It’s hard not to imagine that books have the power to change our perspectives and even our lives. They teach us things in a way that doesn’t always have an immediate impact, but lets us look at life from a different and perhaps more nuanced perspective. A good book can inspire and challenge us, and even have a significant impact in our life.
Six psychologists reveal the books that have had the biggest impact on their lives, including how they approach therapy, how they perceive relationships and how they view the world.
Perhaps these books — and the psychologists’ words — will inspire you, too!
1. A Child Called It: One Child’s Courage to Survive by Dave Pelzer
The psychologist: Elizabeth M. Davis, PsyD, clinical director of child and adolescent services for the Eating Recovery Center.
“A book that changed my life, as well as my understanding of my role as a psychologist, is A Child Called It: One Child’s Courage to Survive by Dave Pelzer and the subsequent books in this series. The book was recommended to me during one of my college summer jobs when I worked with guardian ad litems. It’s a book about child abuse and the resiliency of human beings, but even more so, the resiliency of children. After reading this series, I gained a humbling awareness that people can overcome and withstand more than I ever thought possible.
We all have incredible strengths within us, even when we think we have come to our breaking point. This has played an essential part in my practice of psychology, my work as a therapist and my life in general.”
(Amazon.com link to A Child Called “It”: One Child’s Courage to Survive).
2. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes
“The title is a mouthful, but this is actually a very readable introduction to the problem of human consciousness. What is it, what does it do and not do, and what is it for? I’m not sure that I agree with any of Jayne’s conclusions, but this book more than any other I can readily name made me think about what was going on inside my head (of course Jaynes would argue that consciousness does not necessarily go on inside the head at all!), and what relationship this had to my concept of self, my behavior, and the sweep of history and culture I’m immersed in.”
(Amazon.com link to The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind ).
3. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler
The psychologist: Lucy Jo Palladino, Ph.D, attention expert and author of Dreamers, Discoverers, and Dynamos: How to Help the Child Who is Bright, Bored, and Having Problems at School and Find Your Focus Zone: An Effective New Plan to Defeat Distraction and Overload.
“For forty years, on and off, I’ve read and reread the works of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, impressed by their grasp of symbolic language and the power of metaphor in the human psyche. In 1998, I read The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler. In plain language, Vogler identifies the archetypes and stages of ‘The Hero’s Journey,’ a model for finding the courage to live your own life, not an imitation of someone else’s. Vogler draws from Campbell’s mythic studies and Jung’s depth psychology, with examples from our present-day culture such as the Wizard of Oz and Star Wars. It’s a handbook for appreciating the universality of symbol and story, and understanding myth as, in Vogler’s words, ‘a map to guide the passage of a soul through life.’”
Campbell’s mythic studies, Jung’s depth psychology, and Vogler’s explanations of their work made an impact on me, but it was not a bolt of lightening. It happened over time, about three decades or so.
Through the years, conceptualizing life as an adventure and being aware of archetypes or inner guides on my journey have helped me personally to feel purpose in my work, persevere in writing books, and step out of my comfort zone, speaking to large audiences, appearing on TV, and standing up for my opinions when others disagree.
But it has had the most impact in my clinical practice, working one-on-one with people. When I hold the vision that we’re each the hero of our own lives, a healthy shift in perspective, from victim to victor, takes place. Recognizing the signposts of their journey and respecting their heroism and the personal meaning of their individual path, helps me to guide others, give them the tools they need, and help them find their own motivation from within. Understanding how life stories are universal strengthens my trust in their ability to overcome obstacles, even through moments of darkness.
These ideas also have had a positive influence on my world view. The similarities of symbols and stories, from ancient times to present day, across cultures throughout the world, informs my sense of connectedness with others, what Jung called our “collective unconscious.” This fuels my optimism that as different as we are, we’re also all the same in the ways that matter most . . . in the ways of the heart.”
(Amazon.com link to The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd Edition).
4. The Social Animal by Elliot Aronson
“Yes it’s a textbook, but I never realized how much social psychology impacts the average person on a daily basis, or how impactful it would be to my own practice until I read it. I liked it so much that I went on to teach social psychology at the graduate level!”
(Amazon.com link to The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement ).
5. I and Thou by Martin Buber
The psychologist: Jeffrey Sumber, M.A., psychotherapist, author and teacher.
“I first read it in a college Philosophy and Religion class and its simple way of explaining the two basic relationships we experience in life changed my life. I went on to write my Thesis based on the book and its ideas have dramatically shaped the way I think about myself in the world and the way I do therapy with others.
Buber’s simple differentiation between I-Thou encounters and I-It encounters is in many ways how I, too, perceive the movement between mutual appreciation and respect with another being and those moments when I relate to another person as an extension of myself, with an expectation of behavior and outcome. I know for myself that the goal is to live as much as possible with a ‘Thou’ intention and to be as aware as possible when I default to an objectifying ‘It’ space.
I have found this simple concept to be incredibly useful in therapy because most people comprehend the difference immediately. Most of us can relate to those interactions when we have room for the other to be who they are without expectation–it is, in my opinion, one of the purest forms of love. On the other hand, most of us also can relate to those interactions where we get frustrated and resentful when the other person doesn’t read the script the way we wrote it!”
(Amazon.com link to I and Thou).
6. Passionate Marriage and Intimacy and Desire by David Schnarch
“I really like David Schnarch’s Passionate Marriage (and his later book Intimacy and Desire where he has developed his model more fully and it’s more user friendly). It’s written for couples to improve their relationships and sex lives. Sex is one of the big topics that couples struggle with and argue about, so by exploring one’s sex life, one can also explore other relationship dynamics.
I like how Schnarch talks about how each individual’s psychological dynamics play out in the relationship and in their sex life. He talks about how our relationships push us to explore these issues and hopefully work on them. I have adapted a line from him that I use a lot: the sign of a good relationship is that it pushes you to become a better person.
This is the sort of work that only happens in intimate relationships, because it’s much harder to ignore issues in intimate relationships than it is in acquaintanceships or even friendships. The struggles that arise in relationships may not always be fun, but they are good for us if we can rise to the challenge and bring our best self forward. This involves holding ourselves and our partner accountable and responding in more productive ways.”
Photo by Open Source Way, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.