I went to therapy twice — once after a tragic death in the family and once at the dissolution of an engagement after a five-year relationship. Walking across the threshold of the office was equally liberating and terrifying. What would the therapists say? Would they understand? Would they criticize? Despite my fear, I stepped forward. In one instance, it was the best decision I could’ve made; in the other, it was a soul-crushing exercise in honesty that left me licking my wounds.
It was from this mixed-bag perspective that I picked up Dr. Tuya Pearl’s Tell Me Your Story: How Therapy Works to Awaken, Heal and Set You Free. At first glance, I assumed that her book was more of a manual about therapy FOR therapists. I was surprised to find that it’s more a therapy-experience-in-a-book BY a therapist FOR me. Dr. Pearl introduces the process of therapy as a “place where — in a safe relationship built on empathy and understanding — the Spirit of Truth clarifies and transforms us with new perspectives nurtured by grace.”
As stated clearly in the subtitle, Dr. Pearl has written her book for the everyday person struggling with everyday life. Avoiding the overused “self-help” model, she focuses on the actual process of therapy, divided into logical and palatable steps all driven by the goal of telling your story. While most self-help and even therapy-based books focus on the steps, tips, and tricks to move past fear, denial, doubt, etc., Tell Me Your Story walks the reader through the individual components of a full therapy experience not by overwhelming with theory and statistics, but with candor and through the personal testimony of others. This approach helps create a tangible connection with the reader in a way that straightforward self-help books often struggle to achieve. As someone who has suffered from anxiety, PTSD, grief, depression, and other mental and behavioral issues that pushed me to seek out therapy myself, this book was like being handed a warm blanket to wrap around myself, which is saying something considering the number of self-help and therapy-centered books I read on a regular basis as a book critic and ministry student.
The author begins establishing a relationship with the reader by introducing herself both as an individual with a story and a therapist with a mission. Her introduction is intertwined with notes from prior patients/clients, whose stories provide a clear, indisputable testament to her main points as she makes them. Her introduction to therapy felt more like sitting down with a friend who also happens to be your therapist due in large part to her use of the first person and the honest disclosure of the dysfunctions she and her clients have experienced. It was refreshing to hear a therapist admit that not only was her own mother unstable, but that it took until adulthood for her to understand why.
Dr. Pearl addresses the stigma of seeking help in the first place with a whole section dedicated to it, beginning with the simple thought: “All of us get mixed up from time to time.” Her disarming approach is supported with the stories of several clients who, each in their own way, got a little mixed up. I found my guard dropping as I read and felt as if these stories were being told in a support group, cheering me on as I took a seat and joined the circle. The blow of admitting the need for help was further softened when I came across the honest and raw poetry of Dr. Pearl, transparent and without adornment, speaking directly to the heart of the issue at hand, be it OCD or depression.
By focusing on common issues addressed in therapy and with accounts of real clients who sought treatment for them, Dr. Pearl walks the reader through the steps I recalled from one-on-one therapy, organizing them into the following sections: “Tell Me About It”, giving full credence to the individual story; “Examining the Facts”, helping the client understand what occurred and also what didn’t, and what that means in the current moment; “Righting and Revising”, correcting false beliefs, words, and thinking, then writing a new ending to the same story to see it through a healthier perspective; “Transforming”, highlighting the power of forgiveness, self-love, regaining your individual voice, and growing to love those around you from a healthy place; and lastly, “Taking Flight”, the shove towards a life lived without the baggage you brought into therapy in the first place. While these are standard components of therapy, Tell Me Your Story addresses them with a sensitivity I did not experience as a client.
While I am most definitely in the target audience for this book, I assumed my mixed experiences with therapy would prevent me from benefiting from it; I was incorrect in that assumption. As a storyteller and someone with a ministry of helping others tell their stories, I was drawn into a safe place with other people who had gotten a little off course and lived to tell about it. The simplicity of Dr. Pearl’s message was reinforced by the personal experiences that showed how each tenet of counseling and intensive therapy worked. I could have honestly just read the first-hand accounts and gained a tremendous insight into my own life and experience. One thing in particular that I appreciated was Dr. Pearl’s attention to detail and education. She doesn’t lecture at readers, but walks them through the therapy process by explaining terms such as projection, repression, and rationalization, and by providing assessments and writing prompts to guide readers in their own therapeutic recovery.
While I base much of my stability, hope and joy on a Biblical basis, I did not feel as if this book pulled so far to the cerebral that it shook my roots. This is, in my opinion as a student of literature and the written word, a masterful example of quality writing and storytelling. I was able to take the “therapy” included and insert it into my standards of morality. A small feat, yes, but this is a tremendous achievement in the world of self-help and psychology.
As someone who had sworn off therapy, I am both surprised and delighted by how this book has drawn me in, and am looking forward to the second read-through. For those who are new to the concept of therapy, but are hurting, depressed, discouraged or just a little off track, this is an exceptional place to start your dialogue with yourself and begin to heal. On the other hand, for those therapy vets like myself, this is worth laying down your guards long enough for a read; I highly, highly recommend it.
Tell Me Your Story: How Therapy Works to Awaken, Heal and Set You Free: A guide to overcome anxiety, depression, compulsions, addiction, fear, grief, obsessions, confusion and self-doubt.
She Writes Press, June 2016
Paperback, 120 pages