I was thumbing through Epictetus' `The Art of Living - the classic manual on virtue, happiness and effectiveness' interpreted by Sharon Lebell at the same time as reading this book. Epictetus' writings in the first century Roman Empire, a founder of Stoicism, are considered by some to be a primer for living the best possible life.
Centuries later, Stoicism is a foundation for the new behaviour therapies, including Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, (ACT), the third wave of behaviour therapies.
Robertson's book rests on the assumptions of ACT. What makes the book different to many self-help books is that `Build Your Resilience' does not attempt to mend a specific problem, but instead aims to serve a higher function by `improving resilience to both current and future adversities...enhancing positive qualities like psychological flexibility, social skills and problem solving ability'.
The Behaviourists assert that sometimes we need more than talking about our problems in order to change. I might add here that we need more than reading about our problems. We may need to recognise the difference between where we are and where we want to be and how we can go about getting there.
Robertson makes a clear point that it is not enough to read this book if you want things to be different or better - insight is not enough to create change, you will actually have to do the work! Having made his position clear, he then presents an evidence based self-help approach, fully referenced.
Building self-acceptance is a key theme in the book. Robertson points out, for example, that `having a history of mental health problems statistically (is) quite normal. Depression and anxiety appear to be part of the human condition'. Now there is a revelation in itself. What he means by self-acceptance is an acceptance that we can, and do, all have unpleasant feelings and thoughts. We tend to avoid these, or try to pretend they don't exist. However, ACT proposes that the best way to `control' our thoughts and feelings may be to accept them and allow them to come and go naturally.
ACT differs from CBT in that CBT aims to help us be aware of our thoughts and, challenge their reality. ACT suggests that we have thoughts, they exist, they may or may not be true and we don't have to pay attention to them or act on them. ACT, says Robertson, views thoughts as the `automatic flotsam and jetsam of our mind, thrown up by our personal history rather than anything particularly meaningful that we have chosen to think'.
Robertson, with many years clinical and teaching experience, goes on to present a process for the reader to help us clarify our own personal values and goals, and then to commit to living the life that we value, dealing with barriers along the way. The aim, he proposes, is to pay more attention to the quality of our journey than to our destination
Robertson gives practical advice, and shows the reader a variety of useful exercises such as mindfulness exercises, progressive relaxation and assertiveness skills.
This book contains a lot of information. This will not be news to anyone who has read Robertson's previous work, or attended his training courses. I felt as if I could read almost any paragraph in the book and spend a week reflecting on it. To gain most from this book, I think the reader needs to take it slowly, absorb the information, work with it, and be prepared to return to it again and again.
For this reason the book might not suit everyone. Those who need positive strokes from a self-help book will find this hard going. But then, perhaps that is what Stoicism is all about. And, by Robertson honouring his reader with an intelligent and enquiring mind, he may provide just too much detail for some. But, for the rest of his readership, he has created a well-researched yet down to earth approach, somewhere between a text book and a self-help book that basically states, if you want something, work at it, and here is how to do it.
As well as being a therapist in private practice, writer of self help, I am a tutor of psychotherapy. Under the banner of self-help, this book is also a good reference volume for therapists and students. As value for money, this little book is 270 pages stuffed with information, research, examples, advice and exercises based on the most current therapeutic understanding. A modern day manual for living.