Innovating the Culture of Self Help Writing – Chidera Eggerue’s “What A Time To Be Alone”

by | Dec 20, 2018

When you think of the words ‘self help book,’ what image does that conjure up? For me, it was always something verging on embarrassment. Used for comedic effect (think Bridget Jones and her shelf of books for the unlucky in love), or else simply not spoken about, the self help book holds a strange place on our bookshelves. For a society that still deals so poorly with admissions of supposed ‘weakness,’ it’s easy to understand why.

Against this carefully constructed cultural backdrop of hushed tones and shame, What A Time To Be Alone stands proud. Bold. Colourful. The title beams from the cover in capitals, with joy and life – much in the same way that its author, Chidera Eggerue, does in person (you can experience this for yourself by listening to our podcast!). This book doesn’t look like your typical self help book, and it doesn’t read like it either. Short sections punctuated with illustrations and Igbo proverbs make it easy to pick it up, read a page, and go – taking away a new perspective that you can apply to anything you come across that day. Chidera intentionally created what she calls “the antidote” to the predominantly white, privileged self help industry, which excludes so many with its rhetoric of “just quit your job and travel!”

The language itself breaks down barriers, with Chidera’s advice sounding more like words of wisdom from a long-trusted friend than that of a self help book. The relatability of both her language and her willingness to share her own experience is so important because for many young people, the traditional ‘self help book’ may not appeal. Her innate understanding of how to engage with people really shines through here; Chidera speaks effortlessly in the language of those she aims to relate to, giving her readers the tools they need to navigate a fraught world. And while she does not shy away from tackling bigger issues, such as white privilege, she does so in such a way that the message is not drowned in jargon. Chidera has spoken eloquently in many interviews about her reasons for not wanting to over-politicise and thus ostracise people with language. The same can be said of her award-winning blog. Fashion advice is given alongside real conversations, seamlessly incorporating topics such as feminism and institutional racism. It’s not just about money and looking a certain way, in the vein of many other fashion blogs out there; Chidera encourages you to find your own voice, your own style, whilst knowing that there are people behind you who understand. Who see you, and who will help you to see you.

Ultimately, the message within both Chidera’s blog and in What A Time To Be Alone is about acceptance. She is not peddling a cure-all fantasy (and indeed, has been very open that this book is not intended as an alternative to professional therapy for those that need it). Chidera has dismantled the idea that wanting to improve yourself is somehow a negative thing – that it places you in the category of being broken, of needing to be ‘fixed.’ The moments where we get a glimpse into Chidera’s life show you this process of acceptance in action, normalising feelings that can be so isolating with her informal and accessible writing.

Despite the 24/7 interconnectedness of modern life via social media and technology, loneliness can be rife. But here we have a community – a sense that it is okay to feel displaced and uncertain. You’re not alone, and nobody is perfect – nor do you need to be. Before reading this book, I’d assumed that it wasn’t for me. I’m in a long term, happy relationship – isn’t that what ‘alone’ represents in the title? But what I’ve learned is that alone does not necessarily constitute ‘single.’ There are so many ways in which we can create loneliness in ourselves: by not giving ourselves what we need, by not listening, by not loving. It’s all the things that other people can’t give us – being at peace with who we are, without the need for validation from others.

The futility of striving for ‘perfection’ and the negative effect that it can have is something that comes up often in What A Time To Be Alone. And with good reason – with studies reporting higher levels of mental health issues in children and young people (particularly among LGBT+ children), it’s impossible to deny that something needs to change. One of the statistics in the NHS Digital Survey particularly stands out, showing that half of all girls with a mental health disorder compare themselves to others on social media. This is a new challenge in modern culture. As social media use grows in those of a younger age, we start to occupy a landscape that we don’t yet know the full effect of. With all the empowerment that can come out of social media, there is also the side that preys on self esteem. As well as the unobtainable perfect bodies that overcrowd our timelines, every facet of personal ‘success’ becomes up for comparison too. It’s no longer just the people you see in magazines or films; you have access to unachievable lifestyles in your pocket at all times.

Part of the success of this book lies in the fact that Chidera is sharing a message that doesn’t always get taught. Not everyone is brought up in an environment that is catered to their needs; that will champion their success and teach them how to see their own value. For women particularly, self love is often so tied up with negative stereotypes (‘vanity’ being one of the gendered adjectives that springs to mind), that deconstructing years of being taught to dismiss compliments and not seem too arrogant is a mountainous task. It can take a lifetime to distance yourself from a narrative that thrives off insecurity and insubordination. By encouraging young women to “Choose yourself,” Chidera openly fights against the deeply entrenched, exhausting stereotype of women as people pleasers, existing for the happiness of others. What A Time To Be Alone teaches a way to exist for the happiness of yourself.

To imagine the next generation of young women reading this book as teenagers, growing up with an understanding of their own worth and their place in the world, gives me more hope than I can express. Young women are so much more political and informed, and unafraid of standing up to those that would oppress them. While there is still so much work to be done, books like What A Time To Be Alone express a battle-cry of love and power. It gives young women the tools to dictate their own value, understand the privilege that they may already hold in society, and how to use this to raise each other up. The fact that this book has been so successful shows how necessary it truly was. ‘Repeat after me,’ Chidera says throughout the book. And that’s what we all need to do, whether we’re 13 or 103. Repeat. Repeat these words until they don’t feel alien any more. The world won’t know what’s hit it.

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