Meet Barbara Becker Holstein
Dr. Barbara Becker Holstein is a therapist in Ocean, New Jersey. Her first book, The Enchanted Self: A Positive Therapy, was based on her premise that many people are unhappy not just because of past hurts and present disappointments, but because they simply cannot remember being happy. What we need, Holstein suggests, is to return to the enchanted moments in our lives, those times when we are in touch with a self that is whole, happy, and creative—the enchanted self. Holstein has just self-published her second book, Recipes for Enchantment, a collection of stories and vignettes that she has collected from clients and from her newsletter. She is also the author of Delight and The Truth. Susan Wittig Albert interviewed her via email for The Story Circle Journal (Vol. 5, No. 1, February 2001).
Visit Barbara's website.
Interviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 02/15/2001
Barbara, why did you write this book? What is the significance of its title?
This book took shape within a few months of the passing of my father, Dr. Harry Albert Becker. I had already begun working on a sequel to my first book, which would include concepts I had not been able to touch first time around: the importance of belonging to a tribe, for instance, and the value of mentoring each other. But with the shock of his death, I found myself depleted emotionally and intellectually. I had little interest in the sequel, and felt extremely connected to my dad, who was at his core a teacher with psychological insight rather than a psychologist with teaching instincts. I found myself going back over journaling notes I had made over several years and selecting inspirational stories and vignettes. I also looked through stories submitted to The Enchanted Self Newsletter over the years. After compiling them, I thought that they would be most helpful to the reader if each one was followed by a journaling activity.
The book's title is Recipes for Enchantment: The Secret Ingredient is You! It is based on my belief that each of us holds all of the wisdom we need to make our lives pleasurable, even joyous and rapturous. The secret is realizing how instrumental we are in creating our own lives. I chose the idea of .recipes. because I believe there are some simple, core principles necessary to stir, simmer and cook a life so that it is delicious. These core ingredients include positive actions combined with positive thoughts and feelings unique to the person who is creating her life.
You have written "The stories of your life contain all the information you need to recognize your talents, interests, preferences, skills and potential." What do you mean by this?
I think it is so important to know how to gather positive information from the stories of our lives. Once we learn how to do this, it is possible to become selective and find the most functional parts of ourselves, even in a very dysfunctional past. If I can look into my past and see what has worked for me before or at least see what my talents were, or my coping skills exhibited during a difficult period in my life, then I can begin to see how to make the best use of my time in the present and into the future.
What I love about working with women via my workshops, therapy practice and newsletters is that I see how we can grow to treasure ourselves. I remember a woman who spoke at a workshop about a difficult time in her life and how she was able to replenish herself by long walks near the ocean. As she shared these reflections, she became aware that this coping skill was actually a treasure that she first discovered with her dad when she was a child, walking with him in the woods. She now felt increased affection for her dad, and a new sense of respect for herself. Yes, she was quite a survivor!
As women share their stories, I find again and again that they are able to sift through even the most dismal times and find jewels, perhaps a talent that was unrewarded or only partly developed, or a strength from childhood, or, most poignantly, unappreciated potential. Once we learn how to search through our own past for positive memories, it becomes easier to construct a positive blueprint for the rest of our lives.
Why do you believe that positive memories are important to health and well-being?
I have come to understand that without a sense that life is pleasant, joyful, even rapturous and ecstatic, we are vulnerable to depression, chronic anxiety and low self-esteem. I have seen my clients and myself find positive information in our own life story and perk up, no matter what the circumstances. Often when I was writing Recipes for Enchantment I remembered and felt the positive lessons that my dad taught me. I remember his story about how he had not picked up a returnable glass bottle when he was a boy, because his friend told him .it ain't worth nothin'.. Dad loved to tell his lost bottle story because it pointed out occasions that we all face when people try to convince us that something is not good for us. That's where our personal judgment comes into play. Many times during my life, people have tried to convince me to drop something—The Enchanted Self project, for instance, which has been an expensive passion. As those of us know who publish books and newsletters, the financial return is often minimal. But my father's lessons have stayed with me. I see The Enchanted Self project as a long-term project. Every day that I can educate and help someone or share in the mutuality of positive stories, I am at peace with myself.
In your work as a therapist, you must hear a great many "disenchanted" stories—stories full of pain, anger, fear. When someone brings you a story like this, how do you encourage her to reframe her experience and move toward enchantment?
Yes, I often hear disenchanted stories, and my heart goes out to these clients. But the wonderment comes from helping my client listen to herself and recognize the special capacities that she reveals in her stories. I try to help her appreciate and love herself as she realizes that even in the worst of times she has used many talents and strengths. I try to help her see that her coping skills reflect her genius, her humor and her capacity for endurance.
In my counseling and therapy, I try to teach clear ways of reframing experience so that my client can retrieve from her story her positive capacities and reclaim what gives her pleasure and joy. For example one of my clients, through telling stories about her childhood, was able to reclaim the wonderful talent of singing. Even though her childhood home had been dysfunctional, the family had often sung together. When she recognized this gift, she began to bring it into her life with her own children. It was a small step in regaining a sense of self-worth and a regained pleasure.
Following each of the stories in your book, you invite the reader to interact by writing some part of her own story. What's the purpose of this?
I truly believe that our stories influence each other. In fact not only do they influence others but they replenish us and give us hope and a sense of belonging. In Enchanted Self workshops, I have seen this happen often, particularly when we tell .piggy back. stories. The instructions are simple: Tell us a story, a positive story. One of the women related how she had gone to Europe in her late sixties with a knapsack on her back. Her children had discouraged this trip, saying she was too old, but.their very discouragement pushed her to go. She had a marvelous time, meeting people in hostels, traveling through several countries and coming back a heroine. With this tale in their minds, others recalled their own similar stories.
So in the book, the purpose of writing parts of the reader's own stories is to find positive parts of herself and use them to begin constructing a blueprint for the rest of her life. What does she want to do with herself? What is her mission? How does she define herself? Is she a healer? A teacher? A friend? A conveyor of optimism? A creator of beauty in small ways? Maybe she's some of these things, maybe many more. But now she's on the road to formulating positive actions. Of course, she may already be positive and active in her life, but this is a way of focusing attention on what else she might do. It always helps to focus and work on what we're trying to achieve.
Can you suggest some ways that readers might apply some of your methods to help them reframe their own stories?
Yes, I certainly can. Here is an easy activity:
Pick a year in your life and spend some time jotting down the main events of that year. They may be pleasant or they may be unpleasant.
Next make a list of all the talents, abilities, strengths, and coping skills that you used during that year. This may take some time, because you may find yourself dismissing some of your talents and strengths. However, try to be fair and generous toward yourself, as you would be if you were generating this list on behalf of a dear friend.
Now, go back and retell the story of that year of your life. either on paper or to a friend or perhaps just inside your head. As you tell it, honor those talents, strengths, and coping skills that you used that year.
I think you will quickly begin to see that any year of your life—especially the most difficult—assumes a very different shape when you focus on the strengths and skills you practiced during that year.
Here is another exercise that involves making positive deposits into your memory bank.
Over the next few days, stay alert to the moments when you are in a good mood. When the moment is right, ask yourself the following questions. What is going on? Does it remind you of other good times in your life? Can you list several of these earlier events? What were the best parts of these earlier experiences?
Now gradually refocus your mind on the present. What are you seeing? What are the smells? What are the sounds? How do these sensations make you feel? Be aware of the details, taking the time to savor them as you deposit them into your memory bank. If writing a narrative does not come easily to you, try drawing a picture, writing a poem, or composing a tune. Just do something to capture the moment in a way that is most meaningful to you. Your abilities as an artist, writer, or composer are less important than your desire to relish life.