Ask a counselor for a book recommendation: The Search for Significance

I think spiritual growth and emotional healing usually has three parts:  cognitive, behavioral, and relational.

Good books help us work on the cognitive aspect of a problem:  what we think, what we know, what we believe to be true.

As a counselor, I love it when a client has already done solid cognitive work before they come to therapy.  That means counseling progresses more quickly, as we concentrate on relational and behavioral work.

Over the next few months, I’m going to share a few of my most-recommended titles with you:

The Search for Significance by Robert McGee,

Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend, and

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman.

Whether you’re simply exploring what it means to be emotionally and spiritually healthy, or thinking that counseling might be in your future—these books are a good resource.


Let’s start our book series with Robert McGee’s The Search for Significance.

I keep recommending this book because it changed my life. 

For one thing, I’ve seen Robert McGee speak, and he’s like the grandpa you always wanted: kind, gentle, and wise.  I don’t know how your church was growing up, but mine wasn’t terribly kind and gentle.  There was a fair amount of fire and brimstone and scary prophecy going on, as if the whole point was to frighten us into being saved.  To this day, Robert McGee’s voice remains one of the kindest I’ve ever heard from a pulpit.  That in and of itself was life-changing.

Then, in the book, he talks about his own struggles (which sound a lot like mine), which I had never heard anyone say, right out loud, in front of everybody:

“Growing up, I had the feeling that I didn’t fit in; that I was different from others; that there was, therefore, something inherently wrong with me.  I felt inadequate and tried to win the approval of others, desperately hoping that this would compensate for the negative feelings I had about myself.  But ironically, the conditional approval of others was never enough to satisfy me.  Instead, being praised only reminded me of the disapproval I might encounter if I failed to maintain what I had achieved.  I was thus compelled to work even harder at being successful.” p. 59

I think that sounds like something a lot of us in overseas work might relate to.

He goes on to address four common barriers to emotional and spiritual health:

  • Performance: “I must meet certain standards to feel good about myself.”
  • Approval Addiction: “I must be approved by certain others to feel good about myself.”
  • Blame: “Those who fail are unworthy of love and deserve to be punished.”
  • Shame: “I am what I am.  I cannot change.  I am hopeless.”

Again, these resonated with me:  yup, I had all those.  And they were killing me.  I needed answers, and this guy seemed to have them.

There are quizzes in each chapter so you can evaluate yourself in each area.  I like quizzes, so that’s a big plus for me.  (Author is a nice guy, he’s saying what I’m thinking, and he has quizzes: check, check, and check.)

Once he’s identified the four common problems, he talks about how God provides for these challenges in Scripture.

I really, really needed to hear that God saw something of value in me, that I wasn’t just “for such a worm as I” like the old hymn said.  When I’d heard about justification and reconciliation and propitiation and regeneration before, it was just theory.  But McGee made it all into something that really changed how I saw myself:  beloved and valuable in God’s eyes.

Bottom line: if you’re looking for an exploration of personal growth that’s totally grounded in Scripture, this is your book.

If you’re not sure whether to spend your valuable time on this one, here are some signs that this book could be helpful:

  • You’ve got ongoing issues with depression and/or anxiety?
    • These four topics are some of the most common underlying issues.
  • You have difficulty with people who make different choices from you?
    • Many times, that’s connected to perfectionism within ourselves.
  • You get angry with people who don’t work hard enough, don’t do enough, aren’t spiritual enough?
    • That’s about our own need for performance and approval being projected onto others.
  • You feel defensive?  You can’t handle feedback?  It seems like everybody else is making your life difficult?
    • Time to explode the blame game you’re playing.  Chances are, it’s making you and everybody else miserable.
  • You feel deeply unlikeable or unacceptable?  You feel the need the hide who you really are from God, from yourself, from others?
    • That’s shame speaking to you, not the voice of Love.  This book can help.

A couple of caveats:

  • There are some fine points of theology that I don’t necessarily agree with. For me, those don’t obstruct the overall usefulness of the book and its emphasis on the freedom God means for us to have from perfectionism, performance, blame, and shame.
  • The book is very much a Bible-study-scripture-head knowledge kind of a deal. I think it’s really good in that cognitive area, but you’ll have to figure out how this good information impacts your life behaviorally and relationally.  (Next time, we’ll talk about Boundaries, which helps us move into behavioral and relational work.)

And one purchasing point:

  • I recommend buying this book in real paper because the second half of the book is a workbook that helps you process the ideas in light of your own experiences, and expands the book with further Bible study.   The workbook makes this a great, easy option for small group studies.

A couple of months ago, I ran into a client to whom I’d recommended The Search for Significance.  She said she was organizing a bookshelf, ran across Search, and was reminded again of how much it had helped her, and of the number of times she’d recommended it to friends of hers.

So, from me and my clients to you:  this is a good one!  Don’t miss out!

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Kay Bruner

Kay Bruner was born in Buffalo, New York and grew up in Brazil, Nigeria, and the wilds of Kentucky. She and her husband have raised their four children in Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and currently reside in the great state of Texas. Kay is a Licensed Professional Counselor, and divides her work days between counseling and writing. She is the author of As Soon As I Fell and blogs at She is available for counseling at her office in Dallas or via skype for a reduced rate to clients overseas. For more information go to:

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