Most of us write. We write notes for ourselves and for others. We write blogs. Some of us write reports. Many of us write pamphlets and fact sheets in order to provide information that may be of assistance to others. As a psycholgist I am interested in how best to put ideas in a written form that may assist people who wish to have an insight to a psychological problem. In doing so I want to alert people to some of the ideas that may help them regardless of whether they have already consulted me or not.
When researching what other writers have said about their intentions in writing, I was struck by Goleman’s comment in his 1996 preface to Emotional Intelligence. He
wrote that as both psychologist and journalist he was struck by two opposing trends: the portrayal of growing calamity in our shared emotional life and the offering of hopeful remedies. He said that he wished to serve as a guide through the scientific insights into emotions so that the reader could gain better understanding of some of their most perplexing moments, not only in their own life but also in the world around them. This mirrors my intent perfectly.
At the same time as a writer and therapist, I ask myself about what engages me in my reading, particularly when I am exploring other people’s approaches to writing. How do other writers engage their readership? In particular, I am interested in the writer who is also a therapist and is writing to a mixed audience of other therapists and an unknown readership.
In his preface to his collection of stories, Love’s Executioner, Yalom suggested that as therapists we cannot adopt the high ground of possible superiority, but instead, speak of ourselves and our problems because “our life, our existence, will always be riveted to death, love to loss, freedom to fear, growth to separation (p15)”. We are, he said, all in this together. Yalom’s engaging stories are about the process of therapy: the development of the patient as well as the therapist. I have found this helpful in looking at my own work, as I have found with other therapists such as Paul Valent and Barbara Coltart who have written of their experiences and shared their stories. Reading allows me to stand back and reflect on myself. I want to assist my reader to do the same.
Clearly no one book or approach is going to appeal to all. At the recent World Congress for Psychotherapy, I mused with the audience who came from all over the world, how they might approach their writing for their readership.
One of the most successful books that I am aware of is Dr. Russ Harris’s The Happiness Trap. It is an engaging book that introduces the reader to the principles of
Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Positive Psychology. Early on in the book he introduces the reader to the idea that often our solution lies at the heart of the problem. For instance, a person who is anxious about being rejected avoids social engagement; someone who is overweight, eats for comfort; the couple who is experiencing marital tension, avoid each other. By encouraging the reader to actively read and respond to the ideas presented he challenges them to go beyond the superficial desire to be happy, wealthy or successful and to reflect on what really makes them happy, wealthy and successful even if sometimes it is uncomfortable.
Another useful book is Forsyth and Eifert’s The Mindfulness Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety. It requires the reader to work steadily through the chapters in sequential order, completing the various questionnaires and exercises. People report that they find it helpful, particularly if they can take their time and reflect on the work that they are doing.
I have written two self-help books: Despite Pain: Learning to Manage Pain is written for people who have chronic pain and Jumping the Loop, for those who have depression. Both books are very different in style from Harris and Eifert & Forsyth. Both are short: 140 and 122 pages respectively. I chose to write short books because in my experience many people have a number of half-finished self-help books on their shelves. In both books I have invited the reader to look at their lives and their relationship with either Pain or Depression. By doing so, as well as offering current scientific and medical thinking around each condition, I have invited the reader to become acquainted with their particular condition and to stand back from it and understand the language associated with it so that they can reflect on how they accommodate and respond to it.
The device I used in Despite Pain was to engage the reader to consider the rules that Pain had established in their lives. For instance, Pain causes confusion by constantly changing; Pain hates signs of strength or success; Pain detests humour and lust for life. The reader is invited to regain their life and displace Pain from behind the steering wheel to the back seat of their life.
In Jumping the Loop I have taken various literary figures who are able to reflect depression to the reader. I found Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina particularly helpful because Anna has her opposite in the character of Levin. Both Anna and Levin are depressed but each responds to their depression in a different way. I also found the characters of Eeyor from The House at Pooh Corner and Marvin the robot from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy offered a light but also accurate picture of how depression influences how we look and respond to life when depressed.
All the books mentioned here reflect a western approach. I wonder how they talk to people of Asia, the Middle East and Africa. At the Congress I mused with the audience who came from a number of different cultures and approaches how they might engage a reader. In asking the question I was keen to know what stories they would tell and how they might weave their knowledge into those stories. Indeed, when I now reflect on this question, I wonder what we have to learn from the rich literature of Africa, Asia and the Middle East. What stories do they tell? What is their eqivalent to Aesop’s Fables, to the fairy stories that we in the West are so familiar with?
Literature provides us with oceans of metaphors and examples. One of my favourites is the Russian story of the Blue Bird of Happiness: the apparently fruitless searching of the Blue Bird of Happiness by two children, who on their return home, find it sitting on the step to the door of their home.
A good book is one that allows us to look within ourselves as we identify with the characters. Hillman argued in his essay, What does the Soul Want?, that while we
strive for perfection it is through our imperfections that we are human. This is what a good novel reveals. He also said that “Literature has been friendly to us … giving us psychology in the fictitious.”
An Islamic story that tells of the importance for the weaver to leave at least one mistake in a woven carpet lest he assume the equal perfection of Allah. This is the lesson we must all learn: that none of us is perfect and we must live with our imperfections. Therapy allows us to come to this realisation so that we can live with ourselves more comfortably. If my writing can help a person reach an acceptance of themselves, then I will think I have been successful.
Forsyth, J. & Eifert, G. (2007). The Mindfulness &Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Goleman, D. (1996). Emotional Intelligence. Bloomsbury.
Harris, R. (2007). The Happiness Trap. Exisle.
Hillman, J. (1994). Healing Fiction. Spring publications.
Price, P. (2014). Jumping the Loop. Authorhouse.
Price, P. (2005). Despite Pain: Learning to Manage Chronic Pain. Sid Harta.
Yalom, I. (1989). Love’s Executioner. Perrenial Classics.