Book Reviews / Japanese / nonfiction / The Latest

What the self-help book “The Courage to Be Disliked” gets right and wrong

Book cover of The Courage to Be Disliked: How to free yourself, change your life and achieve real happiness

I bought The Courage to Be Disliked because I was curious to learn more about what the book had to offer. There has been an explosion of self-help literature in the 21st Century, and it probably has something to do with our chronic feelings of loneliness, burnout, and fear of not fitting into society. Japanese ways of thinking have also become extremely popular due to the rise of Marie Kondo. So this book seemed to hit all the right buzzwords for today’s society. Yet, this book fell short. Very short.

This book, first written in Japanese by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga is a dialogue between a ‘Philosopher’ and a ‘Youth’. The two discuss Adlerian philosophy in comparison to Freudian notions of psychology and philosophy. The dialogue, I assume, is supposed to imitate the Adlerian discussions he had in cafés around Europe. However, it sounds like two Japanese robots had their dialogue recorded and then translated by Google Translate. Needless to say, the conversation in the book had the same flow as a low-fibre diet.

The Courage to Be Disliked is particularly frustrating if you have studied philosophy and/or psychology at length. Not because the authors say something that isn’t true, but more that they leave things extremely vague, unexplained, and sometimes wholly superficial. This is where I feel the book does a disservice to its audience. There is a part of me that hopes this is due to the horrible translation. However, I fear it is the way the book has been written. So rather than write the book off as terrible, I wanted to unpack some of the points made in the book and hopefully try to frame them in a more positive light.

Wrong: Deny trauma

One of the first things the book talks about is that everyone should deny trauma. It says that people use past trauma for selfish reasons. Like you had a bad relationship with your mother, so you can’t have relationships with women now that you are older. This, according to the authors, would be an example of using trauma as an excuse for your present troubles.

Denying trauma is just devastating and an extremely slippery slope.

“I don’t want to work, so I’ll create an awful boss, or I don’t want to acknowledge my incapable self, so I’ll create an awful boss.” p130

As someone who has experienced abusive work environments in the past as well as exploitative relationships, the sentiment as quoted above is awful.

“I brought out the memory of being hit because I don’t want my relationship with my father to get better.” p148

Denying people’s traumas is what rape culture and other horrible societ,al ideals are built on, and this almost made me throw the book across the room. So what should we do with trauma?

Denying trauma helps no one. Suppressing our past experiences can and often do lead to more mental and physical health issues later on in life. It isn’t that we shouldn’t believe that trauma exists, but rather, that we should not let our past traumas control our present or future entirely. Of course, we shouldn’t let those who have hurt us win by letting that trauma control our lives, but we also should not deny trauma. We should learn to live with it. This is what I hope the two authors meant when they talked about denying trauma, but their discussion of it is so bad that it doesn’t actually help anyone, in my opinion.

Dealing with trauma is like weightlifting. Without any previous experience, you are suddenly given 100kg weight to lift. At first, you cannot even lift the weight a centimetre off the ground. Your muscles shake, you start to sweat, and you will inevitably fail. However, with time and the right help and training, you begin to lift that weight every day until you can carry it around without even noticing it. Although, some days when you’re feeling off and not quite yourself that weight will feel heavy again and you might even need to put it down to rest a bit. But on other days, you will be running like the wind towards your bright, amazing future, and that weight will feel like a feather in your hair.

Wrong: Reject power structures

Now, I know what you might be thinking here. Surely getting rid of power structures and creating a more equal and less competitive society will be better for everyone involved, right? However, to ignore or reject power structures is to deny the society we live in today completely. It is naive and utopian at best. We should strive to create horizontal rather than vertical relationships, as the authors suggest. Although there are many ways to think about power dynamics.

The relationships we have with each other are on a smaller scale than other relationships involving power. These are close interpersonal relationships between small groups of people. Within these relationships, we can look at creating equality and level power dynamics. We can reject competitiveness and lift each other up. Although, when we start to look at society and the structures of power and the discourses of power these structures create, we soon have a different problem.

Michel Foucault, a French philosopher, literary critic, and historian is perhaps the most well-known for talking about discourses and power structures. People who fall outside the scope of ‘society norms’—read LGBTQIA+, women, POC, disabled people, non-Christians, etc.—do not have access to the same power, control, or agency over their lives. I wonder if this gross oversight on power structures is due to Japan’s relatively homogenous society with very few non-Japanese people living there. However, it still doesn’t excuse discussions about women, disabled people, gender rights, or sexuality.

Right-ish: know your task

The only saving grace of this book for me was the authors’ discussions on tasks, sort of. It is important to remember what is our task or what we are capable of controlling. Our boss getting angry with us is one thing. However, it is not our task to control our boss’ anger. Knowing what you can and cannot control is extremely important. It is also essential to know when you need to step up to do something and when you need to stay in your lane. Worrying about how other people perceive you is not your task, nor is it your task to make everyone around you contented.

The part that gets a bit questionable here is that tasks are also built on larger societal structures. One has to only think of how gendered our societies are to realise that knowing your task might reinforce gender stereotypes. Men could easily think, cooking is not my task; being emotional is not my task; cleaning the house is not my task. Similarly, women can also think, being strong is not my task; owning my sexuality is not my task; getting a career is not my task.

As you can see, the aforementioned topics require more discussions than what the book offers its readers. It is extremely worrying that many people will read this book without enough context to understand the full picture. The Courage to Be Disliked is a bit like a pipe dream. It asks us to do things to better ourselves but completely disregards the actual world we live in.

Utopian or delusional? Have you read any self-help books that you felt didn’t quite meet the mark? As always, share the reading love.