What I Know About Self Help

by MATT STOKES | JANUARY 30, 2013

One crazy night I called the 1-800-number listed for the Popeyes near my house to register a complaint about something that happened to me seven months earlier. I’d gotten the idea from a tip on Lifehacker encouraging readers to call their favorite fast food restaurants to volunteer for surveys or to leave feedback in exchange for free meals. I vowed to obtain one of these free meals.

Popeyes is like crack.

It’s not that I lacked the eight dollars to spend at Popeyes, it’s that the inevitable guilt after a fast food run goes away when food is free. “I had to get Popeyes, don’t you see? IT WAS FREE.” Oh, how I longed for that guilt-free Popeyes.

It was not to be, however, because submitting a negative comment on Popeyes’ web site and leaving my phone number was not enough. The next day, I got a voicemail from a Popeyes employee who sounded very concerned about my comment. Now, voicemails are horrible, we all know this; they serve no functional purpose other than to inspire terror and dread in the hearts of their recipientsI)To be fair, most of my voicemails are from my mom. “Matt, call me,” they all say. But until I listen and hear that my sister and dad didn’t go down in a fiery car crash together? Agony. . But this may have been the scariest voicemail I’d ever received. Suddenly, shit had become real. Had I gotten a Popeyes employee in trouble for my blatant lie? Sure, the complaint was about something that really happened to me, but I altered the date so that it seemed like it had happened two nights ago and not seven months, figuring it wouldn’t matter and that I’d just be e-mailed a coupon. Not so. Of course I never returned the phone call, hoping to move past this pathetic chapter, never wanting to be caught in a lie by Popeyes, ultimately collapsing in tears and crying about how I just wanted free chicken. So I deleted the voicemail, along with the next one that showed up in my inbox, and ignored the two times the same number called me.

Such is true of all ugly behavior: We sweep it under the rug, ignore it, pretend it doesn’t exist, hope it disappears, hope it doesn’t define us. The only proven way to stop the behavior is to fully confront it, to fully accept it as part of who we are, and feel so profoundly filled with shame and self-loathing that we genuinely want to change.

My problem is not scamming fast food restaurants for free food; my problem is fast food.

It is, I’m convinced, just about the most destructive addiction anybody can have—aside from, you know, heroin and pills and stuff—in terms of what it can do to your health, self-image, and happiness long-term. Fast food restaurants are always there, never more than four blocks away, always willing to give you an easier and superior lunch experience than waiting your turn for the office microwave and heating up your shitty Lean Cuisine. The lunchtime fast food diners are a brood of people who keep violently away from each other, who don’t ask questions, and who never judge. You can find these people around noon on any given weekday in the parking lots of our nation’s parks and shopping centers, sitting alone in their cars, piling burgers and chicken wings into their gullets in solitude, always looking down, never around. This is who they are, although the worst part is, they don’t realize it; we never realize it because who we really are sneaks up on us, builds so slowly we never even really noticed it was there until it gets too loud to ignore.

I hate eating. I don’t eat because I enjoy it. Eating for me is a burden. A friend of mine once asked what my choice would be between a pill that would ensure I’d never be hungry and never have to eat again and a pill that would ensure I’d never be full again. I chose the former, which surprised her; she insisted the latter is the one you want, the one everyone should want. I couldn’t even comprehend why somebody would want to not be full, to receive carte blanche to just keep eating and eating. At least your body gives you a reason to stop sometimes… why would you want to take that away?

When you eat fast food regularly, you’re not doing it because you love food, you’re doing it because you hate food. You hate the process of eating, so you want to do it as easily and cheaply and quickly as you can. You want to get in, get out, move on, and come back, because you’re addicted. There are proven to be additives in fast food that leave you hungrier in the long run and craving the same food again and again, but I almost don’t care about that. I care about this as a mental illness. McDonald’s—the most popular and ubiquitous fast food chain, so popular it dwarfs all its competitors in sales—sells comfort; this is a key component to their success. Ask someone what he thinks about McDonald’s, and you’ll hear him get strangely wistful and emotional, talking about his childhood, about trips to McDonald’s with his parents, playing in the ball pits, Chicken McNuggets, and Happy Meal toys. McDonald’s knows you feel this way, and it sells it back to you as an adult, offering up a mother’s cradle in the form of a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese. Psychologists agree that chronic overeating generally stems from a lack of nurturing in childhood. This seems rather broad to me, seems to encompass just about all compulsive behavior, but it makes eerie sense in the context of how food is peddled to us. McDonald’s sells its nostalgic myth to you, convinces you that it’s always there, an old friend willing to give a shoulder to lean on. Of course, the horrible thing about fast food addiction is the dread that builds as the meal disappears, giving way to instantaneous guilt and misery as soon as the food’s all gone and you’re left with nothing but a paper bag and the smell of your shame that lingers in your car the rest of the day.

Change? How does one change? Can you just will it into existence? An entire industry of self-help books will convince you that you can. But I have my doubts. I’ve dabbled in that world, spent years immersed in self-help books and lectures, trying like hell to find the secret formula for real, lasting improvement. One of the most popular books of this genre is The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, which I obsessed over for a few weeks in 2010. Here is one of its ludicrous, dribbly passages:

You were free of time for a moment. You moved into the Now and therefore perceived the tree without the screen of mind. The awareness of Being became part of your perception. With the timeless dimension comes a different kind of knowing, one that does not “kill” the spirit that lives within every creature and every thing. A knowing that does not destroy the sacredness and mystery of life but contains a deep love and reverence for all that is. A knowing of which the mind knows nothing.

Yeah man! My whole problem is that I just can’t ever stop thinking. I need to live for the Now, then I’ll be able to lose weight. Because life isn’t all about where you’re going, you see, it’s about where you are.

…Actually, that’s a pretty great message. It sucks that it has to come packaged in a book with Oprah’s ringing endorsement on the cover, and full of language about trees and being with a capital B. The book’s message is that, to experience more peace and to get more enjoyment out of life, you need to not only stop obsessing about the past but to also not think so much about the future, to get more out of individual moments. That’s all well and good, but it’s really not something you can force by reading a book. Life’s revelatory moments arise organically, unexpectedly, like Tony Soprano taking peyote in Las Vegas and then wandering out into the desert and exclaiming to the heavens, “I get it! I get it!”

But here’s the thingII)And one of the reasons The Sopranos was such a great show is that it understood this about people: We change, but we change right back. Insight is valuable and important, but it’s not really all that practical, because we’ll ultimately just continue being who we are, even if we understand our shortcomings. Tony frequently realized things about himself and vowed to change and become a better man, but within a few episodes he was back to being himself.: Epiphanies are worthless. They don’t lead to real, lasting change. You figure out something crucial about yourself, something that explains so much, you change for a little bit, and then, well, you wear out, because change is difficult and, most of the time, we just do what’s easy. There’s a growing school of thought that willpower is largely an illusion. At the very least, it’s a limited tool; the study of ego depletion explains our finite capacity for acting on our best behavior—every time we behave ourselves, we weaken psychologically, and eventually we break.

The better takeaway of The Power of Now and its ilk, I think, is that it’s important to accept that your existence right now is who you are, and it’s your responsibility to own that existence—if you don’t like it, change it; and if you like it, embrace it. It’s why I’ve been able to lose almost 20 pounds since the Popeyes incident—there is no magical formula to weight loss or to any other kind of big change, other than to do just do it. People ask how to lose weight, but I’ve always known (because I’ve done it before, and I can keep doing it again if necessary) it’s incredibly simple: Just don’t eat… seriously, you don’t even have to exercise; just eat fewer than 1500 calories a day and you’re golden.

But you can’t get to that mentality where real, genuine change happens until you accept that the person you are right this second is who you really are, and to not listen to anybody and anything telling you otherwise.

Footnotes   [ + ]

I. To be fair, most of my voicemails are from my mom. “Matt, call me,” they all say. But until I listen and hear that my sister and dad didn’t go down in a fiery car crash together? Agony.
II. And one of the reasons The Sopranos was such a great show is that it understood this about people: We change, but we change right back. Insight is valuable and important, but it’s not really all that practical, because we’ll ultimately just continue being who we are, even if we understand our shortcomings. Tony frequently realized things about himself and vowed to change and become a better man, but within a few episodes he was back to being himself.