Colin Feltham’s book is a concerted attack on the self-help industry and an uncompromising questioning of the effectiveness of counselling and therapy as a whole. Feltham’s conclusions do not provide a cheerful prognosis – in essence, he maintains that professionals and clients alike muddle through with a mish mash of different methods and approaches whose real effect and long term impact are hard to quantify and refine. As a 50 something counsellor and academic who has been involved in therapy and counselling for the last quarter century, Feltham’s opinion derives from direct experience.
A book about the problem of dealing with other people’s problems is one that promises to be absolute drudgery to read unless the writer has a lightness of touch to deal with the weight of his subject matter – and Feltham provides a lucid trawl through the current methods of counselling and therapy. Rather than being a dry and impersonal academic textbook, however, Problems Are Us… is clearly written with the interested layperson in mind. On top of this, Feltham extrapolates from his own experiences which gives the book’s themes a much needed personal edge.
This is an extremely brave move considering Feltham’s admirable candour – he lays himself wide open which must be all the more difficult given that the people most likely to read this book are his professional peers. In doing so, he vividly describes his own neuroses and phobias which have caused him recurring distress. Through a clear prose style laced with dry humour, Feltham’s psycho autobiography provides a compelling narrative, even if he can be overly self-deprecating at times.
An unsympathetic reader would find it very easy to dismiss Feltham’s entire book as a self-indulgent whinge. (Certainly this book’s ghastly cover doesn’t help change any preconceptions, looking like The Scream with sick on it). None of his problems are particularly dramatic or sympathy promoting – indeed, many would recognise them as their own. Moreover, the only failure of this book is that Feltham doesn’t include a chapter which provides some balance – his second marriage is presumably happy and has been restorative to his self-esteem after the end of the first, and his children must bring him some sort of joy. Sometimes reading Problems Are Us made me feel sympathically suicidal. But it’s precisely because Feltham’s angst is so everyday and common to each of us – Why do I feel so unhappy? Why am I so stressed? Who will love me? And if I am loved, will they always love me? – that makes this book valuable, because he is describing his readers’ interior lives as well as his own. And we all love to read about ourselves.
Feltham is also forthrightly honest about his experiences of counselling, especially primal scream therapy which he thought for a while had really helped him – but in later life he’s not so sure. Feltham has used and encountered virtually every therapy method going and describes the flaws in each – and but seeking a magic formula that will guarantee continual happiness seems wrong anyway. The best perhaps we can do is to combat each problem as it occurs with whatever is to hand, with no guarantee of results but at least the attempt to do something to combat it.
Therefore Feltham’s book is in part an attempt to get us to recognise and lower the impossible standards we frequently set ourselves about attracting the perfect partner, being the perfect partner, as well as being rich, successful, fulfilled and so on – all insecurities which the self-help industry certainly preys upon.
Perhaps the other, more unsettling message is that for a lot of life’s anxieties and stress creators, there is no particular solution – we have to learn how to deal with them and move around them, to simply go on (“I can’t go on, I’ll go on”). But given that life is fluid and dynamic, these problems ebb and flow – what seems impossible one day may not be so the next.
Feltham’s book is certainly not cheery bedtime reading but it is a movingly open account of one man’s attempts to deal with the mental ailments that have troubled him through life. In committing them to paper along with his own insights into the partial help therapies can offer, Feltham offers a pessimistic but ultimately extremely valuable account on the problems of counselling that provides a necessary counterpoint to the relentlessly upbeat but usually illusory promises that all our problems can be solved and dissolved.