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Dr. Patrizia Collard
Stress Management Consultant and Psychotherapist

"ASSERTING YOUR SELF" by Cathy Birch. Oxford: How To Books, 1999, £9.99, pp. 122.

When I was first asked to review a new self-help book on assertiveness I gladly accepted the task. After all I myself run training courses, which include assertiveness training, so it always seems a good idea to keep up to date with latest ideas and developments.

However when I started reading the back-cover of the volume under discussion, I felt somewhat surprised to find a Jungian psychotherapist tackling a topic that is usually reserved for the more cognitive-behavioural school of thought. I wondered how a therapeutic approach strongly linked with notions of religion, mysticism and the basic idea of the collective unconscious would handle the principle of self-help in shape of a manual. Jung had certainly contributed to the idea of the extrovert and introvert, which may be translated into concepts such as the assertive and the non-assertive. Otherwise I could not think of an immediate link between the 3 to 5 year psychoanalytic-treatment approach and that of a practical, self-taught, brief training-course.

Furthermore I had just finished reading the refreshing ‘Prospect’ debate of the November 99 issue: Has Freudian psychoanalysis been killed by pills? Here two experts in their respective fields (CBT and psychoanalysis) entered a debate on the efficacy of their personal treatment approaches. I could not help finding the analyst somewhat more endearing, although less able actually to prove that analysis was still able to come up with the comprehensive solutions it was originally intended to provide.

With this notion in mind I started reading Cathy Birch’s book, and was thus not surprised to find a fairy-tale (myth) the central theme of the Preface. “What gifts did the good fairies bestow on Sleeping Beauty …” the author asks the reader in her introduction. She quickly points out that an assertive person has no need to wait for other people’s favours, but that being assertive would put us in charge of our own destiny, rather than leaving it up to spirits or luck.

I liked that beginning; it immediately drew me into thinking about the essential skill this volume was about to teach us to acquire. The use of story-telling, whether it is at the beginning of a chapter or by applying new ideas by looking at case-studies, has helped Ms. Birch to keep her book alive and make it readable. This is a very important skill for anyone who is trying to coach people through the means of the written word.

At no time during my study of this book did I ever feel bored. The tendency to story-tell, however, might have caused the author to embark on too many diverse approaches and end up in deep, deep waters. This is particularly true when she is trying to introduce Transactional Analysis into the arena of Self-help in general, and Assertiveness in particular. Personally I find the approach a fascinating one, but much too complex to be used within the framework of a self-help book, I feel. Thus the chapters which are based on TA, such as 2,3 and 8, are too heavy, too difficult to grasp, and would require repeated reading and application before the average reader could actually reap any benefit from them.

Let me give you one example: In Chapter 3, where ‘the family of origin’ is discussed, which are those people who made us into what we are today, one of the tasks the reader is requested to perform, is to imagine family life as it would have been, had our significant others been different from what they actually were, ie. more assertive. How would we feel today?

This would require the reader first to determine, a) which people were a significant influence on his/her development, b) to find appropriate situations/memories where the above request could be applied to and c) to analyse what changes this ‘new regime’ would have on us. All I can say is that people prompted to buy self-help books are in my experience unlikely to have the patience, motivation and time to apply such complex, drawn-out exercises. However when the author returns to more practical techniques, which no doubt derived from the more cognitive-behavioural camp of psychotherapy, her advice is down-to earth, sound, applicable and manageable.

All ten chapters contain a checklist near the end, which summarizes important discussion points of the topic under discussion. Readers are encouraged to write progress-reports into their journals and to apply newly acquired skills in daily life. Case studies show how this could or has been done. The final two chapters wind up the study by reinforcing the previously presented material. Chapter nine assesses the reader’s progress and encourages us to re-read the first 8 chapters, and the final chapter reviews once more all the taught techniques and skills starting from body language, verbal behaviour such as constructive criticism, owning one’s feelings, acknowledgement of choices and responsibilities, to a final list of what assertiveness actually means.

All in all a lively, if somewhat unorthodox approach to a very popular subject matter in our field, which I enjoyed reading, and can recommend for students of psychology, psychotherapy and practitioners alike.

Patrizia Collard (PhD) Stress Management Consultant and Psychotherapist

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