Book Review: Beyond the Frustrated Self: Overcoming Avoidant Patterns and Opening to Life

Beyondby Barbara Dowds
Published by Karnac London 2014
ISBN 978-1-7822005-2-9
Reviewed by Aisling McMahon

Barbara Dowds is an Irish psychotherapist with a private practice just outside Dublin and a teaching practice in PCI College. She was a senior lecturer in molecular genetics before changing to a psychotherapy career over 10 years ago and her scientific background, as well as a self-professed love of literature, come through strongly in her recently-published book, Beyond the Frustrated Self.

Barbara’s book has many dimensions, engaging the reader at a number of levels. The book is strongly integrative in the various psychotherapy theories Barbara describes and draws from – including psychodynamic, existential, humanistic, body psychotherapy, attachment theory, developmental neuroscience and transpersonal psychotherapy. A particularly good description of developmental neuroscience is offered which I believe will be appreciated by practitioners, as well as by clients who want a stronger theoretical understanding of personal growth. However, the outstanding quality of Barbara’s book is how she intelligently and passionately engages in social and political commentary, philosophical and spiritual debate, while also offering insights and illustrations from a wide literary base. Here, the impressive integrative work is how she continuously weaves all these elements into her exploration of the blocks and the paths to personal fulfilment and contentment in today’s increasingly disconnected society.

Another striking and valuable feature of this book is the presence of ‘Brenda’ throughout – Barbara’s theoretical expositions are grounded in Brenda’s story and her personal journey to greater understanding and a fuller life. Barbara describes Brenda as a “kind of every (wo)man, albeit one with a particular attachment style” (xiii). Brenda’s attachment style is dismissive/avoidant, Barbara describing her as overcharged and overbounded. Barbara notes that the self “is inherently a process: creative, dynamic and relational. But for many of us like Brenda, it feels like a thing: stuck, grim and isolated” (66). Brenda keeps the world at bay, suppressing her engagement and responsiveness to others (as her early experience was that her significant others were not well attuned or responsive to her needs), relying on a rigid self- regulation (“driving with the brakes on”, 258) which leaves her empty, unfulfilled and yearning for more from life. Throughout her book, Barbara builds a well-researched argument that the path to greater fulfilment for each of us, but most particularly for those of us with Barbara’s attachment style, is to loosen the self-regulatory hold of the left brain, building greater connections between the analytical left and the creative, embodied right brain. This involves imaginatively and more playfully engaging with life rather than seeing it as something we must adapt to, taking risks to open our hearts and be more authentic, spontaneous and creative in our relationships, as well as counterbalancing our engagement in the world with time alone to connect with peace and silence. Barbara argues that we can find greater meaning in our lives by searching for our “higher loves” (258), the transformational objects (after Bollas) that represent our deepest values (whether these be social, political, aesthetic, spiritual, etc.), investing in giving as much as being open to receiving. Barbara concludes her book by stressing that we become what we do – “by attending to what we love, we become lovers of life” (265).

While reading this book, I increasingly found myself melding Brenda and Barbara in my mind and relating to them as one person. Barbara’s articulate descriptions of Brenda’s predicaments and frustrations (e.g., the difficulty of opening up to contact with others without losing herself), as well as her loves (e.g., of nature, of spiritual exploration) seemed to hold a strongly personal, emotional quality and even urgency at times. Barbara notes in her introduction that resemblances between herself and Brenda are inevitable and how the theory written about in subjective disciplines can amount to a “psychic autobiography of the theorist” (xvii) – this felt true to me and as I read I felt privileged to be invited in to share in Barbara’s intelligent, personal searching for understanding and authentic growth.

I very much enjoyed reading this book – I found it to be full of meaty wisdom to chew over. Although Barbara strongly advocates for our need to move from a dominant left-brain culture into being directed by our more embodied right-brain, there is particularly strong stimulation for the left-brain in her book. While this was engaging and satisfying, when Barbara brought in a literary quote I enjoyed the opportunity to rest my left-brain and resonate emotionally with the feeling of the quote. For me, more fleshed-out stories from Brenda’s life would have been welcome to offer even more balance to the strong theoretical, intellectual material in the book and to give me opportunities to rest in and be ‘held’ in the stories (Brenda’s experiences were more often brought in as condensed narrative overviews rather than more slowly opened out stories). However, I must note that this comment comes from my own need for more right-brain experience as I am of the same attachment style as Brenda and too left-brain dominated myself! Overall, I found Barbara’s book to be very satisfying, richly written and I look forward to further writing from her.