The last thing anybody wants to hear when they’re in the middle of a freakout is “calm down”. And yet, that’s the title New York Times bestselling self-help writer Sarah Knight has chosen for her latest book – with some more colourful language thrown in.
Calm the F**k Down is the fourth instalment in the No F**ks Given Guides (NFGGs). Knight’s first book, 2015’s The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving A F**k, began as a response to Marie Kondo’s blockbuster hit The Life Changing Magic of Tidying, now enjoying a resurgence thanks to a Netflix series. It wasn’t intended as a rebuke of Kondo’s work, however. Instead, inspired by her ‘KonMari method’ for decluttering your mess, Knight put forth the ‘NotSorry method’ for decluttering your mind.
The idea came about after Knight quit her job as a senior editor with Simon & Schuster. She had spent 15 years working in publishing in New York and found herself growing very unhappy in the corporate world.
“I made a plan to leave, setting aside money every day for a year and colouring in little squares on a chart inside my closet door so that every day I would get closer and closer,” she recalls. “Finally, 365 squares later, it was filled up, I had some money in the bank account, and I quit my job. Probably two weeks after that, I had the idea for my first book.”
Knight sent her proposal to a literary agent, and quickly found herself with a book deal – and just four weeks to write it.
At the time, she and her husband Judd, a real estate broker and singer, had decided to expedite their plans to retire to the tropics, following the sudden death of a friend. As they were orchestrating a move to the Dominican Republic, Knight was also ghost-writing another book and grieving the death of her pet cat. The frantic months that followed formed the basis for her second title.
“That’s how Get Your S**t Together came about, because that’s really about how I did it,” she explains. Her third book, titled You Do You, advised on how to let go of other people’s expectations and embrace ourselves as we are, flaws and all. It was also, interestingly, her only book without a profanity in the name, and while it did allow Knight to book national US television for the first time, it had lower sales than the previous guides.
“That just tells you that the readers like the curse words,” Knight shrugs. Her NFGGs share a subgenre of self-help with similarly profane titles, including UnF**k Yourself, F**k Feelings and The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F**k.
“It certainly seems like there’s been a trend toward the sweary self-help. The question is just how long will it last? I don’t know. Right now, I feel like, globally, we’re all in kind of a mood, so perhaps I managed to ride that at the perfectly correct time.”
For her fourth book, the four-letter words are back. Her editor asked for a feminist angle to tie in with #MeToo, but Knight told her that didn’t feel like what she wanted to say. So what did she want to say?
“After You Do You, I thought, I’m done. I’ve done the trilogy, I’ve ended on this very strong note, but over the course of time that I was writing those, I was having a lot of difficulties with our house, we were nomadic for several months and a lot of things happened in our personal lives. The [American presidential] election was upsetting, and I was feeling more anxious. I felt like I’d gotten a handle on that between ages 35-38, and then it was kind of rearing its head again. I felt like I had something to say about anxiety and through that, good decision-making and problem-solving,” she says.
In Calm the F**k Down, Knight comes across as bold and brassy, like a cross between a brutally honest best friend and a particularly perky drill sergeant. In person, she has the same quickness and the sweary, no-holds-barred approach that earned her the moniker of ‘anti-guru’.
“I think it’s pretty accurate. My tagline on my website is ‘advice for people who hate being told what to do’. I think that encapsulates how I feel about self-help,” she says.
“Maybe part of the appeal of my books is that they’re coming from the perspective of someone who a) never thought she needed and b) didn’t want to hear that kind of advice. I think that what I have is that I’m bossy and I have a perspective, so I was just channeling the kind of advice I would tell my friends or myself in my own head.
“I think a lot of self-help is built on aspiration and these fantasies of how much better your life could be, where I’m really focused on, ‘Is your life really sh**** now? Do you want it to stay sh****? Get up off your ass and do something about it.'”
In the opening pages of Calm the F**k Down, Knight writes that she has been diagnosed with generalised anxiety and panic disorder, and that she understands the difference between situational anxiety and an anxiety disorder.
“What I want to make sure people understand is that I’m not trying to give medical advice,” she explains. “I’m not trying to be this infallible zen master. I’m a basket case and here’s what works for me. It’s empirically proven, but it’s not scientifically proven, and people can take that in whatever way they like. I think it’s better to relate to people on an authentic level instead of trying to put oneself on a pedestal of perfection.”
Calm the F**k Down starts with a note addressing that pesky title, and Knight goes on to describe why saying things like “everything will be okay” are so unhelpful.
“My husband is the type of person who’ll be like, ‘everything’s going to be okay’. I’m like, ‘stop it! That’s not what I want to hear from you!'” she laughs.
“If I’m complaining about something, I want to put it out there, and get a little bit of agreement and sympathy – not too much, you don’t want to complain all the time. But also, saying it gets it out of my head and off my brain. I don’t want to be told ‘everything’s going to be okay’; I want to acknowledge the bad.
“Lulling yourself into the belief that everything’s going to be okay might be comforting for some people, but it’s not going to solve the problem. I just think it’s a temporary bandaid – don’t even waste my time saying that to me because it’s not going to change anything.”
Instead of burying your head in the sand and hoping everything will be okay, Knight urges readers to get on with their lives. But how do you go from understanding that worrying is pointless to actually stopping worrying? Knight proposes the “NoWorries method”: 1) calm the F**k down; and 2) deal with it.
The first part explains how to “identify what you can control, accept what you can’t, and let that s*** go”, and is anchored by a technique Knight calls ‘The One Question to Rule Them All’: Can I control it?
“I am a control freak. There is no amount of tranquil Caribbean living or self-help gurudom that is going to change that innate fact of my personality,” Knight admits. “I had to figure out how to work with my control freakiness instead of letting it disrupt my life.”
The solution, Knight writes, is to “discard, then organise”: determine which worries you can’t control, and focus on the ones you can actually do something about. She offers the example of being stuck on the subway underground and not being able to let co-workers know you’ll be late for work.
“Those are the small kind of things I can’t control, and then there are big things like very ill family members and hurricanes barreling toward my home. Why am I going to spend my day working myself up into a lather about things I can’t control, when I could use that penchant for control to work on mitigating the effects of the thing that’s going to happen?”
The book also offers guidance on how to organise your ‘freakout funds’ (a spin on Knight’s ‘F**k bucks’ from earlier NFGGs) – time, energy, money and goodwill – to address those worries you can control. But sometimes, it’s not as simple as ‘discarding’ those uncontrollable worries, and you end up lying awake at night, pleading with your brain to switch off. For this, Knight recommends another technique: ‘Tonight You, Tomorrow You’.
“My husband looked at me one night and said, ‘Tonight Sarah’s job is to get some sleep, and tomorrow Sarah can deal with that stuff tomorrow’,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘you’re right’, because if I’m somebody who is ruled by my to-do list, then number one on the to-do list is going to sleep!”
It’s not as simple as Knight barking at her readers to ‘just go to sleep’ – the trick falls under a broader category dubbed ‘sleight of mind’, which suggests ways to stop feeling anxious, sad or angry, or to force yourself to face your problems.
“It’s a shift in mindset,” Knight explains. “A lot of the stuff that I worry about is stuff that I know I’ll get done tomorrow. If I’m lying there thinking, ‘what if I forget to do that?’ – have I ever forgotten to show up at a meeting? These are not rational worries, so there’s no reason to have this constant dialogue in my head. So I switch the dial to ‘sleeping is the only thing you should be doing right now’ and I really am able to change the conversation in my head.
“Sleight of mind is all about changing your focus to something else, because anxiety is so much about overthinking and the buzz of everything going on. It works for me.”
Calm the F**k Down by Sarah Knight (Quercus Books) is out now, €14.99 from Eason