Books & Culture

How to Do the Work Review: Dr. Nicole LePera’s Cliff’s Notes for Healing

“Most of our platitudes notwithstanding, self-deception remains the most difficult deception,” wrote Joan Didion in her luminous essay, “On Self-Respect” (available here in its glorious entirety at Vogue). The problems of self-deception, honesty with oneself, and self-betrayal are as old as time and literature. Look no further than Hamlet to see a character weaving a web of self-deception in figurative language. Dr. Nicole LePera, in her new book, How to Do the Work finds a new language to describe the same problem. Didion called it self-deception. LaPera calls it self-betrayal. It comes to the same in the end.

I have to admit that Dr. Nicole LePera’s How to Do the Work is the type of book I’ll hide in another book jacket because I don’t want people around me knowing I’m reading it. The source of this embarrassment is something worthy of exploring. After all, Didion wrote “The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others—who are, after all, deceived easily enough.” One can just as easily clothe LePera’s book in the skin of Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem and call it a day.

I am not alone in admitting this desire to hide certain types of self-help books under the jackets of more acceptable, intellectual fare. It protects the ego, after all. But perhaps we could all benefit from a little humility.

As Shakespeare showed us with Hamlet, intellect and skill with words are hardly charms against self-deception, and actually, the more skillful one is in wielding these tools, the more easily one might deceive the self. Self-betrayal is easier when one has the ability to argue both sides of a decision equally well. How often have I seduced myself with my own syllogisms, while literally falling off cliffs? I climbed rocks for over ten years. This is not a metaphor.

How to Do the Work isn’t some Henry James deep dive into the essential self, nor is it an Oliver Sacks meditation on the mind. It offers readers a kind of Cliff’s Notes introduction to mental hygiene and attachment theory.

Attachment theory is the idea that our earliest relationships in life, the ones we form with our parents when we are infants, have the capacity to shape our attachment for the rest of our lives. There are basically four different types of attachment: secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized. Those who are securely attached generally feel safe in their relationships. They explore the world, and return to the safe base of their attachments, knowing that people are there for them and that people care. Anxiously attached people cling to other people, and don’t feel comfortable exploring the world on their own. They fear the loss of other people. Avoidant people tend to be extremely self-reliant, and express anxiety when a relationship gets too close, or when loved ones expect more from them. And disorganized attachment is a mix of avoidant and anxious, and often involves a mix of alcohol and drug dependence (the replacement of people with addiction). The attachment styles formed in the first couple of years of our lives, can follow us for the rest of our lives.

LePera does a good job summarizing the attachment styles, and helping her readers explore which type of attachment style might play a role in current relationship patterns. The book offers its readers simple and humble exercises that LePera claims worked for her and for others. The fact that I couldn’t bring myself to complete these simple writing tasks speaks volumes about me.

Perhaps my desire to hide How to Do the Work stems from my lack of humility. It takes great humility to accept help and to seek it. It can take courage to be so humble.

LePera’s solutions are simple in theory, but they are incredibly difficult to actualize in practice. She writes: “To truly actualize change, you have to engage in the work of making new choices every day.” Sounds easy enough, but try building new habits or breaking bad ones and tell me how it goes. The simplest solutions are often the most difficult to implement. Tell Hamlet to forgive Claudius. Tell him to run away with Ophelia. Tell him that he’s creating false dichotomies when he frames the choice as one between suicide or murder. Tell him that he can let it all go. Tell me how that works out.

Ophelia. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
Ophelia. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

As for me, I actually knew most of the tools I read in LePera’s How to do the Work. Have I implemented them? To be or not to be, was always the question, was it not?

In “On Self-Respect” Didion wrote: “In brief, people with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind or moral nerve…character—the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life—is the source from which self-respect springs.” LePera gets at the same thing, but in different words: “This acceptance of choice in our health and well-being is the first takeaway that I hope stays with you as you continue forward in your own journey.”

It’s sounds seductively easy, does it not—to accept the fact that one always has a choice, that one always must accept responsibility for one’s own life. Try doing it for one week, though. Try not blaming other people for your poor choices. Try taking responsibility. Tell me how it goes.

But what follows from these insights? Didion wrote that it comes down to discipline, “a habit of mind that cannot be faked.” LePera puts it more simply: “You cannot eat better, stop drinking, love your partner, or improve yourself in any way until you become transparent to yourself.” Didion would probably add that you should be “willing to invest something.” She explained that a person with self-respect “may not play at all, but when they do play, they know the odds.” But Didion was quick to note that discipline that isn’t in service to one’s higher values or goals, isn’t discipline at all. Rote exercises are just that. One needs to know oneself before putting discipline to a desired end. An arrow shot from a bow without a clear aim will land just about anywhere. To get any good, you’ll need to aim.

But how does one develop “aim?”

LePera calls it intuition. She advises her readers to “Learn how to spend time alone, to sit still, to really hear your intuition and witness your entire Self—even, and especially the darkest parts you’d most like to keep hidden.”

The value of this work is everything and the fruit of this labor is to have everything, Didion explains. “To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which, for better or for worse, constitutes self-respect, is to potentially have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference.”

The consequences at failing at this task are immense. Failing at the task leaves us empty. We become hungry ghosts wandering the world. Didion writes: “ If we do not respect ourselves, we are on the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out—since our self-image is untenable—their false notions of us.”

LePera calls this trauma: “Trauma occurred when we consistently betrayed ourselves for love, were constantly treated in a way that made us feel unworthy or unacceptable.”

Self-respect stems from authenticity that comes from within, not from performative actions that arise because we want to please others. In “On Self-Respect” Didion is ultimately writing about boundaries that arise from authentic self-knowledge. LePera’s How to do the Work calls for the same, but with more words and with a little more guidance.

In opening her chapter called “The Power of Belief” LePera writes, “It’s been said that we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” That’s a direct Didion quote, but LePera doesn’t credit Didion. Maybe she forgot the source. I didn’t. LePera’s book is infused with the spirit of Joan Didion. Maybe I didn’t need to hide How to Do the Work under my Slouching Towards Bethlehem jacket after all.

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University. She founded Sphinx Moth Press to provide more opportunities for low-income writers to have their work read and reviewed. When you buy an independently reviewed book through my Bookshop links above, you not only support local bookstores, but also this blog, a labor of love.