Book Review: Fear and Other Univited Guests by Harriet Lerner

– Posted in: Anxiety

Too often, we read self-help books on Anxiety Disorders written by people who have never experienced them. 

The same could be said about many therapists: How can they really understand a panic attack if they have never had one?

Harriet Lerner, in her Fear and Other Uninvited Guests, speaks from her own personal experience with fear and Anxiety. Her words have the ring of truths hard-won through her own personal experience.

Lerner is also the author of New York Times bestseller, The Dance of Anger. She is the author of ten highly acclaimed books and two audio series. She was a staff member at the Menninger Clinic, and now practices with her therapist husband in Lawrence, Kansas.

Written in an easily-read conversational style, this is not a self-help book per se. It is more a recounting of her personal experiences in a number of situations common to people with Anxiety Disorders. Her advice is wise, practical and uncomplicated by psychiatric jargon.

[amtap book:isbn=0060081570]

Uncommon insights

Fear, as is implied in the title, is the thread running throughout the book. Instead of battling against it, Lerner says,

Fear is not something to be conquered or eliminated — or even tackled, for that matter. Instead, we may need to pay close attention to its message. … [It] is sometimes helpful, sometimes not — but often convey[s] critical information about our beliefs, our needs, and our relationship to the world around us.

Anxiety, Lerner says, is dangerous, not only because of what it does to the sufferer, but what the anxious person may do to others:

When anxiety is chronically high it leads to more serious outcomes such as greed, bigotry, scapegoating, violence, and other forms of cruelty.

Lerner is realistic and pragmatic

She takes a very realistic, pragmatic view of the challenges facing a person with an Anxiety Disorder. She says that, in order to step more fully into our lives, we have to be willing to become more anxious via embracing new situations. Of the fears and emotions that come with such courage, she states,

Feelings are a package deal, and you can’t avoid or deny the painful ones without also forfeiting part of your humanity. … I view anxiety and fear as necessary, and necessarily complex, emotions that can squelch our hopes and prod us to take healthy risks, threaten our relationships and help keep them intact, consign us to predictability and remind us that we are fearfully, pulsingly alive.

Uncommon therapies for common problems

Wise, uncomplicated therapies

Lerner takes the time to go through several common therapeutic strategies, using her own experiences or those of her patients as case studies. For example, she details aversion therapy using the case of a man named Frank. This was an unusual situation, in which a former patient was in town for only two days and insisted upon seeing her. Since his divorce, his fear of rejection was overpowering. 

She gave him a two-day intensive course in aversion therapy that got him started on the road to recovery. She took a wise, realistic and uncomplicated approach to his problems. The essentials of the uncommon therapy she taught him are:

  • Action is powerful. Sometimes you can move past a fear quickly if you are willing to act. When you avoid what you fear, your anxieties are apt to worsen over time.
  • Succeed by failing. If you fear rejection , you may indeed need to accumulate more experience getting snubbed.
  • Risk feeling ridiculous. Most people feel deeply ashamed at the very idea of appearing foolish, and shy away from taking healthy risks to avoid that possibility. Feeling ridiculous over and over may be tedious and uncomfortable, but it is not the primal threat to your dignity that you may imagine.
  • Invite fear in. When you anticipate a guest coming to visit, you are more prepared for whatever happens. Almost all treatments and strategies that help people with fear involve inviting fear in.
  • Motivation matters. If you are not motivated by the pain and fear of rejection, maybe you need to be in even more pain about the status quo before you are willing to act. At the very least, you need to deeply feel the negative consequences of not acting.

Self-help or helping your own self

As I said before, this is not your typical self-help book. It is full of sage advice gleaned from years of dealing with her own anxieties and fears, as well as those of her patients. It does not offer simplistic exercises or lists of to-do’s to become all better, but teaches by example.

Almost every page had at least two or three quotations that I copied out for future reference. Here are some of them:

I learned that survival is a perfectly reasonable goal to set for myself the first dozen or so times I face a dreaded situation. I learned to observe my worst mistakes in a curious, self-loving way. I learned to hang on to the life raft that is my sense of humor. I learned that I must show up.

A good dose of anxiety about our mental or physical well-being may motivate us to seek help or make a difficult change.

Anxiety can force a more honest self-appraisal, including a good look at whether we are living in accord with our core values and beliefs. But while fear can inspire us to make an important change, it may not help us to sustain the change over time. It just gives us a good start. When fear eventually subsides, we need to draw upon our own clarity, strength, resolve and grit to stay on course.

[A]nxiety can spice up our experience when it’s part of a larger picture … We gain a sense of mastery when we undertake something that entails a risk and “survive.”

We know that anxiety can make anybody lost sleep, memory, and concentration; feel dizzy or nauseated; shake uncontrollably; or totally freak out. It’s simply part of the human experience.

Without courage to draw upon, we let fear, anxiety, and shame overshadow our best selves. Our lives become narrow, our hearts small. … But what is courage? In a world saturated with images of action figure bravado, we may mistakenly believe that courage is the absence of fear. Instead, it is the capacity to think, speak, and act despite our fear and shame.


This is a unique book

I have read untold numbers of self-help books over the years, and scores (literally) of books on mental health issues. My bookshelves are bulging with them. Yet I have never read a book quite like this one. Lerner’s no-nonsense advice coupled with her willingness to tell the stories of her own experience overcoming fear and anxiety made her words really sink in. 

I can unreservedly recommend this book to you. It is relatively short — only 238 pages including notes and index — but its impact in my life has been enormous. I turned the last page with regret, not only for the book ending, but feeling like I was leaving the presence of an old friend.

What do you think?

I am seldom so gushing about any book. I analyze them down to the last syllable, often finding as many warts as beauty marks. But I cannot say that about this book. It is one I will read again and again.

  • Have you read any of Harriet Lerner’s books?
  • How many self-help books have you read? Have they helped you?
  • Does this book sound like something you would want to read?

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Resources used in this post:

Lerner, Harriet. (2004). Fear and Other Uninvited Guests: Tackling the Anxiety, Fear and Shame That Keep Us from Optimal Living and Loving. New York: HarperCollins.

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2 comments… add one
abbas August 15, 2008, 7:03 pm

interesting posts!! lots of interesting topics too haha.
came across your site today!

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