Therapists Spill: The Books That Changed My Life
Books are getaways to far-off places you might never get to visit. Books are lessons you really needed to learn. Books are hammocks, letting you refresh and rejuvenate while the wind brushes your bare feet. Books are hobbies, letting you discover new crafts or rekindle old ones.
And, most important, books are life-changers. The kind that change your career, how you interact with loved ones or how you see the world.
Below, in our monthly series, therapists spill about the books that have changed their lives for the better.
The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
This book had a powerful effect on psychotherapist Jeffrey Sumber’s perspective on life and love.
Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet had a huge impact on me as a young man because he was able to address the major elements of life, love and relationship through a poetic angle. There is such beauty and truth to Gibran’s book that I often considered it to be a beautiful version of the Bible without all the names and killing.
I remember sitting on a huge sand dune in the Sinai Desert when I was 21 years old, reading this book and meditating on its meaning in my life. I wish more people read this.
Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
Siddhartha is another pivotal book for Sumber, a teacher and author. He also recommends the book to clients who are stuck in life’s “shoulds:” My life should look like this. I should be doing that.
Siddhartha follows the story of a young man who seeks his own illumination but everything he accomplishes never seems to be enough.
At first many people feel that this fictional book about an Indian man in the Far East has little to do with them until they start to see themselves in his journey. The ups and downs, achievements and challenges all seem to resonate at our core because the overall message of the book is so simple in the end.
Sometimes we get more mileage by just stopping, breathing and contemplating life as it passes by.
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
John Duffy, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and author of the book The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens, loves the redemptive endings and hope inherent in Irving’s writing, particularly in A Prayer for Owen Meany.
Irving is brilliant with language, his wild descriptions of family and relationship dysfunction that, in the end, ring fairly true and lie just beyond the norm. There are no clearly delineated villains or angels. Instead, Irving characters are painfully, blessedly human, flawed and terrified and perfectly drawn.
On the whole, though, as bizarre as his stories are, this one in particular, the plot always sits atop an undercurrent of hope and love. It’s a joy to read.
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
As a young girl, Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree was a book that I read over and over again. Of course, at first I didn’t really understand its message, but as time passed I realized that it was a story of unconditional love. It still moves me whenever I pick it up to read.
Freud and Beyond by Stephen Mitchell and Margaret Black
Serani’s other favorite is Freud and Beyond, which she also uses as a teaching tool with her graduate students.
As an adult, I have to say that Freud and Beyond by Stephen Mitchell and Margaret Black is one of my favorites books because it beautifully details the origins of psychodynamic psychotherapy from Freud ‘til present time. Chapters cover many schools of thought and give the reader a great taste of theories, technique and practice.
Pig Will and Pig Won’t by Richard Scarry
This childhood book was one of two that led to a significant decision for Joyce Marter, a psychotherapist and owner of Urban Balance.
The two books that have impacted me the most are vastly different from one another, yet the combination of messages I received from each of them sheds tremendous light on why I became a therapist.
The first book was from my childhood, Richard Scarry’s Pig Will and Pig Won’t, which inspired me to choose and develop one of my primary modes of operation. In the story, Pig Will and Pig Won’t are brothers who respond differently when asked to help with chores and other acts of service.
Pig Won’t declines opportunities to help and misses out on the sometimes surprising rewards that come to Pig Will for choosing to be of service to others, such as feeling connected to his community, taking pride in shared accomplishments, or simply being taken out for chocolate ice cream.
At a young age, this story helped me consciously choose to take the path of engaging in life opportunities to be of service to others, and I am grateful that this decision has resulted in countless rewards and blessings both personally and professionally.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
This book was the second. The Color Purple cemented Marter’s desire to help others through the healing process.
The book was profoundly eye-opening and moving to me as it relays the life story of an African-American woman who survived multiple traumas and losses related to poverty, racism, sexism, abuse, rape, etc.
The message I received was about the resiliency and power of the spirit in each of us, as well as the ability to heal and move forward in life through love. The story resonated with me at a very deep level and awoke the parts of myself that were called to be an instrument of healing and empowerment for myself and others.
Leadership & Self-Deception and Bonds That Make Us Free by C. Terry Warner
These books had a big effect on Christina G. Hibbert, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and expert in postpartum mental health. They played an important role in both her work with clients and how she lives her life.
The two books that literally changed my life are both by C. Terry Warner, who was actually my professor at Brigham Young University, and is the founder of the Arbinger Institute (a fabulous organization that helps companies and people establish healthy and peaceful relationships).
I first read Arbinger’s Leadership & Self-Deception, (co-written by Warner and based on his theories) and it was a huge “Wow!” moment for me. I then moved on to Bonds That Make Us Free, Warner’s longer, more in-depth version of the simpler Leadership.
Reading these books, I began to realize just how much I’d been “in the box” with relationships, focusing only on my needs and failing to see the bigger picture — that each time we choose to ignore the promptings to do the “right” thing in our relationships (i.e., wake up with the crying baby so your wife can sleep), we are actually betraying ourselves.
We then end up spending our time defending ourselves because we can’t acknowledge that we chose wrongly, so we give all the reasons why it was “right” instead (i.e., “I have work tomorrow and I’m tired too, you know!), and actually create our own relationship stress!
These books have not only changed how I do therapy — especially couples therapy — they have personally helped me see others for who they really are and not for how they affect me, and have helped me take responsibility for my own actions in my relationships.
I’ve read them both three times already, plan to continue studying them, and encourage everyone else to do the same!
Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
This book transformed clinical psychologist Ryan Howes’s perspective on literature – and opened up a whole world of writings he had no idea even existed.
When I was in high school, my step-mom saw that I was growing weary of The Crucible and Great Expectations and was ready to discard the written word altogether and retire to the boob tube. She shrewdly placed Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions in my Christmas stocking and I devoured it in a week.
The idea that writing could be entertaining while revealing the human condition blew my mind and opened me up to books that spoke the truth while holding my interest. My apathy toward literature died that month. So it goes.
Being and Loving: How to Achieve Intimacy with Another Person and Retain One’s Own Identity by Althea Horner
Since graduate school, this book continues to inspire Howes, his clients and colleagues – along with a few other great reads.
In graduate school I searched for books that echoed my beliefs about relationships and identity formation. A supervisor recommended Althea Horner’s Being and Loving: How to Achieve Intimacy with Another Person and Retain One’s Own Identity for our group and this became my favorite book to recommend to clients and fellow therapists.
Around the same time I picked up M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled and found its wisdom and spiritual component an ideal complement to Horner’s object relations musings.
Throw in Schnarch’s Passionate Marriage, Epstein’s Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart, and Yalom’s The Gift of Therapy and that rounds out my most referred list.
They’re no Vonnegut, but the world only needed one.
Tartakovsky, M. (2013). Therapists Spill: The Books That Changed My Life. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 29, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/therapists-spill-the-books-that-changed-my-life/