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The 10 best self-development books on my shelf (plus 1 bonus selection)

I’ve always been interested in human psychology. What makes us tick? What motivates us? How can we improve our lives? This naturally led me to the self-help section of the library more than once. I even got a Master’s Degree in human development, which has been more helpful in my daily life than professionally, if I’m honest. So I’ve read my fair share of spiritual texts, guides, and how-to manuals. Here are some of my favorites, in roughly the order I discovered them, and the key takeaways. Consider it your cliff's notes to Ah-ha! Don’t forget to leave comments on your favorite books!

The Way to Love: The Last Meditations of Anthony De Mello

My good friend Julie gave me this book after I moved back to the East Coast from California. I was struggling with the rapid change and stark culture shock of having gone from the gorgeous wine country to hard, sharp Manhattan. De Mello, a Jesuit Preist, speaks of the ego and how it is the ego that clings so tightly to things and surroundings. It was the first time I’d considered myself as separate from my motivations, separate from my thoughts. This caused me to examine my attachments to things and people. I began to realize that much of what I thought I needed to be happy was a construct of my mind. More importantly, I learned the source of my disappointments was also linked to the loss of things or status and what I THOUGHT about those losses. When I could ask myself “Why am I upset about this situation?” and realize the answer was often “how it looks to others” I was able to start the long (and still challenging at times) process of letting go of what others think.

Additionally, De Mello says we must love people as they are, not as we want them to be. Sounds basic but we often make up in our heads a picture of a person without allowing the real person to exist.

The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle

Echkart’s book introduced the concept of living in the present moment. This was groundbreaking! I was someone who always lived in the future. (Isn’t living in the future what made me successful? I was a professional at visioning an outcome and racing to get there. How and why would someone live in the present??) The problem –even if I didn’t see it back then– was that I never enjoyed the NOW. In fact, I often missed out on the wonderful events happening in my life because I was too focused on the NEXT thing. The concept that all we ever have is the present moment may not have been one I was ready for when I read this book, but the older I get the more sense it makes to me. Tomorrow is never guaranteed. All of tomorrow stems from what do, feel, and say in this moment.

Tolle also spends a good deal of time discussing the ego and how much of what drives us is based on motivations that feed our ego– that identity of ourselves that is outside ourselves. So much of our pain stems from our thoughts about the pain, not actual physical suffering. Suspend the thought, suspend the pain. Quite simple really. And finally, Tolle was the first to introduce the idea that we are not the endless reel of thoughts that go through our heads all day. We are the one who observes those thoughts. Happy people are those who can observe a thought and release it as not themselves, just the voice. If we can detach, we will be less yanked around by those racing, often disruptive, thoughts.

Yesterday I Cried by Iyanla Vanzant

Iyanla Vanzant rose to fame as a guest on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show for her brash and bold style of storytelling. But if you know anything about Iyanla Vanzant it’s that she has had a very difficult life. Her childhood was not at all normal and she fell into a pattern of self-destruction. In fact, unlike her cohorts, Iyanla managed to lose much of the opportunity that Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz received as favored Oprah guests. Therein lies something unique about Iyanla. She saw her fatal flaw and she owned it. She ripped it open and looked inside. Though she faltered, Iyanla has learned to correct her pattern and turned things around. Now does so much good for others, partly through her show “Iyanla, Fix My Life”.

One Day I Cried was a book that reinforced that we don’t have to be defined by our story, or by a difficult start in life. The passage I remember best is one in which she describes what it felt like to finally have some money in the bank and sit in a brand-new jacuzzi tub when her very expensive dog pooped on the carpet. Though furious at having to get out of her hot bubble bath, she realized in that moment “Life is about cleaning up the crap, and while you’re doing it, being ok with having to do it.” There will be crap in life. How you clean it up says far more about a person than their ability to prevent crap from showing up. We can’t prevent bad things from happening. But we can learn from them. There is always a lesson in any hardship. And whats more, there is always growth that can come from it. When life gets difficult, the wise one leans into and says “What is this here to teach me?”

Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

This beautiful, raw story about the author’s own spiritual journey so mirrored my own that I had to stop and take a breath in the first chapter. I couldn’t believe how similar her “voice of God” story was to mine. In Eat, Pray, Love there was Elizabeth Gilbert on the bathroom floor, sobbing hysterically asking what she should do when the answer came. Calm and resolute, the voice said to her “Get up and go to bed.” If ever there was any doubt that God speaks to us, this confirmed my experience was real. From there she embarks on a spiritual journey that includes pasta in Italy, yoga and meditation in India, and new loves. Since reading this book I have followed Elizabeth Gilbert closely and her truthful life continues to inspire me.

The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman

This one helped me see that I respond favorably to a certain style of communication in relationships. Because I have a high desire to be appreciated, I often overly appreciate my partner. He, it turns out, is not motivated by the thanks I shower upon him. He responds to praise about his manliness and being a good provider (cue the eye roll). So needless to say, we both have to WORK at giving each other messages that make each other feel good. Just knowing that people need different affirmations has helped me figure out how to motivate others.

The Secret by Rhonda Byrne

Most people are aware of the foremost authoritative book on the law of attraction. Like The Power of Now, this book introduced an entirely new concept to me— that what we give our attention to is what we attract. Now everywhere I look I see people writing about their ability to manifest the things they desire in life. Is it just laser-like focus? Is it the mind tricking the body? Decide for yourself.

Who Moved My Cheese by Spencer Johnson

Using a metaphor about mice, the author spins a tale of navigating the maze of life. We can be so blinded by limitations that we can’t see the possibilities. I can boil this book down to its primary question “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” If there was no way you could fail, how big would you dream? The author purports that if we have any indecisiveness about a big life question we should ask ourselves what we would do if we weren’t afraid. Fear holds us back from so much and I’ll be writing much on this topic. But this book is an excellent place to start— and bonus! It’s very short.

Finding Your Own North Star by Martha Beck

Martha Beck is a Harvard-trained sociologist but I got to know her on the pages of O Magazine. One of many books by Beck, North Star is lauded as one that provides a ‘roadmap’ for change— by listening to your intuition and moving past fear (there’s that word again) by healing old wounds. Sometimes you want a book that offers real, practical things you can do to improve your life and this book did not disappoint.

Proof of Heaven by Dr. Eben Alexander

Dr. Eben Alexander is a classically trained neurosurgeon who believed our brains died when he died— until he had his own near-death experience that changed his entire outlook on life and death. Alexander believes God gave him this experience so that he could to go back into the medical community and share his understanding of what happens to our body, mind, and soul when we die. I found the book oddly comforting. Like many books, this was given to me at a time when I really needed it. As a mother to a newborn, I was almost obsessively worried about my son dying sooner than me. The way Dr. Alexander describes the process of passing on to the next life made sense to me and gave me some comfort about losing loved ones. A few years later my father passed away and I’m so grateful I had read this book. Whether readers believe the author or not, the book does offer a theory you might just find plausible.

I Hope I Screw this Up by Kyle Cease

Comedian turned transformational speaker, Kyle Cease has an amazing way of breaking down our own BS– the lies and excuses we use to keep us stuck. He asks one essential question– “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” Because sometimes the best learnings come from failures. And if we go into a high-pressure situation without giving it the weight we too often do, the outcome won’t matter so much. A take on manifesting, Cease also advocates for visioning yourself already having achieved whatever goal you have for a pressure-filled situation. If it’s an interview, start talking about it as if you have already conquered it. Describe how your answers really impressed the interviewer, say things like “I nailed that interview and now I have the job” before you even set foot in the conference room. More than anything, Cease wants people to get unstuck and out of the negative thought patterns that have kept them in dead-end jobs or relationships for years.

Present Over Perfect by Shauna Neiquist

I really saw myself as a mother in this book. Shauna Neiquist says she had perfected the art of faux resting. If the family announced it was doing a lazy Saturday of movies and reading, she was all for it! But although she was dutifully in her PJs until 3 pm like her husband and kids, she only looked the part. In her head, racing thoughts of “Gotta get backpacks together for Monday. Gotta schedule that appointment. Beds have to be made,” were propelling her around the house when she should have been relaxing and resting. Her wake-up call came when she felt the things she was saying about her life did not match with how she felt inside. A radical transformation ensued beginning with brutal honesty.

Thank you for letting me share some of the many books I’ve enjoyed recently that have brought me clarity and understanding. I’d love to hear from you– leave a reply with books that have made your life better, too!



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