Animal-assisted therapist and author Annalisa Smithson takes readers on a 21-day journey of compassionate, playful self-discovery in her new book.
“Unconditional: Learning to Love your Authentic Self” is an easy-to-digest pilgrimage of self-love, presented through 21 snack-sized chapters, explained the author.
Smithson, a resident of Limerick and formerly of Birdsboro, founded Pottstown-based Unleashed Counseling (formerly Animal-Assisted Therapy, LLC) in January 2020, which is a private therapy practice offering mental health services for those experiencing depression, anxiety, addiction, and eating disorders. She published “Emotional Support Animals” in 2021.
“We use creative therapies that incorporate animals, nature and art into the therapeutic experience to help our clients enjoy counseling 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 counseling and sustainable self-care.”
Two months after the grand opening celebration, Unleashed Counseling closed its physical doors and she taught Benji her therapy dog how to “say hi” during virtual sessions.
“Despite weathering the life-changing impact of COVID-19 both personally and professionally, Unleashed Counseling continues to grow and thrive. We never stopped providing vital mental health services to our community,” said Smithson.
By the end of its second year in practice, Unleashed Counseling built a team of six professionals and provided more than 2,000 clinical hours to 93 individuals.
“We started offering virtual, office, and—most unusual in our industry—outdoor sessions. We envision a bright future for our clients, our community, and our business.”
Writing a Book on 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 feel selfish or pointless at times. But these are your negative thoughts talking, and you’re soon going to learn to tell them to hush. Self-love is profoundly important to your whole-body health. Freeing yourself from stress, overwhelm, depression, and anxiety. Living your best life begins with loving yourself,” said Smithson.
Her clients inspired Smithson to write this book that provides a foundation of habits.
She often recommends bibliotherapy for those who struggle with depression, anxiety and addiction.
“Reading and journaling between therapy sessions can speed the healing along by inspiring, motivating and educating clients. But too often these books are heavy, jargony and challenging to read — especially for someone who is already tired and overwhelmed,” she said.
“I wanted to offer something that was 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 valuable humor and playfulness can be in the therapeutic process, for grown-ups as much as for kids.
Her hope for this book is that it inspires the people who are giving so much of their selves to the community: parents, teachers, caregivers, healthcare professionals, first responders, and so many others, to prioritize their own health and wellness.
“You cannot pour from an empty cup. You absolutely must put on your own oxygen mask before trying to help those around you,” said Smithson.
“Please give yourself permission to love and care for yourself as diligently as you love and care for others. Or as I say in my book, ‘Love yourself like your dog loves you: unconditionally.’”
Smithson considers this to be a self-help and personal growth book.
“Throughout the book I have incorporated specific techniques taught by cognitive behavioral therapists as well as animal-assisted therapists to help people gain new insights into the problems 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, is a “bold, unequivocal, expression of self-love.”
The book is illustrated by Birdsboro artist Cory Derer who grew up with Smithson.
“In school, Annalisa was always reading, writing, and journaling; her love of books was inspiring. I was fascinated by art and was always doodling. I was pretty energetic and animated as a kid. The two of us would 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 need to stop what I was doing and draw what I was seeing dance around in my head,” said Derer.
As young as middle school, they talked about writing a book together.
“Annalisa with her brilliant capacity to send you to a faraway place with words, and my ability to draw up a storm of imagination with a single pen, we were an unstoppable literary duo,” said Derer.
They both nurtured 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 that I had when we were kids; I was honored to be apart of her book from her. It was pretty surreal that this was happening,” said Derer.
The illustrations were inspired from real people and pets in their lives. Benji, Smithson’s therapy dog, is the main character and is in most of the illustrations. Derer added her de ella goldendoodle Daisy and golden retriever Lucy.
The cover illustration is in the likeness of Smithson and Benji, where she is meditating and Benji is curled up beside her.
“This represents the calmness and healing power of the book itself. A few of our friends and fur babies are depicted in the book as well,” said Derer.
She hopes the illustrations of this book capture the personalities of Benji and Smithson.
“Benji is a spunky, playful pup. He is silly and has many expressions. Annalisa is a genuinely caring person, pouring her heart and soul into 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 got to live out a childhood dream, with one of my closest friends,” said Derer. “Illustrating this book reignited my love of art, and has encouraged me to even start writing my own children’s book.”
“Unconditional: Learning to Love Your Authentic Self” has personally helped Derer also.
“It has taught me to slow down, put myself at the top of my to-do list, and see myself as others see me,” said Derer. “This isn’t another boring self-help book, it’s a witty, real-life, guide to understanding how to truly love oneself.”
A local book tour is planned for this summer.
“Unconditional: Learning to Love your Authentic Self” is now available online on Amazon and Kindle, as well as in select retail locations in and around Pottstown.