How to Stay Sane by Philippa Perry [Actionable Summary]

This is a comprehensive book summary of the book How to Stay Sane by Philippa Perry. Covering the key ideas and proposing practical ways for achieving what’s mentioned in the text. Written by book fanatic and online librarian Ivaylo Durmonski.

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The Book In Three Or More Sentences:

How to Stay Sane by Philippa Perry, is like a short user manual for your mental health. The author, a practicing psychotherapist, equips us with a curated powerful arsenal. Storage of arms that allow us to defend ourselves from the chaos trying to corrupt our thinking – and well-being. The book offers a simple set of instructions for everyone who wants to maintain mental balance.

The Core Idea:

How to escape a life where you lurch from crisis to crisis? There is no defined path. No single “right” way to reach a calmer state of being. Yet, there are a few things we can perform that will help us handle complex situations while keeping our sanity. The four core concepts introduced in this book – based on neuroscience and psychology – act as strategies for untangling complexity. Helping us understand ourselves on a deeper level and operate with a clear head.

Reason To Read:

Become more aware of your feelings. Stop yourself from automatically entering a state of insanity. This book is short, but comes with deep thought-provoking exercises that will help you know yourself better. Realize what makes you feel uneasy and what can help you react better when your impulses try to push you in negative directions.


  • Practicing self-observation will help you uncover hidden feelings that are sabotaging you.
  • Our feelings are never wrong. They just are. Being interested in how you respond when you have negative feelings will help you respond better.
  • An uncommon way to handle stress is by introducing good stress – exercising and engaging in intellectually stimulating activities.

5 Key Lessons from How to Stay Sane:

Lesson #1: The Power of Self-Observation

Socrates famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

And what better life to examine than ours, right?

Self-observation is the first technique introduced in the book that aims to pull you out of the rut. Escape gloomy moods and destructing behavior patterns.

It’s a practice that involves – metaphorically speaking – taking an outside view of your actions and feelings in order to make the needed corrections in what you’ll do next.

The practice of self-observation gives you the needed space to assess your emotions and invite logic to the party. All of this, so you can make wiser decisions instead of allowing your feelings to crush your enthusiasm.

Self-observation can be mistaken for self-obsession. That you become absorbed by your uniqueness and forget about the rest of the world. However, that’s not the case.

As the author writes, “it is a tool that enables us to become less self-absorbed, because it teaches us not to be taken over by obsessive thoughts and feelings.”

All of this leads to the following question: How to practice self-observation?

The first part is to acknowledge what you feel now. Stop for a moment when there is a negative feeling trying to direct you towards self-sabotaging your life and re-directing yourself to a better state of mind.

This means that if you just lost your job, you don’t say “I am sad.” Rather, you say, “I feel sad”.

In the second case, you acknowledge your feelings and prevent them from taking total control of you. It’s not your full self that it’s sad. You are just experiencing this emotion.

The questions introduced in the book that can guide us whenever we feel doubtful about our next action are:

What am I feeling now?
What am I thinking now?
What am I doing at this moment?
How am I breathing?

Once we have the answer to these four, Philippa Perry offers this as a next step:

What do I want for myself in this new moment?

Do you want to stay sad for a while, or do you want to re-direct yourself to a different mood?

This whole exercise is called the Grounding Exercise. It gives us the needed space to stop, recognize how we feel, and then turn our attention to something else that is more productive and will make us feel better.

Simply put, self-observation provides us with the opportunity to decipher ourselves in the current moment and make a conscious decision to move to a better place.

Lesson #2: Our Feelings Are Never Wrong

Feelings are never right or wrong. Feelings just are.

Sure, feeling angry, envious, hurt, or depressed will unlikely lead to anything productive. But that will be the case only if we decide to act on these feelings.

If we never spend time with our emotions. We’ll never truly understand our motives. We’ll just rationalize our actions to fit our narrative.

The last is called post-rationalization. When we do something – even if it’s bad – our mind creates a story to make us feel better about our poor decision.

For instance, if someone offends you in some way – even if he/she didn’t mean it. Say, a friend says something about your job – not being good enough. You might act harshly to defend yourself – offend the person back, which can lead to a bitter argument.

In your head, your compulsive reaction was the best way to respond. However, if you’ve taken the time to pause, you may conclude that your job indeed doesn’t match your skills and personality. Deep down, you know it’s true, but you don’t want to admit it – not to yourself or to others.

When we take our time to explore our feelings. We will get to know ourselves better. What drives us. What is bothering us. We’ll get the chance to direct ourselves toward making better decisions. Towards molding our beliefs.

The more we learn about our feelings. The more time we spend with them. The more we’ll see that it’s not others that are at fault. It’s usually us. We are responsible for our bad moods and our rage.

Becoming more interested in our feelings makes self-responsibility possible. Even when we have the “wrong” feelings. By spending time with them, we can see why they appear and how to better respond when we have them.

“A feeling cannot be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. It is how we act out our feelings that is moral or immoral. A feeling on its own is no more right or wrong than a needle on a gauge, pointing to how much fuel you have in your tank.” Philippa Perry

Lesson #3: People Need People

The best antidote against insanity is other people. We are designed to operate in a group. To be among others. Not to be locked in our apartments or behind a desk for the majority of our existence.

During her practice as a therapist, Philippa Perry noticed that her patients always improved significantly when they felt accepted. When their therapeutic relationship was flourishing. This usually happens, Philippa explains, when we allow other people to be themselves in the relationships. When there is no social mask placed to cover part of the identity. When we are open and fully present in the relationship.

As the author notes:

“…in order to meaningfully connect to another person, one has to be open. This means being not who we think we should be, but allowing ourselves to be who we really are.” Philippa Perry

This type of communication always involves feeling vulnerable. Although there is a chance to get hurt by being sincere and sharing your sacred desires. If we refrain from being authentic, we’ll miss the opportunity to have a genuine dialogue with the other person.

But is vulnerability and openness the only two factors we need to have solid relationships?

Not at all. There are no concrete rules. But there are good practices. Typically, in an attempt to better our relationship, we might get to the other side of the spectrum – trying to manipulate the other side, which can lead to treating the people as a means to an end.

Although firm guidelines are lacking. One thing is certain. If we learn to pick the feelings of others and attune to them. We will achieve a lot.

One useful exercise offered in the book to help you connect with others is called The Daily Temperature Reading.

As you will note, it’s not for meeting new people. It’s primarily for strengthening an already existing bond. The process is divided into 5 topics.

So, after sitting facing each other. Do this…

  • Appreciations: Take turns expressing what you appreciate about the other person. Be specific. Don’t say, “I love your voice.” Say, “I like that you message me during the day to check on me. It makes me feel cared for.” When you express appreciation, don’t add but. Don’t add “but when you get home, you are really cold”, for example. And when you receive praise, simply accept it.
  • New information: Keep your partner up to date with what’s happening in your life. Share appointments that you are having. Or thoughts you want to share related to recent events that affected you in some way. For example, “My birthday is approaching and feel so old. That I don’t have time.”
  • Questions: This part is about exploring assumptions you have about your partner. Quite often, we misinterpret the actions of our spouses, which create a dysfunctional relationship. For instance, we might think that our partner is acting cold and distant because he/she is having an affair, but in reality, the case can be quite different – busy week or feeling unwell. This section is about examining the assumptions by asking questions. For example, “I don’t feel you close this week. Is something going on?”
  • Complaints with recommendations for change: Complaining about what your partner did shouldn’t sound like an attack or blame. It should be accompanied by a suggestion for a change. For instance, “As I cleaned the bathroom last night, I felt angry because I am the only person doing this. I’d like that to change.”
  • Wishes, hopes, and dreams: Sharing your hopes and dreams with your spouse is a great way to get the encouragement you need to fulfill them. While saying out loud our deepest hopes can make us feel defenseless and vulnerable. It creates the opportunity to increase intimacy and strengthen the relationship. All of this, will deepen the connection between people.

“Loneliness and disappointment in relationships can be mitigated if we become mindful of the ways in which we act, and take steps to feel and behave differently.” Philippa Perry

Lesson #4: Fight Stress with Good Stress

Good stress keeps our brains plastic.

To stay sane in our often insane world, we need to do something else besides finding time to rest. We need to stay physically active and intellectually engaged.

The latter means that we must keep learning and expanding our intellectual boundaries.

Numerous studies support these findings. Exercising is as helpful as medication for people who are diagnosed with a depressive disorder – says one study. And, according to another famous study of nuns. The longer you maintain your interest in new fields, the longer you continue to study. The longer you live and remain a functioning adult.

Good stress – in the form of exercising and learning – keeps our brain flexible. We can more easily adapt and cope with the challenges our life throws at us.

If you think that you are already learning enough in your life. Consider involving yourself in a totally different field. For example, if you are primarily working behind a computer – learning programming and writing. Go learn to dance the tango or how to cook. Exposing yourself to different areas will create new neural pathways in your brain and help you further develop as a person.

All of this means that when you are stressed, it helps to practice something you’ve never done before. Something that is outside your comfort zone.

To outline your comfort zone, consider the following exercise mentioned in the book:

Draw a circle on a large piece of paper. Inside the circle, write down activities you are OK doing – things you feel comfortable with. Next, around the edges, write down things you can do but have to push yourself to do. Probably, you get a little nervous when you’re attending gatherings – write it down on the edge.

Now, draw a larger circle around the activities you already mentioned. In the created space between the first circle and the new one, write down things you find difficult to do. Probably trying to talk with complete strangers.

Then, draw a third circle around the previous two. Mention things that you feel too scared to try. For example, speaking in front of a crowd.

To begin your journey of stretching your capabilities. Start from the first circle and move to the outer rings. You’ll probably feel scared and vulnerable at first. But feeling scared and doing the thing regardless, is probably the best way to move forward.

“No one likes to feel vulnerable but unless we learn to tolerate some emotional vulnerability we will be endangering our growth, and if we do not grow we shrink – and if we do that we jeopardize our sanity.” Philippa Perry

Lesson #5: Uncover The Stories You Tell Yourself

As we develop, we pick up stories – narratives – that circulate around us and make them a permanent part of our mental models.

Some of these stories are helpful – the need to strive to do great work, for example. Others, reside in our heads only to sabotage our existence – “I’m too old to learn how all these new technologies work”, for example.

While one story can keep you enthusiastic and optimistic about the future. Others may impose pessimistic thinking, which hardly leads to anything pleasant.

The building blocks of our minds are the narratives we’ve picked along the way. Some we directly adopt by the people around us. Others, we ourselves construct based on our observations and experiences.

A story told in the book is the story about Martin. Martin is a person who always fights injustice. It seems that everywhere he goes, he finds someone doing something wrong, and he takes the stance of correcting him.

But further analysis tells something different. There is already an existing dynamic in his head. The people he meets simply fill the pre-existing roles he created a long time ago. He finds people doing bad things and does his best to prove them wrong. While their actions might not be necessarily wicked, his early conviction focuses him on finding evidence that supports the initial judgment – meaning that if you enter his blacklist, he will find something to keep you there.

By digging into his past, the author suggests that probably he was often neglected when he was younger. Probably he was punished when he was innocent and not believed when he was telling the truth. That’s why, based on these experiences while he was younger. Martin keeps finding people doing wrong and proving them wrong – something that he wanted to do when he was younger. This early story is so deeply embedded into his head that he needs to constantly re-experience the joy of finding someone wrong, so he can feel right.

Practicing self-observation and detaching ourselves from our thoughts can help us remove the clouds that are holding us stuck.

Usually, the stories go back to our early childhood. Therefore, we need to travel back in time so we can find the seed planted in our heads and do our best to replace it. Change it with a more fruitful narrative that better represents reality.

“We all like to think we keep an open mind and can change our opinions in the light of new evidence, but most of us seem to be geared to making up our minds very quickly. Then we process further evidence not with an open mind but with a filter, only acknowledging the evidence that backs up our original impression. It is too easy for us to fall into the trap of believing that being right is more important than being open to what might be.” Philippa Perry

Actionable Notes:

  • You are not your feelings: As stated in the book, “There is a difference between saying ‘I am angry’ and saying ‘I feel angry’.” In the first case, there is no escape. Defining yourself as angry will lead to shouting and acting hostile toward others. In the second case, you acknowledge your feeling but you don’t consider yourself – your whole self – as angry. You spot that this is a temporary state and that you can overcome, and even replace, with another feeling. Noticing how we feel is a powerful way to direct ourselves towards feelings that are much more advantageous. When you examine your feelings, rather than be your feelings. You understand yourself better and move yourself to a calmer state.
  • Keep a journal: Keeping a journal is one of the best ways to practice self-observation and the art of “getting to know yourself”. Reportedly, people who keep a journal are often in a better mood and are less likely to end up hospitalized – opposed to people who are not-diarists. While it sounds like a remarkably simple habit, diary-keeping is frequently overlooked and forgotten. The essential component of this practice is to preserve it. You don’t need a fancy notebook or a sophisticated system. “Keep it simple,” the author advises. Write down your memories. Your dreams and hopes. Every other day, read what you’ve written in the past. This will help you identify some of your behavior patterns and emotions. All of these, allowing you to spot how you feel, so you can make necessary changes in your life.
  • The thirty-minute exercise: An exercise to help you become more self-aware is called the thirty-minute exercise. You go to a quiet place, grab a notebook, focus your attention on your breathing, and then start writing the thoughts that come to your mind. Don’t stay with a single thought for long. Note it down in your notebook and let it go. Repeat this process for 30 minutes. After that time, look at what you have written down. Categorize your thoughts. For example, one category might be anxiety-provoking thoughts where you have things like: “worrying about my career, feeling like I am falling behind my co-workers, feeling too fat.” The point of this exercise is to gather insightful information about yourself that you might otherwise miss. Give you space to identify what type of thoughts circulate in your mind and figure out what needs changing. After all, you can only change if you know what it is you are changing.
  • Figure out your being zone: A “being zone” is figuring out what type of person you are: thinker, feel-er, or do-er. We primarily operate in these three zones: thinking, feeling, and taking action. Once you know how you and the surrounding others operate. You can strengthen your relationships with your partner and with yourself as well. The exercise is about considering several situations and after each one asking these three questions: 1) I am feeling?; 2) I think?; 3) What I do next is? The situations are: “I am imagining I am in a crowded place.”; “I have my family and friends near me.”; “The crowd surges forward and somehow I become separated from my group.”; “I am surrounded by hundreds of people but I am on my own.”; “The crowd disperses and I am on my own.” For example, you consider the first situation: “I am imagining I am in a crowded place.” And then answering, “I am feeling anxious and breathless.”; “I think that I should go to a place with fewer people around.”; “What I do next is to haste towards the exit of the room.” The goal is to figure out which of the three came more naturally to you – feeling, thinking, or doing. If you find yourself quickly answering the doing part, but you need more time for the feeling section, you are probably a do-er. This probably means that you act without thinking things through.
  • Be aware of your impulses: We all do stupid stuff. For example, if you let your emotions guide you, this can lead to unnecessarily raising your voice and starting a fight. In this sense, we can be either neglectful, stupid, or fully aware. Neglectful if we don’t take the time to figure out what triggers us. Stupid, if we do know what triggers us but keep acting based on negative impulses. Finally, being fully aware of what triggers us and not acting emotionally even when we feel the pull. All of this means that realizing what you do wrong is not enough. You also have to don’t allow the damaging behavior to continue automatically. For example, when you are doing a particular task at work, you might get bored and automatically unlock your phone and start browsing online just to feel better. If you become aware of what type of work causes you to mindlessly scroll, you can arm yourself with patience in advance and/or find something interesting about this task to keep yourself engaged. Being aware of your negative impulses and not acting on them is a powerful strategy to direct yourself to a better state of mind.

Commentary and Key Takeaway

How do you stay sane in this insane world?

It seems that it’s all about maintaining good mental health.

Philippa Perry does a pretty decent job of providing us with a toolset that can help us cope with the feelings trying to sabotage us.

Regardless of what the world throw at us, our ability to keep our sanity is about not letting ourselves being defined by our strongest emotions. Rather, bringing them to light and finding better ways to respond to situations that were previously leading to self-hatred or other stuck patterns.

How to Stay Sane is a how-to book that explores four components that can help you work through your worries and fears.

The areas are:

  1. Self-observation.
  2. Relating to others.
  3. Stress and finding good stress.
  4. Figuring out the stories you tell yourself.

After the insightful chapters – probably the best part of the book – we have an exercise section where the author further contributes to the arsenal of things that can help us maintain sanity.

Overall, this is a terrific short self-help book that can help you fight the terrifying inner and outer demons trying to pull you down.

Key takeaway:

Figure out who you are on a deeper level. All the components and the exercises in the text lead to one thing: opening up and identifying what are our prime thoughts, beliefs, and emotions. The ones that dictate our actions. Once we know what we are up against, we can then craft a strategy to make a positive change.

Notable Quotes:

“You cannot change anything unless you know what it is you are changing.” Philippa Perry

“Two people are sailing in identical boats. One is fantasizing, ‘Look at me in my fabulous yacht; I bet everyone thinks I look cool and envies me’, while the other is simply enjoying mastering the skill of sailing, feeling the breeze on his face and noticing the feelings that the open seas evoke in him. Two people doing the same thing but enjoying themselves in quite different ways.” Philippa Perry

“The richer and more stimulating our environment, the more encouraged we feel to learn new skills and expand our knowledge.” Philippa Perry

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