Self Help Books: Choose, but choose wisely

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When people come to treatment, they will often ask me to recommend books that they might read to assist them in solving the problems that are challenging their lives. They gaze at the books, which line the shelves in my office, possibly expecting that some perfect kernel of wisdom is hidden within one of those tomes (if paperbacks can be tomes).

They search for that one statement, or fact, which absolutely and clearly elucidates their particular problem and explains the exact formula for a quick and enduring fix. “Give me something to read,” they ask. Sometimes I say: “if you could get all of the answers from books, we wouldn’t need therapists!”

At times, however, I do recommend certain books and we will discuss some of them in this forum from time to time.

When my family goes shopping , I find the opportunity to wander over to one of the major bookstores to check out Randy Wayne White’s latest mystery novel. His books invariably start in one of my favorite fishing haunts, Tarpon Bay ,a mangrove lined province of snook, redfish, porpoises  and manatees. But my “psychological roots” drag me to the “Self Help” and “Psychology” section where I am faced with a plethora of books urging me to experience my “primal chuckle’ or allowing my “inner child’ to find his “happy place.”

I  keep looking, and find some classics that I paid big bucks for when I was in school. Now, they are just a few dollars for the paperback edition and still valuable sources of knowledge.  I look a bit further, my neck muscles crimping as I try to read the titles sideways.

There are books on anger, love, depression – just about every emotion and personality disorder that human beings can experience.

There are books on relationships –  they catch my attention. John Grey suggests that men and women come from different planets (I will discuss and recommend Dr. Grey at another time). I find that Mars and Venus meet, go on a date, they get married, and they collide. Eventually, I think to myself, they settle down, after a successful course of marital therapy, to live their lives helping their kids pay off their student loans. I keep searching for that book with the kernel of wisdom.

Some of the books in the self-help/psychology section are written by well- known and highly respected members of the scientific community. They provide valuable information for any serious student of psychology.

There are books written by the “stars’ of the profession – like Dr. Phil. Isn’t it amazing that he can “fix” someone’s problem in fifteen minutes? Actually, some of his books provide basic, common sense, approaches to many of life’s problems.

Then, there are the books that are written by writers – not psychologists, psychiatrists or social workers. These authors go out and interview a bunch of people (not a representative sample) who have experienced the same problem, and write a book about it.

In other cases, an actor, media personality or just  “one of us” experienced something in their lives and now, trying to “work through” their problem, writes a book about it. I tend to be a bit skeptical of the guidance provided by these authors.

I finally hit the wall when I found a self-help book on self-help books! It was a guide to all the rest of the books on the shelf. I didn’t read it but I did pause to give my neck a rest. Again, I considered the thought that if people could get all of this enlightenment and understanding from books we would not need therapists.

My concerns were diminished when I met a couple that had been referred by their therapist who was on holiday and did not want to leave this couple without some therapeutic support while he was out of town. Archie and Edith (not their real names) apparently argued all of the time. He was experiencing a mid-life crisis (self-diagnosed) and had left his wife, quit his job, purchased a sports car, and had become involved with a younger woman.

She, the younger woman, had thought him quite charming and had entered the relationship. Their arguments had escalated and they had sought help from an experienced therapist.

After briefly explaining their problems to me, she showed me a book (The Dance of Anger – to be discussed in another column) in which she had underlined what she considered the salient factors –which she proceeded to read to him in a loud accusatory voice.

The following week, they returned and he, having also read and underlined passages in the book, read what he considered the salient facts to her – in an accusatory voice.

They had each underlined different points –extracting only those facts that supported each of their positions. In other words, they each saw what they wanted to see.  No insight, no enlightenment and no modification of the couple’s psychodynamics or their cognitive approach to one another.

Bibliotherapy, as it is called, can be an extremely useful adjunct to the therapeutic process – but it isn’t therapy. It is the therapist’s knowledge and experience, the use of proven techniques of treatment (including medications) and the nature and dynamics of the therapeutic relationship that can help the patient to integrate and synthesize information from various sources.

If patients are motivated to learn more, there are certainly a plethora of books waiting on the shelves of your local bookseller. But remember, when you choose, choose wisely.