Book Review: Everything Isn’t Terrible

book cover: Everything Isn't Terrible by Kathlleen Smith

Everything Isn’t Terrible by marriage and family therapist Dr. Kathleen Smith draws on Bowen theory to deal with anxiety. This theory of human behaviour sees anxiety as rooted in social relationships, so work on relationships must be done to improve anxiety.

The book is divided into four sections: the anxious self, anxious relationships, anxious career, and anxious world (e.g. social media and politics/religion). Anxiety is described in an emotional sense, and the book doesn’t specifically address anxiety disorders.

Each chapter is based on an example of a client she has worked with. Each chapter concludes with questions to guide you through the steps of observe, evaluate, and interrupt. There are also suggestions of things to practice

The book begins with background on Bowen theory, including the existence of a true self and a pseudo-self that’s susceptible to relationship pressures. “Under-developed beliefs” are susceptible to influence by others, and to work past this the therapy involves developing guiding principles on which to base one’s actions.

Differentiation of oneself (including our own thoughts and feelings) from others is a major theme throughout the book. Greater differentiation is equated with greater maturity. The author also observes that people who are more differentiated tend to have more and deeper friendships.

The author outlines a number of strategies that families tend to use: distance, conflict arising from emotional reactivity, triangles, over-functioning roles (parenting one’s own parents), and under-functioning roles (helpless child).

Bowen theory is a type of family systems theory, so that gives an idea of the author’s lens. One of the fundamental concepts is that how we behave within our family predicts how we behave in social groups, and to fully address issues in other relationships we have to look to our family relationships first. Community is described as the cake rather than the icing, and feeling settled and calm would be unlikely without it.

This doesn’t really overlap with my own worldview, but everything was explained well and it represented a novel way of looking at things. I liked the idea of taking an astronaut’s view rather than a ground view. This was framed as a way to help us calm down and handle situations more maturely. While, on the face of it, that sounds a bit condescending, it wasn’t presented that way in the book.

What did provoke some internal grumblies for me was when the author minimized the number of bad bosses out there, saying most bosses are imperfect and anxious just like anyone else. While that may be true, it sounds like it comes from the privileged position of not having had to deal with stigma or bullying in the workplace.

There were also a few comments here and there that weren’t all that significant but left me wondering, huh? She wrote that while cutting off and staying off of social media might work for a monk or ferry boat captain, most of us will need to be online. It’s minor, but it was just one of a few things that left me thinking that the author and I don’t look at the world in quite the same way.

I think this book would be a good read for people who can relate to the idea of poor differentiation. Probably a big part of why I didn’t really relate to the book is that, whatever my other issues might be, I’m well-differentiated from my family. If I wasn’t, I think the book would have been a lot more relevant.

Everything Isn’t Terrible is available on Amazon (affiliate link).

I received a reviewer copy of this book from NetGalley.

You can find my other reviews on the MH@H book review index or on Goodreads.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: Everything Isn’t Terrible”

  1. At my age I am kinda done with all this stuff – 2 degrees in psychology and I no longer care to read other’s opinions about what’s wrong and how to make it right. It was useful when I was younger but you get to an age when you are who you are LOL I read Lori Gottlieb’s book “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone” and fell into the trap of seeing myself and self-diagnosing – a rookie mistake!

      1. It’s a book I can recommend. She is an engaging writer and it can be experienced on 3 levels. As a memoir – she has led an interesting life and she comes across as an engaging person. As a human interest story – you, or at least I, got thoroughly engrossed in the story of her patients and her personal therapist. As an insightful look at what it is to BE a therapist. A dear friend of mine is a therapist and we discussed the book – she had been hesitant to read it because she doesn’t think therapists should write publicly about their patients but many of her colleagues praised it. I should ask my friend if she ever did read and what she thought.

        Psychology students, like medical students, tend to self-diagnosis with whatever condition they are currently studying – you get over it but I think with psychology you keep falling into that habit – so easy to be self-centered LOL

  2. I don’t know the Bowen theory oops! But I don’t think the author knows what monks do. They sure have social media. Being a monk doesn’t mean you don’t live on this planet 🙂

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