Striving to be a better person can be difficult. Personal growth is hard to measure in the moment and moving forward can be discouraging. But, thankfully, you don’t have to do it alone. Support can be found in these news self-help books reviewed in our September/October 2017 issue.
Using Science to Get Over Anxiety, Depression, Anger, Freak-Outs, and Triggers
Unfuck Your Brain does a great job of filtering its readers out with its salty title. If language offends, pass this book by—but those who skip it will also miss amazing and thoughtful insights.
Harper, a licensed professional counselor with a PhD in counselor education and supervision, has particular experience working with people who have experienced trauma. The book is full of useful suggestions for dealing with the mind-messes commonly caused by trauma and other mishaps in the past.
“A trauma can be an accident, an injury, a serious illness, a loss…or any kind of life event that kicks your ass,” she writes, noting that what causes one person to be unable to cope might be fine for someone else. “We don’t know why some things are worse than others for some people.”
Harper’s discussion of how the brain works to process memories is invaluable for how it traces the brain’s attempts to ensure safety, which can actually lead to inappropriate freakouts. This is essential reading for those who want to understand why their minds so often seem uncontrollable, and it offers plenty of realistic tips for supporting healing.
The book abounds with practical advice—from ways to ground and show self-compassion to writing, going outside, and changing habits—that can help audiences manage their own issues, as well as for getting professional help when needed. Dr. Faith is a hoot with heart, and her guide is full of workable, professional advice, as well as it is replete with sarcasm, good humor, and grace.
SARAH WHITE (August 27, 2017)
My Journey Toward Self-Love One Strand at a Time
This memoir about learning to value yourself despite social expectations is doused in wit and self-reflection.
Rhonda Eason’s book is the honest story of how one black woman conquered an insurmountable challenge: her hair.
After looking around at the long, bouncy locks of the women in her immediate family, Eason concluded that if hair is a woman’s glory, some black women do not experience its magnificence. The revelation hit her in elementary school, when she first began dreaming that her life would be transformed if only she had long, silky hair.
Hers is a realistic, familiar plight. Media images and societal views of beauty adversely affect girls and women who don’t quite measure up to these standards. Eason’s clash led to a lifetime of chasing the ephemeral hairstyle that would make her feel beautiful and worthy.
Each chapter begins with a quote and a compelling title, from “A Jheri Curl Saved My Life” to “Wiggy, wiggy, wiggy, wiggy,” before revealing one of Rhonda’s hair stories. These tales are sometimes raw and embarrassing, such as when a bird pooped in her hair and she mistook it for extra juicy Jheri curl moisturizer. Eason is a natural storyteller, though descriptions of her hairstyles—from cornrows and relaxers to weaves and crochet braids—would have been enhanced by photographs.
Engaging details about colorful family members and life experiences—from the military to Eason’s acting aspirations to the death of her father––serve as a backdrop. While the book is seemingly not intended to speak for anyone other than Eason, it does contain some assumptions about black women and what they supposedly prefer when it comes to their hair.
The humorous “can I get a witness” tone does not mask the sociocultural and political aspects of the book; for example, through Rhonda’s stories about serving in the military, racism surrounding black women is presented as subtle and systemic.
To Hair and Back is doused in wit and self-reflection. Eason learned to value herself despite the texture of her crown, and this book will encourage others to take a similar stance.
KAAVONIA HINTON (August 27, 2017)
The Direct Approach to Lasting Peace, Happiness, and Love
Stephen Bodian’s Beyond Mindfulness explores an out-there concept: there is another, accessible level of awareness even beyond mindfulness. In his book, Bodian shares his thoughts on how and why people should work toward it.
Bodian found that while he derived great benefits from years of meditation, at some point mindfulness left him disengaged with life, as if he were always observing events rather than participating.
Over time, he accessed awakened awareness, which he describes as authentic, spontaneously present, always accessible awareness of things as they truly are. Entering into such awareness breaks down the illusion of separateness from other beings and from the universe itself.
The book argues that people at all levels of meditation, even those who have never tried it before, can reach that realm of awareness. His recommendations may go over the heads of many; this is work that must be read and worked through consistently if one is to move toward a breakthrough.
There’s not a clear path or set of steps that can be followed to achieve such awareness, which sometimes seems paradoxically explained; different aspects and qualities of awakened awareness are explored throughout. It may be a state that is accessible to all, but it doesn’t seem to be one that is easily taught.
At the very least, Beyond Mindfulness brings awareness about such awareness, and the book’s stories, meditations, and pointers may even open a window to experiencing the state itself.
SARAH WHITE (August 27, 2017)
A Year of Truths and Dares
Stanfa-Stanley’s zany exploits serve as a reminder of how rewarding it is to push your self-imposed limitations.
Major midlife changes often drive folks to new hobbies, travel, or volunteering. Or maybe to buying a convertible. Not so for Sherry Stanfa-Stanley, who challenged herself with a year of unusual adventures and new experiences. The Ohioan’s 52/52 Project began as an outline, then became a blog, and is now a collection of her year-long exploits entitled Finding my Badass Self: A Year of Truths and Dares.
Stanfa-Stanley’s sometimes poignant, always humorous accounts cover a wide range of new situations: she crashes a wedding, undergoes past-life regression, scarfs down bugs, rides shotgun in a stock-car race, and tries her hand at zookeeping. Sometimes these experiences don’t seem terribly outrageous, but the sheer number of dares, and the fact that she does not shy away from situations that make her greatly uncomfortable, make this an inspiring journey.
The former Catholic schoolgirl shed her clothes at a nude beach, went on a shopping spree at a trucker stop sex shop, and interviewed a homeless woman over a restaurant lunch, all so that we don’t have to. She even tackles that greatest of fears—public speaking and singing—despite the fact that her “moves tended to mimic an electrocuted crab.”
In all cases, the author is honest about her foibles and fears as she reflects about how each new encounter tested her boundaries and pushed her to grow, learn, or empathize with someone else. The book is refreshing, a thoughtful analysis of how to live life more fully, “taking part and tapping into something new.” Even her eye-rolling twentyish sons seem to swap out their initial mortification for a degree of amused respect by the end of the book.
Finding my Badass Self is like a cozy catch-up chat with a zany friend. Stanfa-Stanley’s writing is conversational, peppered with juicy encounters, honest insights, and lots of laughs. Most would be hard-pressed to duplicate her energetic and courageous Badass Year, but it is encouraging to have her reminder about how rewarding it can be to push one’s self-imposed limitations.
RACHEL JAGARESKI (August 27, 2017)
Take Charge of Your Feelings, Become a Better You
Addressing life’s ever-changing emotional pulls, The Mood Elevator is likely to be an engaging and educational read for employees, managers, and senior executives alike.
Organizational consultant Larry Senn makes excellent use of the elevator analogy to explain how moods go up and down, and how all people can use certain techniques to “help [them] control [their] rides.” Interestingly, the concept applies not just to individuals, but to organizations, as Senn demonstrates through his example of the lightheartedness attributed to the entire staff of Southwest Airlines.
Clearly written short chapters provide specific ways to get the “Mood Elevator” going in the right direction. Especially intriguing are such concepts as “unhealthy normal” (a state that occurs when someone grows so accustomed to negative emotions that they are not even noticeable) and “pattern interrupt” (a technique to “let go of one train of thought and switch to another”).
Broader ideas for emotional improvement center around maintaining physical and mental health, being grateful, and having faith. Acknowledging people’s differences is also important; as Senn wisely states, “it’s generally impossible to say who is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ when matters of opinion and perspective are involved.”
If thoughtfully considered, the messages in The Mood Elevator are the kind that could affect the manner in which life is lived, as well as one’s overall happiness and satisfaction. This is a powerful book with intrinsic value that is both a personal self-improvement guide and a manual for enlightened executives who want to run emotionally healthy organizations.
BARRY SILVERSTEIN (August 27, 2017)
A Seven-Step Plan for Telling Your Story and Transforming Your Life
Though it centers on the practice of writing, this book will speak to all who value self-discovery.
Part writing guide, part memoir, and part love letter to the craft of writing, Diana Raab’s Writing for Bliss is a caring and motivational guide.
A lifelong writer, psychologist, and cancer survivor, Raab pours all of her experiences and background into this slim book, advocating for the healing powers of writing. Exploring everything from mindful breathing and meditation to personal transformation through poetry and journaling, this is a guide on how to live a more fulfilling life.
This book will speak to all who value self-discovery. It offers life-changing tips and practices to guide its audience through loss and grief, as well as through changes and joy. It will prove especially useful for those who have already developed a love of writing.
With prompts scattered throughout the book, there are many opportunities for writers to expand their talents and mine their personal experiences for material. Raab’s guidance will also prove helpful for writers who feel stuck in one genre; she advocates trying out every format, including journaling, personal essays, and poetry. Writing for Bliss does an excellent job of explaining how such practice can enhance lived experiences.
Raab’s own story plays heavily into the work, adding depth and emotion. The daughter of Jewish immigrants, she was deeply affected by her mother’s distance and by the suicide of her grandmother. Writing was her place of solace, and it continued to be a source of salvation through difficult pregnancies, two bouts with cancer, and other upheavals. Raab’s insights resonate, making each of her points more impactful.
Raab’s love of words and her belief in the power of story shine through. With its hypnotic and personal stories, interviews with other authors, and many useful writing prompts, Writing for Bliss will find a valued spot on the bookshelves of those seeking greater understanding.
ANGELA MCQUAY (August 27, 2017)