Book Review by Steve LeBlanc 2008 rev:2008.10.04-2010.01.02
Hardcover: 448 pages $25 shipped from Recovery, Inc.
Publisher: Willett Pub.; 3rd edition (June 1997)
In continuous publication since 1950
ISBN-10: 0915005069 or ISBN-13: 978-0915005062
Dimensions: 8.8 x 5.9 x 1.6 inches
In short: Buy the book. It may be the most important book in the field of mental wellness (not illness) ever written. It is certainly the best kept secret in the field, due in part to a goofy title. While a great read in its own right, it is also the foundation for a free self-help mental health support group. The information in this book and program are designed for untangling common, everyday neurosis, the kind almost all people have. But the real importance of this work is that some people involved in this program are apparently being at least partially corrected of their chronic depression and anxiety disorders. And yet, never are you told to stop medications or defy your doctor. The book offers a way to train your brain to think more clearly and make healthier choices.
How could this have happened? I had never even heard of Abraham Low. I had been reading psychology books since 1967 when I was eleven. I had read about, studied or experienced most forms of healing and mental health available in the United States. I am rather obsessive about it. So when I found a style that had escaped me, I was … well, a bit miffed. When I realized it was the foundation for one of the most important movements in the field, I was confused. This book, “MENTAL HEALTH THROUGH WILL TRAINING” (MHTWT), was written in 1950, based on Abraham Low’s group work that started in 1937. It seems to be the unacknowledged predecessor to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), currently the most influential branch of psychology. Ellis and Beck are usually credited with the development of CBT in the late fifties. (Interestingly, Alcoholic Anonymous started in 1935.)
Before Martin Seligman (Authentic Happiness), there was David Burns (Feeling Good). Before Burns, was Albert Ellis (Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy or REBT and “A Guide to Rational Living”). But years before them all was Abraham Low.
While CBT is currently the most influential branch of psychology, you don’t have to be a psychologist to have been touched by it. The principles of these works have filtered into our common language. Phrases like “black and white thinking”, “over generalizations”, “negative self talk”. “perfectionism” and “mental filters” come to mind. And my own personal favorite from Ellis’ list of irrational beliefs, “I must have everything that I want.” If you ever read self-help psychology books, you know of these authors and their work. Except for Low. I wanted to know why.
When a child comes home from school and says, “Nobody likes me and I’ll never fit in,” we smile and assure him things will get better. When an adult says the same thing, we worry and call it immature or neurotic. And yet, we all practice this form of thinking from time to time. Such sloppy thinking compounds our problems and creates suffering. Ellis claimed, “Although the activating experiences may be quite real and have caused real pain, it is our irrational beliefs that create long-term, disabling problems!” CBT in general and MHTWT specifically, are about training your brain to think more clearly, or what might be called “mental hygiene”.
So why is Ellis so famous while Low is forgotten? Ego largely explains it. Ellis had a massive ego and was even referred to as Therapy’s Lenny Bruce. Ellis loved to talk about how screwed up society was, in hopes that his people would finally accept what is. His audience was largely therapists and workshop attendees. Ellis believed it was the therapist’s job to “dispute the irrational beliefs, in order for the client to ultimately enjoy the positive psychological effects of rational beliefs.”
Low on the other hand, was more modest, content to work with his own patients to teach them self care. On page 144 of MHTWT, Low says, “I am not a reformer and have no intention to crusade against the modern mania for undisciplined, ‘self-expression’ in a life of senseless speed and meaningless change. My duty is to treat patients, not to cure the ills of the age. But my patients are unfortunately exposed to the detrimental influence of the spirit of the age.”
It is easy to righteously agree with Ellis, Burn, Seligman and CBT without ever having to apply their work to your life. On the other hand, it is difficult to agree with Low and not take concrete action related to the point. Ellis had a great idea. “Stop saying stupid stuff to yourself.” Low had great tools. “Anticipate joyfull or don’t anticipate at all.” Neither CBT nor Low were interested in the unconscious and hidden parts of self. Low defined sabotage as doing things you knew were not good for you. The book was largely about clarifying which thoughts are good for you. So while Ellis had an ambitious agenda, Low wanted to help his people. CBT is easy to agree with, and reimbursable by insurance companies. MHTWT is a grass roots movement with “no professionals” in charge by definition. In essence, there was no one to champion the cause. And yet it has survived and grown. But there is another reason Low’s work is forgotten.
To be fair, this is not an easy book. It was written with the heavy-handed arrogance of a doctor who actually deserved the respect. That is off putting for some. He was writing way ahead of his time. And while the book is written for a general audience, it makes use of long sentences and dated phrases, like, “presaging”, “evince”, “warp” and “woof”. That said, it is one of the most clear writing styles I have ever come across, and a welcome reprieve in an ever growing field of self-help psychobabble. It rings with elegance, relevance and truth. But how did I come to this conclusion?
Making use of my own “How to Read a Book by its Cover” technique, I looked at the table of contents. Nothing compelling there. With cryptic chapter titles like, “Temper, Sovereignty and Fellowship,” it was clear that I would get little sense of direction. Such titles only have meaning after you read the book. Even the title of the book was goofy; what the heck is “Will Training”? I skimmed the book looking for pull quotes and bulleted lists, and found none. Drat. Bear in mind the book was written in 1950 and has not been appreciably altered since. No dust cover on my copy, so no great endorsements. But it did have an index, something lacking in many books these days. Google revealed very few links to Recovery-inc.com, an indicator of low popularity.
Rather than start at the the beginning with an introductory “why”, I randomly chose a few chapters (8-12 pages each) to read from the middle. Was there gold in there? Yes indeed. In the chapter “Helpless is not Hopeless,” we get such gems as this. “A life long habit of honesty can be destroyed in short order by bad company or cajolery” And “Prognosis (of self) is sabotage.” “The patient can declare himself helpless, but he has no right to pronounce himself hopeless. Description is the domain of the patient, prediction is the province of the physician.” Now this was good stuff.
The next chapter title was also dry, “External and Internal Environments,” but contained gems as well. In it a patient says, “Then I learned to be average and humble and get along with people.” Low puts a premium on being average, rather than special. “You learn in Recovery that the sense of importance is perhaps stimulating, but does not make for balance. And to preserve your health, you need balance. And the sense of averageness gives you balance.” These kinds of insights lend a whole new meaning to humility and stripping back of ego.
With all due respect to Burns for his “Feeling Good” books, CBT appears to me to be a watered down version of Low’s work. If so, many of the basics have been lost in the later derivative work. The material in MHTWT is intended to be used in a well structured group of your peers. You need the accountability and structure to significantly turn your thinking around. At the very least, you need the reminder to celebrate your small steps of progress. What Burns calls, “Discounting the positives” is great to work on if you are actively dismissing major achievements, but not useful for those who simply fail to notice any progress. There is a qualitative difference between that and Low’s statement, “Endorse yourself for the effort, not only for the performance.” The entire field of life coaching was based on this sort of encouraging and celebrating small steps. Burns’ work seems to be full of STOP messages, what not to do. While Low’s gives very clear steps on how to do things better, right now, with the current issue.
Perhaps it was because I had studied Ellis’ REBT work years before, that I found Burns’ work uninspiring. It is not that I don’t believe in the value of such mental house cleaning, but rather that I was largely past the ones listed in the book. Burns is a great place to begin, especially if you have messy mental hygiene. Low’s work is a great place to refine and go to the next level of health.
For me, reading Low’s MHTWT was like coming home, back to what all this work was supposed to be about in the first place. It is about training your brain in the small steps of success. It is about rebuilding mental health. The group approach is particularly important for those with more severe symptoms, like Bipolar, and those who do not learn well on their own from just reading a book.
I am a long time fan of Martin Seligman’s. He is a world class expert on the topics of optimism and happiness and how they relate to depression. His recent collaboration with Marcus Buckingham have put the idea of “strengths work” on the map in Now Discover Your Strengths. And his positive psychology, while a bust in the fiercely competitive field of therapeutic psychology, has all but launched the field of Life Coaching. But his work and most of CBT is intended for professionals who treat clients. They are informative and brilliant at telling about conditions. But they do little to help average people help themselves. CBT clearly supports healthy risks. But Low’s work focuses on the specific risks to take. Where CBT paints a good picture, Low lays out the map and the way back home.
Like I said, buy the book.
So, does Abraham Low deserve a place in the history of psychology? Perhaps not in the way that people like Freud, Adler and Ellis do. Low’s model of personality is a little too simple. To paraphrase, “What you say educates your muscles, and they in turn set the tone of either security or insecurity. Your muscles then reflect that back to you when you consult them about whether you can do something. In a word, you can reeducate your muscles by changing your thoughts. When you learn how to effectively spot your own dysfunctions, you can heal yourself.”
Abraham Low certainly belongs on the shelf next to other great works like: A Course in Miracles, Fearless Living by Rhonda Britten, The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.
Ironically, I come to this review with a bias very different from Low’s. I assume that almost all upsets can be healed fully and quickly, a catharsis of sorts. I trained in rapid healing styles of Applied Kinesiology, from the works of Callahan, Gallo, Dennison and Craig. I have assisted clients in rapidly healing their traumas for more than twenty years. What I slowly came to realize was that not all upsets and suffering are traumatic in nature. Some are stuck in screwy thought patterns. And while I found promise in CBT, I found answers in MHTWT.
From the site: What is Recovery, Inc.?
Recovery, Inc. is a self-help mental health program based on the ground breaking work of neuropsychiatrist, the late Abraham A. Low, M.D. We are completely member managed. Recovery Inc., has been active since 1937 and we have groups meeting every week around the world. Recovery, Inc. offers its members a free method to regain and maintain their mental health. By studying Dr. Low’s practical method of Mental Health Through Will Training, Recovery Inc. members learn techniques for handling trivial, everyday situations.
Recovery International (as it’s now called) sponsors weekly group peer-led meetings in nearly 600 communities around the world. The world’s oldest self-help mental health organization, Recovery International is a non-profit, non-sectarian, consumer-run organization.
New copies of the book are only available from Recovery, Inc. (Now called Low Self Help Systems). Used copies are available through abebooks.com and amazon.com. The text has not been appreciably altered since 1950. Only the introduction has changed. However, the page numbering has changed, making reading along in a group a bit of a challenge.
http://recovery-inc.com Headquarters of Recovery International. Toll Free: 866-221-0302 http://LowSelfHelpSystems.com/
http://lowselfhelpsystems.com/meetings/meetings-materials.asp One liners and Tools of MHTWT
http://lowselfhelpsystems.com/about/shop-online.asp Buy the book, Mental Health Through Will Training
http://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?sts=t&tn=mental+health+through+will+training&x=46&y=14 Used copies of MHTWT