Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life

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Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life

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Are you the child of toxic parents?

When you were a child...

• Did your parents tell you you were bad or worthless?
• Did your parents use physical pain to discipline you?
• Did you have to take care of your parents because of their problems?
• Were you often frightened of your parents?
• Did your parents do anything to you that had to be kept secret?

Now that you’re an adult...

• Do your parents still treat you as if you were a child?
• Do you have intense emotional or physical reactions after spending time with your parents?
• Do your parents control you with threats or guilt? Do they manipulate you with money?
• Do you feel that no matter what you do, it’s never good enough for your parents?

In this remarkable self-help guide, Dr. Susan Forward draws on case histories and the real-life voices of adult children of toxic parents to help you free yourself from the frustrating patterns of your relationship with your parents — and discover a new world of self-confidence, inner strength, and emotional independence.

A guide to overcoming the hurtful legacy of toxic parents and reclaiming your life by the bestselling authors of Men Who Hate Women And The Women Who Love Them.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"I consider Susan Forward to be among the foremost therapists of our age." ---John Bradshaw, author of Healing the Shame That Binds You
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780553284348
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/1/1990
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 325
  • Product dimensions: 4.21 (w) x 6.83 (h) x 0.93 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan Forward, Ph.D., is an internationally renowned therapist, lecturer, and author of the number one New York Times bestseller Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them.

Jo Anna Perrin (JP Perrin) is a New York�based actor, photographer, and writer. She has appeared in film and television, as well as on stage in New York, Los Angeles, and regionally. Jo Anna has narrated numerous audiobooks for major publishers, small independent press, and American and foreign university publishers.

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Read an Excerpt

Godlike Parents

The Myth of the Perfect Parent

The ancient Greeks had a problem. The gods looked down from their ethereal playground atop Mount Olympus and passed judgment on everything the Greeks were up to. And if the gods weren't pleased, they were swift to punish. They didn't have to be kind; they didn't have to be just; they didn't even have to be right. In fact, they could be downright irrational. At their whim, they could turn you into an echo or make you push a boulder uphill for all eternity. Needless to say, the unpredictability of these powerful gods sowed quite a bit of fear and confusion among their mortal followers.

Not unlike many toxic parent-child relationships. An unpredictable parent is a fearsome god in the eyes of a child.

When we're very young, our godlike parents are everything to us. Without them, we would be unloved, unprotected, unhoused, and unfed, living in a constant state of terror, knowing we were unable to survive alone. They are our all-powerful providers. We need, they supply.

With nothing and no one to judge them against, we assume them to be perfect parents. As our world broadens beyond our crib, we develop a need to maintain this image of perfection as a defense against the great unknowns we increasingly encounter. As long as we believe our parents are perfect, we feel protected.

In our second and third years of life, we begin to assert our independence. We resist toilet training and revel in our "terrible twos." We embrace the word no because it allows us to exercise some control over our lives, whereas yes is simply an acquiescence. We struggle to develop a unique identity, establish our ownwill.

The process of separating from parents reaches its peak during puberty and adolescence, when we actively confront parental values, tastes, and authority. In a reasonably stable family, parents are able to withstand much of the anxiety that these changes create. For the most part, they will attempt to tolerate, if not exactly encourage, their child's emerging independence. The expression "it's just a phase" becomes a standard assurance for understanding parents, who remember their own teenage years and appreciate rebellion as a normal stage of emotional development.

Toxic parents aren't so understanding. From toilet training through adolescence, they tend to see rebellion or even individual differences as a personal attack. They defend themselves by reinforcing their child's dependence and helplessness. Instead of promoting healthy development, they unconsciously undermine it, often with the belief that they are acting in their child's best interest. They may use phrases such as "it builds character" or "she needs to learn right from wrong," but their arsenals of negativity really harm their child's self-esteem, sabotaging any budding independence. No matter how much these parents believe they're right, such assaults are confusing to a child, bewildering in their animosity, their vehemence, and their suddenness.

Our culture and our religions are almost unanimous in upholding the omnipotence of parental authority. It's acceptable to express anger at our husbands, wives, lovers, siblings, bosses, and friends, but it's almost taboo to assertively confront our parents. How often have we heard the phrases "don't talk back to your mother" or "don't you dare shout at your father"? The Judeo-Christian tradition enshrines the taboo in our collective unconscious by pronouncing "God the Father" and directing us to "honor thy father and mother." The idea finds voices in our schools, our churches, our government ("a return to family values"), even in our corporations. According to the conventional wisdom, our parents are empowered to control us simply because they gave us life.

The child is at the mercy of his godlike parents and, like the ancient Greeks, never knows when the next lightning bolt will strike. But the child of toxic parents knows that the lightning is coming sooner or later. This fear becomes deeply ingrained and grows with the child. At the core of every formerly mistreated adult--even high achievers--is a little child who feels powerless and afraid.

The Cost of Appeasing the Gods

As a child's self-esteem is undermined, his dependence grows, and with it his need to believe that his parents are there to protect and provide. The only way emotional assaults or physical abuse can make sense to a child is if he or she accepts responsibility for the toxic parent's behavior.

No matter how toxic your parents might be, you still have a need to deify them. Even if you understand, on one level, that your father was wrong to beat you, you may still believe he was justified. Intellectual understanding is not enough to convince your emotions that you were not responsible.

As one of my clients put it: "I thought they were perfect, so when they treated me badly, I figured I was bad."

There are two central doctrines in this faith of godlike parents:

1. "I am bad and my parents are good."

2. "I am weak and my parents are strong."

These are powerful beliefs that can long outlive your physical dependence on your parents. These beliefs keep the faith alive; they allow you to avoid facing the painful truth that your godlike parents actually betrayed you when you were most vulnerable.

Your first step toward controlling your life is to face that truth for yourself. It will take courage, but if you're reading this book, you've already made a commitment to change. That took courage, too.

"They Never Let Me Forget How I Disgraced Them"

Sandy, 28, a striking brunette who seemed to "have it all," was seriously depressed when she first came to see me. She told me that she was unhappy with everything in her life. She had been a floral designer for several years at a prestigious shop. She had always dreamed of opening her own business, but she was convinced that she wasn't smart enough to succeed. She was terrified of failure.

Sandy had also been trying to get pregnant for more than two years, with no success. As we talked, I began to see that her inability to get pregnant was causing her to feel strong resentment toward her husband and inadequate in their relationship, despite the fact that he sounded genuinely understanding and loving. A recent conversation with her mother had aggravated the issue:

This whole pregnancy has become a real obsession with me. When I had lunch with my mom I told her how disappointed I was. She said to me, "I'll bet it's that abortion you had. The Lord works in mysterious ways." I haven't been able to stop crying since. She never lets me forget.

I asked her about the abortion. After some initial hesitancy, she told me the story:

It happened when I was in high school. My parents were very, very strict Catholics, so I went to parochial school. I developed early, and by the time I was twelve, I was five-foot-six, weighed one hundred thirty pounds, and wore a 36-C bra. Boys started paying attention to me, and I really liked it. It drove my dad crazy. The first time he caught me kissing a boy good night, he called me a whore so loud that the whole neighborhood heard. It was downhill from there. Every time I went out with a boy, Dad told me I was going to hell. He never let up. I figured I was damned anyway, so when I was fifteen I slept with this guy. Just my luck, I got pregnant. When my folks found out, they went nuts. Then I told them I wanted an abortion; they totally lost it. They must have screamed at me about "mortal sin" a thousand times. If I wasn't going to hell already, they were sure this would clinch it. The only way I could get them to sign a consent was to threaten to kill myself.

I asked Sandy how things went for her after the abortion. She slumped down in her chair with a dejected look that made my heart ache.

Talk about a fall from grace. I mean, Dad made me feel horrible enough before, but now I felt like I didn't even have a right to exist. The more ashamed I felt, the harder I tried to make things right. I just wanted to turn back the clock, get back the love I had when I was little. But they never miss a chance to bring it up. They're like a broken record about what I did and how I disgraced them. I can't blame them. I should've never done what I did--I mean, they had such high moral expectations for me. Now I just want to make it up to them for hurting them so bad with my sins. So I do anything they want me to do. It drives my husband crazy. He and I get in these huge fights about it. But I can't help it. I just want them to forgive me.

As I listened to this lovely young woman, I was very touched by the suffering her parents' behavior had caused her and by how much she needed to deny their responsibility for that suffering. She seemed almost desperate to convince me that she was to blame for all that happened to her. Sandy's self-blame was compounded by her parents' unyielding religious beliefs. I knew I had my work cut out for me if Sandy was to see how genuinely cruel and emotionally abusive her parents had been to her. I decided this was not a time to be nonjudgmental.

Susan: You know something? I'm really angry for that young girl. I think your parents were awful to you. I think they misused your religion to punish you. I don't think you deserved any of it.

Sandy: I committed two mortal sins!

Susan: Look, you were just a kid. Maybe you made some mistakes, but you don't have to keep paying for them forever. Even the Church lets you atone and get on with your life. If your parents were as good as you say they are, they would have shown some compassion for you.

Sandy: They were trying to save my soul. If they didn't love me so much, they wouldn't care.

Susan: Let's look at this from a different perspective. What if you hadn't had that abortion? And you had a little girl. She'd be about sixteen now, right?

Sandy nodded, trying to figure out where I was headed.

Susan: Suppose she got pregnant? Would you treat her like your parents treated you?

Sandy: Not in a million years!

Sandy realized the implications of what she'd said.

Susan: You'd be more loving. And your parents should have been more loving. That's their failure, not yours.

Sandy had spent half her life constructing an elaborate wall of defense. Such defensive walls are all too common among adult children of toxic parents. They can be made of a variety of psychological building blocks, but the most common, the primary material in Sandy's wall, is a particularly obstinate brick called "denial."

The Power of Denial

Denial is both the most primitive and the most powerful of psychological defenses. It employs a make-believe reality to minimize, or even negate, the impact of certain painful life experiences. It even makes some of us forget what our parents did to us, allowing us to keep them on their pedestals.

The relief provided by denial is temporary at best, and the price for this relief is high. Denial is the lid on our emotional pressure cooker: the longer we leave it on, the more pressure we build up. Sooner or later, that pressure is bound to pop the lid, and we have an emotional crisis. When that happens, we have to face the truths we've been so desperately trying to avoid, except now we've got to face them during a period of extreme stress. If we can deal with our denial up front, we can avoid the crisis by opening the pressure valve and leting it out easily.

Unfortunately, your own denial is not the only denial you may have to contend with. Your parents have denial systems of their own. When you are struggling to reconstruct the truth of your past, especially when that truth reflects poorly on them, your parents may insist that "it wasn't so bad," "it didn't happen that way," or even that "it didn't happen at all." Such statements can frustrate your attempts to reconstruct your personal history, leading you to question your own impressions and memories. They undercut your confidence in your ability to perceive reality, making it that much harder to rebuild your self-esteem.

Sandy's denial was so strong that not only couldn't she see her own reality, she couldn't even acknowledge that there was another reality to see. I empathized with her pain, but I had to get her at least to consider the possibility that she had a false image of her parents. I tried to be as nonthreatening as possible:

I respect the fact that you love your parents and that you believe they're good people. I'm sure they did some very good things for you when you were growing up. But there's got to be a part of you that knows or at least senses that loving parents don't assault their child's dignity and self-worth so relentlessly. I don't want to pull you away from your parents or your religion. You don't have to disown them or renounce the Church. But a big part of lifting your depression may depend on giving up the fantasy that they're perfect. They were cruel to you. They hurt you. Whatever you did, you had already done. No amount of haranguing from them was going to change that. Can't you feel how deeply they hurt the sensitive young girl inside of you? And how unnecessary it was?

Sandy's "yes" was barely audible. I asked her if it scared her to think about it. She just nodded, unable to talk about the depth of her fear. But she was brave enough to hang in there.

The Hopeless Hope

After two months in therapy, Sandy had made some progress but was still clinging to the myth of her perfect parents. Until she shattered that myth, she would continue to blame herself for all the unhappiness of her life. I asked her to invite her parents to a therapy session. I hoped that if I could get them to see how deeply their behavior had affected Sandy's life, they might admit some of their responsibility, making it easier for Sandy to begin repairing her negative self-image.

We barely had time to get acquainted before her father blurted:

You don't know what a bad kid she was, Doctor. She went nuts over boys and kept leading them on. All of her problems today are because of that damned abortion.

I could see tears well up in Sandy's eyes. I rushed to defend her:

Copyright 2002 by Susan Forward
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 32 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 36 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 15, 2010

    Religion in psychological child abuse is missing

    As with many other "toxic parent" books, no coverage is given to the issue of strong dogmatic parental religiosity and the "hand off" of the child to an abusive religious educational system (mainstream or cult). The issue of overly religious parents who use dogmatic religious beliefs to give authority to their abuse seems to be a minefield authors avoid. Dr Forward too, hides from mention of this type of psychological abuse. After the adult child of toxic parents confronts those parents, how are they then supposed to confront the angry, over bearing, all powerful god figure who was in league with the parents and may be no more real than Santa Claus or the Boogie Man?

    9 out of 13 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 10, 2004

    Insightful & helpful!

    After reading this book, I had a new understanding of why people behave the way they do and how they rationalize. It helps to understand not only parents, but people in our everyday lives. Being a victim of abuse myself, The book helped me towards my next step with tools in hand...Therapy. The tools I still carry today! I had to read one chapter at a time and rest between chapters because what is described could have been written about me, I soon found myself dogearring the pages and writing comments. No longer the victim- this book was my first step towards recovery and I highly recommend it.

    8 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 30, 2005

    Help for the Helpless

    When this was recommended to me, I thought only one parent would fall into the 'toxic' categories. I realized that the other is a factor in what had happened. Unfortunately, my circumstances will not change, but I can now try to work on moving forward for ME.

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 15, 2007

    A reviewer

    I applaud the book - I kept reading it thinking 'How does she know my family.' This was the best written book I have found on seeing the bigger picture for toxic family dynamics. I think I would change the title, so it doesn't sound so blaming - for this is a pattern passed on from generation to generation. Reading this book helped me see the patterns in general, guilt, favoritism... which helped me seperate myself from these dynamics. Knowing that there are alot more families like mine-helped me to better understand my parents - and find forgiveness. It is helpful to see that the toxic behavior is about them and not about you.

    6 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 18, 2003

    This is an awesome book!

    In a perfect world we all would of had something like Ward & June Cleaver for parents. Unfortunately for many of us we had parents that did things to us that are difficult for us to even talk about. Either they drank all the time, constantly put us down, beat us, or even sexually assaulted us. Traditional info said things like 'spare the rod, spoil the child'. We have come a long way since then, and know better. Mis-information like that only encouraged and justified child beating. Also, you may have been brought up to 'honor your father and mother' with the implication that you dont question anything or ever confront them about anything. There is good reason why Susan Forward's book, Toxic Parents spent some time as #1 on the NY Times bestseller list. She tells you about many people who have come to her for therapy. They came to her due to things like gross neglect, verbal abuse, physical abuse, and sexual assault they received from their parents. Susan shows you how some people have been helped by her after experiences like those. What is especially interesting in this book is Susan's recommendation of confrontation in the healing process. The book is filled with examples of people who have confronted their parents about the years of abuse they had to endure. Susan emphasizes that it is important for those who have suffered from abusive parents to realize that they are not the ones who are guilty for what their parents have done to them. The book isn't intended to replace going to therapy, instead it is meant to educate the reader that therapy can and does work for those who suffered as innocent children by the people who should have been loving, caring and protective to them...their parents!

    6 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 14, 2001

    Most helpful book I've found yet

    I first read this book after checking it out from the library. I knew that I had to have my own copy to help me work on my history of emotional and physical abuse. I am still using it, and refer to it whenever I feel the need to or when I need to work on my recovery. It is easy to understand and helps you locate your problem areas and provides potential solutions to help you work on your treatment and recovery.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 23, 2005

    Toxic.... but why?

    In this book Susan Forward focus almost singlemindedly on parents as tyrrants, without taking a deeper look into the family dynamics. Important topics such as the odepial conflict is not mentioned in the book. But the book can be useful in many ways. With this book you need to be careful not to fall too much prey of victim conscoiusness and rage. So, the solution the book offers: confronting your parents, and blaming them for all the bad things they did to you, can be dangerous if done too quickly (after reading the book) or without some understanding about family dynamics. This is a book to be used with wisdom.

    3 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 23, 2001

    Now I know how what happened to me did happen!

    This book clarified all the things unsaid in AA, Al-Anon, CoDa and by my expensive psychologist! I wish I had read this in 1961. It is nice that maybe my children and the rest of my family can be spared a lot of pain.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 12, 2005

    The MUST HAVE BOOK if you've had a bad childhood!!!

    I have not yet bought a copy of this book for myself because I'm asking for it for my 30th Birthday from my AWESOME In-Laws. But I can already tell that this book is going to make the rest of my life 100 percent easier and better not just for me but also for my kids too, so they don't go through what I did as a child. I STRONGLY recommend this book to anyone that's had a real difficult and/or confusing childhood. Reading this book will make a world of a difference in your life. I promise!!

    2 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 16, 2001


    This book is a good first step to understanding how much parents' treatment of their children has effects on the children all the way into adulthood. If you're struggling with your relationship with a parent, a spouse, or others, this book sheds light on how a lot of 'baggage' you bring to relationships is carried with you since childhood. You'll probably read a lot in this book that doesn't apply to you, but there will be plenty of passages that you'll read and say 'hey, that's me (or my mom, dad, etc)'. The book helps put words to the 'stuff' rattling around in your head, and makes things look clearer. It's something that the parents should read, as well, because they probably have their own 'baggage' that they never dealt with.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 22, 2013

    This book changed my life. It was one of the most healing books

    This book changed my life. It was one of the most healing books I have ever read. My former therapist recommended this to me while I was in counseling. This book spoke to me and I followed its recommendations. It was incredibly healing. I wholeheartedly recommend this book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 5, 2013



    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 11, 2013

    verbally abused since six this book has made realize one i am No

    verbally abused since six this book has made realize one i am Not alone and all the steps that i am taking to move on and accept mom for who she is and accept who she will ever be . i highly recomment this book

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 17, 2012

    This book gave me insight on others that were abused as children

    This book gave me insight on others that were abused as children. Adults that had no idea, how the abuse in their childhoods affected them in their adult lives. In there careers, relationships, with the raising of their own children, and decision making. Even with the parents being passed away, it showed how they seemed to control the adult.
    After Reading this book, I had a new understanding on how to deal with others in my life. I learned to let people go, that were Toxic and hurt me all the time, that were not willing to change, who would drink and do illicent drugs around me and my children and were abusive, physically and phsychologically towards me and my children (this sadly included immediate family members, such as my siblings). I hoped for years they would change, but they saw nothing wrong with themselves, and blamed and saw everything wrong with me, just like my mother did as I was growing up. I felt the world lift off my shoulders as I began to let this go and start the steps to healing while teaching myself and my children to have healthy relationships. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND THIS BOOK..AND HAVE TOLD MANY OTHERS ABOUT IT..I AM NO LONGER A VICITM..I AM A SURVIVOR..I AM WRITING A BOOK MYSELF NOW ABOUT MY CHILDHOOD, SO THAT OTHERS CAN OVER COME AND CONQUER THEIR DEMONS AS WELL!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 6, 2006

    An apologia for self absorption

    The book is good in that it can make a person aware of how their parent¿s behaviors help shape who they are for good or bad. However, the book is either disingenuous, or myopic in its treatment of familial dysfunction. For example, the author does not seem to consider that we live in a time of increased social and economic turmoil, brought about by the destabilization of employment sectors through global labor trade. Moreover, given the current state of social and economic disarray that many countries such as Iraq, France, US, Russia and China is it no wonder that the brave people who dare to be parents in such times may present with a myriad of behavioral problems at home? This is not say that there are not bad parents out there..i.e people that don't try to be good parents and care more about their careers, chasing the opposite sex, or accumulating material wealth than spending most of their time with their children. The book simply empowers people to embrace victimization, rather than understand the different ways we are all affected by larger socio-structural forces. A more equitable society = better people= more loving, nurturing environments at home. I think the book is simply a tantalizing apologia for self absorption and ¿scape goating.¿

    1 out of 13 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 15, 2013

    Thank You for allowing the "world" to see into a perfe

    Thank You for allowing the "world" to see into a perfect world where just because one wasn't spanked or abused in the conventional ways and should be grateful for the wonderful life they were given somehow the damage has led them down a path of destruction. This book is a catalyst for those of us born into a wealthy southern family, wanted for nothing, yet somehow we are broken because we were the one's that hid our mother's secrets from the world like good southern women do, and then we hid ours also. We take on the role of protector, confidante, best friend, at an early age, and then find ourselves in relationships we have no business being in and being blamed for our stupidity...."How could we throw our wonderful lives away like that?" Now we watch our daughters follow suit because of our low self esteem and the saga continues from the "The Stepford 50's Syndrome" So thank you, and I hope knowledge is power....eventually...
    Yours Truly, Stepford

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 28, 2012


    I found Forward's "blame them all" approach to be counterproductive. A better book, I feel, is Herman's "Trauma and Recovery".

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 11, 2012


    I'm cool, just took a while to get get here, when I first tried to get the book they said 2to3 days it took much longer.

    0 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 27, 2011

    The first self-help I read, and I loved it!

    I believe it's a good book, considering the difficult topic. If you feel identified with the questions on the back cover, you probably need to read the book. It's really helpful and I felt liike if Dr. Forward knows me and my situation. HOWEVER, I believe that one must take the book as a good piece of advice which should be thoroughly thought before acting.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 17, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    This book is a Lifeline!

    The information and techniques in this book are life changing! It partners perfectly with my individual counseling and enhances it, giving me the healing and empowerment I've searched for most of my adult life.

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