Books I’ve found illuminating, insightful, or in some way helpful
Emotional Blackmail by Susan Forward
When we grow up without good boundaries, it’s easier for people to emotionally “blackmail ” us–that is, to use our guilt, fear or sense of obligation to get us to do things they want us to do, things we might not choose for ourselves. Author Susan Forward explains how and why this works on us, but to me the most important part of the book are the final few chapters, in which she walks through the process of considering a demand made on us, deciding how we really feel about it, and then choosing language to talk about our decision in ways that set clear boundaries and empower us. The book is clearly written and a quick read. It’s the kind of book that I read once and then pull out to consult again when a new situations comes up. I have literally followed her process step by step and found it helpful. I’d recommend it for anyone who has struggled with setting and maintaining boundaries with the people in our lives.
The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
I’m very interested in research-based approaches to, well, anything. Gretchen Rubin spent a year investigating the research behind living happily and tried to put many of those things into practice. The tone of the book is light, which makes it an entertaining and pleasant way to take in the research. Rubin also has a website with on-going stories and interviews on the same themes.
Yoga: The Path to Holistic Health by B.K.S. Iyengar
I sometimes use this comprehensive guide at home to put together sequences of poses to help with both physical and emotional challenges. I can’t do all the poses (for example full backbends or headstands) but I can do modified versions of most things. My teacher taught me many modifications, and the book also provides different alternatives. I should add this caveat: I spent more than four years working fairly intensively with an Iyengar teacher. I think it might be hard to benefit from this book if you hadn’t had any in-person instruction on the poses.
Growing up Again: Parenting Ourselves, Parenting Our Children by Jean Illsley Clark and Connie Dawson
This is a book I read part of years ago, as part of a six-week women’s group. I have recently wanted to revisit it to think more deeply about ways to parent/mother myself. I have also shared it with a friend who was worried about meeting her own daughter’s needs, because she felt the poor mothering she had received had not prepared her to meet her child’s needs. The book talks about what we all need at different ages and stages of development. If we didn’t get the right nurturing or support at a particular age, the book also suggests specific ways we can provide it for ourselves now. Many of the suggestions don’t necessarily appeal to me, but sometimes they get me thinking about things that would be useful. In the end, we all have to find for ourselves what rituals or items offer us comfort.
The Gifts of Imperfection: Your Guide to a Wholehearted Life by Brene Brown
Brene Brown encourages us to be brave enough to be honest about our lives, including our imperfections and limitations. Her recommendations include letting go of what people think, of perfectionism, of numbing strategies, of scarcity thinking, of our need for certainty, of comparisons to others, of exhaustion as a symbol of how important we are, of anxiety as a lifestyle, of self-doubt and of being cool. Each recommendation for letting go comes with some stories and examples from her life or from the lives of others. I didn’t love the book, which I feel only skims the surface of topics that are indeed crucial important but extremely difficult to change. I complained to my therapist that the examples of shame seemed superficial and unthreatening compared to the deep shame I struggled with myself. And yet. I continue to pick it up from time to time and read passages; I almost always find something that resonates. I suppose that’s because the list of things we should give up is an accurate listing of things we often struggle with. Anyway, I don’t think this book is a Guide to a Wholehearted Life, as its subtitle suggests, but it does speak in a beautiful, compassionate, self-accepting voice that is a great model for how we should talk to ourselves. And I gave a copy to my son’s high-achieving, brilliant and anxious girlfriend, hoping she might go easier on herself.
Go Only As Fast As Your Slowest Part Feels Safe To Go by Robyn Posin
This is the sort of book you read slowly, while you are also reading an entertaining novel. It is made up of short chapters, 3-7 pages most of them, from the the author’s own life. She gave up a demanding, high status job in New York City to live out of a van for a while, take on a range of volunteer and temporary jobs, run a business related to feminist festivals. Now she provides therapy very part time and otherwise lives “quietly and contentedly” in Ojai, California. She describes the experiences and lessons that led her to decide to live at a slower pace, to allow herself to do what she authentically feels like doing, to say no to things that others wanted her to do but didn’t fit her own needs. While there are many small lessons to learn, the overarching message is that you can and should respect the pace that feels right for your own life, unaffected by what others think it should be. “Go only as fast as your slowest part feels safe to go” has become a favorite saying of my therapist, who introduced me to Robyn Posin’s work. You can find more about Posin and her counter-cultural slowness on her website.
The Emotionally Absent Mother: A Guide to Self-Healing and Getting the Love You Missed by Jasmin Lee Cori
The first sections of this book describe the ways in which a Good Mother (or someone acting in this roe) supports the healthy emotional development of a child. Children need a secure attachment to a Good Mother in order to feel that we will get what we need and that the world is a safe place. A secure attachment gives us a home base from which we can explore the world and where we can retreat when the world is confusing or frightening.
Insecure attachment can take various forms. In the self-sufficient form, children who have not had mothering that responds to their need for attachment and affection may turn off their “wanting,”or at least disconnecting from it, so that it sits, unattended to, in primitive and urgent form, in the unconscious. They grow up taking care of their own practical needs but often poorly skilled at recognizing their own emotional needs or those of others.
In its anxious form, insecure attachment is characterized by fear of abandonment and anger about being abandoned. They can be clingy and needy, but also hostile and rejecting if Mother (or others) reach out to them, because they don’t trust that the care is real or will last. Adults may “punish” others who do not see and meet their emotional needs. They may hate to be alone in times of distress. Alternatively, a child with an anxious attachment to her mother may grow up to be a care-taker, especially if caring for her mother was a way of getting attention and approval.
A child with disorganized attachment (often the result of abuse, parental addiction or severe depression) feels confused, sometimes attached, sometimes fearful or angry. Children with disorganized attachment may also be caretakers of their parents too, since the real caretaker is not competent, and it is safer to give care than to want care.
I didn’t feel that the different types are clearly distinguished–they are described very briefly and there is a lot of overlap across the categories. I also don’t know that it matters so much. If we have a mother wound, we have a mother wound. But perhaps I would have understood better if I’d been able to finish the book. But this is one of several books on psychology that I only read part of. Laziness? Boredom? No, even though those are things that sometimes make me stop reading. Instead, I stopped because some of the examples in the book felt too painful. Maybe they weren’t the same situations I had experienced but something in them resonated with my own experience and made me too distressed to continue. One of these days, I’ll probably pick it up again.
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk
Bessel van der Kolk is a leading voice in the branch of psychology that emphasizes not talk therapy, but rather attention to what is happening in the body of a person who has experienced trauma. Those physical reactions are what make clients feel that they are still in the midst of a traumatic event, even when it has passed and they are safe. Thanks to the brain’s capacity to develop and change, even in adults, there are a variety of treatments besides talk therapy which offer the opportunity to help heal the impact of trauma.
This is another book I haven’t (yet) been able to read all the way through. Some pages still felt “hot” to me, even the last time I picked it up (2019). I’m doing better these days, however, so maybe I can pick it up again. In the meantime, I have watched short online videos of van der Kolk describing components of his work, and I find them really helpful; they 1) help to explain what I’ve experienced and 2) normalize it as something that happens to human beings. Being traumatized doesn’t mean we are weak or strong, bad or good, or any of the judgments I may have thrown at myself at various times. It simply means we are human.
Any book by Thich Nhat Hahn
Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn is such a source of wisdom! In a few words, he’s able to bring me back to my calm, still, timeless core. Or if he can’t exactly bring me back, he at least reminds me that this calm exists and that I can know it again at some point. He provides very practical guidance on integrating mindfulness into everyday life and into family relationships. His books tend to be short, with short chapters that you can read in just a few moments for a daily dose of mindful inspiration.
Currently on my very long to-read list
Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving by Pete Walker
I became interested in this book when I read a review at Lucky Otter’s Haven (a couple of years ago now). Most of the time, I am more interest in practice than in theory, so I was especially interest to read that Walker discusses the things we can do for our own healing, such affirmations, self-mothering, mindfulness and this one: how to grieve. I have no idea how to do that.
Wheel of Initiation: Practices for Releasing Your Inner Light by Julie Tallard Johnson
This book was recommended on a blog I like. It draws on the Native American medicine wheel and the Vedic wheel to guide readers through the transformation of habitual patterns, apathy, and resistance. The author argues that in contemporary society, we lack the rites of initiation that help us let go of a past habits and initiate us into a new state of being. The reviews on Amazon are quite glowing, so I’m interested in learning more.
The Survivor’s Guide to Sex: How to Create Your Own Empowered Sexuality After Childhood Sexual Abuse by Staci Haines
This book is out of print so I’ll need to dig it up from a library–once libraries open up again. (COVID, sigh.) But the title feels very relevant to me, if not necessarily easy to read about. It’s a topic I have spent time working on, even with a sex therapist, but I continue to feel pretty stuck in the healing of my sexuality.
Yoga Mind, Peaceful Mind by Mary Nurriestearns & Rick Nurriestearns
A friend recommended this to me. Given that yoga is one of the most healing practices I have ever engaged in, I want to take a closer look here.
Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of the Angry and Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft
I have often tried to figure out what motivates men like my first husband. Though we’ve been divorced for years and I’m happily remarried, I still find myself wanting to make sense of what happened in our relationship, and I’m hoping this book will offer me some insight.