In a culture that celebrates talk therapy as the ideal treatment for persistent, negative emotions, the book F*ck Feelings: One Shrink’s Practical Advice for Managing All Life’s Impossible Problems – published last year and touted as the last self-help book anyone will ever need – can seem almost counterintuitive. After all, if your boss is a jerk, you’re married to an addict or you’re emotionally crippled by trauma, aren’t you supposed to talk things out to seek relief and “closure,” even if it takes years of therapy?
No “f*cking” way, say co-authors Michael Bennett, a psychiatrist (and distinguished fellow with the American Psychiatric Association) based in Boston, and his daughter, Sarah Bennett, a comedy writer based in New York City. In 2009, the Bennetts started a website (www.fxckfeelings.com) that outlines the approach the elder Bennett has been taking with his patients for almost four decades.
Thanks to the younger Bennett’s comedic talent, the material on the website often is light and funny, poking fun at doctors (referred to by first name only) who encourage navel-gazing as the path toward improving your emotional health. But the Bennetts’ website also offers straightforward tips on how to manage issues realistically, no endless self-discoveries necessary. “Talking about problems reaches a natural limit. It won’t make the pain go away or change things further,” the elder Bennett says.
It’s not that the elder Bennett thinks all talk therapy is a waste of time. Talk therapy, like medication, can be useful to some people, some of the time. The issue that Bennett sees in his practice, he says, is a repeating pattern: new patients (most of whom have already been to at least one other psychiatrist) rehashing issues over which they have no control, but expecting a solution.
The reality, Bennett says, is that life can be unfair, sad and complicated. Merely confusing wishes (the spouse or parent you wish you could change; the love or hate you wish you could stop; the vice you wish you could drop) with goals won’t help anyone, Bennett says: “If you don’t accept what you have and figure out what you’re going to do with it, you’re going to spin your wheels.”
A key component of helping people reach a point of readiness to accept that some things probably won’t get better and restraining their feelings might be best are actually old standbys – humour and profanity. Using curse words in such situations is empowering, according to the Bennetts. Swearing allows us to express anger without blame and reminds us of the fact that life is hard isn’t our fault.
To that end, each chapter in the Bennetts’ book addresses a topic that tends to trip people up – love, parenthood and self-esteem, for example (all prefaced, naturally, by “F*ck”) – and challenges readers to accept what they can’t change and learn to make the best of things by setting realistic goals.
The book is rich with scenarios and charts, some of which are hilarious, such as the child-development chart that indicates at what age your child is likely to be “a huge a**hole to you.” These scenarios illustrate the authors’ pragmatic approach to dealing with what they call the “sh*t sandwich” that life sometimes forces upon us. The approach is not simply “laughter is the best medicine,” but features a sound dose of dark humour.
An example is “F*ck a**holes.” This advice compares the poisonous people in our lives to rattlesnakes, tsunamis and acne -impersonal attackers that also happen to be the source of many therapy visits.
This section includes several examples of the unavoidable a**holes we may encounter at work or in our personal lives, including backstabbers, abusers and drama-seekers. It dispels the belief that everyone is capable of changing his or her behaviour for the better, recommends you try not to let troublesome people distract you and includes a chart that suggests ways to wrangle these cretins. Cutting these people out of your life is not always possible or desired, as the authors point out.
Almost anyone will find this chapter handy because it encourages us to refuse to take “a**hole behaviour” personally, says Sarah Bennett: “[This attitude] lets you off the hook. That’s the power of it. You don’t have to give up on [the a**holes]. You’re just not assigning blame to yourself for not making things better.”
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