Whether you’re new to therapy or a long-term patient, you’ve probably wondered before if a book can give you helpful insight at your own leisure. Maybe you want to think more deeply about your own concerns, or you simply love to learn about psychology.
With all the information available today (and the clever marketing to sell it), it’s hard to know which writings are worth your time and money. At this point, I’ve probably read over 1,000 books and articles from the field, so I’ve done some of the chewing for you already. Here, I present five books that I feel many patients in therapy will benefit from.
First, let me tell you why I have chosen the following books. I have always valued when psychotherapists write about personal healing in a language that the general public can understand. Unfortunately, this is a rare talent. There is so much empowering information available out there related to psychology, but much of it is hard to digest unless you already have a graduate degree in the profession. Even then, some of it can be challenging to fully comprehend.
The jargon used in many psychology books can create distance between the author and the reader. While I enjoy appropriate doses of ornate writing, I have misgivings about not translating good ideas into words that we can all understand. I even worry that the distancing language used by some psychology authors is one reason why the general public has gravitated more toward self-help books written by expert ‘coaches’. The self-help industry does a great job of writing in a language the appeals to people, but a lot of that kind of material offers what I like to call ‘fast-food advice’ – advice that is quick and easy to digest, but is not necessarily healthy for you in the long-term.
Furthermore, many self-help authors have no training in psychology and are not licensed therapists. Thus, when I read a book written by a qualified professional that is loaded with thought-provoking ideas and is also written in a way that one of my family members or friends would be able to understand, I put it on my recommendations list.
I have recommended these books many times over to patients of mine and psychology students whom I teach. Several people in therapy have found these books helpful to read between sessions (depending on their concerns and interest in reading outside of session). I’ve seen these books push therapy further for people who felt stuck. Some people say these books helped to change their life.
Schopenhauer’s Porcupines: Five Stories of Psychotherapy
This book might be my number one recommendation to both patients and psychotherapists who want an intimate look at how the process of psychotherapy can unfold. The book contains five stories straight from Dr. Lupenitz’ practice.
What I appreciate the most about this book is how diverse it shows therapy can be. Each patient is unique, and so each treatment develops in a unique manner. At the same time, the cases also outline common themes to the therapy process – such as how people’s relationship patterns tend to repeat with the therapist in therapy.
Three of the cases are individual patients, one is a couple, and another is a family. Some of the therapies last only a few months, while others stretch for up to 10 years. Also, the book is a wildly entertaining read. Dr. Lupenitz’ writing reads more like an engaging novel than a clinical journal publication, yet these stories were formed out of real clinical encounters. Possibly the best psychotherapy case in this book is the last chapter – ‘The Sin Eater’.
Trauma and Recovery
You know a book is worth reading in this field when some of your clients tell you they have already read it. When I think about books that had a major impact on how I think about psychology, this one invariably comes to mind. In fact, many professionals consider this book to be a major publication in the field of psychology. The professional status of this publication is easily on par with some of Sigmund Freud’s most cited writings; it has had that much of an impact on the study of trauma.
This book opens up the discussion on interpersonal trauma in ways that challenge both the lay reader and the therapist in their thinking about what constitutes trauma. Dr. Herman also does well at describing the stigma and political oppression surrounding trauma survivors. After she critiques the field of trauma and explores current social realities regarding trauma, she offers a three-stage model for recovery from trauma. Most models on treating trauma survivors that came after this publication have followed a very similar process.
I often find myself recommending this book to clients who have been impacted by trauma, and also to professionals who I work with who haven’t yet read it. If you’ve survived trauma and have ever wondered if you’ve gone crazy in a sane world, Dr. Herman will show you how your reaction to trauma may be rather sane in a crazy world. This book is worth every chapter.
Amir Levine and Rachel S.F. Heller
If you ever wondered why you repeat the same relationship patterns and how you might be able to change them, this is an excellent book to start with. The authors use attachment theory to help readers identify their patterns of attachment in relationships, and they offer pragmatic advice for how to begin redressing psychological, emotional, and behavioral concerns.
Attachment theory was developed several decades ago from research experiments done with infants and also theoretical writings. Basically, we either have secure or insecure attachment styles (and there are a few different types of insecure attachment styles). How we develop our attachment styles stems largely from early relationship experiences, and so we may often find ourselves repeating early relationship patterns unconsciously since it conforms with what feels familiar to us.
Everyone I know who was not already familiar with attachment theory and read this book told me it was a game-changer for them. Make sure you read this on a day when you don’t have much planned, because it is likely you won’t want to put it down.
Can Love Last?: The Fate of Romance Over Time
Can love last? It’s one of those ubiquitous questions that plague so many of us. Stephen Mitchell’s ultimate answer, to put it simply, is “maybe”. Like Attached, this book speaks to the relational worlds we live in and the multifaceted ways we find ourselves repeating the same relationship patterns. What makes Mitchell’s book unique though is that he spends a great deal of energy exploring how history and culture influence how we experience intimate relationships, particularly as it relates to western culture’s “degradation of romance.” He illustrates how we equate familiarity in relationships with boredom and how we see what is dangerous/unfamiliar (usually in other people/romantic situations) as exciting. Interestingly, Mitchell makes an interesting case for why it is actually familiar relationships that are more dangerous.
According to Mitchell, love is “risky business.” The more we invest in stabilizing a relationship over time, the more uncertain that partners feel about its condition. He goes on to illustrate how partners unconsciously collude to make a long-term relationship predictable so that it survives. However, in doing so, couples vitiate the spontaneity and authenticity that characterized their attraction toward each other. Mitchell breaks down how this process is inevitable for all relationships. Ultimately, he suggests that to aspire toward fulfilling relationships that we be willing to recognize the process as it is happening, while finding ways to neither attempt to bring the whole relationship under control nor abandon the bond recklessly. Rather, every relationship must find a way to strive for a point of tension between familiarity and unpredictability.
The book also integrates psychoanalytic theory, poetry, philosophy, and clinical examples, giving the reader a consistently engaging read. His writing is a little more advanced than the other books I’ve mentioned, but it is written with the general public in mind and so is still accessible to the avid reader. If you enjoy having “a-ha” moments every ten minutes or so, this book is worth the patient reading process. You are guaranteed to live and love more wisely as a result.
Man’s Search for Meaning
Viktor E. Frankl
This is one of those classic books that every therapist I know has read at some point. Moreover, it is one of those classic books that many patients I know who have an interest in psychology books have also read at some point. It’s no surprise then to learn that this book was a best-seller. Frankl survived the Holocaust, wrote about his experiences as an inmate in concentration camp during World War II, and also developed an approach to psychotherapy (called logotherapy). He offers all of this information in Man’s Search for Meaning.
The book’s popularity rests not only on Frankl’s riveting account of his experience as an inmate, but also his ability to demonstrate so poignantly that there is actually value to be found in suffering. The idea that suffering can be an opportunity for growth may sound unusual, especially to people who struggle with feelings of hopelessness or suicidal ideation, but many people say that this book was a source of comfort and inspiration in moments that were otherwise subdued.
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS
Even though reading can be a great tool for gaining insight, by itself it may not provide the same effects as would an interactive healing experience such as in psychotherapy. Perhaps reaching out to others isn’t as easy as interacting with a book that can’t talk back or know us personally. Sometimes, especially when people have had interpersonal disappointments or felt that it “wasn’t okay” to reach out, a book also seems like a safer route.
Reading can usually provide short-term relief because of the momentary insights it fosters, but the more nuanced and personal approach of actual psychotherapy may be required to understand your own unique story. After all, these are the stories of others’ lives. Your own story, in all its uniqueness, may be more fully developed and appreciated in psychotherapy.