Book Review: The Tools – Five life-changing techniques to unlock your potential by Phil Stutz and Barry Michels

I wasn’t a huge fan of the uncomfortable Netflix documentary featuring Phil Stutz and Jonah Hill (who says the therapy changed his life): Jonah Hill’s Therapist Documentary: The Tools from ‘Stutz’ – Netflix Tudum. But I was intrigued by the calm, wise words of this veteran psychiatrist and his down-to-earth and warm approach. I liked that he uses little drawings to convey key concepts and tools. So I purchased this New York Times Bestseller (subtitle: “Find courage, inspiration, success and happiness”) to reflect on his key ideas to see which might be adopted in my coaching and counselling practices. Book Review: The Tools – Five life-changing techniques to unlock your potential by Phil Stutz and Barry Michels. First published in 2012 (later edition in 2022).

About the authors – Phil Stutz and Barry Michels

Phil was a prison psychiatrist and then worked in private practice in New York before moving his practice to Los Angeles in 1982. Stutz takes an active role in the therapy. He says his goal is to find out what his patients truly want and give them tangible steps to get there. “Why are you here?” sounds like a good way to start a therapy session.

Stutz describes each of his tools as a simple step, an action or a bit of forward motion to change your inner state almost immediately. To take unpleasant experiences and thoughts and transform them into opportunities. Stutz says his tools: “turn problems into possibilities”

Co-author Barry Michels has a BA from Harvard, a law degree from the University of California and a Masters in Social Work (MSW) from the University of Southern California. He started out as a lawyer (quitting a prestigious law firm at 28) and has been a psychotherapist since 1986.

About the book

The book “The Tools – Five life-changing techniques to unlock your potential” is essentially about an approach to psychotherapy – how to make people feel better emotionally and deal more effectively with adversity. As such, it helps to change thinking patterns and build resilience.

He explains his ideas and supports them with extracts of counselling conversations. And some long-running stories about his clients. His skill as a counsellor in identifying patterns, cutting to the core issue and asking critical questions at the right time is amply demonstrated.

The summaries at the end of each section (what the tool is for, what you’re fighting against, cues to use the tool, the tool in brief and the higher force you’re using) help you keep track of the core ideas. It’s an interesting book to read but hard to remember all the different ideas and how they interconnect.

He mentions Viktor Frankl’s incredible book “Man’s search for meaning” a couple of times. And some of the author’s ideas reminded me of the four agreements of Don Miguel Ruiz (Be impeccable with your word, Do not take anything personally, Do not make assumptions and Always do your best).  And you can see evidence of other therapeutic traditions in his words – for example, our quest to realise our full potential comes from Carl Roger’s Humanistic tradition.

I admit that I struggled with his concept of higher forces (he outlines five) – but then again, the idea is central to many addiction recovery models.

The core ideas

Stutz starts by outlining some of his core ideas about life and the human condition.

Aspects of reality are pain, uncertainty and constant work. These are unavoidable for everyone and must be accepted. The Snapshot/Realm of Illusion – Most people are on the hunt for the perfect experience. His view is that though people think the perfect life exists it doesn’t mesh with aspects of reality which have movement, dynamism and depth.

His Life Force model suggests there are three levels to what makes you the person you are:

  • at the top of the pyramid is your relationship with yourself
  • your relationship with other people
  • the bottom is the primal relationship with your physical body

When lost, stuck or depressed he suggests that you work on your life force first: take care of your body, take care of your people and take care of yourself.

String of pearls – Each pearl is an action: a thing to do and all with equal value. Within each pearl is a dark spot which is a reminder that no effort you make will be perfect. Acknowledge that and keep adding to the string.

The Shadow – Borrowing from Carl Jung’s archetypes, he suggests “the shadow is everything we don’t want to be but fear we are, represented in a single image”. The part of yourself you’re ashamed of. The Shadow determines how you see yourself – and he suggests we seek validation from others to try to eliminate it. He encourages you to talk to your shadow.  The higher force of self-expression (your inner authority) allows you to overcome the shadow. The higher self is the combination of two opposites – you and your shadow. (This is a similar concept to addressing all of your parts in your Internal Family System, a concept developed by Richard C. Schwartz). He calls your darkness Part X (“An invisible force that keeps you from changing”).

The Maze – This is a byproduct of Part X’s dirty work. A visualisation of a futile quest for fairness which keeps you stuck in the past and puts your life on hold. You can become so stuck in anger and hurt that you can’t move on. The maze is a trap for all relationships because it warps your view of people. Examples include the adult who still blames their parents for wrecking their lives. The maze exists because humans expect the world to treat us fairly.

The black cloud – When you worry incessantly, you’re creating negative energy that hangs over you like a cloud. The black cloud screens out everything positive and creates a sense of impending doom. (I like the metaphor of the “black dog” for depression in this WHO video: I had a black dog, his name was depression ( .

Radical acceptance – This is the antidote of judgement – of yourself, of others and what could happen in the future. Acceptance is a key part of many therapeutic approaches.

Loss processing – Fearlessly pursue the things you want, but teach yourself to be unafraid to let them go.

Higher forces

His higher forces include:

  • Forward movement – People have the strength to endure pain as it creates a sense of purpose
  • Outflow – An infinite, spiritual force that gives of itself without restraint – a powerful wave of love for everything and everyone
  • Self-Expression – Revealing ourselves in a truthful, genuine way – without caring at all how other people react
  • Gratefulness – Once you recognise all that you’re given, you feel connected to the Source. Then you don’t feel so alone and your need to worry diminishes
  • Willpower – Change only happens through the faithful use of the tools. We call on willpower when we have to do something difficult or unpleasant. Whereas the other forces are given to us as gifts, willpower isn’t. Human beings participate in its creation. It’s the missing link in reaching human potential.

The tools

“To control behaviour you need a specific procedure to use as a specific time to combat a specific problem”

The reversal of desire – A tool to give you the strength to face whatever you’re avoiding. Your experience of pain changes relative to how you react to it. If you go right for the pain, you develop superpowers. Pain sets you free. Use this when you’re about to do something you want to avoid, or when you start thinking about something rather than doing it. It bypasses your opinion about what you should be and gives you an active way to accept what is. It allows you to develop courage and learn to experience fear without the mental image of the dreaded future event.

Active Love – Visualise the universe composed entirely of loving energy and your physical self absorbing it all. And then emit all that love onto another person or a negative experience that has stayed with you. You then visualise yourself becoming one with the person or thing that wronged you. He suggests that you have to make a conscious effort to generate love when someone has wronged you. The steps are: concentration, transmission and penetration. Cues are when you feel anger – to a present or past injustice or to prepare yourself when about to deal with difficult people. Its in your self-interest to do this. Active love builds self-control and enables you to defuse the anger before it starts and lets you be more assertive. It trains you to accept others as they are.

Inner Authority – To help find confidence when freezing causes an inner insecurity. He explains that insecurity is difficult to get rid of because inside each of us is a second self, a living being we’re deeply ashamed of (the shadow). Three steps to using this tool – project the Shadow image, feel a bond with it and then silently command the audience to listen as you turn to face it. The tool is to be used at any time you feel the pressure to perform. Inner authority lets you express need and vulnerability. And allows you to connect to your loves ones with more emotion,

Grateful flow – He suggests thinking of your unhappiness as a black cloud blocking the sun. The way through is with gratitude – to break through any haze of negative thought. He argues that positive thinking doesn’t work well as negative thoughts are always more powerful. He describes a deep feeling that something was given to you- something you couldn’t have created yourself.  “The universe works – mysteriously – and you’re the constant beneficiary of its generosity”. Gratitude is an accepted tool for managing a number of mental health challenges. Flow refers to any process that’s endlessly creative. The Grateful Flow also frees you from regrets and self-hatred and stops you from being judgemental about others.

Jeopardy – The tool that generates a spark of willpower, a burst of energy and a sense of urgency to act right now. Death is the most powerful reminder that there are only so many moments in a human life. So don’t waste the present.

He finishes with some pillars:

  1. Thinking about higher forces is worthless. You have to experience them
  2. When it comes to spiritual reality, each of us is his own authority
  3. Personal problems drive the evolution of the individual

And some thoughts on how to heal our society.

Key quotes

  • Real change requires you to change your behaviour – not just your attitude
  • If you can’t tolerate pain, you can’t be fully alive
  • The comfort zone is supposed to keep your life safe, but what it really does is keep your life small
  • To harness a higher force, you have to become one with it
  • A true adult accepts that there’s a fundamental difference between the goals we have for ourselves and the goals the universe has for us. The universe’s goal is to develop our inner strength
  • We care about what we achieve on the outside, the universe is interested in who we are on the inside
  • Inner strength comes only to those who move forward in the face of adversity
  • Pain is the universe’s way of demanding that you continue to learn
  • The tools allow you to experience the infinite energy of higher forces
  • A great communicator has faith that there is a reserve of goodwill in most relationships
  • Insecurity destroys people’s ability to connect with one another
  • The more connected we feel to each other, the happier we are
  • Without a sense of serenity, everything becomes a crisis
  • How undisciplined the mind is – left to its own devices it degenerates, filling itself with trivia, insecurity and negativity.
  • Until you can control your mind, you’re spiritually immature
  • In the material world, you’re always vulnerable, whatever you gain you can also lose. Lasting peace of mind can only come from a connection to the Source. Peace of mind is an active state
  • God’s real “job” is to keep us in the struggle

Book contents

  1. Revelation of a New Way
  2. Turn pain into possibilities (tool: Reversal of Desire)
  3. Move from resentment to love (tool: Active Love)
  4. Find confidence and inner authority (tool: Inner Authority)
  5. Create peace of mind (tool: the Grateful Flow)
  6. Build unstoppable willpower (tool: Jeopardy)
  7. Faith in higher forces
  8. The fruits of a new vision

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If you are interested in my psychotherapy and counselling services, please see Tasso Talking Therapy

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