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This Too Shall Pass by Julia Samuel review: struggling to cope? This is the book you need

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Julia Samuel at home in London
Straight-talking wisdom: Julia Samuel at home in London Credit: Rii Schroer

In Julia Samuel’s first book, Grief Works, she addressed bereavement and how we approach death, using case studies from her decades of experience as a psychotherapist. With This Too Shall Pass, she turns her attention to the rather more nebulous topic of change and how we deal with the transitional moments in our lives – falling in love, the birth of a child, illness, the loss of a job and our shifting sense of self. Life, says Samuel, is change, and change, like death, happens to us all.

As with Grief Works, Samuel draws on her own patients’ stories, dividing them into themes – family relationships, love, work, health and identity – and reflecting at the end of each chapter on the issues raised. The patients range widely in age and background and have very different case histories – from a fragile young man struggling with adulthood, a woman dealing with the uncertainty of unemployment and a retiree coping with his diagnosis of cancer, to a Syrian refugee attempting to overcome the horrors haunting her past.

But it is the presence throughout of Samuel herself that makes This Too Shall Pass more effective and readable than the multitude of popular self-help bibles, such as Excuse Me, Your Life Is Waiting or You Are a Badass (yes, they are real books). Her knowledge and experience are considerable, and her voice – clear but not prescriptive, warm but unsentimental, pragmatic but not reductive – compels one to keep reading. From the start, Samuel draws us in by showing her own reactions to her patients, revealing almost as much about her feelings as she does about theirs. This Too Shall Pass, she writes, is “shaped by my experiences as an imperfect woman, wife, mother and daughter”. When her patients are disappointed in life, love or work she feels it with them. When she struggles with how to respond to their needs, she talks things out with her supervisor, describing how she has to curb her urges to get too involved. Like them, she is a work in progress.

The result is that the reader is as engaged with the listening therapist as they are with the talking patient. And, as Samuel herself says, during times of change we all need a good listener and we all need to listen. The book is, to use the language of therapy, a safe space in which each person’s story has validity and in the telling they are able to begin to reflect on their situation.

The woman who feels “pulsating” rage with her daughter as she plans her wedding is treated by Samuel with the same respect as a widowed father of young children who fears the return of his prostate cancer. A working mother struggling with managing her life tells Samuel: “I run around in circles like a beaten dog”. A divorcee caught up in a chaotic love affair makes Samuel want to shout: “Will you please stop breaking your own damn heart?” And when the final patient in the book, who identifies as gender nonconforming, describes a brutal “ghosting” after an abusive relationship, Samuel responds with silence, followed by: “What a complete f-----”.

Her style is approachable, but the list of sources makes clear the breadth of scholarship and research behind her. Samuel is also is at pains to show her awareness of accusations of what she calls “therapy woo-woo” and her reflections at the end of each section are carefully considered. “The territory of love in families,” she writes, “is the hidden ground we consciously and unconsciously fight over. It is to my mind the root of most of the function and dysfunction in all of our lives.”

It would be hard for anyone reading this book not to find a person or scenario that did not resonate in some way. Nor can one resist the compassionate and straight-talking Samuel, who listens without judgment and suggests that we try it, too. And although few of her of patients find that the transitions in their lives bring unbounded joy or certainty, they learn from the often painful elements of change to “trust the ebb and flow of our feelings, and have the endurance to stay with the discomfort”.

Samuel ends one case study with the words “our work continues”, a phrase not dissimilar to “this too shall pass”, which is thought to be Persian in origin but has been articulated in various forms by the ancient Greeks, the New Testament and Buddhist teaching. But despite centuries of pithy aphorisms on the subject, it seems that we continue to struggle with change. In her conclusion, Samuel writes that she wanted This Too Shall Pass to be “the book that I wished I had been given in my 20s to help me understand myself then, and again in every phase of my life as a guide and source of insight for life through time”. For many of us, its publication could not be more timely.

This Too Shall Pass is published by Penguin at £14.99. To order your copy for £12.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop