By Alison Bowen
A new self-help book from Simon & Schuster might not be for the faint of heart, not with a title like “F-Feelings” (and we used even fewer letters than the publisher did).
But the authors, psychiatrist Michael Bennett and his daughter, writer Sarah Bennett, intend it that way; life itself, they contend, is not for the skittish. But they’re ready to help. Hence the subtitle, which we can reprint in full: “One Shrink’s Practical Advice for Managing All of Life’s Little Problems.”
The irreverent title reflects the Bennetts’ belief that humor is integral to surviving life’s curveballs. The real four-letter word in our lives, they say, is “fair.” Many believe life should be fair, they write, but it’s often chaotic. Making peace with the things you can’t change about yourself, or someone else or the circumstances you’re in, allows you to instead focus on managing your responses to that chaos.
The book offers concrete advice, with three examples of pretend people’s scenarios to make you feel less crazy about whatever your struggles might be.
Then, it offers honest assessments of what you can and cannot expect, such as not expecting to win a victory in an unfair situation. The book mimics their website, with a mix of reader and patient questions that Dr. Bennett answers; his advice is penned by his daughter, who used to write monthly sketch shows for the improv group Upright Citizens Brigade.
The two chatted by crackling phone connection from New Hampshire. What follows is an edited transcript.
Q: There’s definitely a specific tone to the book. Is there anyone you had in mind while writing, or an ideal reader?
S.B.: We’ve gotten some flak for the title. The reason that it’s there is we want to filter out anyone without a sense of humor. Our ideal reader has a sense of humor. These are usually serious problems, having a bad relationship with a parent, hating your job, where it’s hard to have a sense of humor about. We obviously think that if you can use (humor) to reassess your problem and look at it in a new way … then you have hope of finding your way out of it.
M.B.: I’ve had very good luck with patients, even people who are very sensitive, understanding that the humor is not personal or not aimed at them, but aimed at the difficulty of life.
Q: You say the real F-word is “fair.”
M.B.: That’s what struck us as obscene. (Laughs.)
Q: And “feelings.”
M.B.: When people talk about feelings as if they’re precious and more important than consequences or values, there’s kind of a romantic self-centeredness that is morally not good and not helpful to anybody.
Q: What did you feel was missing in the self-help realm?
M.B.: The book was our reaction to what is generally out there, not just books but cliches about treatment, that did not work. People talked all the time as if it did work.
S.B.: They all seemed like perfect vehicles for disappointment.
Q: That goes back to the idea that we’re expected to change, even in impossible situations. In the book, you mention that we often face guilt about not changing ourselves or others. How can we more positively channel that energy?
M.B.: My position … is that it gets in the way of asking yourself what you really can’t change. Until you ask yourself that, you’re in no position to make constructive plans. For very good reasons, we don’t want to face the limitations that life’s fixed on us, because most of them are rather painful.
We want people to take seriously that when they try a lot of things and it doesn’t work … they should respect the fact that they have done everything they can, and they’re just running into something that is not in their control.