Finding Your Voice: A Woman’s Guide to Using Self-Talk for Fulfilling Relationships, Work and Life (Book Review)

Author:  Cantor, Dorothy, Carol Goodheart, Karen Zager, Sandra Haber, Ellen Mcgrath, Lenore Walker, and Karen Zager
Publisher:  New York: Wiley, 2004
Reviewed By:  Laura Barbanel, Summer 2004, pp. 81-82

This book is written by seven women psychologists; and what a useful and delightful book it is! Each of the authors is a prominent psychologist in her own right. The book pools clinical expertise and wisdom culled from years of independent practice. It is a book written for women by women, although men can get a lot of use out of it as well.

The W2W (women to women) group, as they call themselves, sought to write about the challenges that women face in modern life and how they can meet these challenges while both staying sane and leading fulfilling, rewarding lives. This underlying theme evolves through an introduction of the concept of “self talk.” Self-talk is the internal conversation that we have which serves to point us in one direction or another. It is not always easy to find one’s self talk. Sometimes the conversation one has with oneself is really somebody else’s voice that has been internalized. Self-talk has three steps: voice mapping, reframing and movement strategies. Voice mapping is listening to yourself think about issues in your life. Listen to the “shoulds,” to the attitudes that you have. Reframing is the exploration, the therapy part. How else can you think about a particular issue in your life? What are the other options that you have in life? Movement strategies refer not only to thinking about things in your life in a different way, but also conducting your life in a new way.

We live in a time and a society when women have the greatest number of choices and the most freedom. Why, then, are so many women unhappy? A woman can choose to be a professional, a stay-at-home mom; she can choose to marry or to live a productive life single. Why, then, do women suffer depression about twice as often as men? Is it hormonal? Is it the stresses of life that are different for women, particularly the stresses of choice related to work/family responsibilities, sometimes called in today’s modern terminology, “role stress”? The authors make the point in a number of ways that being free to make choices does not in itself make one happy. It may actually lead to frustration at not being able to achieve all of the things that you are supposed to accomplish in today’s world. What if you cannot combine work and children very well? You are trying but things seem to always be out of hand — a refrain heard from many of our patients. This is a new form of oppression, the W2W group tells us. It is the oppression of modern day life; it is the expectation that women can do it all.

This is a powerful book about self-discovery and a must-read for women and the therapists who want to help them. The self-talk method is a useful tool to self-discovery and its use is demonstrated in many areas — jobs, personal life, etc. They demonstrate the method within the focus of friendship, dating, sex, marriage, child rearing, work, money, etc. Who has not had questions in these areas? Whose patients have not had questions? How do you begin this conversation with them? Each of the voices in the book, each of the stories, is familiar. Caroline, whose husband has left her suddenly and unexpectedly, talks about her difficulty maintaining friendships with her women friends. Is this her neediness, their callousness, or the changed situation? We have all heard this story. How can she reframe and move her life? Is there a simple solution like many self-help books hold out? No. Movement comes one step at a time and only after a full exploration of the self-talk about the issue. Are you feeling unworthy of friendships? Do you not have friendships that you would like because you expect too much from a friendship to begin with? All of these questions are explored in the conceptual frame of self-talk as proposed by the authors. Alice is a sixty-five year old widow who has been dating a highly narcissistic man. Should she stay with him? She values the companionship, but should she remain in a relationship that is based on his needs only? If she does break up with him, she may be alone. How does she resolve this dilemma?

What about dating? What are the expectations that women (and men) have about dating and marriage? Most expect to have a monogamous relationship at some point in their lives and expect the other person to be a “soul mate.” When that expectation is hard to come by disappointment, guilt and anger set in. “What is wrong with the men?” and “What is wrong with me?” are the basic questions. In the area of sex the problem usually is about not enjoying sex or not getting enough sex. In marriage, there is a concept of a very different marriage than a generation ago. The ideal marriage is egalitarian, friendly, and sexual without being demanding: partners without rigid role expectations. Despite that, or maybe because of unrealistic expectations, women are asking, “Should I leave? Is this fulfilling? Is something missing?” Each of these questions is an outgrowth of having choice. But each can be a difficult and painful one.

The key concepts put forward by the authors are the following: identify the principles that are guiding your activity, stop doing what you don’t want to do but think you should, envision better ways, adopt new behaviors, accept yourself and your unique strengths and capabilities. Wow! A tall order. But ever so gently the authors show us how this is possible. The authors also make it clear that when there are certain issues present, such as childhood sexual abuse, it is important to get professional help.

What about children? Theoretically we have children when we choose, and are able to raise them while doing everything else as well. Not necessarily. Modern life makes child rearing sometimes more complicated and difficult. Parents expect to raise their children more democratically and sometimes end up blurring the parent-child lines. Or they are obsessed with the wish to make perfect children. These are the scenarios that the authors describe, and certainly others exist as well. There is the wish to be the perfect parent, while continuing to do all of the things that were done before the babies came along. Frustration and loss of self-confidence are common experiences in new families. In the work arena, choice is also potentially problematic. Can a woman be equally happy as a stay-at-home mom or a “working mom”? Conflict and lack of confidence are common results of this difficult choice. What “shoulds” does the woman live by? Is it possible to be content? So often through self-talk, the woman finds that here, in particular, she is living by “shoulds” rather than “wants.” “I should have a career.” “I should stay home.”

Despite the descriptions of unhappiness that the authors describe, this is a remarkably optimistic and upbeat book. The authors understand that we are living at a time of major upheaval, where choice can make for confusions and anxiety. It can also lead to creative solutions to life’s problems. Is this different for men than for women? Women are more often beset with the voices of others that dictate the ‘should,’ more often blame themselves and more often expect themselves to be perfect. This book is not a rarified theoretical treatise. It is a practical self-help book that can prove valuable both for the therapist and for patients. Its power and authenticity make it unique in this genre, and the authors are uniquely qualified to make it so. I recommend it heartily.

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