“Everything Isn’t Terrible”: Book Review
By Dr Kate Owen
Clinical Family Therapist and Clinical Psychologist
Author: Kathleen Smith
Title: Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt Your Anxiety and Finally Calm Down
Publisher: Souvenir Press, USA
It’s not often that I come across a book where I think “Wow! Everybody on the planet should read this.” But that is exactly what I thought after reading Kathleen Smith’s book “Everything Isn’t Terrible”. Perhaps “devouring” is a more apt description of the experience, as I insatiably lost a whole weekend to curling up on the lounge with endless cups of tea, pausing only long enough to scribble down insights into my journal.
First and foremost I read the book as a human being navigating life and relationships, and then put on my Family Therapist hat to appreciate the potential use of the book as a reader-friendly, practical application resource, for professionals interested in Bowen Family Systems. So many ways that the book could be used, and all captured within 211 pages.
So what is the book about?
Staying true to the Bowen philosophy, the book encourages people to reflect on themselves, their relationships, and their relationship with the world, to determine if they are living in alignment with their principles and values from a calm and centered position, or unconsciously reacting to tensions and old family templates. The book highlights the importance of focusing on the Self, managing anxiety, and being the best version of ourselves in the different relationships that we are immersed in.
As Kathleen Smith writes, “Dr Bowen taught that if anxiety is generated in our relationships, then it can also be fixed in relationships. Therefore, long-term change doesn’t happen in isolation, or even on a therapist’s couch. It happens when we’re willing to work on being our best selves in our most difficult relationships. I realize that this sounds gross and hard, but boy, does it make a difference. If a person can learn to think and act for herself in her anxious family, her anxious community, and her anxious world, then her sense of self won’t be so dependent on the cooperation of others” (pg viii).
Kathleen outlines a three-step process for readers to follow in order to work on being their best selves, “Building a solid, principled self is a complex and lifelong process. To keep you from feeling too overwhelmed, I’ll rely on three verbs throughout the book: observing, evaluating, and interrupting your anxious functioning” (pg ix).
Kathleen Smith takes the reader on a four-part journey to understand how anxiety might show up in the domains of your anxious self, your anxious relationships, your anxious career, and your anxious world. And along the way she provides anecdotes, reflective questions, practical exercises, and action points, all with a witty and relatable writing style that makes you feel as though “she just gets it”.
My Favourite Section
Gosh, how can I pick only one?
This is a book that I will pick up at different stages of my life for different purposes, as well as have handy on my bookshelf to recommend to clients and other therapists for various reasons. But I distinctly remember the first time that I read the book and how captivated I was by her description and explanation of the common relationship dynamics that play out in anxious family relationships. That is, distance, conflict, triangles, and the over- and under-functioning dance. These were all Bowen Family Systems concepts that I was familiar with, had taught to others, and used in my clinical practice. Nonetheless, the everyday language used to describe these dynamics made me smile and reflect on the challenges of being a human being in the world.
Distance: “Avoiding people like the plague continues to be the most common strategy in every family for dealing with anxiety” (pg 47).
Conflict: “Human families have had thousands of years to evolve, and we’re still feuding over who gets Great Aunt Mary’s lamp” (pg 49).
Under-Functioning: “After all, why should you learn to do your taxes when it brings Dad such joy?” (pg 52).
Benefits for Systemic Practitioners
The benefit of reading this book as a systemic practitioner is multi-layered.
First, increasing differentiation (i.e., emotional maturity) is a lifelong process that we as humans are all navigating, and as humans, we can benefit from having resources to guide us on that journey. It is a challenging task to move from a reactive state to a thoughtful responding state, but boy does our central nervous systems, relationships, and life, feel better when we can do it…even if just for a little while.
Second, being a systemic practitioner requires reflection on the ‘self of the therapist’. The examples in the book can easily apply to anxious therapists and how they might react when working with clients. For example, the therapist who has a tendency to over-function for their client. The questions and exercises can be modified so that the practitioner can observe their reaction to clients, evaluate their position and what they are responsible for, and find ways to interrupt anxious over-functioning.
Third, the book is generously filled with practical questions and activities that may be helpful for practitioners to use in sessions with clients. Everybody loves a good ‘cheat sheet’ and Kathleen Smith has provided phrases and questions that I hear myself using with clients in therapy.
Some of my favourite questions, adapted to fit a therapy conversation include:
Observe: “When is it difficult to tease apart your thinking and your emotions?”
Observe: “When does your family use distance, conflict, triangles, or over/under-functioning to deal with anxiety or tension?”
Evaluate: “When do your behaviours in your family not reflect your best self?”
Evaluate: “What would being more responsible for yourself in your relationships look like?”
Interrupt: “What behaviours would you need to interrupt to be a more differentiated person?”
Interrupt: “Where do you see upcoming opportunities for you to practice maturity in your family?”
The Long Game
The final chapter of the book is Kathleen’s personal reflection on her own journey and how she has applied the Bowen concepts to her life. She echoes the words of Murray Bowen when she tells the reader that she does not pretend to be the most differentiated person in the world. This makes me smile, as fundamentally we are all just doing the best that we can. Whether we are qualified mental health practitioners, school teachers, bus drivers, mothers, fathers, sisters, or brothers…….we are simply just people in the world.
Kathleen Smith ends the book with a powerful message; “Working on being a more mature person is not a hobby. It’s not a distraction. It is your responsibility as a human on this planet. It’s true that you won’t see its effects as quickly as raising a million dollars or marching through the streets. But differentiation has always been about the long game. It’s about acknowledging that you are a part of a multigenerational history, a story bigger than yourself. It’s hoping that a lifetime spent observing and interrupting what’s automatic will ripple across relationships and communities” (pg 188).
It is this understanding that motivates the work that I do as a systemic practitioner, as well as being an important principle and value of mine as a human being.
About The Author
Dr. Kathleen Smith is a licensed therapist and mental health writer. A graduate of Harvard University and George Washington University, she’s written for popular websites like Salon, Slate, New York Magazine, Psychology Today, Lifehacker, Bustle, Everyday Health, Psycom, Psychotherapy Networker, Psychology Today, Counseling Today, and many others. She is a student of Bowen Family Systems Theory and an associate faculty member of the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family. Kathleen has a private therapy practice in Washington, DC, and is the host of the TV show Family Matters, produced by the University of the District of Columbia.
Please note that this article is educational in nature and does not constitute therapeutic advice.