Jennie Steinberg, LMFT, LPCC
“You have to read this book. It’s called “Be Your Own Windkeeper”. It’s about how women need to be more empowered. Oh, but there’s wind! And the wind can make us goddesses. But do you know who takes our wind? Men! They just take it, all the time, because they are the lightning-bearers!”
-Monica and Phoebe, from the TV show Friends
Over 500 million dollars a year is spent on self-help books in the United States. A lot of these books are fluff – 300+ pages of words that make you feel empowered (or, depending you your disposition, roll your eyes) while you’re reading them but don’t really have a lasting impact on your life.
As a therapist, I read a lot of books with their roots in the self-improvement field. And yes – many of them are lacking. But some of them shift the way I see the world, so that when I finish them I am never the same. These paradigm-changing books challenge things I thought to be true. I always know when I’m reading one, because I have to come up for air and say things to my partner like:
“I wish I could just stuff every word of this book into my head to have at the ready whenever it’s relevant.”
“If only there were a way for me to get every person I’ve ever met to read this!”
“Oh my god, this is amazing! This is transformative! Listen to this passage…”
These are four of those self-help books.
1. Daring Greatly
The author: Brené Brown’s name is practically synonymous with our contemporary understanding of shame, vulnerability, perfectionism, and wholeheartedness. She has one of the top viewed TED Talks of all time, called The Power of Vulnerability. She continues to do research, lead trainings, and educate the public about leaning into discomfort in order to live more authentically.
The myths this book challenges: Vulnerability is weakness. Shame is something that can be avoided if you try hard enough. It’s best to be self-sufficient and not need anyone else.
The moral of the story: Connection is why we’re all here, and the only way to pursue it in an authentic way is to let ourselves be seen. But there’s a problem: a lot of us don’t want to show our true selves because vulnerability is terrifying. When you make a decision to be truly vulnerable and share a piece of yourself, you’re effectively putting your heart on the table with a clumsy splat and saying, “This is me. Do with that as you will.” You hope that the other person responds with compassion, loving kindness, empathy – because that’s the ultimate antidote to shame. But there’s always the risk that the person can instead say, “yeah, I see you and I find you lacking.” But ultimately, taking this risk is the only way to live a wholehearted life.
I’ve read this book twice, and if there were one book I could get the entire world to read, it would be this one. It also has a sequel, Rising Strong, which resonated really strongly with me but seems to be less universal.
2. Hold Me Tight
The author: Sue Johnson is the mind behind Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy, or EFT for short. Her modalities have upwards of an 80% success rate in helping couples to mend their relationships, and John Gottman, the father of contemporary couples therapy, has embraced her methods.
The myth this book challenges: While children have emotional needs and seek to get them met, healthy adults are self-sufficient and do not have strong emotions related to attachment needs.
The moral of the story: Relationships are not a cold, simple series of agreements and rules, but rather they are emotional bonds – two people connecting and becoming interdependent on one another. Through understanding your attachment needs and communicating your primary emotions with your partner, you can increase intimacy and closeness, and begin to heal old wounds.
3. Sexual Intelligence
The author: Marty Klein is an extraordinary presenter, and in addition to his five books, he publishes a blog and newsletter, Sexual Intelligence, with thousands of subscribers and he gives talks all over the world. On a personal note, the first time I saw Marty Klein speak was about a decade ago. I had just finished my first year of graduate school, and he transformed my perspective on human sexuality. He taught me to question the idea of “normal sex” and that kink is about consensual power dynamics, not about scary people doing terrible things. In short, he made me the sex-positive therapist I am today.
The myths this book challenges: There is a right way to be sexual, and it consists of being simultaneously “normal” and spontaneous. Sex should remain the same throughout the lifetime of a relationship.
The moral of the story: Sex looks different for different people. It’s about connecting, tuning into each other, and sharing your body in an intimate way. All of the sexual things we do are “sex,” and “foreplay” is not a useful concept. More importantly, neither is “normal.” If you and your partner are struggling with sexual issues, or if you’re struggling with questions about whether what you’re interested in is okay, this is a transformative book.
4. Staring at the Sun
The author: Irvin Yalom is the foremost humanistic-existential therapist of our time. A professor in Stanford’s psychology department, he is one of the most sought out keynote speakers at therapy conferences, even at his present age of 85. He has written over a dozen books, some of which are for therapists, and others of which are “teaching novels” written for a lay audience. I’ve had the profound fortune to see him speak, as evidenced by this photograph:
The myth this book challenges: While the fact that every one of us will someday die is something most people know, the majority of us aren’t really affected by it.
The moral of the story: Everyone is affected by their awareness of the unpredictability and inevitability of death. For some people, this manifests as extreme difficulty in making decisions. For others, it looks like desperately seeking out experiences that cause an adrenaline surge. For still others, the experience is one of debilitating anxiety. And for most people, it feels like a never-ceasing, intangible sense of “not enough”. However, there’s a positive flip-side to this: We are driven by our existential awareness to try to live more fully than we would if death were not part of our lives.