Charlette Mikulka — psychotherapist, social worker, wife, and mother — has created an incredibly all-encompassing book with Peace in the Heart and Home: A Down-to-Earth Guide to Creating a Better Life for You and Your Loved Ones. Rather than writing to fit into a certain self-help category, such as depression or marriage counseling, Mikulka has chosen to address her reader in the context of family life and how one’s actualization of self affects and is affected by our loved ones. She does have some very specific opinions and recommendations, with which the reader may not necessarily agree, but overall Peace in the Heart and Home is a practical, empathetic work that can indeed be used as a ‘guide.’
The first section of the book forms a foundation of Mikulka’s views and goals, and also serves as preparation for the rest of the material. The Introduction details her position that Peace in the Heart and Home is intended to be a practical resource rather than full of abstract language and concludes with a list of those who can benefit, including the following:
“—those who suffer various psychological symptoms…[or] physical health problems
—those who don’t believe they have any psychological needs and don’t see any point in dwelling on problems, emotions, relationships, or the past
—those who have suffered a series of relationship failures
—those who want to be better at marriage and parenting…[and many more]” (p. xx-xxi)
The first three chapters continue the theme of evaluating where the reader is currently and what the process is for moving forward. Chapter One, entitled “What It’s Going to Take,” emphasizes that this is a program of self-awareness that requires work, not a magic solution. Chapters two and three explain how early development and childhood attachment styles (using the well-known psychological categories of secure, anxious, avoidant, etc.) as well as one’s current personality and emotional state affect our day-to-day interactions.
The next section begins to examine how traumatic experiences and physical health interact and stay with us over time, and how we can learn “self-care” to combat their effects. Following a rational and scientific explanation of how mental and emotional states operate, Mikulka goes on to explain different defensive strategies. According to her, trauma is not confined to a minority who suffer obvious calamities, but is in fact “the human condition…masses of us invisibly struggle day after day for decades, trapped under the weight of our personal and family dramas” (p. 51). Healing, then, is a process that must be “bottom-up;” that is to say, solving the underlying issue rather than simply reframing, ignoring, or accepting it (p. 61). EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) therapy is Mikulka’s tool of choice, and she goes into great detail explaining its methods and successes throughout the book. Her other recommended path is self-soothing, from simple stress relievers to advanced therapeutic techniques (some of which are detailed in chapter five).
The book then heads into relationship territory, looking at our intimate relationships as well as family life. Mikulka generally avoids discussion of sexual relations, preferring instead to spend time examining how our childhood attachment styles explain both our attractions and also how successful we are in them.
“When our painful childhood emotions and core beliefs about ourselves and others get triggered…, the past infiltrates the present. We all have a tendency to choose partners whose ways of defending themselves…puts salt in our own sensitivities, vulnerabilities, and wounds.” (pp. 138-39)
It is her position that the process of becoming aware of these interactions leads to a “mutual disarmament,” culminating in the realization that “the solution to relational peace is personal wholeness” (p. 142). Extending this theory to family life, attachment styles tend to lead to a cycle of dysfunction that is then perpetuated with one’s children and needs the same type of self-awareness to escape.
The final section concentrates on how the self is the foundation for every other facet of a peaceful life. Happiness is seen as the actualization of a “higher self,” using mindfulness and a lack of resistance as the pathway. There are physical as well as mental benefits to staying the moment, realizing that all things pass and that a connection to a larger identity is the center of a meaningful life.
Peace in the Heart and Home, which is also available as an audiobook on the author’s website, concludes with a collection of recommendations and steps to pursue, with the goal being a more peaceful existence. Mikulka reiterates her position that “unrest inside the human heart and family is the portion of human suffering we are in the best position to heal” (p. 229).
This book is different from most self-help/family advice works, and laudably so, in that it integrates seamlessly the worlds of the self and relationships. It also concentrates on remedying issues not by figuring out ways around them, but by delving to the heart of them.
“A major premise of Peace in the Heart and Home is that we need to recognize that most of what people bring to medical, mental health and marriage and family practitioners are symptoms, the tip of an emotional iceberg that requires looking under the surface and dealing with the reality of what’s there.” (p. 50)
This dedication to solving unhappiness rather than submitting to or hiding from it, combined with Mikulka’s soothing, understanding, yet ultimately firm tone of voice, results in an effective path. It makes this reader believe that she really is wonderful at her chosen profession.
If there is a problem in the way Mikulka presents her material, it is that she clearly adheres to a certain set of beliefs and spends hardly any time detailing alternative views. One controversial position she holds is that psychological issues are very rarely the result of a chemical imbalance, and that “being told that taking medication to correct the imbalance is all that is necessary is a huge disservice to a suffering human being, especially in times where there is so much more that can be done.” (p. 31) This can read to some that overcoming mental health disorders requires nothing more than therapy (which can happen, of course, but medication is also a very valuable aid in many diagnoses).
Also, according to Mikulka, all problems in one’s life and relationships stem from childhood trauma and the insecure attachment relationships that were formed. Attachment theory, while generally well-accepted in the psychology world, is an interesting platform on which to base all future issues one could be having.
Finally, Mikulka’s emphatic devotion to EMDR therapy may indeed be justified, but it precludes discussion, or even acknowledgement, of other therapeutic approaches. This is strange, as otherwise the author draws from a number of different sources and methods (such as Ram Dass, the Institute of HeartMath, and Imaginal Nurturing, among others) to make her points. She references Eckhart Tolle’s books repeatedly, expanding on his views of the “painbody” and intimate relationships. These references are helpful to those who have read elsewhere in the field of mindfulness and serve to ‘connect the dots’ between sources and methods in a practical way.
This practical nature is one of the best things about Peace in the Heart and Home. While Mikulka may have her specific views, her confidence in them and the way she brings it together to apply to various scenarios is impressive. The book concludes with direct steps to take and helpful suggestions for further action based on who you are and where you are in your life.
In the end, this book is a success because it doesn’t promise an easy path to success nor a magic solution to all of life’s problems. What is does offer are concrete ways to better understand how your mental state and emotional health affect your interactions, and how to improve from where you may currently be stuck. Peace in the Heart and Home will stay with this reader for precisely that reason:
“Doing [the processes described] involves a lot of mindfulness, time, commitment and effort, but the alternative is a lot of physical, emotional, mental and relationship distress. Take your pick.” (p. 148)
Peace in the Heart and Home: A Down-to-Earth Guide to Creating a Better Life for You and Your Loved Ones
By Charlette Mikulka, LCSW
Kittacanoe Press: February 18, 2011
Paperback, 312 pages