Because it’s done behind closed doors, therapy can seem like a mystery. How do therapists actually conduct therapy? How do they treat disorders such as depression and anxiety? What if you could be a fly on the wall during a session?
We asked clinicians to share their favorite books on therapy, which give readers a look at real-life sessions, along with insights into the methods therapists actually use.
Clinicians also shared their favorite self-help titles, which focus on everything from practicing self-compassion to living authentically.
Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy by Irvin D. Yalom
“Yalom’s Love’s Executioner is an amazing account of his real interactions with clients (disguised for confidentiality) that highlight the insights and relational moments we rarely see due to the closed doors of our profession,” said Ryan Howes, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, Calif.
“[Yalom] is somehow able to showcase his brilliance while emphasizing the homespun wisdom of many of his interventions.”
Freud and Beyond: A History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought by Stephen A. Mitchell and Margaret J. Black
Howes also likes the writings of relational psychoanalyst Stephen Mitchell. In Freud and Beyond, Mitchell and Black feature clear-cut summaries and clinical examples of contemporary theories, including the work of Sigmund Freud, Henry Stack Sullivan and Melanie Klein.
Internal Family Systems by Richard Schwartz
Clinical psychologist Marla Deibler, PsyD, called Internal Family Systems one of the most fascinating books on therapy. This book “takes a unique and interesting approach to helping distressed individuals look at and work with their cognitive dissonance in a very concrete, relatable way,” she said. Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy by Irvin Yalom
“This book, more than any other broke down group dynamics in a way that I, as a struggling student could understand and see clearly the inner workings of groups in all its various permutations,” said Xue Yang, LCSW, a trauma therapist using Somatic Experiencing (SE) in Houston, Texas. It’s a book she still refers to today.
Clinician’s Guide to Mind Over Mood by Christine Padesky and Dennis Greenberger
This is a professional favorite for Bridget Levy, LCPC, the director of business development at Urban Balance, a counseling practice in the Chicago area. Clinician’s Guide to Mind Over Mood “uses basic CBT [cognitive behavior therapy] theory to help professionals address a variety of mood and anxiety disorders with clients,” she said.
It also addresses how to use CBT in different settings and situations, she added.
The Wish For Power and the Fear of Having It by Althea Horner
For Howes this book is an old favorite. “The title really says it all — many of us fear and desire power at the same time — why is this and what can we do about it?” he said.
Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life by Steven Hayes
Currently, Deibler’s favorite self-help book is Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life. Based on acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), this book focuses on observing distressing thoughts — without judgment — and accepting them.
“This is a really engaging book with many, colorful metaphors to illustrate important ACT concepts,” said Deibler, an anxiety specialist and director of The Center for Emotional Health of Greater Philadelphia, LLC.
Women Who Run with Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by Clarissa Pinkola Estes
According to Yang, the stories in this book show readers that “there is another way to be in the world,” “without the heavy handedness of ‘you have to do this or that.’”
Hold Me Tight by Sue Johnson
Psychotherapist Jeffrey Sumber, LCPC, uses the themes in this book, based on Johnson’s emotionally focused couples therapy, with his clients and in his own marriage. Hold Me Tight “provides a really important paradigm shift for couples struggling to relate differently as well as for the therapists who attempt to help them heal,” he said.
“The idea that we often suffer from a perceived loss of emotional attachment which then causes us to resort to a behavioral dance that sabotages closeness has become one of the main ways I perceive couples’ problems.”
A Fortunate Man: The Story of A Country Doctor by John Berger
According to clinical psychologist Lee Coleman, Ph.D, this is a 1967 “nonfiction account of the day-to-day work of a doctor in the countryside of England.”
“The writing is poetic and reminds me what it means to be truly therapeutic … even when we’re not sure what to do sometimes, there are still ways to be authentic and relate to others’ suffering,” said Coleman, also author of the book Depression: A Guide for the Newly Diagnosed.
The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem by Nathaniel Branden
“Branden does an excellent job of simplifying and clarifying what self-esteem is and how it’s created and stunted,” said Levy. Branden also includes clinical examples and exercises to help clients apply each pillar to their lives, she said.
Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Kristin Neff
“One of the things I love about my job is that I am always learning and that what I discover helps my clients but can also help me and my family,” said Jennifer Kogan, LICSW, a psychotherapist in Washington, D.C. One of the books that fits into that category for Kogan is Self-Compassion.
In her research, psychologist Kristin Neff found that people who are self-compassionate lead healthier and more productive lives than people who criticize themselves.
The book includes personal stories and practical exercises to help readers learn to be kind to themselves.
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead by Dr. Brené Brown
According to Kogan, Daring Greatly shows readers how to live authentically. “[Brown] asks the question, ‘what is it that is holding you back, keeping you hovering in the doorway of seeking your dream?’ Then [she] gives people a way to break free of what is keeping them from going through the doorway.”
Lying on the Couch by Irwin Yalom
Lying on the Couch isn’t a self-help book. It’s actually a novel, which Howes described as a captivating read, whether you’ve been to therapy or not. It “is able to speak to the academia of trained therapists while maintaining the interest of the non-therapist laity,” he said.
The powerful thing about books is that they open readers to new worlds. The above books give us a glimpse into the often misunderstood therapy process along with tips to help us lead healthier, more satisfying lives.