Fear and Other Uninvited Guests: Tackling the Anxiety, Fear, and Shame That Keep Us from Optimal Living and Loving by Harriet Lerner, 2004.

Lerner is among the best of the self-help authors–she’s pragmatic, insightful, funny, literate, and avoids one-size-fits-all/magic pill claims. (Of course, the downside of realism is missing the excitement of “this will solve ALL my problems!”–which is what drives bestsellerdom.) Lerner gives a brief overview of the book’s layout in the first chapter, which ends:

…the brief epilogue reveals the six secret, simple, specific steps you can take to banish unwanted anxiety, fear, and shame from your life forever. Just kidding, but yes, that would be nice.

This book is a good exploration of emotions that fuel unhappiness, with some practical exercises, though it’s not as structured as the most detailed self-help books. Lerner’s primary technique is to weave anecdotes and reflections together into a narrative. It’s a more philosophical approach than most, and more enjoyable to read and think about.

Lerner draws interesting distinctions between behaviors in the face of stress, like underfunctioning and overfunctioning (I can see that I do both in different circumstances). She does describe a sort of “magic” solution which is pretty cool. A man was terrified of asking a co-worker out on a date. Lerner asked him to go to a shopping mall in a city he was visiting and collect 75 rejections in a row by asking women out to coffee. The process helped him realize that it would be easier to just ask out his co-worker than to finish!

The chapter on public speaking, and how its principles can apply to difficult private situations, is especially good. I also found the section on dealing with anxiety in organizations particularly novel and useful.

But my favorite aspect of Fear and Other Uninvited Guests is Lerner’s bracing and refreshing realism. When she shows people talking to their parents about sensitive topics, for example, there’s no “Honey, you’re right–thank you for pointing that out!” conclusion. Instead, the parents storm out and the adult child is left shaking with nerves. But the focus is on having the courage to speak up respectfully and constructively, and the participants end up feeling better even if there’s no huge breakthrough. The epilogue is titled “Everyone Freaks Out,” which encapsulates the whole approach. Anxiety, fear, and shame won’t go away, but facing them with courage and calm can help.

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