Counselling, Supervision, Training, Research, Teaching, Writing. Providing therapeutic services to the people of East Lancashire and beyond.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Book Review: The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz

This little book of case studies has created a buzz in the small world of counselling and psychotherapy. It's been reviewed by the Guardian here, by the Observer here and by Rory of here. Chapters have also been broadcast on BBC Radio Four's Book of the Week and can still be heard on the Marsden Therapy Podbean page here.

I'll start my review by mentioning a major reservation I have about the book in respect of client confidentiality. I accept that Grosz has protected the anonymity of his clients by changing names and details. I don't know how well disguised his clients are or whether they would recognise their private tribulations within the pages of his book. I don't know whether Grosz obtained consent from his clients or if  his clients knew when they attended psychotherapy that Grosz was collecting stories for a future publication.Maybe Grosz didn't know that either. It's a mistake to think that anonymity is the same as confidentiality. Whilst anonymity protects the identity of the client, the principle of confidentiality guards not only the client's identity but - within limits - everything the client says. Of course one of the book's selling points is that it provides an insight into the private world of psychotherapy, but I remained uneasy as I read these very personal case histories, transformed into very beautiful stories.

The book itself contains thirty-one brief chapters in which the author considers both the process of psychotherapy and the lives of his clients. With deep understanding he reflects on what he finds there, pointing out the unconscious motivations behind human behaviour, showing how apparently irrational choices make sense in the wider context of early experience and the need to protect the individual from something much worse. So jealousy protects us from the fear of being abandoned and paranoia guards us against the fear of being alone. Sometimes Grosz's conclusions are ingenious, sometimes speculative, but always thought provoking. There is great wisdom and humanity in this book. Reading the book as a counsellor I was inspired and encouraged to keep listening to my clients and to continue helping them to tell their stories.  


  1. Sounds like it's well worth a look. I share your concern over the confidentiality issue. I would very much hope that the author sought consent and would indeed have taken that for granted had you not brought it to my attention. Hmn....

  2. Thanks for commenting Amanda. Do have a listen to the five episodes on my Podbean, they'll give you a good idea of the book. It is a lovely read ... unless your one of the author's non-consenting patients!

  3. Based on this review I have purchased the book and look forward to starting it. Thank you.

  4. Thanks for commenting Xavier. From what I know of you from your posts and Tweets, I think you'll really enjoy this book. I hope you'll publish some reflections when you're done reading. Best wishes, JohnM

  5. Hi John, I too feel concerned about confidentiality and feel very uncomfortable about the book and other similar books. Your review is excellent though, as always! All the best, Ruth

    1. Great to read your thoughts here Ruth. I share your discomfort around counselling books apparently breaking confidentiality. In counselling confidentiality isn't a small thing, it's a big thing. Many therapists take their clients secrets to the grave. Good for them!

  6. Hi John,

    Thank you for an insightful review, I to wondered how Stephen Grosz, had changed enough detail to protect the client.


  7. Hello Rory, good to see you commenting here. I enjoyed your video review (and the trademark pint pot). It's an interesting subject, how far we can refer to our clients and their experiences in our teaching and writing. I tend to talk about issues not clients. So Grosz is popularising the practice of psychotherapy but is he unwittingly doing damage. Or maybe I'm making too much of it ... as I sometimes do :) Best wishes Rory. JohnM

  8. Just received a copy of this today, a belated gift. I look forward to comparing notes.

  9. Hope you enjoy the book Amanda, I'm looking forward to hearing what you think about it. Think I need to read it again as I finished it in a couple of days and it's worth another look. Best wishes, JohnM