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Therapists Spill: The Books I Turn to on a Difficult Day

Therapists Spill: The Books I Turn to on a Difficult DaySometimes, just reading a few words of wisdom or support can help to soothe us and give us clarity. Reading certain books can move us into a kinder space. It can inspire and empower us.

Or it can just make us smile — which is a gift when you haven’t felt good all day, and all you want to do is crumble.

Sometimes this solace can be found in nonfiction or self-help books. Sometimes it can even be found in fiction.

As Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin write in their book The Novel Cure: From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You:

“Sometimes, it’s the story that charms; other times it’s the rhythm of the prose that works on the psyche, stilling or stimulating. Sometimes, it’s an idea or an attitude suggested by a character in a similar quandary or jam. Either way, novels have the power to transport you to another existence and see the world from a different point of view.”

We asked clinicians to share the books – nonfiction and fiction included – they turn to when they’re having a rough day and need help to weather the storm. Here’s what they spilled.

The Prophet

“My ‘go to’ book has been Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet since I was 20,” said Jeffrey Sumber, MA, LCPC, a psychotherapist, author and teacher.

“It is spiritual but not religious, poetic without being too prescriptive and inspirational in its beauty. There are enough short segments in the book to make a few minutes read in difficult or challenging times.”

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The Gift of Therapy

If clinical psychologist Ryan Howes, Ph.D, is having a difficult time with his work as a clinician, he turns to Irvin Yalom’s The Gift of Therapy.

“He has a way of boiling down the complicated, multifaceted issues in therapy to the raw fundamentals – the therapeutic relationship, caring for the client, being a real person, etc. It’s a helpful reminder that everyone needs care and connection above all else, no matter how complicated the case.”

Novels by Kurt Vonnegut

When he needs encouragement in his personal life, Howes rereads Vonnegut’s novels, including Breakfast of Champions and The Sirens of Titan.

“I find that I’m most stressed out when I’m taking myself too seriously, and Vonnegut’s novels look at serious existential and relational issues in ways that make me chuckle at myself and humanity. We’re an absurd species, and he won’t let us forget it.”

(When he needs a lighter read, Howes enjoys Calvin and Hobbes cartoons, “which has the same effect.”)

The Power of Now

Joyce Marter, LCPC, a psychotherapist and founder of Urban Balance, turns to Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now when she’s ruminating about the past and fretting about the future. “It reminds me of the importance of mindfully staying grounded in the present moment.”

The Language of Letting Go

Marter also turns to The Language of Letting Go by Melody Beattie. “When I feel crabby, resentful or like my ‘cup’ is empty, I read some excerpts from this book of daily meditations. It helps me focus on my own self-care, setting healthy boundaries, and to let go of all which I can not control.”


Clinical psychologist John Duffy, Ph.D, reads Wayne Dyer’s Inspiration. “I picked it up in an airport at a time when I was feeling somewhat listless and, frankly, uninspired. From the start, I find this book to be calming, and it lends me clarity almost immediately.”

In Inspiration Dyer explains that people will feel more fully themselves when they get out of their own heads and refocus on how they can help others, said Duffy, author of The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens.

“My copy is well-worn, and I love it that way. Like an old friend, it’s the book I enjoy revisiting. And I recommend it to virtually all of my clients as well.”

A New Earth

Clinical psychologist Christina Hibbert, PsyD, has reread A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle three times.

“I re-read it when life starts feeling overwhelming or troubling because it reminds me that ‘I’ am not my problems. It reminds me to let go of my ‘ego,’ my ‘identity,’ my ‘self.’ It speaks to my spiritual side and complements my religious values and beliefs, reminding me I am more than I or anyone else sees on the outside.”

It reminds her that she’s more than her thoughts, feelings and problems. It reminds her that right now, in this moment, everything is OK.

“It calms me and brings me back to what matters most – back to God, and family, and love – and that helps me feel at peace,” said Hibbert, author of the memoir This is How We Grow.

You Can Heal Your Life

When her inner critic is roaring, Marter reads this book by Louise Hay. It’s filled with positive affirmations and empowering messages.

Books By Ted L. Nancy

Clinical psychologist Deborah Serani, PsyD, keeps a stack of three books, all by author Ted L. Nancy, on her end table. When she’s having a tough day, these humorous reads help. “…[L]aughing helps me cope.”

Her favorite is Nancy’s first book, Letters from a Nut.

“If you can get beyond the rather stigmatizing title of this book, what you’ll find inside is a series of very serious letters about rather absurd things like a lost tooth, a misplaced Prussian sword or the need to travel by bus while dressed as butter. But what makes this over-the-top-funny, and healing for me, are the seriously true responses the author gets from big business, hotels, politicians, city center and restaurants.”

Humor is an underused tool for dealing with mental illness, said Serani, also author of two books on depression. Humor can provide empowerment, comfort and even become “a bridge toward problem solving.” It also helps us physiologically. It bolsters our immune system, boosts feel-good hormones like dopamine, reduces blood pressure and improves heart rate, she said.

Consider the books that bring you calm, comfort and inspiration. And when you’re not sure which books to turn to, take this cue from humorist and author P.J. O’Rourke, who’s quoted in The Novel Cure: “Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.”

Therapists Spill: The Books I Turn to on a Difficult Day

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Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). Therapists Spill: The Books I Turn to on a Difficult Day. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
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