Sarah Luczaj takes a look at Thriving In Your Situation, an e-book by fellow contributor Evan Hadkins.
As readers of the Psychology, Philosophy and Real Life blog will know, Evan Hadkins is a regular contributor who never fails to provoke discussion with his thoughtful posts, which centre on emotional wellbeing and how to live a satisfying life. I should state at the outset, too, that he is a colleague of mine whom I highly respect and regard as a friend. I hope that this will not impede the balance of my review.
Evan has written a couple of e-books, which can be purchased on his Living Authentically website, the home of his “Living Authentically” course. The latest is called Thriving In Your Situation, and it comes as a clearly laid out PDF, 27 pages long, including both a psychological and philosophical model for you to use to increase your awareness, and practical exercises to get you thinking about your own situation. I recently worked through it, pencil in hand.
The introductory section sets out the aim of the book:
the way to live well is to learn what is good for us (what helps us live) and what doesn’t: to know what we need to take in, what we need to give out, what we need to block out and what we need to keep in.
It covers such topics as “Being Too Rigid”, “Loosening Up From Trauma and Past Successes”, “Being Too Lax”, “What We Need To Keep Out”, “What We Need To Keep To Ourselves”, “Respecting Secrets”, “Avoiding Burnout (not giving ourselves away)” and “Staying Safe”. In each case exercises help the reader to identify what these themes mean for them personally, rather than listening to the author preaching from on high. Throughout, Evan writes in his characteristic style — thoughtful, gentle, questioning, precise, ranging towards the abstract and then dipping right down into the personal, always disarmingly genuine.
Evan states at the outset that his outlook is “majorly influenced” by Perls, Hefferline and Goodman’s Gestalt Therapy. This is obvious to those who know about Gestalt therapy, although there is no need to know about it to make good use of the book, and is particularly striking in the section “Noticing How we Relate to our Situation”. Here, Evan presents a model of human drives or needs arising from a background state of rest, with our behaviour being designed to fulfil these needs and then return, in a cycle, to the state of rest. Our behaviour is also seen as learned, and so in a sense as a rational response to needs which arose early in our life. Throughout the book, the underlying model is that of organism and environment.
The Gestalt influence is also apparent in the emphasis on physical awareness as a source of information about our sense of balance between needs and fulfilment, and our comfort levels in our situations, including some interesting exercises such as purposefully holding in our emotions, with all the associated muscle tension, and actually physically “giving away” our headaches (possibly the only one I will not be trying — I wouldn’t wish migraines on my worst enemy!).
The overall thrust of the book is towards increasing awareness of ourselves as organisms in an environment (or people in a situation) with a kind of porous membrane separating us from the outer world. There is a focus on getting feedback and finding out how we might be ‘balancing out’ in our interactions with the environment, a focus on recognition of our needs rather than concrete tools to, say, take in more nourishment for our minds and hearts or block things which are harmful for us. I found it very effective as a tool for generating awareness, and envisaging some kind of optimum functioning, in a life situation which is not too obviously constraining. The book seems aimed at people who are searching for more satisfaction, joy, or meaning in their lives, rather than those who are struggling to survive a clearly difficult external situation right now.
On the critical side, I found one of the exercises in the book, “Noticing How you Relate to your Situation” a little abstract. I found myself stranded between questions a few times, thinking “what exactly am I supposed to be doing here?” This may well be a deficiency of my own, however! There was also a moment after the last exercise, which closes the book, in which I felt slightly ‘abandoned’, that I could do with some kind of supportive context, even only a couple of sentences, with which to frame the results. Maybe this feeling was intensified by the fact that the exercises were aimed to elicit vulnerabilities and core issues. This experience gave me the idea that maybe the optimum use of the book would be to work through it together with a friend. The exercises are certainly designed to uncover a lot of sensitive issues, and it would probably be helpful to work through sections such as “What are you Uncomfortable With” with a partner — as it yields information whose implications are well worth carrying forward into your present life. This kind of ‘working things out in company’ is probably a part of the Living Authentically course.
The text is peppered with asides and examples from Evan’s own personal life, which is refreshing in that it gives us a sense of who is talking to us. Occasionally I think the book could benefit from having a slightly larger range of examples. A case in point is the section on rigidity in mental models, which points to “fundamentalist Christians not listening to those from the ‘no-self’ traditions” as the example. While this is a great example for those involved in one of those traditions, I think that it speaks to a relatively small section of society.
Thriving In Your Situation is a thought-provoking and useful tool for digging a little deeper into your sense of wellbeing, as well as a pleasurable read. Certainly for me it generated insights and gave me some fresh ideas of how to play around with my ‘being in the world’. While I did not entirely agree with the theoretical underpinning of the book, in the end I did not need to. It worked in practice. And that’s what makes it really worth recommending.
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