Fair enough we may want to understand why it is we feel a certain way – depressed, anxious, jealous or just stuck in a rut of distress. But importantly, we also need to know how to feel better: insight can rarely be enough on its own. I like to work in a way that complements the two inquiries. While I’m keen to talk about tools, techniques or strategies to ease distress, in my experience, this works best if we can also understand – as best we can – why our negative thoughts and difficult feelings have emerged in the first place. If we can’t get to some sort of grips with why it is our mind and body keep replaying old or unhelpful patterns, we are unlikely to develop the necessary compassion toward ourselves that will really help with any technique we are interested in.
This is why I really like Change for the Better – it’s a self-help book with psychological heft from a very experienced therapist with a refreshingly straightforward way of conveying some quite complex ideas. Nor does it shy away from conveying the hard work involved in shifting ourselves away from internal patterns that get in the way of life being better than it is. From the off, Wilde McCormick gets you to work hard at being your own therapist – alongside another trusted ally, or in tandem with therapy too (which I think would work brilliantly). It’s theoretical base is Cognitive Analytic Therapy – originally devised in a London hospital I worked in once for short-term work. If you underwent CAT therapy (and there are therapists in private practice who offer it as well as some NHS places), the ending of the therapy is always in sight, and you are encouraged to focus on your goals while the end looms. So this differs from more open-ended therapy where the work is less targeted, and the ending may not be always in view. But this isn’t just a book for therapists practising in CAT, or potential clients wanting it – it’s a useful addition to any bookshelf.
The uplifting premise of the book is that change is possible, and of course I believe that too or I wouldn’t be doing what I do. The first part of the book names a number of major problems we hit in concrete terms, and helps you to work out how to identify and label these too. While I usually wince at reducing human experiencing into neat labels or catchy statements, these are sensible and familiar ‘traps’, ‘dilemmas’, ‘snags and self-sabotages’ to me. So, a ‘trap’ could be a ‘trying to please and can’t say no’ or ‘fear of hurting others’, while a dilemma could be ‘If I get what I want I feel childish and guilty; if I don’t get what I want I feel frustrated, angry and depressed.’ The snags tend to flow from the idea that ‘I want to have a better life but…’ It’s often very relieving to read something and the think ‘yes, that’s me!’
Identifying and labelling isn’t enough though, and the next bit of the work involves understanding why we end up thinking in such unhelpful ways: it will have roots in the past, and maybe a far distant one at that. CAT has some good ideas as to how to examine all of this too, from: writing life stories, using maps and diagrams, dreams and visualisations and talking to trusted others, as well as strategies to use to work through the changes that are desired – including a mindfulness practice, which is a supportive addition to any route taken to change. The book also addresses very sticky feelings and states of minds too, acknowledging that some of us may be up against it more than others.
It’s tough to combine a wise, compassionate and practical book in one – but this succeeds well.