Of course I read Girl, Wash Your Face, the massively bestselling self-help book for women. I’ve spent the last three years writing a self-help book for women with my sister; I’m super-interested in what women love to read in a self-help book, plus I’m a longtime reader of self-help myself. Of course I read it!
Rachel Hollis’s voice is engaging, energetic, smart, introspective, and confident. We’d probably enjoy each other’s company.
But once I knew why it was titled Girl, Wash Your Face, the book took on a tragic cast.
The title comes from the last paragraph of the book:
“Girl, get ahold of your life. Stop medicating, stop hiding out, stop being afraid, stop giving away pieces of yourself, stop saying you can’t do it. Stop the negative self-talk, stop abusing your body, stop putting off for tomorrow or Monday or next year. Stop crying about what happened and take control of what happens next. Get up, right now. Rise up from where you’ve been, scrub away the tears and the pain of yesterday, and start again… Girl, wash your face!”
At first, this read like a playful and mildly ironic scolding of the reader to stop being so mean to herself, geez, like, what kind of dork are you anyway, beating yourself up that way? Stop it, girl!
But then I remembered everything else in the book, and I realized… is this how Rachel Hollis talks to herself? Is she speaking to the reader as she speaks to her own internal experience?
And that idea felt intensely sad to me.
Here is a woman raised in a neglectful, traumatic home, whose brother died tragically when she was fourteen, and who decided then that she was the only one who could make her life better.
I get that. Boy howdy, do I get that. My family of origin was neglectful, so that I, too, was ignored unless I performed and produced. I, too, am an overfunctioner, too easily sucked into work and away from people. I, too, trust myself over any other person, when it comes to making my life what I want it to be. No wonder I feel like we’d enjoy each other’s company.
But over the course of my adult life, and especially during these last three years, as I’ve been writing Burnout with Amelia, I have learned that there is a difference between how we cope with the adversity of daily life and how we cope with the adversity of trauma, and Hollis is applying the habits of daily coping to her (and the reader’s?) habit of traumatic coping.
Relentless optimism does not heal trauma - though it may offer a kind of splint, to get you through the immediate aftermath and to a place of safety.
Admonitions to be stronger, work harder, get up and keep going, do not heal trauma, any more than such admonitions heal a broken leg. You cannot will healing to happen; you can only create a context of safety and holding, and allow healing to happen.
What heals trauma is compassionate connection and a specific kind of courage.
Let’s talk about the courage first:
There’s a Rumi poem I love so much I had a character recite it in a novel I wrote. It goes:
When water gets caught in habitual whirlpools,
dig a way out through the bottom
to the ocean. There is a secret medicine
given only to those who hurt so hard
they can’t hope.
The hopers would feel slighted if they knew.
Dig a way out through the bottom.
Hollis uses a drowning metaphor, too. She writes,
The precious life you’ve been given is like a ship navigating its way across the ocean, and you’re meant to be the captain of the vessel. Certainly there are times when storms toss you around or cover the deck with water or break the mast clean in half — but that’s when you need to fight your way back, to throw all the water off the boat bucket by bucket. That’s when you battle to get yourself back to the helm.
The problem is, drowning means suffocating. And if we choose to stay underwater without kicking our way to the surface, we eventually forget how to swim.
This is a writer who is supremely afraid of drowning.
Which brings me to the specific kind of courage required to heal trauma.
Fighting for control of the ship makes sense for much of the adversity most of us face in life — the kind of adversity that we can fight against and win. But there comes a point in the struggle when fighting is not the brave choice; it is a fear-driven desperation to avoid being pulled down in the whirlpool. We keep fighting, even when all is lost, for fear that letting go of this specific hope in this specific moment is the same as letting go of all hope forever.
There comes a point where “staying underwater” is a better choice than trying to kick your way to the surface. Instead of fighting, we let go of hope and let ourselves be pulled into the whirlpool.
As Rumi writes, when we are hurt so hard we lose hope, we receive “the secret medicine.”
“Hopers would feel slighted if they knew.”
We can only receive this medicine if we hurt so hard, we lose our grip on hope and have the specific courage to stop flailing for it. Then and only then can we dig our way out “through the bottom to the ocean.”
The whirlpool of grief or despair is not like a literal whirlpool. It does not kill us. It’s hard to imagine, because as long as we cling to hope, we don’t get the secret medicine. But when we release hope, we create space in our hearts for that medicine — and the medicine is like magic. It’s like suddenly being gifted the ability to breathe underwater.
There you are, underwater yet still breathing. And you have learned that you are someone who can keep breathing even underwater. You never knew you had a superpower.
And then it’s time to dig your way out through the bottom. Like magic, the “shovel” appears.
The shovel is compassionate connection. It may come to you as a friend or partner, it may come to you as a diety or spiritual connection, it may come to you as a pet. The secret magic is how you survive in the depths; compassionate connection is how you find your way out.
It surprises me that a woman of faith like Hollis doesn’t include this kind of survival in her book. It’s all over the Bible. It’s what I wish for when I envy people who believe in any kind of god. I wish for the comfort and certainty that something will hold me, even in the midst of that storm. Like the hymn says,
What though the tempest round me roars
I know the truth, it liveth
What though the darkness round me close
Songs in the night it giveth
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that rock I’m clinging …
All things are mine since I am his
How can I keep from singing.
Because I am not a person of faith, I have had to learn to feel this kind of certainty about the fallible humans in my life. I — who early in life learned I was the only one I could trust with my own life — I have had to learn deep, unyielding trust with a handful of extraordinary people. It has saved my life, and it is central to the message of our book.
When I imagine a woman of Hollis’s intelligence, sensitivity, and survivorship speaking to herself the way that concluding paragraph speaks to the reader, I want to hug her and tell her she doesn’t have to fight so hard all the time. She can sit with her tears as long as her tears need her; she can trust that her tears will — sooner than she imagines — be ready for her to stand up and move on. She can trust her body to be strong enough to withstand even the riptide of despair.
So I’ve taken the liberty of rewriting her concluding paragraph, in terms of my own, gradually-healing inner monologue. It is more evidence-based as a strategy for recovering from adversity, but I think when you read it, you won’t need to see research to prove that it is more healing:
Girl, life is too big to hold in your hands; instead, let life get ahold of you. If you need to medicate, do that. If you need to hide, do that. If you’re afraid sometimes, that’s okay; sometimes life is scary. If you give away pieces of yourself sometimes, that’s okay; you want to be generous and kind and you never want to hurt other people’s feelings, and sometimes you hurt yourself to avoid hurting others. If you feel like you can’t do it and you want to quit, you can say that to me. As the Opal song goes, “I know you’re tired and your shoes are filled with sand.” I know that saying you can’t do it is not the same as quitting, and that for most of your life people have treated your self-criticism as a virtue. Girl, your body is glorious and messy and deserves kindness. Everything can wait, except kindness. Cry if you need to, life is difficult and many things are not under your control. Here is my hand, I will help you up when you’re ready. I will wait here with you until you are ready. I will brush the tears away and offer love that can, little by little, heal the pain you carry from yesterday. We will try again.
Girl, your face is fine.
The key to “self-help” isn’t self-help at all. It’s just help. It is the rare and glorious people and places that hold us in safety and compassion.