Bad Vibes Only: (and Other Things I Bring to the Table)
“McInerny’s greatest gift is knowing the exact ingredients that make learning about oneself seem so effortless and hopeful.”
Bad Vibes Only is a self-help book disguised as a memoir. If it weren’t so humorous, Nora McInerny’s memoir would be painful to read, mirroring as it does some of our deepest insecurities and secret fears. She chronicles her woes as a cautionary tale in order for the rest of us to get our lives together before it’s too late. In fact, this collection of essays might be more aptly called “mess-ays”—anecdotes and stories about how badly the author feels or fears she has messed up her life and how messed up she’s felt for most of it.
McInerny touches on appearance, aging, regrets, pedigree, perfection, self-improvement efforts, disappearing choices, fighting against nature, critical self-talk, social media and technology, dealing with parents or being one, and more. She neither spouts theories nor pretends to be an advice-dispenser. Rather, she shows readers where she’s gone both wrong and right in life and lets them decide which path they’d rather pursue in their own. She succeeds at holding up a mirror so readers can see their defects as friend, parent, boss, or employee, and makes the pinch of recognition tolerable by cringing or laughing at her own failings along with them.
McInerny, an award-winning author, podcaster and TED talker, sweeps up the wreckage and refuse of her life without self-pity: obsessions, mishaps, near and total catastrophes and the deep well of self-defectiveness she has drunk from since childhood. Whether describing her delayed diagnoses of ADHD and anxiety, alcohol binges, battle with anorexia, struggles to be an effective parent, or the devastating premature death of her first husband, she can be counted on to neither gloss over nor glamorize her suffering. She describes herself as the “saddest happy person I know” or “the “happiest sad person I know.”
She pretty much sums up what the book (and life) should be about in declaring that “’Good Vibes Only’ makes a cute saying for a mug, but a pretty ominous interpersonal standard.” She’s telling us that people bond in the trenches, when they share their mutual misgivings and misery, as she is doing through her writing. When hearts meet with openness, curiosity, and without judgment somehow our inner ugliness and shame start to melt away. Readers can feel her reaching out and cheering them on to be the best people they can be.
However, she is abundantly clear that she does not mean people should strive for perfection via status, beauty, brains, or skill, but that our best is purely personal and subjective, not to be compared with anyone else’s. In fact, her final essay (perhaps the best in the book), “Good Better Best,” focuses on the human need to feel special—which has plagued her since her childhood and began with her obsession to be in her school’s gifted program—only to be accepted and discover that her exceptional schoolmates looked far better from afar than up close.
What may appear to be a memoir full of lively, witty prose is really essay after essay of what psychology calls teaching moments. Perhaps McInerny’s greatest gift is knowing the exact ingredients that make learning about oneself seem so effortless and hopeful.