The Enchanted Self:
A Positive Therapy

by Dr. Barbara Becker Holstein

Harwood Academic Publishers, 1997. ISBN 9057025035.
Reviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 01/08/2001

Nonfiction: Life Lessons

The Enchanted Self: A Positive Therapy is a book I couldn't resist. It was written by Dr. Barbara Becker Holstein, a therapist in Ocean, New Jersey, who believes that many people are unhappy not just because of past hurts and present disappointments, but because they simply cannot remember being happy. While The Enchanted Self is primarily for mental health professionals, it is written in an easy, graceful style that makes it easily accessible, as Holstein shares her own story and clients' stories, and uses them to illustrate her theory of the enchanted self.

What is "the enchanted self"? According to Holstein, it is the "capacity to reclaim, reintegrate, or adapt positive states of being from previous times in our lives into present-day workable, pleasurable, growth-promoting, joyful states of being." It involves experiencing "enchanted moments"—a uniquely joyful feeling that combines older happy memories with present experience in a positive and meaningful way. Holstein explains: "Enchanted memories are different from everyday memories because they have a rich layered quality, derived from a variety of positive memories, sensory images, and present-day attitudes about the experiences themselves." In other words, enchanted moments are those times when we are in touch with a self that is whole, happy, and creative—the enchanted self.

But reclaiming the enchanted self is not an easy, and certainly not a painless, task. Holstein's enchanted self emerged through a long therapeutic process, "unpeeling as an onion is unpeeled," she says, "layer by layer," as she began to discover more and more of her own past and present happiness, buried beneath past hurts and feelings of violation. Having learned for herself some ways to get in touch with that core of happy contentment, she began sharing her insights with clients, asking them to tell her about the times when they had felt most whole, centered, balanced, joyful—to tell her their happiest stories, in other words. Retrieving those moments, reliving them, she says, is a first step toward reclaiming wholeness and balance in the present life.

As I read Holstein's book, I thought about how her ideas are related to our need to tell our stories, and especially our stories of joyful discovery, self-realization, achievement and fulfillment—our gifts, graces, and glories. Recalling past positive moments and putting them into writing (or translating them into your favorite medium—painting, textiles, dance, song, etc.) can be a way of accessing more present joy. This doesn't mean that we bury or deny our past hurts; but it does suggest that it is helpful to reframe them (to use Holstein's term) by seeing our traumas in the light of our strengths. I am reminded of a friend's long, sad story about her husband's death from cancer, which she summarized in one glorious sentence: "It was a terrible time—but oh, how much I grew from it! I thought I was too weak to live without him. Now I know just how strong I am!"

I also thought of some of my favorite women's memoirs, most of which involve the pain of disappointment and the anguish of loss—translated into the compelling joy of self-discovery. I thought of Mary Karr's Liar's Club, for instance. Karr's is a wild story of violence, alcoholism, and childhood rape, but in all the craziness she finds an unsentimental joy, and emerges whole (but not unscathed) from her turbulent past. In the end, her demons are (mostly) exorcised by her telling, and she has created some enchanted moments. I thought of Lucy Grealey's Autobiography of a Face, which tells the story of her childhood disfigurement by cancer, and the self-understanding she ultimately achieves. I thought of Gretel Erlich's chronicle, A Match to the Heart, of a woman struck by lightning. Enchanted selves, discovered in a dark mirror? Yes, yes.

In her newsletter, The Enchanted Self, Holstein offers two exercises that are also story-telling exercises (reprinted with her permission). Try them, and see if they help you come closer to that part of you that is your enchanted self.

Exercise 1: This exercise involves making positive deposits into your memory bank. Over the next few days, stay alert to when you are in a good mood. Try to use all of your senses to experience the present more fully, especially when you become aware of a "potential deposit". 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? Take the time to describe them, perhaps writing them down or dictating them into a tape recorder. 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? Try to be aware of the details, taking the time to savor them as you deposit them into your memory bank. If writing or dictating 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.

Exercise 2: This exercise is about withdrawing positive memories from your memory bank. No matter how dysfunctional one's life is, each of us has experienced moments that were good and possibly inspirational. To fully appreciate these memories, we sometimes need the courage to let go of their dysfunctional aspects, revising them to emphasize positive elements. Scan your memory bank for a memory. Let go of any negative feelings around it, focusing on its inherent beauty and the good things that may have come about afterwards. Relish the part of the memory that has some enchantment. Use your senses. How did your body feel? What were the sounds and smells? What did you see? Remember that the pain is a part of the distant past. Enjoy what is best about this memory before you let it go.

The Enchanted Self: A Positive Therapy, by Barbara Becker Holstein, is available in softcover for $18 from 1-800-565-9523. You may obtain a year's subscription to the quarterly newsletter she co-edits with Doreen Laperdon-Addison by sending $10 to The Enchanted Self, P.O. Box 2112, Ocean, New Jersey 07712. Audio tapes of her book are also available from that address.

Check out our interview with the author of The Enchanted Self.

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