Seconding Nonviolent Communication. I am currently single but I am using these tools to navigate my relationships with family members. When I was reading it at first I thought it was all totally obvious and I’m a good communicator already, but turns out it is actually pretty hard to incorporate these tools in real life! I am feeling a lot of my family dynamics slowly changing and a lot of that is practicing NVC.

  2. this is a standard recommendation activity, but i’ve found gratitude journaling to be really helpful.

    (ALL the disclaimers that this is not an anodyne solution for solving real structural issues with a “just be grateful!” mindset; rather, it’s about naming and valuing things that make life bearable while dealing with the clusterfuck world we inhabit.)

    so every day, i just write down three things for which i’m feeling grateful in the moment. usually they’re really small things, like how cute i find my little-baby-curled-up-fern-fronds, or that my toast was the exact correct degree of toastiness. i’ve found it really useful to have the daily reminder to look for small things that bring joy, pleasure, or comfort, even when i’m dealing with a lot internally or externally.

    this is less directly pragmatic, perhaps, but i’ve also gotten pretty good at ditching shit that stresses me unnecessarily. if you can identify things that are feeding stress / anxiety / rage / whatever other negative emotion you’re dealing with, then ask yourself: 1) why am i doing this thing? and if you have a decent reason, 2) is there a way i could do this that would be more manageable? and often, i’ve found that the reason i’m doing things in a particular way is a) inertia, b) habit, or c) stubbornness, and there are alternatives that better fit into my life, as it is, right now.

    this might all be too basic to be helpful, but i’ve been on a mental health journey myself the past year or so, and committing to these really simple practices has made a huge difference. sending all the support!

  3. and also, re self-care – abeni, it was a treat to revisit your beautiful article on it. but i also think it’s worth checking in on yourself regularly to ask about actual care of the self – that is, questions like “am i eating enough food? food that nourishes me [in whatever way one wants to define ‘nourishes’]?”; “am i giving my body time to rest?”; “am i taking my medications?”; “can i take a few minutes to move my body in a way that feels good today?”; even, “am i trying to make time to check in with a friend / a family member / cultivate community?”

    obviously there can be major barriers to access for even these seemingly basic things, and that’s an infuriating indictment of structures of power under which we live. but, when they’re accessible, it can be so valuable to take the time to check in with and care for the embodied self (and to establish networks of support for when those things are not as accessible).

  4. Here to co-sign the gratitude journal! I was given one when my mental health was at its lowest, and now i’m on my seventh year. The three line ness means i don’t agonise too much; I could see (five years one page) looking back that all i could think of for the first jan1st was “had a nice bagel”. But it really had me considering that bagel, and the comfort it gave me. And then as I wrote it more, I also got the boost of remembering to write it, and seeing physically how far you’re gotten.

  5. Yes to gratitude practices! I would add specifically for the purpose of feeding your relationship to be explicit in noticing things each day that you’re grateful for related to your partner and your relationship — and telling them!!

  6. Thanks, Abeni and letter writer! I’m excited to check out some of these books.

    I want to recommend the book “Attached” which has been hugely helpful in looking back on my previous relationships and finding patterns in communication and other challenges. I only wish I had read it years ago! Even if you don’t fully subscribe to attachment theory I still think it’s helpful in taking stock of your own patterns and behaviors.

    I also want to second “Nonviolent Communication” by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg. It’s a bit dated and has some cheesy parts that I mostly ignored, but the core strategies are helpful. It’s currently making the rounds with some of my queer poly friends and I’m witnessing/hearing about some solid growth.

    Finally I want to recommend regular journaling, gratitude focused or not. I’ve started to journal before and after therapy and it’s helpful to look back at where I was a few months ago and see improvement and also see where I’m still stuck. Oh also, I find meditation helpful when I’m in a big transformational phase.

    • Re: Attached, a note to those interested in reading and whose coping mechanisms can lean avoidant- first, for self-care you might consider a different book entirely (Diane Poole Heller’s book is pretty good; TheLovingAvoidant on IG or Patreon is probably the best and most compassionate source for self-reflection in this area I’ve ever found), and second, if you do, know that the authors have, within the last year, issued a statement saying they wish they hadn’t been so hard on this attachment style. You’re no less good or deserving of love just because your response to what’s challenging looks different. <3

  7. The David Richo book is so good, fully echo that recommendation.

    On another note, In This House We Don’t Buy Books By Massive Homophobe Gary Chapman, even if they’re from bookshop dot org, don’t do it, just google it if you have to, the internet is awash in the five love languages info

    • A recent episode of the podcast We Can Do Hard Things focused on the love languages and talked about the problematic homophobic, heteronormative, patriarchal content in the original book. People talk about love languages so much, but I’m glad I heard the podcast and can skip the book.

  8. This article and these comments rule! Thank you all!

    My contribution is an app called Finch for anyone out there who likes cute creatures a la animal crossing and gamifying your little daily tasks. You can set goals there where it offers little small to-dos to work towards, everytime you open the app it tracks your mood and offers journal prompts that it keeps for you to look back on when talking to therapist, and you have a cute little digital bird also. If you enter the app feeling bad it will offer you different CBT breathing and grounding techniques (that I always forget when left to my own panic devices).

    Its like a tamagotchi for my me

  9. The main part of working on myself, for me, is figuring out what actually makes me tick and makes life feel worth living. I find it helps to treat my life like a design project. Good design is iterative, you spend time defining what the real problem is which isn’t always the one you think it is, then you research and brainstorm ways to fix that problem, then you design a prototype, then you find something that needs to be fixed and go back to defining and research and so on. Or it’s like writing, constantly editing and revising and moving bits around and realizing some things just actually don’t even belong in this story.

    For apps I like Daylio which is a mood and activity tracker so you can see patterns that you might not realize exist. It’s pretty customizable and gives you charts and graphs if that’s your thing (although I haven’t used it recently so updates may have changed it).

    I really have trouble reading self help books, but I like philosophy. Todd May’s “A Significant Life” has given me some interesting ideas to consider, and his writing is very approachable. But the classics are worth engaging with too – philosophy is fun because disagreeing is as much of the point as agreeing

  10. Thank you for this beautiful, thoughtful article, Abeni. I especially love the fire metaphor. I wish I had the time and energy to read all these books you recommended. I don’t have anything to add, just gratitude.

  11. Sort of an outlier or seemingly tangential, but I would recommend Kasia Urbaniak’s Unbound: A Woman’s Guide to Power. It tackles behaviors people learn when they are socialized as female – which absolutely show up in relationships of all kinds (including with self) – and provides practical exercises to shift those behaviors. It’s not one I would have picked up on my own, but I’m glad I stuck with it.

  12. Great article. I would highly recommend Glennon Doyle‘s book untamed, along with the accompanying get untamed journal, along with the accompanying we can do hard things podcast. Her whole universe is so gentle and loving and causes us to think so deeply. I would also recommend the bewildered podcast with Martha Beck and Rowan Mangan.

  13. Dear LW, I can highly recommend “morning pages” – when you wake up, you write for 15 minutes (or 20, or 30, or 45, or an hour) whatever comes to your mind. It doesn’t have to be good, it can be boring and repetitive, and you don’t show it to someone – it is basically a trash can for your brain. You can write “I am so tired, I really hate my job, I don’t want to get up…” And can write about your last fight with your partner, why you are angry at a friend, anything; also, you can be unfair on the pages. I’ve got it from the book “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron, which I can also recommend (it contains many self-care methods and activities). I am in my 14th year now and I feel much more balanced when writing morning pages, more clear about what is happening within me, less grumpy and more calm.
    Another thing I like is the “golden book” – every evening before you go do bed, you write down a couple of things that you did well on this day. It doesn’t have to be big, e.g. helping someone across the street, getting a gift for someone, going to the laundromat even though you don’t feel like it. At first I had to get used to not thinking “but what did I do badly, what do I have to improve?” It’s a tool to give yourself credit and to map little and bigger things you did well.
    With your partner, I can recommend “orange and lemon moments.” After spending a day together, you recall three “lemon moments” (things that were hard or tricky between you) and five “orange moments” (what was lovely, what you enjoyed, what made you smile etc.).
    Finally, there is a book called “Why We Think the Way We do and How to Change it” by Thomas Garvey and Dr. Helen Kogan. I haven’t read it yet but others told me it is great.
    Good luck to you and your partner!

  14. One more thing: I can strongly recommend questions by “The And” (The Skin Deep). Those are questions that (ex-)partners, friends, family members… can ask each other in order to create a deeper understanding of one another, grow closer, to navigate difficulties and challenges, and to create a setting in which another form of conversation can take place. I love doing this with my partner.
    There is a “The And” channel on YouTube with videos of people who are having these meaningful conversations, and there is a website with card games of those questions. It is sorted in dating, relationships, long time relationships, friendships, healing, family of origin, self, co-workers and more.
    A few examples for the questions for relationships:
    When do you feel closest to me?
    What do you see in me that I don’t see for myself?
    What makes you think I understand you?
    How do our differences enhance our relationship?
    What is one thing I could do to improve our relationship?
    How do we love differently?
    What about our dynamic terrifies you?
    What is one emotion I should practice more?
    What do you think has been the hardest thing to forgive me for?
    What do you need help with right now?

    Of course one does not have to purchase the card games – I wrote down the questions of the videos I watched and collected them for myself in a sheet. Anyhow… Here is one example of hundreds of videos:

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