Book Review: How We Heal and Grow
I have been following Dr. Jeffery Smith’s blog, Moments of Change for some time now and was very honored when he asked to send me a pre-publication copy of his new book, How We Heal and Grow: The Power of Facing Your Feelings for review. I have long been a fan of his lucid, clear writing and his gift for so clearly explaining the often mysterious and elusive interplay of therapy. This book has proved to be no exception to that rule.
If you read only one book about healing this year, or even this decade, let it be How We Heal and Grow. The book is well written and easy to read, with clear prose and carefully delineated arguments. Despite being a practicing psychiatrist for a number of years, he writes in a refreshingly jargon-free manner. The only thing that slows you down is stopping to highlight yet another passage or think deeply about some profound “aha” moment you just had. This is not a “quick-fix” self help book (you know the kind: Complete Mental Health in 30 days by only eating Rutabagas!) but a profound, responsible, serious look at what it is that constitutes healing and how you go about it. So much of what Dr. Smith wrote resonated with my own experiences of healing; not least, his acknowledgement that healing can be a lengthy and repetitive process. He explains that process so clearly, making it easier to trust that committing to the process really will bring about a fuller, more enriching life. He is also adamant about our need to have another person – not always necessarily a therapist, by the way – witness our feelings to bring about the catharsis of healing.
The book starts with a wonderful analogy of a cave, a bridge and a village, which is illustrated in the cover art. Dr. Smith uses this analogy as a communicative arc, returning throughout the book to provide a visceral example of the process. The analogy holds the narrative together and provided an excellent way to continue seeing the forest while studying the trees. In fact, he made very effective use of analogy throughout the book. My favorite, again because it fit so well with my experience, was of the “castles” we build to protect us at a young age when our resources are so scarce that turn into the “prisons” that hold us now that there is no enemy outside our gates.
While his use of metaphor helps the reader to deeply grasp his thesis, what was even more impressive was the integrity with which he wrote. This book was a weaving together of Dr. Smith’s experience as a healer; his attempt to look deeply into the therapeutic process and truly understand the essentials of what truly heals and the precepts garnered from scientific research of the mind and brain. He lays out his arguments with precision, carefully identifying knowledge gleaned from other sources and being painstakingly clear what was based upon his personal experience. He always takes a great deal of care to identify his beliefs, never treating his own opinions as facts. Throughout the book, he highlighted key points, terminology, people and resources in a different typeface and format, making these references easy to find. The book itself is a treasure, but also provides a wealth of other resources that may be used by the reader. There is a humbleness to his approach that made what he is saying even more powerful.
This is an exchange in which conscious awareness and empathic connection with another being, whether internalized or external, makes it possible for us to face distress and receive the other’s calm presence and perspective. In doing so, we are able to emerge from the isolated and timeless state of terror that engulfs us when our brains perceive that danger is at hand. Furthermore, once this exchange has taken place, our reactivity to the original trigger is permanently transformed. As we cross the point of no return on the Bridge, our experience is brought out of the primitive realm of solitary, unspeakable horror and joins forever the stream of events that make up shared life.
As I stated earlier, much of what he said resonated very strongly with my own experience. There were many of those delightful shocks of recognition; of someone articulating something I felt but could not have put into words. I am so grateful that he wrote this book, because I finally have an answer to provide people with when they asked how did my healing actually occur. I have bought a copy of the book for a friend who asks me that question often, and then has to endure sitting there while I struggle to pin down just what it was that actually helped me get better. Dr. Smith identifies two major elements of healing: Catharsis and Connection Distress. He defines Catharsis as sharing feelings with an empathetic witness and sees it as the common thread woven through many different types of therapy and even our everyday life as the process by which we heal. Connection Distress is an explanation of how our deep need for connection drives us to internalize new values in our conscience to replace the wrong and hurtful lessons we learned from our abusers. Dr. Smiths’ careful explanations of development make it clear how we form our defenses, the purposes they served and how to go about dismantling them. While I approached this book from the standpoint of someone who experienced long term trauma in childhood, I believe anyone, with any level of problems, or someone just seeking to grow and develop, would find this a useful book. But I very much appreciated how clearly and thoroughly he addressed the effects of trauma on our development as well as the “castles” that we created to survive it.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Healing can be such a confusing, painful, difficult process but I think that Dr. Smith’s explanation of the healing process, while not a magic pill that allows you to avoid the often painful work of moving through your feelings, does provide hope of healing. The kind of hope that gives you the courage to face the work. He’s not just saying “trust me, this works” and expecting you to blindly follow. He lays out how it is the healing actually takes place and provides a blueprint for how to proceed. There were parts of this book that were of immediate help to me in the work I am doing in therapy, and I expect to return to it again and again as a rich resource.
And while I approached this book as a therapy client seeking to heal, I think it would also be extraordinarily useful for mental health professionals, both in it’s elucidation of the healing process and in the wealth of references it provides. This book is the transmission of years of wisdom learned in the trenches and should be required reading for aspiring therapists. I think they would find the time reading it well spent. And yes, I am giving a copy of it to BN. 🙂