There are a lot of fluffy, feel-goody, “you can do it!” self-help books out there. There are far fewer books that take a realistic look at pain, trauma, setbacks, and failures and then honestly discuss how to cope with them in a way that doesn’t make you feel like a cheerleader at a high school pep rally.

I’ve written before that I sometimes conceive of this rarer style of personal development as “Negative Self-Help”—a more gritty and raw approach to improving yourself. When I wrote my books, I wrote them with this approach in mind. Life sucks. Deal with it.

I’ve put together a list of other “Negative Self-Help” books here. These are the books that refuse to tell you that everything is going to be hot sprinkles and gravy. In fact, most of them are going to tell you the exact opposite: that life is difficult, setbacks are inevitable, and we must somehow endure and find meaning in that difficulty.

Here are some of my favorite books that help you grow from your pain.

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The Wisdom of Insecurity

The Wisdom of Insercurity is not Watts’ most famous book, but probably my favorite. Mostly just because I’m a dark, sick fuck who loves reveling in all the ways life is chaotic and hopeless and we must persevere in spite of it.

Watts, in case you didn’t know, is one of the most popular pop-Buddhist writers from the 1960s and 70s. Like many hippy-dippy Buddhists of that era, he was a bit of a wreck himself, sporting an alcohol problem, a complete inability to manage money, and accumulating almost as many wives as he did books throughout his career.

Yet, his clarity on the fundamental tenets of eastern philosophy is still unmatched. There’s probably no better book if you want to get the quick and dirty introduction to eastern philosophy. If you ever want to experience an amazing hour, check out some of his lectures on YouTube. They’re incredible. The man is a legend.

Useful If You Suffer From: Anxiety. Watts believed, even as far back as the 1950s, that we were entering an “age of anxiety,” dominated by larger cities, faster technology, and more inter-connectivity. The man was ahead of his time.

Yet, rather than bemoan this new modern world, Watts encourages us to embrace it. It’s exactly in the not-knowing that growth and inspiration are found. And it’s in the desperate desire to control everything around us that the self is shut down.

Some Quotes from the Book:

“Tomorrow and plans for tomorrow can have no significance at all unless you are in full contact with the reality of the present, since it is in the present and only in the present that you live. There is no other reality than present reality, so that, even if one were to live for endless ages, to live for the future would be to miss the point everlastingly.”

“What we have forgotten is that thoughts and words are conventions, and that it is fatal to take conventions too seriously. A convention is a social convenience, as, for example, money … but it is absurd to take money too seriously, to confuse it with real wealth … In somewhat the same way, thoughts, ideas and words are ‘coins’ for real things.”

“If we cling to belief in God, we cannot likewise have faith, since faith is not clinging but letting go.”

The Upside of Stress

The Upside of Stress by Kelly McGonigal - cover

Stress has gotten a bad rap these past few decades. Everything is blamed on stress. Gaining weight? Must be stress. Depressed? Must be stress. Feel like the world is going to hell in a tamale basket? Must be stress.

Professor McGonigal (no, not the one from Harry Potter) is here to set the record straight with The Upside of Stress. Not only is stress natural and expected, but it’s often healthy. As she states clearly in the opening pages, “Stress happens when something you care about is at stake. It’s not a sign to run away—it’s a sign to step forward.”

The book offers an interesting and more well-balanced view of stress and the more difficult moments in life. I enjoyed it a lot.

Useful If You Suffer From: Stress! Duh. How well we cope with stress is not really from how much stress we have in our life, but rather by how we respond to the stress in our life. What are our actions, beliefs, attitudes and assumptions around our stress? How do we see our relationship to our stressful situation? Like I’ve often taught with anxiety, it’s not about getting rid of stress, but simply harnessing it to propel you forward.

Some Quotes from the Book: 

“Feeling burdened rather than uplifted by everyday duties is more a mindset than a measure of what is going on in your life.”

“It turns out that how you think about stress is also one of those core beliefs that can affect your health, happiness, and success. As we’ll see, your stress mindset shapes everything from the emotions you feel during a stressful situation to the way you cope with stressful events. That, in turn, can determine whether you thrive under stress or end up burned out and depressed. The good news is, even if you are firmly convinced that stress is harmful, you can still cultivate a mindset that helps you thrive.”

The Road Less Traveled

The Road Less Traveled by Scott Peck - cover

The book opens with perhaps the greatest understatement ever written, “Life is difficult.”

This is probably the only classic self-help book that I really love. Most self-help stuff from before the 90s is way too cheery, absurdly positive, and completely unrealistic. But The Road Less Traveled is different in that it doesn’t make any grand promises of love, security, or happiness. From the get-go, it is honest: Life is difficult.

The idea behind the book is very simple: we must get our own shit in order before we’re able to truly love others. We must love others in order to grow. We must grow to experience the full richness of life.

That’s it.

*Mic drop*

Actually, there is more. Peck was religious, so he does end up talking quite a bit about spirituality and a little bit about Christianity. Don’t let that turn you off, though. He’s not a Bible-thumper. Quite the contrary, it’s a fairly secular book.

Useful If You Suffer From: Depression. Disillusionment. Being a Mr. Whiny Pants. Ultimately, The Road Less Traveled is about empowerment and how that empowerment enhances your life and the lives of those around you. Self-empowerment is the road less traveled because it’s the more difficult road to take in life. It’s easier to whine and complain and blame others. It’s easier to assume you can do nothing, that nothing you do matters.

In that sense, the book is a kind of an open challenge. Are you up for it?

Some Quotes from the Book:

“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult—once we truly understand and accept it—then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”

“Until you value yourself, you won’t value your time. Until you value your time, you will not do anything with it.”

“Not only do self-love and love of others go hand in hand but ultimately they are indistinguishable.”

Feeding Your Demons

Feeding Your Demons by Tsultrim Allione

Tsultrim Allione (born Joan Ewing) was one of the first American women to ever be ordained as a nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. During her time in Nepal and India, Allione stumbled across an obscure practice called Chöd that involved a form of meditation that had one converse with their personal demons.

Allione somehow managed to track down one of the only surviving manuscripts on the planet, translate it, and modernize it as a kind of visualization-meets-meditation practice.

There are sections of Feeding Your Demons that trip my “woo woo” radar, but ultimately I came to the conclusion that the practice, when viewed as a means to help people confront and accept the more unsavory aspects of themselves, is probably helpful. In my opinion, it’s a practice that crystalizes and implements a lot of the self-compassion research that has surfaced in the past ten years.

Useful If You Suffer From: Shame and/or addiction. The short version is you close your eyes and take whatever demon is in your life and envision them as a sort of creature in your mind’s eye. There’s a whole process of paying attention to how your subconscious generates the creature, what they’re doing, how they’re behaving—are they aggressive or scared, are they ugly or menacing?

Then you, like, sit down and have tea with your inner demon. No, seriously, you start to befriend your demons. I know it sounds weird, but I tried it a few times and it was pretty cool.

Some Quotes from the Book:

Confess all your hidden faults! Approach that which you find repulsive! Whoever you think you cannot help, help them! Anything you are attached to, let go of it!”

“Perhaps everything terrible in us is, in its deepest being, something helpless needing our help.”

The Obstacle is the Way

The Obstacle Is the Way by Ryan holiday - cover

Holiday has instigated a full-blown revival of stoicism in the past ten years, and The Obstacle Is the Way is where it all began.

Based on a quote from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, the idea behind the book is that it is impossible to avoid obstacles or setbacks. In fact, it is the obstacles and setbacks that make life fruitful, meaningful, and important.

Holiday pulls from a large number of fables, historical anecdotes, and modern stories to drive his points home. The book is highly readable and has become a cult favorite among high performers everywhere.

Useful If You Suffer From: Inaction, perfectionism, and rumination. More and more, people default to feeling as though they’re unable to do something unless they can do it well. But the sad fact is that this is exactly how to not do anything well.

The truth is that whatever we do, we must fail at it a number of times before we ever become competent. And for whatever reason, that process of failure, of unexpected setbacks, of self-doubt and criticism, we often wrongly believe that we shouldn’t have to go through that.

Some Quotes from the Book:

“The obstacle in the path becomes the path. Never forget, within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve our condition.”

“Just because your mind tells you that something is awful or evil or unplanned or otherwise negative doesn’t mean you have to agree. Just because other people say that something is hopeless or crazy or broken to pieces doesn’t mean it is. We decide what story to tell ourselves.”

“The only guarantee, ever, is that things will go wrong. The only thing we can use to mitigate this is anticipation. Because the only variable we control completely is ourselves.”

What Doesn’t Kill Us

What Doesn't Kill Us by Stephen Joseph - cover

When I saw this book pulled its title from a famous Nietzsche quote: “What doesn’t kill me only makes me stronger,” I was swooning. When I saw it was about my favorite obscure area of psychology research known as post-traumatic growth, I was in love.

We’re all familiar with PTSD and the ways trauma can fuck us up. But few people realize that most people who experience trauma actually claim that they benefited from it later. It’s this little-known branch of psychology known as post-traumatic growth, and I can only hope that it will soon get its day in the sun.

This area of psychology is young and under-explored, but Joseph packs the book full of all of the major relevant studies. What Doesn’t Kill Us is a bit academic but still worth a read just to get the message out there: trauma is not the end of the world. In fact, it can even be the beginning of a world.

Useful If You Suffer From: Trauma. We’ve all probably heard at least one ridiculous story of a college kid somewhere claiming they are traumatized because their ice cream cone was racist. Trauma is everywhere these days.

See, it turns out that a lot of your ability to cope with trauma depends on your attitude and beliefs around what happened to you. If you decide that everything is traumatic, it will nudge your body into experiencing trauma over every little thing. Similarly, if you convince yourself that trauma is permanent, debilitating and unjust, then you will disempower yourself to overcome or even grow from your trauma.

Some Quotes from the Book:

“But people are not passive recipients of how their lives unfold. The feelings they have about what happened distinctly influences their recovery.” 

“Although psychological trauma has been the subject of great fascination and inquiry for many decades, we still know relatively little about the experiences of those who fare well in the aftermath of traumatic events–and why it is whereas one person struggles to cope, the other goes on to flourish and experience positive change.”