Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
After having this book on my shelf for several months, I read it over the December break, knowing that I needed the time and space to fully immerse myself in it. And I did. I sat on my office couch, and in my bed at home, and I had a good long cry or two (or more). I let myself take in the sorrow of the letter writers' grief and be moved by it. I let my guard down and allowed myself to be different. I even took off my psychologist hat (a thing I almost never do) and let myself read it as a person first.
This book will transform you, if you let it in. I definitely recommend reading it over several sittings (all at once could be overwhelming) but within a short enough time frame that you can stay down in the depths with it. I thought it might be too much but the order of the letters has been designed wonderfully, so it intersperses shorter more humorous letters with the more difficult ones. I was particularly moved by the letters that had to do with family and mothering, but really this is a book about life.
Trigger warning: Cheryl Strayed talks pretty openly about her childhood sexual abuse, and a number of the letters have to do with sexual violence. I absolutely found it readable - and I don't always - but it wouldn't be the best book for someone in the early stages of healing from trauma or dealing with active flashbacks/nightmares.
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Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life by Emily Nagoski
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is absolutely my favorite book for women related to sex and sexual desire. I first heard Emily Nagoski speak as a guest on Sex Nerd Sandra's podcast, and loved what she had to say in that episode. I feel like I learned a ton and it also left me wanting to know more. She spoke so clearly and knowledgeably that I was pretty excited to learn she'd also written a book, complete with worksheets to fill out.
Emily brings a really fresh perspective on desire styles and offers insights about female sexual desire specifically (unlike old models that were based on the average male desire style). I've found myself teaching others what I've learned from her about spontaneous vs responsive desire. She also teaches readers (in a really accessible and fun way) about the dual control model of sex, suggesting that if we want to feel like having sex more often, we need to focus on "turning on the ons and turning off the offs". At the same time, it never comes across as prescriptive or judgmental. She reminds readers every chapter or so that there's nothing wrong with your desire, and helps us understand what a huge role context plays in desire for women.
"Come as You Are" is great for folks who might like to have a more active sex life, but don't necessarily feel like having sex. It's great for women in relationships where their desire style is much different than their partners (higher or lower). It's great for women who've worried that there's something wrong with their desire. It's great for partners of these women. It's great for women in heterosexual relationships and queer relationships. And the list goes on.
I love love love this book! As a bonus, Emily Nagoski is a generally awesome person and speaker who really does come across as wanting to share what she's learned and help remind readers just how fantastic and normal they are. The audiobook is read by her and it's lovely to listen to.
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The audiobook is directed toward adults who are having trouble in their intimate partnership that seems bigger than the current relationship. It's for those who've had obvious trauma in childhood such as abuse and neglect, as well as for those with less obvious but still impactful "missing experiences" in childhood, where the adult caregivers were unable to provide the level of warmth and attunement needed for a child to thrive. This could be due to circumstance like poverty and war, mental health issues like anxiety or depression, personality disorders, or even just lack of resources that left the caregiver(s) unable to be as present in the life of the child.
What I like most are the experiential exercises offered. I've already had the chance to try some out with clients and have found them really powerful. The book lays a solid foundation of understanding and compassion, then offers these exercises as a pathway toward healing. I absolutely recommend listening to them, and trying them out - with the help of an experienced therapist, if you like.
The book would be great for both clinicians and the general public. I'm already on my second listen and LOVE the unique exercises and insights she has to offer.
Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps by Kelly Williams Brown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
As anyone who knows me might guess, I was initially drawn to this book because of the cover (woman alone in her apartment with her cat! So obviously me!). I also was at a point in my life where learning to do more adulting just felt right. I was 28 at the time and ready to feel more like a professional woman. I'd already started to feel more settled in my career and less like a student just struggling to get by. So if you're a woman in your 20s thinking "adulting! I need more of that!" then you'll very likely enjoy this book.
One big thing I appreciated about the book was the very user-friendly breakdown. The chapters are by topic (eg., Domesticity, Fake it Till You Make it, Get a Job, and Love) and within each chapter, there are a number of bitesize "steps". It was nice to pick and choose the things that felt most relevant and go from there.
Looking back now, it's interesting how much I loved a book that's basically about taking responsibility for your life. The tone absolutely helps (it's fun, light, and authentic) and so does the author's voice. She's a young, modern woman who is compassionate and a bit awkward and completely relatable. I never felt judged or like I wasn't doing a good enough job as I read through the steps. Instead I felt pride (there was a lot I was already doing right) and a lot of validation for where I was in my life and the specific day to day struggles I was having.
Now that I'm flipping through it to write this review, I kind of want to read it again. While it's probably not a good book to buy for someone else , it's definitely relevant and fun to read. Worth the purchase.
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I know some people aren't going to like this post. At the same time, as a Psychologist I think it's important to tackle difficult issues and share what I know from the research and from making a career out of helping people heal and move forward in their lives. Especially for those of us who are mental health professionals or are trusted experts in our communities, we need to make sure that what we tell others about healing and growth is safe, compassionate, and ultimately does no harm. I've been seeing more and more professionals suggesting books like The Secret, and it's extremely worrisome to me.
From a feminist counselling perspective, we need to be careful with ideologies that tell us that if we simply think positive thoughts, positive things will come our way. It seems harmless at first, but when we dig deeper, we see the dangerous result of this line of thinking. First, people who don't see "success" are likely to blame themselves, feeling ashamed for not being "good enough" believers. They often end up feeling like they've failed, and that the problem lies within them. One of the major purposes of feminist therapy is to remind folks that we are not the problem. We've all grown up in this wild world, full of difficult expectations, trauma, and losses. We've grown up in this world where oppression exists, and it does us a real disservice to ignore this reality and imagine that positive thinking alone will protect us from systemic violence and inequality. We're all doing our best to navigate our way through it, and we need to be supported in that journey, not told our thoughts are wrong.
The second major and hidden impact of this ideology is that we can start to blame others for the hardships they face, including losses, sexual violence, natural disasters, medical and mental health issues, and other trauma. We can start to believe that if they would just think more positively, bad things wouldn't happen to them. We can start to "other" ourselves, believing that those around us who are suffering have somehow brought this suffering onto themselves, and we're not like them.
Do you see the problem here? It's not that I'm against practicing a little gratitude or working on our inner critic. At the same time, if our community is going to heal, we need to remain compassionate to ourselves and those around us. The importance of compassion is backed up by research (see Kristen Neff's work on compassion). We also need to remain aware of real structural barriers that make daily life such a struggle for the most vulnerable among us so that we can continue to work toward a just world.
To put it more bluntly, no amount of thinking positive is going to keep an unarmed black man from getting shot by police in the States. No amount of positive thinking is going to keep the bombs from falling on the heads of innocent Syrian families. The world is a scary place. Books like "The Secret" provide a comfortable salve to the anxiety about the fact that we have very little control over the world and our own lives. But that temporary comfort does us and those around us a great harm. It screens us from the world's truth, and by doing so it prevents us from being able to respond to the reality that is.
Other writers have gone into more depth about this book and others like it. I could continue on this topic for a long time, but I'll let others do some of the talking (and please, if you have any other good articles from a feminist perspective, I'd love for you to share them in the comments). In the meantime, please know - if positive thinking alone isn't working for you, there's good reason for it. Experience working with hundreds of clients has taught me that we need to turn toward our own and others' painful experiences with compassion and understanding.
Episode 3: The Secret by Worst Bestsellers
The Staggering Bullshit of the Secret by Mark Manson
September’s Book of the Month is…. “The Dance of Intimacy” by Harriet Lerner. It’s amazing it took me this long to get to the 1989 feminist therapy classic considering how hungry I've been for more voices like hers. I kept seeing it on the bookshelves of my mentors and thinking some day I should get around to it. I’m glad I finally did. I hadn’t realized that it would be SO relevant to the daily struggles of the people I work with. The Dance of Intimacy digs deep into all the same challenges that the best writers and therapists are still discussing today. And it does so from a refreshingly feminist lens. Specifically, the book helps us work through major concerns in all the most important relationships in a woman’s life – including those with her parents, intimate partners, and other family members.
What really drew me in were the stories about women who found themselves over-functioning in relationships. In one case it was a woman with a father who suffered from alcoholism. In another, it was a woman whose sister was dealing with suicidal ideation. Lerner discusses how we can get stuck in the helping role, and how that ends up trapping all of us. She speaks so thoughtfully about setting boundaries and finding your “bottom line”, though, from her perspective, it’s not about cutting people off. It’s about creating enough space within the relationship for something different to emerge:
“Emotional distancing can be an essential first move to ensure our emotional well-being and even our survival. We all know from personal experience that a relationship can become so emotionally charged that the most productive action we can take is to seek space” - page 55
Her stories have definitely given me more to think about. So often, I’m an advocate for moving away from the relationships that harm us. Lerner invites us to remember the continuum of options we can experiment with, which may be especially helpful for those relationships we’re not quite ready to say goodbye to.
A compelling read.
What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl's Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety by Jaclyn Friedman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It's been awhile since I sat down and read this book cover to cover, but I recommend it often. There are so many amazing exercises to help deal with toxic shame and get rid of external messages about sexuality. One of the most powerful included writing a letter from your future self to your present sex with what she would want you to know about sex and sexuality.
The book addresses self-love, and includes really moving "go deeper" prompts like choosing a photograph of yourself you like and writing a love letter to the woman in the photograph. I've often given this exercise to group members as homework and it's *always* really moving.
One of my favorite chapters delves into boundaries. It starts with listening to your intuition and then introduces readers to the "Nice Person Test" (so good!).
I love the feminist perspective - she starts off with helping readers understand where all the shaming messages about sex came from through a bit of personal inquiry, she breaks down the myths and facts, and she offers a really direct and nonjudgmental space to explore sexual desire.
The book has a ton in it to explore and I could imagine using it for group therapy, a book club, or revisiting again and again over the years.
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Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy by Francine Shapiro
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I'm starting to notice a trend in the books I appreciate most. They often include unique experiential exercises to try out to support healing. This is what I love so much about this book. After trying the techniques out of myself, I wrote them out and tried a few out with clients, and overall people really seemed to like them.
The exercises are geared strongly toward folks who feel like their past is still running their lives - whether in the form of visual flashbacks, feelings of overwhelm, pain that won't go away, or a sense of being transported back to an earlier, younger time. They were hugely helpful with clients who were in the early stages of healing trauma or were experiencing flashbacks or nightmares. It helped my clients when they were feeling unsafe or having difficulty grounding. It helped when they were having repeated disturbing images come up that they were having a hard time getting away from.
Now, like I do with most self-help books, I skipped the first two chapters, because I usually find that it's a review of information I'm already quite familiar with. Jumping in at chapter 3, I was immediately pleased with how the author encourages readers to notice the sensations in the body. I've really found that the body is the centre of healing trauma, and it's also the part of ourselves we tend to be most disconnected from. I'm trained in using a trauma healing technique called Somatic Experiencing (intermediate level) so of course the body-focus would make sense to me. What the book adds is the use of imagery for healing. I really like that and find it to be a nice pairing with body work.
This book could be used as a precursor to undergoing EMDR with a trained therapist or a precursor to any other trauma therapy. It could also be used as a standalone for people who feel fairly confident in managing their own symptoms. In addition to recommending this book to many of my clients, I would also absolutely recommend it for clinicians, even those like myself not planning to do any official EMDR training.
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David Richo's "How to be an Adult in Relationships" is a transformative piece of writing on love and relationships. I first listened to this book by audio and find Richo's voice to be fairly melodic and soothing, so reading it now with his voice in my memory feels much like a meditation. And indeed, he draws from the teachings of Buddhism, so the aspect of meditation is interwoven throughout the book. He also brings in knowledge from Catholicism, Jungian psychology, and his own life story to guide the reader toward a more adult understanding of love. Each sentence is deep and broad, simultaneously challenging and touching the reader. Richo has somehow captured the wounded longing in all of us, given words to it, and then provided a path toward healing those wounds and moving to an adult form of love that can grow and sustain us. He interrogates our understanding of love, though never in a way that's blaming or shaming. Already I have over 30 bookmarked quotes to come back to.
"As adolescents, we were taught that the way to tell we are in love is by our loss of control, our loss of will, and a compelling sense that we could not have done otherwise. This falling in love contrasts with the reality of rising in love with conscious choice, sane fondness, intact boundaries, and ruthless clarity. We were taught that some enchanted evening we would feel fascination and fall head over heels for someone special. But that kind of reaction is actually a signal from the needy child within, telling us what we need to work on, not directing us to our rescuer". - pg 110
One of the parts of the book I appreciate and resonate with the most was a simple list of the demands of the needy child versus the expectations of the healthy adult. For example, the needy child says "never betray me, lie to me, or disappoint me" while the healthy adult says "I accept you as fallible and seek to address, process, and resolve issues with you". The needy child says "help me repeat old, painful scenarios from childhood and former relationships" while the healthy adult says "I have mourned the past, learned from it, and now want something better".
There is so much to gain from this book, and just a few things to be cautious about. In the early chapters, Richo does get caught in some gender roles (though he makes it clear that there are masculine and feminine energies in all of us), and from my perspective, he undervalues interdependence perhaps a bit more than recent attachment research would support as healthy. Even with these cautions, it is easy to find so much to connect with in this book.
So, who should read this? I imagine anyone in relationship or moving toward relationship would be helped by this. More specifically, this book could be an important guide for you if you:
I can't help it. Even though I have a list of books to share with you, the resource I'm SO excited about this month is... a podcast. Yup - it's month two and I'm already changing all the rules. I promise you this will be worth it.
"Dear Sugar Radio" is billed as an advice column "for the lost, lonely and heartsick", and though many of the letters they answer do centre around relationships, I have to say it's much deeper and much broader than I expected. The first episode I listened to was on mothering and guilt, and as I sat in the car crying (with my partner beside me looking helpless and concerned), I thought - yes. This is the podcast I need to need to hear right now. I've been listening to it non-stop since.
There's an episode on mother loss by choice that I think is really important for a lot of folks out there who are feeling alone right now. Another on "messy relationships" that I'm pretty sure we all can relate to in one way or another. They tackle conflicts like what to do when you want kids and your partner doesn't (or vice versa) and how to handle it when the relationship you're in is great except for one important thing.
It's amazing that a lot of the advice comes back to seemingly simple encouragement like "it's okay to set boundaries - talk to your partner" and "don't try to figure this relationship conflict out on your own - talk to you partner", but rest assured, the podcast itself is neither obvious nor simple. The detailed, often heartbreaking letters show the complexity of the people writing, and the responses honor that complexity.
I'd love to hear it if there was an episode that spoke to you, or advice that stood out - please let me know in the comments.
For all you die-hard book fans out there, the written version of this is "Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Life and Love from Dear Sugar" by Cheryl Strayed. Enjoy.
Nicole Perry is a Registered Psychologist and writer with a private practice in Edmonton. Her approach is collaborative and feminist at its heart. She specializes in healing
About the Blog
This space will provide information, stories, and answers to big questions about some of my favorite topics - boundaries, burnout, trauma, self compassion, and shame resilience - all from a feminist counselling perspective. It's also a space I'm exploring and refining new ideas.