(This post is part of my 5 Books that Changed My Life series. Here’s my Book #2)
If I asked you to name five books that changed your life could you immediately name them?
Because I’m realizing that to proclaim a book somehow changed my life is vastly different than saying I loved a book because the story was a page-turner, or the characters were multidimensional people.
This is the reason I’ve decided to simplify things for this series. I’ve decided to narrow my focus to nonfiction books, and eliminate the paralyzing indecision I’d face rummaging through piles of literary classics.
I’ve also decided to rely on my gut reaction when weighing a book’s legacy on my life.
Instead falling back on the usual best sellers, I’ve turned to small, idiosyncratic books that had surprised me at the time, shifted my perspective with an intriguing concept or even a few penetrating lines.
Will my five books affect you the same way?
Probably not, because books that are true game changers in one’s life are by nature, highly personal. They speak to you for a reason. They answer a question that might not even be fully formed on your lips, and yet you recognize when you’re reading words that form puzzle pieces of your life.
“Yes, this is it,” you whisper to the open pages of your book.
When I first read The Drama of A Gifted Child by Alice Miller I remember needing to sit down. The content felt that powerful. I was twenty six year old and up until that moment I had never had someone capture so much of my own personal story as vividly, and with such candor on a page.
Looking back now, I see it as a serendipitous collusion between reader, material and perfect timing. “I once was lost but now am found,” goes the soulful hymn, and for me, that’s pretty much how this book felt.
At the time I was in grad school in a frenetic pursuit of my Masters degree.
Back then, everything related to achievement had an obsessive quality, although I didn’t slow down long enough to question it. I was driven by my dream of working inside the session room, but like a lot of young, would-be therapists, I had embarked on this journey with an inner life that was largely unexamined.
I hadn’t yet begun my own therapy (a requirement for future clinicians) when I landed my dream job in a in-patient Eating Disorder Treatment Program at a major hospital. Despite my lack of real life experience, I had been hired as the unit’s intake coordinator and part-time family group therapist, and I was absolutely giddy.
A 24 hour clinical setting. Real life patients. Intense family dynamics. Raw, mercurial emotions flying off the walls. This was the world I had been waiting to inhabit. But as this stretch of blue carpeted hallway with its bustling nursing station became my new home, it wasn’t long before I began to feel like I was living the life of an imposter.
The truth was, being in a place dominated by weight obsessions, secretive food behaviors and women who were good at smiling and hiding their insecurities and shame from the outside world, felt strangely familiar. Women who were plagued by feelings of inadequacy, of not measuring up, of not being good enough. Double check.
This was my first real immersion into other people’s pain, and working with these women--from all walks of life- who had spent most of their lives living out other people’s versions of who they should be, slowly unleashed a stunning recognition in me.
I hadn’t begun to deal with my own emotional baggage.
During my day job, I clung to the sharp edges of my professional role, dressed in my size 4 Ann Taylor skirts and exuding a confidence I didn’t feel, while in the evenings after a mad dash through the LA traffic, I transformed into grad student again, painfully aware of my raw, confusing feelings bubbling to the surface.
Needless to say, managing the combustion of these two distinct worlds left me emotionally white-knuckled and exhausted. But looking back now, I see how ripe I was for introspection. And ready for that personal truth you crave in your twenties.
This was the period in my life when I first discovered books written by a psychoanalyst named Alice Miller. This is when I first read The Drama of a Gifted Child, with those powerful first chapters.
for a child to know a certain feeling, they must first have had someone do this for them, someone there who had recognized the feeling in them, helped them find words to understand it, and most importantly accepted it…..
What is it about this book that stands out after all these years?
Maybe the simplest answer is this one. Alice Miller’s Drama of a Gifted Child gave me words to explain what was previously unexplainable. Her writing about a true self and of ‘lost feelings’ encouraged me to explore my own earliest relationships. And during a time when so many of my feelings—insecurities and shame-- were shrouded in mystery, this book read like a warm, encouraging nod.
Alice Miller wrote this book to shed light on a certain kind of person that kept showing up in her office for treatment. She used the term ‘gifted’ to explain the kind of children these adults once were in their families. And the term has nothing to do with a child’s academic grades or special talents. But instead, she was referring to a child’s ability to develop an intuitive ‘antennae’ for reading the feelings of others.
‘There was a caretaker who at their core was emotionally insecure and who depended on their child behaving a certain way for their emotional equilibrium.’
A child who learned to watch and smile and make others proud. A sensitive child who was alert to the emotional state of a needy or demanding parent. And who performed these caretaking expectations dutifully.
These were the kind of adults that ended up in Alice Miller’s session room over and over again. And as she noted, these were often the type of adults that became psychotherapists, a fact that jolted me.
People who were the pride of their families, who were often considered ‘special’ as children, and were later admired by others for their successes and achievement. People who should have been ‘happy’ based on their external circumstances but who weren’t. Not down deep.
What become evident in Miller’s work with these patients is that as soon as the person was no longer in the spotlight, or “on top,” when they were no longer in the process of achieving, winning, or buying something. And the emotional “high” of their latest accomplishment had worn off, dark feelings slowly surfaced.
This was the important clue. What are the feelings that surface in the quietness?
And what Miller kept hearing about was a sense of emptiness. A lack of vitality and futility. The robotic feeling of simply going through the motions.
And a nagging confusion about why?
But now we get to the content of the book that is really beyond the scope of this post.
However, if you take anything away from my book sharing today, I hope it’s this. Whenever your feelings seem confusing and inexplicable, be curious to know yourself better.
Because you deserve to feel whole.
Ten Things I Learned On My Way to Knowing ME
- You can grow up in a loving family and still feel alone.
- You can grow up in a loving family and still feel a nagging sense of not being good enough.
- Be reassured that these emotions will always make sense when you take time to look inside. And do the work.
- You find what you seek.
- Never accept someone’s trivialization of your feelings. You deserve to be heard.
- Know that there is a reason why you feel something.
- You are not imaging your feelings. You are not “too sensitive.” Your feelings are not wrong.
- Never be afraid of knowing yourself deeply, this is the way you’ll find ultimate peace.
- Embrace your past as a way of understanding who you are today, but recognize that today is where your precious life is.
- Today is a new beginning.
So tell me…
do you have a book that came along at a perfect time?
Book One—5 Books that Changed My Life
sharing with friends is what it’s all about: