Books to read if you’re considering psychotherapy

Starting counselling or psychotherapy can be an intimidating process; here is a list of books to help on your way to good mental health.

Illustration: Sneha Shanker / Penguin

It’s been a long, slow change, but the last decade has seen a marked shift in the public perception of psychotherapy – in 2019, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy reported that, in a sample size of over 5000 adults, 84% maintained that it was more socially acceptable to discuss mental health than it was five years prior. Today, we’re moving further away from the idea of therapy being the province of “crazy people” and closer to a perception of our mental health as something more akin to physical health; that it’s something to take care and be aware of when it fluctuates.

With stigma lowering and reasons for psychological stress seeming to multiply, there’s never been a better time to start seeing a therapist, but it can be an intimidating process to begin. You might wonder whether therapy is right for you, what kind of therapy you’d want, or the kind of therapist that would best suit you; you might just be at the stage where you’re wonder what psychotherapy even is. Luckily, there are plenty of books to help.

Psychotherapy books for beginners

To many, the foundations of psychotherapy might feel like a good place to start: with Sigmund Freud, aka the father of psychoanalysis, who uncovered the unconscious part of our minds, or Melanie Klein, who built on Freud’s work and further explored the way that our psyches develop as children.

There’s never been a better time to start seeing a therapist, but it can be an intimidating process to begin

If your interests lie there, it’s worth beginning with The Penguin Freud Reader, in which Freud’s essential ideas of psychodynamic theory – concepts such as the Id, Ego and Super-Ego, the Death Instinct and Pleasure Principle – are summarised and contextualised for first-time readers. Then, a next step might be Klein’s The Psychoanalysis of Children, in which she first delineated the ideas that would come to form our understanding of child psychology and untangled the roots of adult neuroses and psychoses.

Best books on psychotherapy

For those seeking something more modern and less academic, there’s even more to shed light on the world of therapy. Irvin D. Yalom’s Love’s Executioner (and Other Tales of Psychotherapy) is an insightful and inviting look into the process which reveals as much about therapy as it does about the therapist’s role itself, as Yalom critiques himself and points out the ways he could or should have done better in his sessions. Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life is similar if more narratively driven, featuring a broad spectrum of short, well-told stories culled from over 50,000 hours of therapy sessions that, together, paint a vivid picture of clinical practice.

For those seeking something more modern and less academic, there’s plenty to shed light on the world of therapy

For a novel-length story of one person’s therapeutic journey, there are few as compelling as Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb’s memoir dealing with the moment, years into her practice, that she realised she needed to return to seeing a therapist herself; for those curious about the power of therapy (or in good memoirs, period) it’s a must-read. The same applies to Alison Bechdel’s moving graphic novel memoir, Are You My Mother?, in which the author embarks on a quest to bridge, via psychotherapy and her study of works by Melanie Klein and British psychotherapist Donald Winnicott, the chasm in her relationship to her mother.

Books to understand the therapeutic process

If you’re looking for a great overview of what an ongoing therapy session can look like, you should pick up Philippa Perry’s new graphic novel collaboration with her daughter Flo, Couch Fiction; it’s an illustrated portrait of the evolution of a fictional therapeutic, and a great introduction for those who aren’t sure what to expect during sessions. If you're nervous about attending for the first time, this is a great place to begin your reading.

Best books on mental health

Of course, the umbrella term ‘mental health’ houses a wide variety of issues, and there are plenty of books that cater to the myriad, more specific problems that come to bear on our psyches. For those curious about the more physical manifestations of mental health, you can’t do better than Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score; those experiencing issues in their romantic relationship might start with Esther Perel’s Mating in Captivity; anyone feeling the ways that racism affects mental health might consult Samara Linton and Rianna Walcott’s The Colour of Madness: Exploring BAME mental health in the UK; and those feeling the effects of low self-esteem might find themselves reflected quite poignantly in Alice Miller’s landmark book The Drama of Being a Child.

Before you attend a therapist’s office (or Zoom room), you might also just want a taste of the self-help books offered by one of the hundreds of therapists who’ve published them. Some of the better volumes in this category are Dr. Julia Smith's straightforward, deceptively simple Why Has Nobody Told Me This Before?, Philippa Perry’s successful guide to relating successfully to others The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did), and This Too Shall Pass by acclaimed psychotherapist Julia Samuel, which provides a guide to navigating seismic life shifts and milestones.

And while psychotherapy is typically a long and involved process, it can be incredibly useful to take time out in daily life to self-soothe; like a short jog or ten minutes of yoga, Sarah Crosby’s Five Minute Therapy is perfect for those moments where you just need a moment to flex your emotional muscles.

An understanding of psychotherapy can reveal new depths in Shakespeare, Woolf, and Dostoevsky

Mental health in fiction

Readers with an inclination for fiction will have a harder time finding useful books as preparation for psychotherapy: depictions of mental illness, especially in classic fiction such DickensGreat Expectations or in Brontë’s Jane Eyre, have historically relied on dramatic, unsympathetic portrayals of ‘madness’, while therapists were difficult to find portrayed until very recently, and are still few and far between. But if fiction often fails to shine a light on the power of psychotherapy, the inverse functions quite dramatically oppositely: an understanding of psychotherapy can reveal new depths in the works of Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Sylvia Plath, Anton Chekhov, and hundreds more, all of whom plumbed the depths of the human soul and psyche sympathetically and astutely.

Why not delve into your own?

There are therapy options available through the NHS and Mind.

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