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What You Can Change... and What You Can't: The Guide to Self-improvement

The subtitle of this psychological self-help adviser seems to promise impossibly more than could be delivered. But Seligman is so much more sensible and lucid than most self-help gurus that he encourages thinking that, yes, this is all we can say--and do--right now about changing undesirable behaviors. "Two worlds views are in collision," Seligman says, over the prospects of behavioral change. Those products of the Western concept of free will--psychotherapy and self-improvement--maintain that behavior is malleable through a variety of conscious techniques. Biological psychiatry asserts that mental illness is physically caused, personality is genetically fixed, and brain chemistry determines emotions; change is possible only by physical interventions, primarily pharmaceutical but also surgical. Seligman comes down between those two extremes in recommending what to do about anxiety, phobias, depression, sexual problems, weight, alcohol use, etc. He advocates techniques that have demonstrably achieved lasting change or--what is far more likely--reduction in the frequency of undesired behavior. He bases his advice in sound research and highly educated inference, which means that his book constantly rewards anyone interested in individual psychology. In the last two chapters, Seligman offers first a devastating critique of the notion that childhood traumas shape adult behavior, particularly as that belief is exploited by the recovery movement, and then his own theory of behavioral change, in which change is possible according to the depth of the behavior--e.g., sexual orientation is very deeply entrenched, hence very difficult to alter, but panic attacks are very shallow and fairly easily eradicated.

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Submitted on: 7-Jan-2003