What You Can Change and What You Can’t

What You Can Change and What You Can’t: The Complete Guide to Successful Self-Improvement by Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D.

This is a very clinical and research-based psychology book, not a feel-good pop-psych self-help book. I imagine it would be great reading for a Psych 101 class. It gives an overview of several common mental health issues, a review of the research that has been done about various treatments, and recommends the treatment that is most effective in the long term. It’s really good information, and some of it is counterintuitive or goes against what some therapists and psychologists routinely do with their patients.

In the introduction, Seligman says that his goal is not just normal functioning, but optimal mental health for all. At the same time, there are limits to how much we can change certain conditions, and if we try to change something that can’t be changed, it’s a recipe for disaster. Seligman hopes to draw those boundary lines as clearly as he can. I appreciated this grounding in reality.

The issues covered are: anxiety, panic, phobias, obsessions (OCD), depression, anger, PTSD, sex, weight, and alcoholism. I’d recommend most readers to read only the chapters that pertain to them or their loved ones. I read the whole book, and I’m not sure that I got much out of the chapter on phobias, for instance. Each chapter contains a quiz readers can take to see if they have a particular problem, so it would be easy to use those quizzes to screen for which chapters you really need to read. The chapters I cared the most about were the ones on anxiety, depression, and weight.

In the anxiety chapter, Seligman does a great deal of work to distinguish what he calls “everyday anxiety” from more debilitating forms, and rational from irrational anxiety. The treatment he recommends is relaxation and meditation, preferring these techniques over tranquilizer drugs.

Seligman has research claiming that depression is the dominant emotion of the current time. I really appreciated the fact that he discussed the cultural issues that lead to women becoming depressed at much higher rates than men: learned helplessness, rumination, and the pursuit of the thin body ideal. Later in the book, Seligman recounts a study that showed that depressed people were more realistic in their assessments of their own performance than others, who were overly optimistic: “Basically, depressed people see reality correctly, while nondepressed people distort reality in a self-serving way.” That’s probably why I struggled with depression for so long. I made a virtue of seeing the world as it really was, and what I saw sucked. I didn’t really pull out until conditions in my world changed enough that the reality I saw was acceptable. Seligman’s recommended treatments were cognitive therapy or interpersonal therapy.

In the chapter on weight, Seligman basically says that diets never work permanently because we all have a “natural weight” that our body returns to after a diet. He debunks some myths about dieting and overweight people, including the idea that you can’t be both healthy and overweight. There have been very, very few long-term studies of dieters to see if they were able to keep the weight off. He even suggests that the yo-yo up-and-down dieters may be damaging their health more than they would if they just kept the weight on.

Seligman also spends a good deal of his conclusion time debunking what he calls the “inner child recovery movement.” I liked this section. It’s a thorough take-down of therapy that consists of remembering childhood and blaming parents for one’s current problems. It creates a victim mindset.

This is an informative book with a sensible message for anyone concerned with their mental health or hoping to improve their emotional life.


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