As the years progress, it can seem harder and harder to feel that we are in control of our mental well-being. In How to Stay Sane, Philippa Perry takes a therapist’s knowledge and experience and converts it to a self-help guide to restoring and keeping mental and emotional balance. The jacket cover bills her book as a “maintenance manual for the mind,” which is a good description. Acknowledging that not everyone wants to or is able to see a psychotherapist, Perry’s goal is to give us steps to follow on our own to achieve a higher level of sanity.
Perry begins with an assumption that we already have mental balance, but that we need tips to maintain it. While that assumption may be false for some readers, her book is still a useful tool. And although some of her ideas are not new, they are worth hearing again along with her more original suggestions.
Perry explains that most of our brain development occurs by age five. Our earliest experiences help to explain why we are who we are. She writes that while we will not remember all of our childhood influences or the people who created them, we can learn to recall and think about them in ways that will lead us to better mental health.
Many of our childhood experiences were positive and helped us to learn to process our feelings in a mature way, or helped us feel good about ourselves, Perry writes. However, we also had experiences that were confusing or undesirable that may have had a lasting effect on us. Perry advises that we process our feelings differently when it comes to the latter, in order to eliminate their negative impact.
This is a reasonable suggestion, but in reality, I found it very difficult to segregate individual events from years ago, let alone to identify their impact on me or how I felt about them. Just sitting with Perry’s book and one’s memories isn’t quite enough.
Perry also explains that there are essentially two types of insanity. At their extremes, they are chaos, which occurs when we careen from one chaotic situation to another, and rigidity, which occurs when we repeatedly react to experiences with outdated and negative responses. We want to avoid either extreme by being in touch with our sensations and reacting positively to what happens.
Meanwhile, Perry posits, there are four cornerstones to sanity: self-observation; relationships; stress; and personal narrative. By regularly evaluating these four areas, Perry says, we can gain and retain a saner outlook.
Through self-observation, she suggests, we can examine on a daily basis how we are feeling about what is happening to us. This observation should be non-judgmental, and should cause us to be responsible for our reactions rather than feel that we have no control over them. Perry provides a “grounding exercise” to help with this. As we evaluate our feelings, we may consider either how we think others see us or how something feels internally. I found both approaches to be helpful. She suggests that keeping a journal, meditating, or praying can also help.
Perry’s second point is that having good relationships helps us to stay sane, citing examples of how faulty relationships, or having too few positive relationships, can be detrimental. This is certainly not a new idea. Still, reading Perry’s take may help us to look more closely at our relationships and motivate us to make changes where we can do better.
Both positive and negative stress affect our sanity. This is the third area Perry discusses. Obviously, we know that positive stress should be embraced because it stimulates us, and that negative stress should be managed or eliminated. We should seek positive stress that is mental, such as new opportunities or challenges at work, and positive stress that is physical, such as a good workout. This is old news—and we usually recognize when we are under exceptional negative stress—but still a helpful reminder to pay attention to how our experiences may be affecting us.
Finally, Perry’s fourth cornerstone is personal narratives: the stories we tell ourselves or that others tell us, or that we have read or watched on television. Because we often subconsciously embrace these narratives, they help to define us—but when they are negative, Perry writes, we must edit or change them to regain our balance. She encourages us to look for the good news in these stories because, she believes, optimism gives us a better outlook than pessimism.
Some might argue with this simplified view, however. Rather than taking this approach, I find that narratives help me more when I check my reactions or feelings against the people in a given “story.”
Perry provides a series of exercises intended to help us experience the four cornerstones of sanity. These are mostly common-sense activities, but can still be useful. Just as a therapist would encourage and expect a client to work on areas that may bring about improvement, the author expects the reader to do some of the same. The unfortunate shortcoming, of course, is that with a book, a reader has no way to get professional feedback on his progress. However, if we intuitively feel when we are not in balance, it can help to try some mental exercises on our own.
This is an easy book to read, and a second reading may uncover new insights. Too often we read advice in a self-help text, agree that it makes sense, and then go about our busy and stressful lives as though we never read the book. To make this one worth our time, we must pay attention to these ideas in a thoughtful way and then follow Perry’s suggestions. For instance, reviewing what happened at the end of each day and how we reacted to it helps us to make positive change. As Socrates tells us, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Perry gives us direction. We may not want to follow every suggestion, but can probably find some that feel comfortable.
How to Stay Sane
Picador, December, 2012
Paperback, 192 pages