In July of 2015, after a disappointing breakup with a good man, I drove back to Phoenix from the East Coast. As I reflected on the relationship that just ended as well as all of my previous adult relationships, a disturbing thought floated to the surface of my consciousness: maybe I’m simply not capable of being in a healthy relationship. Maybe it would just be better for me to be single for the rest of my life. At least then, I wouldn’t hurt anyone (or be hurt by anyone).
My reason told me that this was a lie from Satan, but I still couldn’t get the thought out of my mind. The day after I arrived in Phoenix, I called my therapist from Texas and told her what happened. The first thing she recommend that I do was get back into therapy with someone who specializes in attachment theory. I had no idea what that meant, so she recommended that I read Attachments: Why You Love, Feel, and Act the Way You Do by Dr. Tim Clinton and Dr. Gary Sibcy. Long story short: I found a wonderful therapist in Phoenix who knew all about attachments AND finished the book in less than a week. Since then, I’ve recommended it to all of my friends, immediate family, and random people I’ve met at parties (no joke), and everyone I know who has read it says the same thing: this book is paradigm-shifting and life-changing.
Before I go on, a brief disclaimer: I do NOT think that “self-help” or psychology books are all one needs to live a good life. They are simply a tool that the Lord provides for us through those who have studied the dynamics of the human heart and mind. In the end, we cannot help ourselves completely--that’s why we need Grace, which comes in myriad forms. I’ve experienced the grace of God supremely and primarily through the Sacraments, but I’ve also received it through the counsel of my spiritual director, the various therapists I’ve had over the years, and yes, even books. I do not think that reading these books will automatically change your life; I know that for some of you, reading them in addition to strengthening your relationship with Christ and seeing a trusted therapist could potentially make your life a whole lot better. That is all. Back to the books.
What makes Attachments so helpful is that it breaks down the different styles of insecure attachment (i.e. the reasons why so many relationships are unstable and unhealthy) and the root causes of them, e.g. traumatic/abusive/unhealthy experiences from our childhood. The authors give real-world examples of each attachment style and practical guidance on how to become securely attached in your relationships with God, family members, friends, spouses/significant others, and your kids. Attachments, true to its title, helped me understand why I “love, feel, and act” the way I do. It also helped me understand why my ex-boyfriends, siblings, parents, and even friends love, feel, and act the way they do. It’s not a silver bullet, by any means, but after reading the book and putting into practice some of the authors’ recommendations, as well as discussing what I learned with my therapist, I started to notice positive, seemingly miraculous changes in the way that I related to others--especially my family and my now boyfriend.
The second life-changing book was recommended by my therapist in Phoenix: Facing Codependence by Pia Mellody. This book was considerably more painful to read than Attachments, because it delves into the nitty-gritty of the abuse and trauma that causes codependence.
What is codependence? According to Mellody, a self-proclaimed “recovering codependent” and Senior Clinical Advisor for The Meadows,
“Codependents have difficulty
1. Experiencing appropriate levels of self-esteem
2. Setting functional boundaries
3. Owning and expressing their own thoughts and feelings
4. Taking care of their adult needs and wants
5. Experiencing and expressing their thoughts and feelings moderately.
Where the disease comes from: dysfunctional, less-than-nurturing, abusive family systems.
Many people who grow up in dysfunctional families grow up in the delusion that what happened to them is “normal”--their caregivers encouraged them to believing that their problem arose because they didn’t respond appropriately to what happened to them.”
In the book, Mellody goes into detail about each symptom, the various ways codependency can manifest itself in someone’s life, and the types of abuse that cause the symptoms. She also gives practical strategies for overcoming codependence and living an emotionally healthy life. At the time when I first read it (August 2015), I felt as if my emotional life were a tangled, knotted mess. This book, coupled with my discussions with my therapist about its content, helped me to face the reality of my childhood in a new way, and to slowly undo the knots so that I could learn how to be in healthy, adult relationships with others. Highly, highly recommended.
Last, but not least, is a little gem of a book called Growing Yourself Back Up, by John Lee. I read this one in a couple of days--not only because it is so short, but because almost everything in it seemed to apply to my life in some way. Lee’s premise is that many of us are not “grown up” emotionally. Until we become aware of it, most of the time when we are stressed out, with our families, in the presence of an authority figure, or in a romantic relationship, we cease to be functional adults and regress to our childhood selves. This, not surprisingly, causes problems. If we can learn to recognize the signs of regression and catch ourselves when we do it, we can better avoid the drama that inevitably arises when we act like children in our adult lives. Like the authors of Attachments and Facing Codependence, Lee also gives practical advice about avoiding regression. If you’ve ever felt like you become 15 again as soon as you step foot into your parents’ house, this book is for you.
There you have it. Three books that actually changed my life. I hope that they will be as helpful to you as they have been to me. If you decide to read them, please send me an email and let me know what you think! I’d love to hear from you. And if you have any life-changing books to recommend, please mention them in the comments!