Annalisa Smithson, animal-assisted therapist and author, takes readers on a 21-day journey of compassionate and playful self-discovery in her new book.
“Unconditional: Learning to Love Yourself Authentically” is an easy-to-digest pilgrimage of self-love presented through 21 snack-sized chapters, the author explained.
Smithson, a Limerick resident and formerly of Birdsboro, founded Unleashed Counseling (formerly Animal-Assisted Therapy, LLC) based in Pottstown in January 2020, which is a private therapy practice offering mental health services to people suffering from depression, anxiety, addiction and eating disorders. She released “Emotional Support Animals” in 2021.
“We use creative therapies that incorporate animals, nature and art into the therapeutic experience to help our clients benefit from guidance and overcome stress,” she said.
They combine these techniques with traditional clinical treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy and talk therapy.
“Our mission is to inspire your authentic self through compassionate guidance and lasting self-care.”
Two months after the grand opening celebration, Unleashed Counseling closed its physical doors and Benji taught her therapy dog how to “say hello” in virtual sessions.
“Despite the impact of COVID-19 on lives, both personally and professionally, Unleashed Counseling continues to grow and thrive. We have never stopped providing vital mental health services to our community,” said said Smithson.
By the end of its second year of practice, Unleashed Counseling had assembled a team of six professionals and delivered over 2,000 clinical hours to 93 individuals.
“We have started offering virtual sessions, both in the office and, most unusual in our industry, outdoors. We envision a bright future for our customers, our community and our business.
Write a book about self-love
Through her work at Unleashed Counseling, Smithson has seen the life-changing difference that comes from practicing unconditional self-love.
“I know from personal experience and from my clients that practicing self-love can sometimes feel selfish or unnecessary. But it’s your negative thoughts that do the talking, and you’ll soon learn how to tell them to shut up. Self-love is deeply important for whole-body health. Breaking free from stress, overload, depression, and anxiety. Living your best life starts with loving yourself,” Smithson said.
Her clients inspired Smithson to write this book which provides a foundation of habits.
She often recommends bibliotherapy for those struggling with depression, anxiety, and addiction.
“Reading and journaling between therapy sessions can accelerate healing by inspiring, motivating and educating clients. But too often these books are heavy, jargon and difficult to read, especially for someone who is already tired and overwhelmed,” she said.
“I wanted to offer something lighter and more playful than your average psychology text, but more fruitful and informative than your average self-help book.”
Her book was also inspired by Benji, her therapy dog, who showed her how invaluable humor and playfulness can be in the therapeutic process, for adults and children alike.
Her hope for this book is that it inspires people who give so much of themselves to the community: parents, teachers, caregivers, medical professionals, first responders and so many others, to prioritize their own health and wellbeing.
“You cannot pour from an empty cup. You absolutely must put on your own oxygen mask before trying to help those around you,” Smithson said.
“Please give yourself permission to love yourself and take care of yourself as diligently as you love and take care of others. Or as I say in my book, “Love yourself as your dog loves you: unconditionally”.
Smithson considers this a self-help and self-development book.
“Throughout the book, I’ve incorporated specific techniques taught by cognitive behavioral therapists as well as animal-assisted therapists to help people gain new insights into the issues that are holding them back.”
Each chapter includes journaling prompts that invite readers to rewrite their personal narrative, embracing self-exploration and healing, as well as a daily act that, as Smithson describes it, is a “bold and unequivocal expression of love of self”.
The book is illustrated by Cory Derer, a Birdsboro artist who grew up with Smithson.
“At school, Annalisa always read, wrote and kept a diary; his love of books was inspiring. I was fascinated by art and was always doodling. I was quite energetic and lively when I was a kid. We would both be in the middle of a conversation, and my brain would see the funny things we were talking about in a cartoon-like version, and I would have to stop what I was doing and draw what I saw dancing. in my head,” Derer said.
From college age, they talked about writing a book together.
“Annalisa with her brilliant ability to send you to a distant place with words, and my ability to create a storm of imagination with a single pen, we were an unstoppable literary duo,” Derer said.
They both cultivated their talents separately until Smithson decided to write this book and asked Derer to do the illustrations.
“I was filled with the same excitement and energy as when we were kids; I was honored to be part of his book. It was pretty surreal for that to happen,” Derer said.
The illustrations were inspired by real people and pets in their lives. Benji, Smithson’s therapy dog, is the main character and features in most of the illustrations. Derer added his goldendoodle Daisy and his golden retriever Lucy.
The cover illustration is of Smithson and Benji, where she is meditating and Benji is curled up next to her.
“It represents the calm and healing power of the book itself. A few of our furry friends and babies are also featured in the book,” Derer said.
She hopes the illustrations in this book capture the personalities of Benji and Smithson.
“Benji is a spunky and playful pup. He is silly and has many expressions. Annalisa is a genuinely caring person, who devotes herself body and soul to helping others by incorporating animals and nature into therapy,” said the artist, who is also an assistant librarian for Barth and Franklin Elementary Schools in the Pottstown School District.
Working on this project was a dream come true.
“I was able to live out a childhood dream with one of my closest friends,” Derer said. “Illustrating this book rekindled my love of art and even encouraged me to start writing my own children’s book.”
“Unconditional: Learning to Love Your Authentic Self” also personally helped Derer.
“It taught me to slow down, put myself at the top of my to-do list, and see myself as other people see me,” Derer said. “This isn’t another boring self-help book, it’s a witty, real-life guide to understanding how to truly love yourself.”
A local book tour is planned for this summer.
“Unconditional: Learning to Love your Authentic Self” is now available online at Amazon and Kindle, as well as at select outlets in and around Pottstown.