Book Review: What happened to you? by Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey
By Nathalia Gonzalez | April 2022
“For years mental health professionals taught people that they could be psychologically healthy without social support, that ‘unless you love yourself, no one else will love you.’…The truth is, you cannot love yourself unless you have been loved and are loved. The capacity to love cannot be built in isolation.”Bruce Perry
“What Happened to You?” provides an accessible and introductory insight into how the brain and body are impacted by early life experiences, including those in the womb, that influence how we relate to ourselves, others, and the world throughout our adolescent and adult life. Instead of lectures, Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey engage in a reflective conversation style, applying neurological and physiological concepts to understand the impact of Winfrey’s early life experience.
Bruce Perry acknowledges trauma and expands the meaning beyond the impactful experiences that did occur to include neglect such as a lack of emotional connectivity or response from a caregiver. In order to heal, he suggests that we need to feel safe and experience positive connections to others to rebuild trust, confidence, and a sense of security/safety. If unavailable, the body and brain create self-soothing or self-regulating behaviors to keep us safe. Oftentimes, this is an unconscious process to either protect the individual or create a sense of well-being. Although those forms of coping may be helpful in the short-term, they may not be adaptive and can possibly become harmful long-term. For example, anger may have been an emotion that shielded the individual from harmful individuals who were not responsive to their needs or hurtful, in this way anger was appropriate and helpful. Unfortunately, in the long-term, anger may be an unconscious response to instances of vulnerability, which can unfortunately end many significant and meaningful relationships preemptively, leaving the individual feeling alone even after the individual who had caused harm is no longer present.
Past experiences and associations created in the body and brain in relation to the event can’t be erased. Instead, therapy is about recognizing patterns that are no longer helpful, introducing new associations and behaviors that align with the individual’s values and goals to generate a new default pathway. Bruce Perry describes this as taking a two-lane road and building a four-lane highway next to it. The old road still exists, but it’s not used as often and becomes less impactful with time and practice.
Perry & Winfrey’s conversational book is a great reminder and encouragement to all individuals to have an empathetic approach, asking “What happened to you?” as an alternative to “What is wrong with you?” to better understand one another and identify how our early life experiences have impacted who we are.
You can learn more about “What Happened to You?” and order it from its publisher website at https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250223210/whathappenedtoyou.
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