Tag Archives: self-help

the wisdom to know the difference

the good people at TLC book tours asked me to write a review of eileen flanagan’s book the wisdom to know the difference – when to make a change, and when to let go. let’s start with a tidbit that resonated with me

“often when we accept something we shouldn’t, we feel resignation, rather than serenity.”

the book, as you might have guessed, takes as its root the serenity prayer

grant me the serenity
to accept the things i cannot change
courage to change the things i can
and the wisdom to know the difference.

the quote above goes right to that difference. how do you know when to accept something and when to change it? the answer is often quite muddled, and so we need wisdom. one of the ways the wisdom can come to us is through feeling into a possible decision. acceptance, ideally, brings with it a feeling of relaxation, of a burden lifted. and no, resignation and serenity are absolutely not the same.

a propos differences, let’s talk about how eileen flanagan’s oeuvre is different from other self help books. flanagan, among other things, is active in the quaker community, and you can see the quiet friendliness that we tend to associate with quakers all over the book. she does not wield the heavy stick that i often find in self help books; rather, she tells stories and gives gentle suggestions. each chapter of the book ends with a few queries (another quaker tradition). i liked this one:

“if you were to translate the proverb, ‘trust in god, but tie up your camels’ for your own life, what would it say?”

good question. i like the idea of translating proverbs.

the book is also well-researched. for example, she cites another of my favourites, andrew greeley (a roman catholic super priest who churns out not only one bestselling novel after the other but is also a well-respected journalist and sociologist), who “has developed a tool he calls the ‘grace scale’ that measures a respondent’s image of god … how we conceive of and describe god has profound implications for how we live.” flanagan talks about this in a chapter entitled “the courage to question”.

the serenity prayer is most often associated with 12-step programs (alcoholics anonymous, overeaters anonymous, narcotics anonymous, etc.) interestingly enough, 12-step programs encourage their members to work on their image of god, even to manufacture one according to one’s needs. however, this is by no means a 12-step book; while it occasionally mentions concepts associated with “the program” and also tells the tale of someone in AA, these instances are just one among many. this is another thing i liked about “the wisdom to know the difference” – flanagan takes great care to present a diversity of experiences. the stories that populate self-help books often have a canned feel to it. there is always the 36-year old single female executive who is disillusioned with her career, right? flanagan uses those cliché sparingly; her illustrations seem a little more alive, for example when she traces the life of a middle class african american woman who is both bewildered and inspired by the history of her ancestors. this historical and cultural context is also something that sets flanagan apart.

i noticed that most of the sections i underlined where ones where flanagan cites others. a few more examples:

“we live in a culture [that encourages] people to pursue perfection and control. the result is inevitably frustration and angst.” in quoting another book i find quite helpful, the spirituality of imperfection, flanagan points out the “anxious determination to take control, to be in charge” engrained in our culture. replace that wilfulness with willingness, is the suggestion.

quoting st. teresa of avila:

“one day of humble self knowledge is better than a thousand days of prayer.”

and a quote from thomas keating’s invitation to love:

“the regular practice of contemplative prayer initiates a healing process that might be called ‘the divine therapy’.”

therese borchard: the pocket therapist

earlier this year, you heard me rave about therese borchard’s book beyond blue a few times. she has a new book out, the pocket therapist. i just received it and haven’t opened it yet. because i have so much trust in therese, i’ll do this: i’ll look at three random pages, tell you what i see there, and give you a few thoughts. ready?

page 50: imitate an eagle

that’s a great start. this being a pocket therapist (what is this? the sub title is: an emotional survival kit. maybe it’s a-tip-a-page?) maybe it’ll suggest to glide, let the winds take you, without resistance. maybe it’ll talk about being super protective of your little ones (little what? creative urges, perhaps?) ok, let’s see.

an eagle knows that a storm is approaching ling before the storm comes. he will hoist himself way up high and wait for the winds to come. then, when the storm arrives, he steers his wings so that the wind will raise him up and lift him above the storm. while the squall thunders below, the eagle is gliding above it. he hasn’t dodged the storm. he has simply used the fierce winds to lift him higher.

interesting! totally reminds me of norm amundson’s book on metaphors that i discussed a few days earlier.

how might this help someone with, say, bipolar disorder? we could say the storm resembles a manic episode. honing one’s sensitivities so that the “storm” can be anticipated is a very important skill to learn. how might one glide above it? that’s an interesting question. perhaps possible only for people with advanced meditation practice.

perhaps this is not what therese was referring to. how do you think this metaphor could help?

page 161: pin the anxiety on the unrealistic expectation

makes me think of pin the tail on the donkey. that involves tapping around in the dark (makes me think of the times we look around in the jungle of medication and techniques, hoping to stumble on one that might eventually work, at least for a while). it also involves trust – that there is someone who will make sure you don’t fall down the stairs or fall into the flower pots while you blindly stumble around. here’s therese:

i jot down irrational goals like “penning a new york times bestseller in my half hour of free time in the evening” … [or] “training for a triathlon with a busted hip.”

then my therapist and i arrive at some realistic options, like “writing an adequate blog” [or] “swimming … a few times a week but saving the triathlon for after retirement.” these goals don’t sound as sexy on paper as the overachievers’ but they are friends with sanity, and that’s all i care about.

aah! i get it. she separates the realistic from the unrealistic, and as she does that, the anxiety stays behind with what’s unrealistic.  can you see yourself using this techniqe?

page 71: bawl your eyes out

not much interpretation needed here, is there?

in a recent new york times piece, writer benedict carey refers to tears as “emotional perspiration.” …

for one, they remove toxins from our body. emotional tears (those formed in distress or grief) contain more toxic by-products than tears of irritation, like when you peel an onion, indicating that weeping is surely nature’s way of cleansing the heart and mind.

second, tears elevate mood. crying lowers a person’s manganese level, and the lwoer the better because overexposure to manganese can cause anxiety, nervousness, irritation … and the rest of what happens in your brain when you or your spouse are in a foul mood.

finally, crying is cathartic.

you’ve felt the same release that i have after a good sob, right?

it’s as if your body has been accumulating hurts and resentments and fears … until your limbic system runs out of room and then, like a volcano, the toxic gunk spews forth everywhere.

what’s crying like for you?  does it offer you release?

once again, therese borchard didn’t disappoint me. in fact, i already have someone in mind to whom i will give a copy of the book.

finding your way through grief

grief is not something that i have a lot experience with as a counsellor, so it was interesting to read through psychologist roberta temes’ solace – finding your way through grief and learning to live again. the book’s no-nonsense, empowering tone is set right in the first paragraph of the introduction:

you are experiencing this death in your unique way. your experience is valid for you. your response is right for you, for now. don’t let anyone suggest that you are mourning the wrong way. you are your own expert.

that resonates with me. there was a time when i felt ashamed that my father’s death had not affected me as much as my dog’s did; it would have been lovely to have heard these words.

like any good book about a specific subject in psychology and therapy, the principles used apply to more than just the topic, like this, for example:

trends come and trends go. philosophies are in vogue and out. stop listening to bereavement experts; they will change their minds and what is considered abnormal today will be obligatory tomorrow.

for example, there was a time when experts claimed that you must talk about the death, cry about the death, wail about the death. you were instructed to go directly to a psychiatrist if you were unable to loudly express your grief.

today we know better.

in line with this down-to-earth approach, temes peppers her books with a wide variety of suggestions from people who survived the death of a loved one, for example

suggestions from marion, a dog lover

my pets saved my life. when i couldn’t pull myself out from under the covers for anything else, i did for my pets. i recommend you get a pet or two or borrow on from a friend or a neighbour.

these suggestions are supplemented by people’s stories, told in their own words. i prefer these little biographical vignettes over the long-drawn-out narratives that often spike self-help books. you know the one: “one day, babette walked into my office. she was a tall brunette and worked at a prestigious bank in downtown san francisco. when she took off her jacket, i noticed her well-manicured hands shaking …” etc., etc. so thanks for getting to the point, roberta.

chapter 3 immediately drew my attention: “helping yourself” this is where you can really see roberta temes’ practical, life-affirming approach. the subheadings read

work is therapy
socializing is therapy
organizing is therapy
taking action is therapy
food is therapy
planning is therapy
religion is therapy
writing is therapy
art is therapy
learning is therapy
reading is therapy
sweet moments

she also doesn’t clobber the reader with simplistic “think positive” advice; in fact, in her appendix, where she lists more authors to read – something that i always appreciate in any book – she promises that the list will not contain anything that will estrange readers through overly confident and positive “smugness”.

the last page contains these words:

i wish your days to be filled with kindness and goodness and many reasons to smile. i wish your nights to be filled with secure sleep and sweet peace. i hope you follow a life-affirming path and i wish you a fine life ahead, full of good memories and laughter and love.

10 happy questions

as you know, questions have a special place in my heart (see this post on encouraging questions, for example.)

as i was preparing for a little workshop i facilitated today on solution focused coaching and counselling, i realized that my first discovery of the power of questions was not back in 1999, when i first really learned about the various delightful forms of brief therapy (solution focused brief therapy being one of them) but back in 1991, when i was studying to become a TRAGER® practitioner. TRAGER® is a form of bodywork that, among other things, asks gentle, curious, open questions about delightful possibilities we carry in our minds, hearts and bodies.

we gently shake out our hands, feel the weight, and ask: what could be lighter?

we let our arms hang down loosely and ask our shoulder joints: what could be freer?

we let our legs dangle from a massage table, allowing the calf muscles to relax and ask: what could be softer?

this shows that meaningful questions can be useful not only in one-on-one therapy, with the therapist posing the questions. they can have an important place even if we ask them of ourselves. in fact, questions like these are designed to bring us joy simply by asking them, without regard to what the reply might be.

other example of such happy questions are

  1. what puts a smile on my face?
  2. what feels good on my fingertips?
  3. what’s the beauty in this?
  4. what opens my heart?
  5. how does this delight me?
  6. what’s the song that makes my heart dance?
  7. what feels silky/cool/warm [whatever your favourite sensation is]?
  8. where in my body do i feel god/the creator/the universe right now?
  9. who do i love with all my heart?
  10. what does happiness look like?

what happy questions do you have?

(post script on october 19 – there is a fabulous companion post about this topic on joanna young’s blog – coaching questions of the season)

the intensive journal process

i haven’t written anything about journaling for a while, so i was very pleased when i got an offer to write a paid review for the progoff intensive journal® program. it was a particularly nice surprise because i actually own ira progoff’s at a journal workshop, the basic text and guide for using the intensive journal process.

this process provides active techniques that enable people to draw on their inner resources; it is, indeed, one of the early tools of personal growth.

progoff speaks quite poetically of the “tao of growth”, the intangible inner growth,

evanescent, like smoke going out the chimney. we now it exists, but its shape keeps changing. it has no shape that we can fix in our mind; we cannot contain it in any mold. we know it is real, but soon it as disappeared and is beyond us.

attempting to catch that smoke became like a zen koan to progoff. at this point, he says, he applied a procedure “of taking a problem we are dealing with on the rational level and converting it to the language of imagery. this is twilight imagery,” a technique that was to become part of the intensive journal process.

the benefits of journaling in this way are, according to progoff, not only of an intangible nature. thinking about this led him to recall

the phrase of william james when he describes the inner movement of our minds by saying that it is not a case of “i think it” but rather that “it thinks me.” the inner process works within the mind at the same time that it functions as a separate process and reaches beyond the mind into our actions.

i have never fully engaged with this journaling process; it sounds both intriguing and demanding. however, for a person who is at a stage where it seems necessary and desirable – delightful, even – to apply their time and energy to self-discovery, this is a goldmine.

the intensive journal process is an integrated system of writing exercises and therefore much more than a diary. it helps a person gain insights about personal relationships, career and special interests, body and health, dreams and imagery, and their own personal meaning and purpose of life. it brings fresh approaches to accessing creative capacities and untapped possibilities.

there are also rather inexpensive intensive journal inexpensive workshops available, in canada, the US and internationally. now i’m curious – maybe i should attend one …