Do self-help books really help? Is it possible for us to make significant improvements in our psychological well-being by reading books? I do believe that some people can benefit from some of these books. The various skills which comprise emotional intelligence aren’t innate. We have to learn them, so it isn’t an unreasonable idea that we might be able to improve on some of our skills through guided programs of self-study. In this country the self-help field is now an eleven billion dollar industry, and virtually every therapist I know regularly recommends self-help books to their clients. Unfortunately, there is quite a glut of these books out there, and most of them, in my opinion, aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. But over the past three decades, I have found a small number of them to be exceptionally helpful to my clients, provided that they actually read them carefully, and do the practices and exercises recommended. There are four books, in particular, that I recommend most frequently:
1. Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach, Ph.D. I mention this one first because it deals with one of the most vital and basic of all the life skills – the capacity to accept, with ease and open-heartedness, our moment-to-moment experience, just as it is. Much of the time most of us are in contention with life. We struggle with ourselves, we fight with our circumstances, and we go on campaigns to change the people we love. In addition, a huge number of Americans suffer from what the author calls “the trance of unworthiness.” They live with a relentless “inner critic” which constantly belittles and berates them, rendering any sense of relaxed well-being impossible. This book makes accessible to westerners one of the great “secrets” of Eastern spirituality – that a natural peace and happiness already exists in our own awareness. Brach shows how the regular practice of resting in present-centered awareness can end our contention with life and awaken the natural happiness that is the birthright of every human being.
2. Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, by David Burns, M.D. This is the first book to introduce the methods of cognitive therapy to the general public. The author describes cognitive therapy as a “fast-acting technology of mood modification that you can learn to apply on your own.” The basic theory is that our emotions are reactions to our beliefs, judgments, assessments – our ideas – about ourselves and others. That means that if we change the way we think we also change the way we feel. In cognitive therapy, problematic moods like depression and anxiety are viewed as consequences of habitual “cognitive distortions” — faulty patterns of thinking that are often automatic and largely unconscious. When we become more aware of these distortions, and learn how to examine them rationally, we can improve our moods dramatically. Cognitive therapy teaches us not to believe everything we think. It puts us in charge of our thoughts and helps us own them instead of being owned by them. In a survey conducted in all fifty states, this was the book most frequently recommended by mental health professionals for depressed patients.
These two books help us alter our relationship with our own inner experience. The next two teach vital skills for improving our relationships with others:
3. Nonviolent Communication, by Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D. The author’s childhood in the rough streets of Detroit awakened in him a preoccupation with finding the answers to two questions: “What happens to disconnect us from our compassionate nature, leading us to behave violently and exploitatively? And conversely, what allows some people to stay connected to their compassionate nature under even the most trying circumstances?” He developed a four-step process which helps people resolve conflicts peacefully (both personal and public, domestic and international). The method is so effective that it’s been used to facilitate peace processes in places like Rwanda, the Middle East, and Northern Ireland. Nonviolent communication is also amazingly helpful in developing and sustaining personal relationships based on mutual respect, compassion and cooperation.
4. The Seven Principles for Marking Marriage Work, by John Gottman, Ph.D. I recommend this book to virtually every couple with whom I do couple counseling. Gottman applied rigorous scientific methods to the study of relationships. His couples stayed overnight at his famous Seattle “Love Lab,” an apartment at the University of Washington where all their interactions were observed and recorded through video cameras and microphones. Through painstaking analysis of these interactions, Gottman discovered the four negative behavior patterns (he calls them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) – criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling — that inevitably doom any relationship. The book also lays out the seven basic principles that enable couples to develop and sustain deep friendship with one another. It is this abiding friendship, he believes, which is the secret of all successful long-term partnerships.
These books have widespread appeal because the life skills that they attempt to teach – mindful awareness, cognitive self-examination, compassionate communication, and deep friendliness – are all vital cornerstones of human happiness. If I were designing an Emotional Intelligence curriculum, I would make all of them required reading.