This year, Psychologies is working with Vintage Books to bring you twelve reasons to feel better in 2014. Shelf Help; a collection of titles carefully curated by literary journalist Alex Clark, have been chosen for their particular focus on twelve areas of mental, spiritual and physical health.
January’s book is Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves; a brilliantly told compilation of accounts from a psychotherapist about his patients and the journeys they made together through their sessions, focusing on the importance of sharing our stories and having someone listen. Alex Clark shares with us his views on Grosz's book:
'We are mysteries to ourselves, often when we think we understand most clearly; and sometimes that becomes a problem. We cannot find a clear way through our thoughts, whether we are dealing with present concerns, trying to make sense of the past or give a shape to our imagined future. There are many responses to this kind of situation, but one of them is to talk to another human being. That listening ear might be a close friend, a family member or a colleague, but it is rare that their response will not be inflected with their prior knowledge of us, or their interest in seeing a particular outcome to our dilemma.
For these and many other reasons, we might choose instead to share our thoughts and feelings with a stranger, and despite this extreme unfamiliarity, the success of our encounter will depend on frankness and openness — on both sides. Stephen Grosz’s extraordinary book ushers us quietly into the room where the psychoanalyst and his patient sit and allows us to eavesdrop on their conversation. Drawing on his 25 years experience — over 50,000 hours spent listening and responding to those who have come to seek his help — he presents us with a series of gripping vignettes. Their fragmentary nature — patients’ stories often appear to end abruptly, and are rarely returned to — might put us in mind of the some of the characteristics of analysis or therapy itself.
But, like therapy, this is a process that works by accretion; by the gradual building up of overlapping details and insights that will eventually yield not a magic ‘solution’, but a deepened understanding of the questions we need to ask. The stories themselves are, of course, riveting in the way that other people’s lives always are; they shock us with their sheer improbability. Would anyone’s distress really be so great that, having sought the services of an analyst, they would fake their own suicide? Yes, answers Grosz, if the nature of their problem was that they were attached to ‘violently upsetting others’. What kind of woman would diligently catalogue incidents that pointed strongly to her husband’s infidelity, and yet refuse to accept the facts of the matter? What does it mean if, at a moment of extreme success, someone sabotages their own celebrations by a loss so careless it seems almost deliberate?
What The Examined Life shows above all else is that we should not fear looking deeply into ourselves, because it is more likely that the effort of holding our feelings at bay will render them far more damaging. The urge to shy away, to procrastinate, is entirely natural: during the course of the book, we encounter a woman who begins every session by reciting a small-scale catastrophe that deflects attention to immediate dangers and postpones other conversation; and a man who realises, after months of agonising over what he should do with his shoes when he arrives for his appointments, that he is simply afraid of being told off. But to be fully alive in the world is to encounter small disasters, and tellings-off; as well as the greater traumas of illness, bereavement, the loss of love. Life, Grosz tells us, is not easy; but talking about it will not make it harder.'