Bennett, Michael I. and Bennett, Sarah. F*ck Feelings: One shrink’s practical advice for managing all life’s impossible problems. Simon and Schuster, 2015.

[An Installment of the “Read Me” Project.]

This recent acquisition popped off the shelf at Carmichael’s just a few days before our niece’s wedding. Purely coincidental that, no doubt.

Someone* who would pay money for a refrigerator magnet that says “no drama” and who would say, at that women’s retreat where we were supposed to identify ourselves as parts of the body of Christ, like the hands or feet or heart, that she felt called to be the pancreas, already had risk factors for buying this book.

Stumbling across this early paragraph clinched it:

Dedication to improving yourself is admirable – and if you’re Oprah, unbelievably lucrative – but what separates this book from your average work of Deepak Chopra is that we can tell you, up front, that being prepared to make whatever sacrifice is necessary to improve yourself doesn’t mean you can do it. You can’t somehow get taller once you’ve stopped growing; there are limits to your physical strength and intellectual ability, no matter how rigorously you train; and, odds are, you have done too many drugs to ever be president (7).

Cover of F*ck Feelings, plain yellow with text

That paragraph gives a clear indication of the content and style of the entire book: snarky no-bones-about-it realism, in the service of getting on with what can be gotten on with, and saying “oh, well” (or words to that effect) to what can’t.

Readers do need to be OK with a heaping helping of profanity, albeit in the service of some semblance of equanimity, to tackle this book. According to the authors, “given life’s cruelty and unfairness … profanity is a source of comfort, clarity and strength” (4).

(Someone* who grew up with a mother who frequently, and with pride, told the story of how, when the grown-ups sent her to her room at the age of 5 for swearing, she proceeded to spend the whole time-out cussing them out behind that closed door might have an edge here.)

Readers for whom that’s not a deal-breaker will find this a helpfully hard-headed book. Its presentation and recommendations build on a simple basic philosophy: Some few of the elements of our lives are controllable – mainly, our choices about what values to affirm, what character traits to cultivate, and how to respond to the people with whom we have to live, in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. But many are not. Facing up to the uncontrollables and making the best of our real-life situations is more often than not the best that we can do.

Hard-headed doesn’t mean hard-hearted. Ironically – and irony fits this book – acknowledging the reality of this world’s multiple injustices, cruelties, bum raps and lousy deals makes it possible for the authors to extend compassion to the regularly, ordinarily decent people who run into them, without holding those same people personally responsible for a lot of the awful stuff they have to live with. The Bennetts never play “blame the victim.”

They don’t need to.

That move is for people who “deny the fact that there is much about life, others, and their own personalities that is beyond anyone’s power to change” (2).

Nor, in spite of the title, do the authors disrespect feelings, or think we shouldn’t have them, or shouldn’t pay attention to them. Just the opposite, in fact; for instance,

Fear might be unpleasant and often unnecessary, but not every impulse it inspires should automatically be ignored; that Y2K bunker was probably a bad idea, but the concern that convinces you to keep your anger bottled up is usually justified (233).

The troublesome reality that inspires their title is that people often expect too much from feelings, or for them. Internet memes and self-help bestsellers encourage us to believe that broken people can be made good as new by “getting in touch with” their buried feelings and “talking about” their bothersome ones. The Bennetts are in the business of managing those soaring expectations in favor of less ideal, but more achievable, outcomes.

The authors understand what people want. They understand that those of us who are not Instagram-worthy dream of transforming our appearances, that those of us who dread high school reunions long to win once or twice, that those of us who would consider “average” a step up from whatever physical disability or mental health challenge or family dysfunction is our daily grind just want things to be OK. They get it.

And they get that we might imagine, thanks to bad reality TV shows, that if we could just locate the elusive, subconscious roots of our problems, we could solve those problems once and for all, and go on to live happily ever after.

That’s where the snark and the realism and the less-than-ideal-but-do-able steps and the resolutely fact-facing notes to self that fill up this book come in.

Because, for instance, if we’re addicted (to whatever), what we probably want is to get well and be done with it. But in real life,

… improvement begins with the acceptance of the permanence of what’s wrong and a realization that there are, nevertheless, good reasons for pushing yourself to manage flaws that will never stop being a painful burden (33).

Then we can do things like “[a]ccept the limits of your responsibility for having addictions so you can take more responsibility for managing them” and “[g]et help from people who are doing the same thing but are further along, be they friends or fellow addicts at AA or NA meetings” (38).

We might have friends or relatives who all we want to do is help, because if we could just get them to see, or to take the next steps that are so painfully obvious to us, or whatever, then all the problems would go away. We just want so very much to help.

We probably need the Bennetts’ reminder that “helping” is complicated, risky, does not always improve matters and may even do great harm, so that we “have to do less and think more,” even though this involves living in “the place most humans hate the most” (110) – that is, neither the “on” of “being there for” the helpee at all costs, nor the “off” of “being done with it,” but the in-between place of doing what we realistically and honestly can under the circumstances. That involves weighing costs, benefits, priorities – like our other commitments to other people – and resources, as well as accepting our human limits.

And so on, through various challenges to self-esteem, various sources of profound unfairness in life, various irreducible annoyances and interpersonal differences and genuine incompatibilities that as decent human beings we may find ourselves required to live with rather than flee.

The Bennetts’ brand of humor can get tiresome, making this less a book for reading straight through and more a book for keeping next to the dictionary and the home repair manual and the other reference books. But definitely one for keeping there. Because when we find ourselves in one of those situations that demand some decidedly anti-romantic acceptance, some making the best of, then we can turn to the Bennetts’ particular brand of inspiration “to express anger without blame, to be tough in the face of pain, and to share determination without sentimentality” (4). They “will remind you, because you need to hear it, to respect yourself for how you deal with bad luck, not for the overall quality of your luck (4).”

And according to the authors, the profanity will help with that.


[*] Me.


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