Welcome to the 52 Self-Help Books in 2019 Project.
I like projects.
As followers of my work on the Dr. Glenn Doyle Facebook Page, the Faith and Works Facebook page, and the Use Your Damn Skills blog know, I strongly feel that projects organize our resources in ways that we’re not always able to without them.
I, personally, find that organizing my energy into projects with specific purposes, goals, and milestones, is a particularly useful “end run” around my Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
In 2018, my projects included reading and blogging about the Bible, cover to cover, and visiting 52 different Catholic churches in the Chicago area for Mass. In 2019, I’m expanding my projects to include, among others, this: the 52 Self-Help Books in 2019 Project.
The idea is simple. Every week I’m going to read a different self-help book, and at the end of the week blog about it. I’m not looking to write comprehensive book reports or reviews here; rather, I’ll be looking to summarize some of the main ideas of the books, some of the action-oriented recommendations of each book, and maybe offer a thought or two about my own reaction to the books in the context of my experience as a clinical psychologist.
LET’S GET STARTED!
52 SELF HELP BOOKS IN 2019, WEEK ONE: “Anxious to Please: 7 Practices for the Chronically Nice,” by James Rapson and Craig English (2006).
This book examines a phenomenon that is widespread, but curiously underexamined: anxious attachment style, accompanied by the “nice person” compensatory strategy.
You might be familiar with the idea of attachment styles. The gist of the concept is, the quality of our earliest relationships mold our relational style in to one of several categories: secure, anxious, and/or avoidant.
Parents who interact with their young kids in a basically appropriate way— responding to them when they need things, acknowledging them when they need to be acknowledged, giving them space when they need space— in still in those kids a “secure” attachment. Those kids grow up feeling able and willing to explore the world around them, knowing that they always have a secure “base” to return to in their parents. They carry this style of relating into their adult friendships and relationships.
Parents who respond to their kids in less appropriate ways, however, instill in those kids insecure attachment styles.
If, for example, parents behave in such a way that terrify or consistently hurt their kids, those kids learn to basically avoid their parents (and, thus attachment in general) for their own survival— and they carry THAT style of relating into their adult friendships and relationships. People with an avoidant attachment style tend to be dismissive of or hostile to attachment, and tend to over-emphasize self-reliance in their adult lives.
And then there are those kids whose parents weren’t consistent but weren’t terrifying. These parents were sometimes on the ball, but sometimes not; whether these young kids got what they needed form their parents was basically a crap shoot. The thing is, when you’re a kid, being able to solicit the attention of your caregiver can be a life-or-death scenario; thus these kids become obsessed with how, exactly, they can increase the odds they’ll get what they need from their parents. They grow up to be adults who have anxious attachment styles.
Their uncertainty about, and obsession with, gaining the attention and approval of others in their lives extends into their adult friendships and relationships…often with not so great results.
This book is concerned with kids who grew up to be anxiously attached adults. it discusses how these people, in their adult relationships, often turn to a compensatory strategy called the “nice person” strategy: they try to construct a version of themselves who is not high maintenance; who is always pleasant and agreeable; about whom everybody can superficially agree, hey that person is nice.
It’s the hope of the anxiously attached “nice person” that the “niceness” they’ve worked so hard to cultivate— which often includes stuffing down and sacrificing their own needs, preferences, and opinions, so as not to ruffle anybody’s feathers— will lead them to the unconditional love and affection they craved from their early caregivers.
Sounds like a good strategy, right? Not so much, as it turns out.
In fact, as it turns out, “nice people” spend so much time stuffing their own needs, preferences, and opinions, while accommodating the needs, preferences, and opinions of other people, that eventually most “nice people” wind up with a lot of unexpressed emotion that is boiling just under the surface, waiting to explode.
Add to that fact that many “nice people” eventually start to develop resentment and ager toward their friends and relationship partners because said friends and relationship partners fail to give them the attention and affection that those “nice people” are craving with all their effortful “niceness.”
Which, understand, isn’t the fault of their friends and partners; people who employ the “nice person” strategy are looking to get wounds healed and holes filled that their adult friends and partners couldn’t possibly heal and fill, let alone perfectly, as the nice person fantasizes they can.
This failure eventually hurts, disappoints, and angers a “nice person”…but, you guessed it, there is no WORLD in which the “nice person” can express that hurt, disappointment openly (after all, it’s not very “nice” to express things that might hurt your partner’s feelings, right?). So the “nice person” can thus become pretty passive aggressive over time as these unexpressed resentments build up inside them.
Turns out “nice people” aren’t all that nice over time. Not because they’re not effortfully trying to be nice— they very much are— but because the strategy they’re chasing down has zero chance of working over the long haul.
So what’s to be done about any of it?
In this book, Rapson (a relationship counselor with psychoanalytic underpinnings) and English (a writer and actor— you can definitely tell when he takes over the writing, because the book explodes in flowery, sometimes annoying, prose) first lay out the problem, including some cultural influences that exacerbate it (mostly how the media and culture encourage martyrdom of personal autonomy as a way to be liked and wanted) and then propose that the problem can be addressed by seven “practices” that must be practiced by recovering “nice people” (who they label as “transforming people”).
The first is Awareness Practice: you need to become enough of an observer of your thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and bodily reactions to KNOW when the “nice person” stuff is kicking in. This practice is similar to how many people start out in cognitive-behavioral therapy; they need to get off auto-pilot, and realize that their experience every day is created by thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and responses that are all linked.
In Awareness Practice, the authors encourage people to work on observing these connections without judgment, without apologies (a huge habit and problem for recovering “nice people”), and with self-compassion and grace (the willingness to meet and accept oneself exactly as one is).
Then it’s on to Desert Practice: removing yourself from the various distractions and addictions that you’ve accumulated to distract you from the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that flow from your attachment anxiety and your “nice person” coping. This is rough for a lot of people— when we’re anxious, we’ll very much go to great lengths to NOT know or think about what we’re anxious about.
Desert Practice can take the form of abstaining from certain foods, habits, or even relationships for a period (the authors wisely recommend setting explicit limits on your Desert Practice, so you have opportunities to assess how it’s working and what’s coming up). The idea is, you can’t really heal an anxiety that you’ve kept at arm’s length via addiction and distraction. The point of Desert Practice is to construct an experience by which you can come face to face with those things you’ve used to numb out from the problem right in front of your face.
Then the rubber really meets the road with Warrior Practice (so named, I assume, because at least one of these authors has a preoccupation with martial arts, which weaves in and out of the narrative). Warrior Practice centers around strengthening your ability to feel and tolerate strong emotions; then, instead of impulsively acting out of those emotions, instead choosing your behavior based on your own “personal ethic” (i.e. a distillation of values and priorities that are chosen by YOU, not your anxiety).
It’s in Warrior Practice that the authors describe the threefold key to increasing our ability to tolerate strong emotions: become aware of it; meet it with compassion; decide what you’re going to do about it not based on past patterns, but in accordance with your personal ethic. Included in Warrior Practice is the art of cultivating restraint, using skillful aggression (as opposed to mindless aggression driven by anxiety), and reeducating our reflexes so we don’t fall into “nice guy” behaviors just out of habit.
In Brotherhood and Sisterhood Practice, the authors stress the importance to the “transforming person” of platonic, supportive same-gender friendships. Apparently it’s a hallmark of “nice people” that they’ve so long fantasized about romantic attachments filling their needs that they’ve often neglected forming same-gender friendships, which often leaves them feeling alone (thus overly dependent upon their romantic partners, exacerbating the problem that exists in the first place) and misunderstood.
Cultivating same-gender friendships through Brotherhood and Sisterhood Practice can be a productive step for the recovering “nice person” as they seek to lessen their dependence on romantic partners, as well as a useful reality test for when someone is slipping back into “nice person” ways. The authors attempt to make the case that these platonic friendships necessarily need to be same-gender because there are aspects of one’s gender experience that just can’t be “gotten” by someone not of that gender.
(Eh. I think this practice has more to do with lessening dependence upon romantic partners and potential romantic partners in general. In general, the less we isolate and the more opportunities we have for reality testing with sane, supportive people— regardless of gender— the less we’re apt to fall into “nice guy” coping strategies.)
(Eh, actually, though, upon reflection, I kind of get it, at least from a male perspective. “Nice guy” dudes often reflexively try to earn the approval of women, even if their relationship with them is supposedly platonic. Maybe it is better if recovering “nice guys,” at least, have some friendships with people they don’t instinctively want to impress and please as much as “nice guys” tend to want to impress and please women. Point taken.)
Then there’s Family Practice, which refers to a process of overhauling how one thinks of one’s family of origin and all the dynamics therein. The authors recommend taking a deep dive into your family’s history and trying to identify intergenerational themes, as well as roles played by various family members, a’la the types of roles identified by family therapists.
The point of Family Practice is to try to get a more objective view of why your family of origin and the people in it function as they do— supposedly so you can start to realize and accept that the fact that you didn’t get your needs met isn’t your fault. The more you can see your family objectively from an adult point of view, the less you’re likely to look at your attachment needs from the point of view of the anxious child you one were (who assumes it’s all about them).
Disillusionment Practice is the process by which we tear down the myth of the Goddess/Prince. “Nice people” fantasize that they’re going to meet a romantic partner, the Goddess/Prince, who is going to perfectly soothe their attachment anxiety (but who they need to take care not to displease by being too, you know, differentiated an individual, because then the Goddess/Prince might shame and abandon them).
Turns out the Goddess/Prince thing is really hard to shake, insofar as “nice people” really, really want to believe that perfectly pleasing a partner will not only make that partner inclined to stick around and love them, but also that that sticking around and love will soothe the “nice person’s” ever present anxiety about being good enough.
When the Goddess/Prince myth is shattered, we’re just left with imperfect relationships with imperfect human beings— not to mention the obvious realization that we’re imperfect and can never be perfect enough to “earn” the unconditional love of, well, anyone— and the loss of that illusion can require some real mourning.
The thing is, authentic intimacy is basically impossible as long as the Goddess/Prince myth is up and running. As long as “nice people” imagine themselves beholden to a Goddess/Prince, they will hide facets of themselves and negate other facets of themselves and basically lose their sense of identity, to the point where they’re likely to melt down. Authentic intimacy involves the relating of two peoples’ authentic selves— not the “self” of at least one partner that has been carefully constructed for the pleasing of the other.
Integration Practice is what the authors call taking all of the previous practices on in ways that support and reinforce each other. That is, Awareness Practice provides the baseline to know what you’re up against; Desert Practice is necessary to draw away from the distractions and addictions you uncover through Awareness Practice; the skills of Warrior Practice is necessary to successfully undertake Disillusionment Practice; and so on and so forth.
The reason the authors identify integration as an entirely different “practice” is to emphasize that life is a laboratory, in which you’re going to be constantly experimenting with more than one practice at a time. It’s not as if they’re a hierarchy or a list— they all have to be worked on, with various emphases, at once in order for a “nice person” to become a “transforming person.”
The book then devotes several chapters to recovering “nice people” in romantic relationships, insofar as it is in romantic unions that so many of the most troublesome “nice person’ behaviors rear their heads. The authors encourage people to view their relationships as “transforming relationships,” i.e., relationships in which both people are committed to consciously employing the seven practices in order to create unions that are deliberately free of “nice person” behaviors.
The authors make some good and interesting points about the desirability for all people involved in relationships to be pursuing their own personal growth, and for relationships to become real-world situations in which not everyone is going to like what happens all the time (and that’s okay, because we’ve given up the idealistic fantasies that fuel the “nice person” syndrome). They note that privacy and individuality are actually healthy for a relationship, and can help to heal the “nice person” dysfunction.
I feel most of the examples the authors use to illustrate communication in “transforming relationships” depend on both partners having very high (unrealistically high, in my view) levels of self-awareness, not to mention willingness and ability to remember and use their “transforming person” skills.
That said? Sure, the goal is to create unions (the authors recommend thinking of the “union” as its own entity, separate from both people in the relationship, because it needs care and tending beyond the individual goals and needs of the people in them) in which, yes, we’re all very self-aware and unashamed of our needs and willing to verbalize and willing to show restraint and wiling to extend grace to our imperfect partners and willing to deal with our crap and…yeah. It’s definitely a best-of-all-worlds picture the authors paint of “transforming relationships” and unions.
A particularly curious chapter is the one about “Creative Conflict.” One of the things “nice people” avoid most effortfully is conflict in a relationship (because if they displease their Goddess/Prince, they might be shamed and rejected and abandoned, see). The authors advise tackling this aversion head-on by making conflict a thing that’s dealt with very openly, often in a structured way (i.e., agreeing when and where arguments are going to happen, as opposed to just launching into them wherever because the mood strikes), and with heaping doses of compassion (for self and partner), restraint, and awareness.
I think Creative Conflict is a lovely concept— and I also think conflict, by its very nature, is really, really hard to regulate like that. Again, it’s a very “best of all worlds” type scenario the authors have proposed.
Myself, I find it somewhat unlikely that, however powerfully “nice people” are “transforming” their lives, that they’ll always (or even usually) have the self-regulation necessary to pursue conflict in such a disciplined, nonjudgmental way. But, again: sure, that’s the goal, I suppose. Aspire higher.
The book ends with a chapter written for the romantic partners of recovering “nice people,” giving them some advice about what to expect and how to deal with their partners who are giving up their “nice guy” strategies for dealing with the heaps of anxiety they experience. It’s a nice gesture, this chapter. The gist of it is, don’t freak out, support your partner, look at your own crap, and, what the hell, just do the whole program yourself, why don’t you?
IN SUM: “Anxious to Please” is a good self-help book. In contrast to a lot of self-help literature, the suggestions are pretty concrete, and most of them align with the wisdom dispensed by such mainstream psychotherapy techniques as cognitive behavioral therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and Dialectical Behavior Therapy.
I like the emphasis on learning how to contain strong feelings, I like the emphasis on confronting your numbing addictions and distractions, and I REALLY like the emphasis on separating your behavior from your feelings.
I do think the book oversells, a bit, the extent to which “nice person” behaviors stand in the way of a healthy relationship with sexuality and one’s gender experience. Near the end, as they’re describing “transforming relationships,” the authors go a little over the top trying to sell the idea that giving up the Goddess/Prince thing and becoming real life individuals who grow and change (maybe to their partner’s liking, maybe not) as something that can renew a couple’s sexual chemistry.
Eh. What I suspect is, that one or both of the authors had that personal experience— they went from “nice person” to “transforming person” and suddenly the sex got hotter and they felt like more of a man— and so they’re including it in the narrative. Don’t get me wrong, “nice person” stuff can absolutely ruin a sex life; but recovering from “nice person” stuff isn’t a magic bullet to regaining sexual interest or resolving gender weirdness (the chapter on Brotherhood and Sisterhood Practice also feels a little off).
The first three practices, Awareness Practice, Desert Practice, and Warrior Practice, I’d say are definitely not only useful but essential for success in personal development of any kind. The book is worth reading for those chapters alone.
Also, most people could stand to learn much more about how attachment style develops and how it impacts their adult relationships, so I’d recommend reading it just for that crash course. Maybe take the “transforming relationship” and Brotherhood/Sisterhood sections with a grain of salt— not saying they’re bad, just saying your mileage may vary— but overall the book flows well, so it’s not as if you’ll get bogged down in a section you hate.
Give this book a read. Even if you’re not an anxiously-attached “nice person,” I guarantee you know one.