To read The Gift by Edith Eger is like being in therapy. Real therapy. Dr. Eger brings you face to face with the prisons you’ve constructed in your own mind that keep you from living a life of emotional freedom and fulfillment. She also provides the keys to unlocking those gates and deconstructing the walls that keep you chained up. It is a gift indeed!
The book is divided into twelve chapters, each identifying and discussing a specific prison we find ourselves grappling with. I’ll talk about those in a minute, but first I think it’s important to know a little about the author.
At the age of 16, she lived with her sister and parents in Kassa, Hungary. It was 1944. One day in April, she and her family were rounded up by the Nazis and taken to Auschwitz in a cattle car. Soon after their arrival, her parents were murdered in the gas chambers. She and her sister survived, but spent the next year in prison camps. They weren’t released until May of 1945. Here’s how she described her state of being at that time:
When my sister and I were liberated at Gunskirchen—a concentration camp in Austria—in May 1945, a little over a year after we’d been taken prisoner, my parents and almost all the people I knew were dead. My back had broken from constant physical abuse. I was starving, covered in sores, and could barely move from where I lay in a pile of corpses; people who had been sick and starving like me, whose bodies had given up. I couldn’t undo what had been done to me. I couldn’t control how many people the Nazis had shoved into the cattle cars or crematoria, trying to exterminate as many Jews and “undesirables” as they could before the end of the war. I couldn’t alter the systematic dehumanization or slaughter of the over six million innocents who died in the camps. All I could do was decide how to respond to terror and hopelessness. Somehow, I found it within myself to choose hope.
In the years that followed, Dr. Eger married, had children, and completed a doctorate in Clinical Psychology at the age of 52. She has since provided psychotherapeutic help to many, in addition to publishing her first book The Choice . Through her work with her clients, and her coming to terms with her own trauma and grief at the hands of the Nazis, she has lovingly constructed a summary of her wisdom along with suggestions for how to use it to help us with our own emotional blockages and responses to personal suffering.
In each of the twelve chapters, Dr. Eger lays out a full description and deliberation of the particular “prison” being discussed, and then she illustrates it with numerous real life stories of people she’s worked with that have had to come to terms with it in their lives.
Interwoven are her insights and narration of her own confrontation with the issues highlighted, and how she’s made use of them to grow and evolve. The way she integrates all these threads helps the reader easily grasp the content and meaning of what she has to impart. I found myself marveling at the insights as I read, and clapping at times at the truths she laid out that resonate so acutely.
I’ll give a quick list of the twelve prisons she discusses, and very cursory summaries. I do this only to encourage you to read the book yourself to get the full impact of the valuable content she offers.
Chapter 1: The Prison of Victimhood
“Suffering is universal. But victimhood is optional.” This statement summarizes the theme of this chapter. We all experience pain and victimization, but how we respond is what’s pivotal; we either stay imprisoned in the past or use these experiences to grow and evolve. Dr. Eger recommends changing the question from “Why me?” to “What now?” She delves into secondary gains we sometimes seek out by remaining a victim such as choosing what’s familiar over dealing with our grief, responsibility, or fear. She has us opt for freedom by using painful experiences to transition and transform ourselves.
Chapter 2: The Prison of Avoidance
The statement that stands out in this chapter is “The opposite of depression is expression. What comes out of you doesn’t make you sick: what stays in there does.” If you avoid pain or emotional discomfort, or worse deny it’s there, you won’t heal from it. You don’t need protection from your feelings, but rather you need to bring them into the light of day and express them. Allow them the time needed to run their course, and then release them. Life is full of adversity. Recognize it, express your response to it, then work with it until you can release it and move forward.
Chapter 3: The Prison of Self-Neglect
This chapter deals with narrowing our definition of ourselves to others’ expectations, and in the process abandoning who we are. Dr. Eger covers the basic needs for attention, approval, and affection which she calls the 3 A’s, and talks about the ways we morph ourselves into what we think others want from us in order to get those things from the environment. We focus on achievement and performance instead of growth, and seesaw back and forth between our own addiction to needing and/or being needed. These things are tied to a lack of unconditional love, non-acceptance of self, and inability to feel joy in exploring our gifts and cultivating love for ourselves.
Chapter 4: The Prison of Secrets
The prison of secrets is about hiding or disowning parts of ourselves from others and from ourselves. We keep secrets about how we really feel, what we’re actually doing, and who we really are. We minimize our feelings, deny our truths, or delude ourselves about what’s actually going on. Secrets keep us from being our authentic selves, and also keep other people from really knowing and appreciating us. They create a culture of shame.
Chapter 5: The Prison of Guilt and Shame
From the previous chapter on keeping secrets, this chapter moves right into the issue of shame and guilt. Dr. Eger makes a distinction between guilt and remorse. Remorse is described as grief for having made a mistake or committed a wrong. We accept that we can’t undo it and allow ourselves to feel sad about it while learning from it. With guilt we blame ourselves and feel shame. We expect perfection and don’t accept anything less, which means we don’t accept ourselves. Dr. Eger focuses on the thought processes that accompany guilt and shame, and provides some exercises to help correct our thinking.
Chapter 6 : The Prison of Unresolved Grief
In this chapter, the opening idea is that “It is a universal experience for life not to turn out as we want or expect. Most of us suffer because we have something we don’t want or we want something we don’t have.” From there Dr. Eger talks about unresolved grief and the need to acknowledge it. This means not minimizing or denying our pain. Doing that holds us prisoner and keeps us in victim status. We get stuck. She goes on to talk about how to work with grief and resolve it, as well as the benefits of doing so.
Chapter 7: The Prison of Rigidity
This chapter is about conflict, and how we approach it. Do we avoid it, or try to gain control and power by asserting our point of view and not being open to someone else’s freedom to do the same? Or passively give up our freedom to own our truth and decide for ourselves? It’s also about thinking rigidly and striving for power. Flexibility means meeting others as they are, while still thinking for ourselves. It means working toward cooperation instead of domination. It means meeting unexpected challenges with openness by responding rather than just reacting.
Chapter 8: The Prison of Resentment
This chapter deals with built-up resentment and the toll it takes on relationships. I love this statement: “The biggest disruptor of intimacy is low-level, chronic anger and irritation.” So very true. Dr. Eger talks about the complexity of relationships from the initial falling in love to really learning who someone is, and reckoning with our own familial experiences and baggage we carry into a relationship. Resentment is complicated because it can begin to grow from a combination of all these factors, not simply as a result of someone else’s behavior or someone else’s failure to meet our expectations and needs.
Chapter 9: The Prison of Paralyzing Fear
This chapter is about resistance to growth, to pursuing our dreams, accepting our mistakes, not being perfect, and being responsible for ourselves. Fear’s most cherished words are “What if?” and “I can’t,” and “I’m trying.” In the name of safety, we become paralyzed and don’t pursue growth, or vulnerability and love, or those things we really want to do or accomplish. Sometimes we fear leaving what we know even if it’s not good for us, or fear staying where we are and coming to terms with our own self-imposed obstacles that keep us static. We fear risks in the name of avoiding pain. We fear stepping into our whole selves and being who we are and being vulnerable. We close off curiosity and “live in a past that’s already happened, or a future that hasn’t arrived.” We stay still. And stuck.
Chapter 10: The Prison of Judgment
This chapter deals with our propensity to judge and reject. Dr. Eger talks about our “inner Nazi” which is an apropos metaphor for who we become when we live in the prison of judgment. She describes the inner Nazi as “the part of you that has the capacity to judge and withhold compassion, that denies you the permission to be free and victimizes others when things don’t go your way.” She goes on to point out that victimizing others is a victimization of ourselves, and explains how we do that. She makes clear the choice we have: “We’re born to love; we learn to hate. It’s up to us what we reach for.”
Chapter 11: The Prison of Hopelessness
Hope is described in this chapter as an active choice to live and push through the realities of real suffering. It’s not a whitewash, and not a denial of what’s real, but rather a belief that we can continue and persevere. Dr. Eger makes a distinction between hope and idealism. She describes idealism as a defense mechanism like denial or even delusion. It’s a belief that if you expect everything to be fair or good or easy, it will be. She sees hope, or conversely hopelessness, as self-fulfilling prophecies. The one you choose will either help you come to terms with the realities you experience, or allow you to fold.
Chapter 12: The Prison of Not Forgiving
This is a perfect last chapter because it encompasses the lessons of all the previous ones. I love this take on forgiveness: “Forgiveness isn’t something we do for the person who’s hurt us. It’s something we do for ourselves, so we’re no longer victims or prisoners of the past, so we can stop carrying a burden that harbors nothing but pain.” This chapter continues with more clarification of what forgiveness is and what it isn’t, and by doing so, brings together why it’s important and what it should encompass. There’s also a discussion of the role anger and rage play in the consideration of forgiveness, and what to do with it.
Not only is the content of this book relevant to our evolving selves and how to deal with adversity and sometimes trauma, the writing style is easy to understand and direct. Dr. Eger relates many stories and examples from people she’s worked with or known to illustrate her points, and they really help to illuminate the ideas. Not only was I wowed by the material, I really enjoyed reading it and went through the book rather quickly the first time, and then circled back and reread everything I’d highlighted. There’s a lot there, and a lot that can be used to make life better and richer.
These are the ideas that struck me most.
- Freedom is an internal state of mind. We can maintain it during the worst of external circumstances if we work at it.
- Adversity, pain, and often trauma are a part of life we can’t escape. We can choose to use it for growth and learning.
- Victimhood is a choice. While we are all victimized at some point, taking on a “victim” identity is a means of avoiding ourselves, and taking responsibility for doing the work to evolve. Being victimized is not our fault, but how we respond to it is our choice.
- Suppressing our emotions is not a strength. Allowing ourselves to see what’s inside gives us the opportunity to work it through and release baggage that’s holding us back. Denial keeps us from personal freedom.
- Grief work is inherent in being human. Life is fraught with change and loss. Unresolved grief keeps us stuck, while confronting and working with it allows us to grow. It also allows us to be close, intimate, and vulnerable to healthy relationships.
There are many other points I could list here, but these are some that stood out. Overall, this book is about courage. Emotional courage. It’s based on the idea that seeing what’s real and responding to it honestly and earnestly is what gives us real freedom. I hope you read it.