These ten books have guided me from feeling like a total failure who had no idea how to cope with life, to where I am today. Where exactly that is is hard to say, and varies day to day and moment to moment. Mostly it’s content with life and able to see the silver lining. Mostly it’s feeling love and compassion for, and as sense of connection with, my fellow humans and the life in general. Not always, but mostly it doesn’t take too long to get back “on track.” Sometimes writing a blog post about thankfulness does it, sometimes just allowing the less connected and more “negative” feelings does it, and sometimes noticing unhelpful beliefs and being willing to let them go is what it takes. All of these books have in some way been my guide along the path of life. Some have long since gone out of my life again, some I still refer to regularly. I am thankful for all of them.
Women Who Love Too Much: When You Keep Wishing and Hoping He’ll Change
by Robin Norwood.
It’s a long time since I read this book. I have no idea what happened to my copy. But it deserves a place on this list because reading it was the first time that I had any inkling that the reason I kept getting involved with men who were no good for me might not be because I was a useless mess but because I’d learned ways of relating that could be unlearned. It opened my eyes. I realised I didn’t have to keep repeating the same mistakes. Very shortly after reading this book, I began a relationship with a man who had been my friend.
Someone said to me, “I didn’t think he was your type.”
I replied, “I decided to change my type.”
And, reader, I married him.
I read several of Lerner’s books way back when. Any one of them is worth reading, but for me anger was the most taboo emotion so it was where I needed most help. Lerner explains that we often use anger to try to change other people, but the only person we can truly change is ourselves. Very similar to Norwood’s message. She also writes “Anger is a signal and one worth listening to.” Anger comes about because our needs or wants are not being met, but that doesn’t mean it is someone else’s fault (or ours.) It just means we’ve developed ineffective ways of communicating, and Lerner is very good at pointing out how we got there and why. Mainly we fight to block anxieties we don’t feel able to face. Thus we perform a circular dance to maintain the status quo. Lerner also makes suggestions for how to change this dance. When I first read it, I wasn’t really able to take on board a lot of her suggestions, because I was still not able to let go of looking at the world through the lens of right or wrong. Lerner says, “Self-observation is not at all the same as self-blame, at which some women are experts.” I sure was.
Creating Love: The Next Great Stage of Growth
by John Bradshaw
Like Lerner, I have read many of Bradshaw’s books. This one is my favourite. I got me through the weeks after I’d had a miscarriage, but it did much more than that. For years it was my go-to book when I needed to think things through or when I felt confused. I even referenced this book in my Creative Writing MA dissertation – it helped me to create backgrounds for my characters and to understand how they came to be the way they were.
From Bradshaw I learned that forgiveness was not something I did for other people, but for myself.
From Bradshaw I learned that there is “first order” change and “second order” change. In first order change, we shift from one behaviour to another, but still within the same pattern – so someone stops smoking, but then eats compulsively instead. The change has taken place on the surface, but the original motivation for the behaviour is still the same. Second order change means going deeper, but it leads to lasting changes. Reading this, I realised why I hadn’t been able to make the changes Lerner suggested in the Dance of Anger.
Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life
by Bryon Katie
If Bradshaw pointed the way, Bryon Katie’s books have taken me through it. This was the first of her books I read, but Who Would You Be Without Your Story is equally good. I was initially drawn to read Loving What Is, because I kept hearing that accepting your circumstances was the key to happiness, and I wanted to be happier! Bryon Katie was mega-depressed when she had a sudden revelation that changed how she saw the world and led to a process she called The Work. I’ve mentioned it a few times on this blog. It is a simple process that of questioning beliefs, noticing how you react (Lerner’s self-observation again) noticing how you’d be without the belief, and then testing out what it feels like to believe it’s opposite – a turnaround. The book is mostly made up of dialogues with people as Katie takes them through the process. The Work is not a quick fix, but it resonated with me, and I’ve been doing it for close to ten years now. In that time I’ve come to see the world in a very different way to how I used to do.
A New Earth is hard to explain or review, and like Tolle’s better known book The Power of Now, people either love or hate it. If you’ve tried The Power of Now and found it confusing, this book is more accessible. Tolle explains the ego, and how it makes us want to make ourselves right and other wrong, but that if we then punish ourselves for that we’re caught in the same loop. (As Lerner says, self-observation and self-blame are not the same.) He also gives suggestions for how to move beyond the constant stream of thoughts that clutter our minds – how to notice the gaps, the inner peace. Reading this you realise (well I realised) that we have moments of peace each and every day. We just need to take time to notice them. Tolle refers to our negative emotions in their collective form as the “pain body” and says that it feeds on suffering. That’s why tabloid newspapers use such emotive headlines, or why governments try to terrify voters instead of engaging in rational debate. Tolle also says the way to break free from these negative emotions is to stop fighting them, to allow them. He gives the example of a woman who came to see him in a deeply unhappy state. He suggested she see what would happen if she allowed the unhappiness. Initially resistant, she found that when she allow it there was “space around it.”
If A New Earth provides the “why”, the The Sedona Method gives the “how”. It provides a way to allow and let go of difficult emotions and beliefs. The Sedona Method explains that we all have the same basic wants and that drive our behaviour. For example, one want is for approval. When we want approval we seek it outside ourselves, but we never feel that we have it, and it can lead to insincere people-pleasing. When we let go, we aren’t letting go of approval, but of wanting it; this calms us and we are then actually more likely to get what we wanted in the first place – though by then we usually feel okay about ourselves anyway.
Like The Work, it is not a quick fix. Also, like it, you initially use the process when you are not in a stressful situation but when you have space to consider, reflect and so are more able to let go. Eventually that changes, and it becomes part of everyday life. The first time this happened for me I was with someone who was in the grip of paranoia. As she told me stories that I knew weren’t true, I felt panic rising in me. How was I supposed to respond? Then I remembered that I didn’t need to try to change her, and that in fact I couldn’t. But I could attend to my feelings. So I welcomed the fear, it dissolved and I was able to remain calm with this person. This process is now part of my daily life.
Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life
by Marshall Rosenberg
I include this book with some misgivings. In Non Violent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg explains how the way we talk to each other fuels misunderstanding and violence – and that by changing our language we can create compassion and understanding. The aim is NVC is to maintain connection. At its root is the premise that we experience negative emotions such as fear, anger or sadness because our needs are not being met. These needs are universal and include the physical (eg: food and shelter) and the non-physical (eg: integrity and interdependence.) When we realise this we then use NVC to understand the unmet needs other people are trying to express.
Rosenberg writes about mediating with warring tribes in Nigeria and how one man said, “You people are murderers!” Rosenberg responded by acknowledging that this man’s need for safety was not being met.
I bought Non Violent Communication because, after years of doing The Work, I still sometimes found it hard to communicate in a new way, and this book seemed to provide the answer. The truth is that, although it can sometimes be extremely effective, I found the language Rosenberg recommends often cumbersome and awkward. He suggests that you ask your family and friends to bear with you while you master a new way of communication. I found that people often became irritated and felt patronised when I stumbled my way through. I also found that trying to figure out what someone’s needs might be in the heat of the moment meant I lost touch with my intuition. This was even after attending two workshops in NVC. So I gave up for a while and concentrated on letting go of beliefs and stories. I began to realise that I was naturally communicating in a more compassionate way. So Non Violent Communication is on this list because it did make me think, and is worth reading – it just didn’t hit the spot for me.
My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey
by Jill Bolte Taylor
Jill Bolte Taylor is a neuroanatomist (brain scientist.) She had a stroke in her thirties, on the left side of her brain. While she was experiencing this stroke she was able to observe it – when her left brain functioned well enough – and felt euphoria when it didn’t. During her recovery, Bolte Taylor fully regained her brain functioning – although it took eight years. During that time she chose to let go of the stress she’d experienced prior to her stroke and to keep the new peace she’d found. I love this book because I am at heart a skeptic, and reading what a scientist has to say about the effects of thoughts was exactly what I needed to trust my intuition.
Dying To Be Me: My Journey from Cancer, to Near Death, to True Healing
by Anita Moorjani
Strictly speaking, this isn’t a self-help book, but it helped me, so I’m including it. Anita Moorjani was admitted to hospital in 2006 with terminal cancer and not expected to last the night. She did survive, and the cancer disappeared from her body. She credits this to the Near Death Experience she had. While science can explain some of this experience, it cannot explain how she was able to recount to a doctor the conversation he’d had with her husband in another room while she was in the coma. Moorjani writes that what she learned from her NDE was that she had been afraid to live her own life, and that to live healthily she needed to have love and compassion for herself. Reading her book made me realise that for all the changes I’d made, at times I could still be hard on myself.
by Kristen Neff
Neff is a professor who has spent more than a decade researching the effects of self-compassion. Her findings are that self-compassion motivates us, helps us to change unhelpful habits and is there for us through failures as well as successes. By having compassion for ourselves, we also have compassion for others. I’ve written a review of Self Compassion here.
The Compassionate Mind: A New Approach to Life’s Challenges
by Paul Gilbert
I love when science and spirituality are in agreement. In this book, Gilbert fully explains the workings of the human brain, how it evolved and why we feel emotional states such as anger, anxiety, competitiveness and compassion. It’s in our genes as well as in our conditioning. Gilbert explains how competitiveness has got out of hand in most modern societies. He explains very clearly how the mind affects the body, and has exercises for developing compassion, including self-compassion.
And a few bonus recommendations:
Return to Love by Marianne Williamson (Williamson wrote that famous speech that Nelson Mandela read at his inauguration.)
It’s The Thought That Counts by David Hamilton (Another from a scientist who became fascinated with the placebo effect and explains why thoughts have such an effect on our bodies.)
My Mother, My Self by Nancy Friday
Feel The Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers
F**k It by John C. Parkin (A book about letting go that’s funny and profound as well as profane.)