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Favorite Books on Psychotherapy

Here I primarily will list books that have truly made a pivotal difference in my own understanding of psychotherapy and human nature. I am claiming the privilege of making this a very personal list, and it really represents a lot of my psychological and intellectual biography. These books have taught me in important ways. Each person's intellectual path must be somewhat different, so manyof these works may not be pertinent to you. I can only say that I have been an avid reader about human nature for a long time, and the ones I list here have been the most important and helpful. Not all are recent books; some may even be out of print.  However, most of these can be found by services such as Amazon that will search for second-hand copies. I will be adding to this list as I have time.

How Psychotherapy Works, by Joseph Weiss actually delivers fully on the promise of its title.  It sets forth a neo-psychoanalytic theory of psychotherapy called Control-Mastery Theory (emphasizing the idea that we have a kind of control even over unconscious processes, and use that continually to master the unsolved problems in our lives).  This genuinely cuts to the heart of why people approach psychotherapists for help, and tells how to craft responses to them that will be most helpful.  There is also lots of clinical meat that helpfully anticipates the more difficult situations therapists face, and a very reassuring research base to boot.

Staying within the Control/Mastery point of view, another fine book primarily aimed at clinicians, is Transformative Relationships, by Silberschatz. A more popular book, still from the Control-Mastery perspective, is Imaginary Crimes: Why we punish ourselves and how to stop, by Engel and Ferguson. Another useful, popular book with a similar theme is Why you behave in ways you hate: And what you can do about it, by Gootnick.

Backing up a bit, I want to list some works that were foundational for me as a psychologist. Every therapist's learning about the craft has to begin somewhere, and probably mine began with the work of two men: Sigmund Freud and Carl Rogers. I first read Freud while I was in high school, and I found it too terrible to read. It was not terrible to me because I thought it was wrong, but because it seized me with a vague terror, and I had to put it down. I knew that there was much that was deeply right about Freud because of the way in which I could not read him. In college and graduate school I picked his ideas up again, and began to see what it was all about. I think it is silly to fault Freud now (as some do) for having been wrong about some things. All great scientists throughout history were wrong about many things, but we think no less of them for that. We consider them great because they opened up very productive new lines of understanding, and Freud certainly did that. If you are curious and want to dip into Freud, I would suggest the place that he suggested in his day: his New introductory lectures on psychoanalysis. Another excellent beginning place would be The interpretation of dreams. If you want more after that, you will find many directions to go in.

Carl Rogers I was introduced to in a wonderful text on personality theory, The Personal World, by Harold McCurdy. McCurdy was one of the truly wise and literate psychological writers of his generation, and I am everlastingly proud that we became fast friends. If you can find a used copy of this text, it will introduce you to many wonders about the human being. Rogers, I learned, knew how to listen and talk with people in ways that were astonishingly useful. Reading Rogers, I first warmed to the possibility of becoming a psychotherapist myself. If you haven't read his basic work, you could not go wrong by investing the time to do it. Start with On Becoming a Person, and then move on to The Carl Rogers Reader. If you want to go to the source, the text with which he made history, read Client-centered therapy.

If the Rogerian approach appeals to you, or if you are simply fascinated with the power of inner exploration, you will also be interested in an important off-shoot of this school of thought. Rogers and an early collaborator, Eugene Gendlin, carried out extensive research on factors making for effective psychotherapy. They found that a powerful element was something the client brought along with them -- or not. This has to do with a capacity to explore one's own inner experience. Gendlin called it Focusing, and went on to treat it as a skill that people can develop if they put their minds to it. Focusing has become an important movement in its own right, still an important ingredient in psychotherapy, often very useful for personal growth outside of formal therapy. The basic book to read is Focusing, by Gendlin. Some other excellent texts include The Power of Focusing, by Weiser; and BioSpirituality: Focusing as a way to grow, by Campbell and McMahon.

At the time I was discovering Rogers, I was also reading other existential thinkers. These people thought deeply about life as it is lived by whole, real people, as opposed to the bits of pigeon behavior I was leaning about in psychology classes. All of these people were philosophers as well as psychologists, and they all goaded psychology to become broader and more adequate to it's subject. Martin Buber understood the primary importance of relationship (with one another, with nature, with the Divine) and wrote with elegant lucidity. Any psychotherapist would profit from reading his work. Start with his classic book, I and Thou, or, for a less poetic treatment of similar ideas, his Between Man and Man. A very helpful interpreter of Buber's thought for persons less familiar with philosophy is Maurice Friedman. His book, The Life of Dialogue is very helpful. After all, all that therapists offer is talk and relationship. Buber helps us understand how important those things are.

Several other existential psychologists were very important to me. By far the one who made the deepest impact was the Swiss psychiatrist, Medard Boss. Boss was a student and colleague of Martin Heidegger, and carried Heidegger's understanding of the human being into a drastic revision of psychoanalytic thinking. Two books in particular would be important to any therapist who wonders about the real ground of his or her work. They will open ones eyes to a different and very useful way of thinking about the human beings we are and the ones we are trying to help: Psychoanalysis and Daseinsanalysis introduces the basic approach, and relates it to traditional Freudian thinking. Existential Foundations of Medicine and Psychology offers a bold and systematic approach to understanding the foundations of those disciplines in a way that does not squeeze the life out of them (which more traditional views, assuming a mechanistic understanding of human beings drawn from physical science, tend to do). For the practicing clinician, his wonderful book, I Dreamt Last Night illustrates this point of view by showing us how to truly and clearly understand dreams. If you have ever wondered if dreams are meaningless, as many current "authorities" are quick to claim, this book will demonstrate otherwise.

Other existentially-oriented psychotherapists whose work helped me a great deal include Karl Jaspers, Ludwig Binswanger, R. D. Laing, and Fritz Perls. Jaspers' introduction to the whole field of mental disorder, General Psychopathology, gives one a real phenomenological appreciation of the lived experience of aberrant conditions. Binswanger does the same thing in more depth with certain, selected kinds of disorder. Start with his book, Being in the World, or the elegant Dream and Existence, which he wrote with Foucalt and Needleman. Laing carried an existential approach to the psychiatry of Britain and America with a vengeance, soundly renouncing its tendency to de-humanize its subjects. His books still make exciting and controversial reading, and a wonderful corrective to the trends of biological reductionism and implicit disparagement of the ill that have come to characterize psychiatry much more strongly today than they did when Laing wrote these works. I recommend The Divided Self, The Politics of Experience, and The Self and Others for introductions to his most important ideas. He made a brilliant application of this approach to the issue of family psychopathology and family psychotherapy in his book, The Politics of the Family. If you suspect that psychopathology is transmitted more importantly by communication and patterns of relatedness than by DNA (as I am fairly sure is true), then this book will provide a relief from the propoganda of the pharmaceutical industry.

Fritz Perls was a practicing psychiatrist and psychotherapist, and a very charismatic and controversial figure of the 60's. He shook psychotherapy awake, out of a sleep it didn't know it was in until Fritz made it clear. He showed us how to use the moment, in all its great power, and help people find the changes they are seeking in minutes rather than decades. He will wake you up too. Read The Gestalt Experience and Eyewitness to Therapy, and Gestalt Therapy Verbatim for a real-life exposure to the approach in action. For a more theoretical treatment, go to his text (with Goodmam and Hefferline), Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality. Lest you think that this approach could only be applied by the charismatic Fritz, see the very helpful collection of papers by other gestaltists in the book, Gestalt Therapy Now, edited by Fagan and Shepherd, as well as the fine application of the approach to family therapy by Kempler: Principles of Gestalt Family Therapy.

Backing up again, I want to call attention to the unique, remarkable George Kelly. Kelly has been called a humanistic psychologist, a cognitive psychologist, an existential psychologist, and probably many other things as well. He developed a wonderfully original approach to personality and psychotherapy that can't be summed up into a few categories. He was the director of the clinical psychology program at Ohio State, and the reason I chose to go to graduate school there. I wasn't disappointed in the decision. His influence can be seen nowadays in humanistic, cognitive-behavioral, and constructionist approaches to psychotherapy, among others -- although he isn't often credited directly. He was just too original for most authors of text books to get their minds around his work. Looking into his work would be rewarding for anyone interested in personality, psychotherapy, and the future of psychology. Start with his basic work A Psychology of Personal Constructs, or the introductory version: A Theory of Personality: The Psychology of Personal Constructs. Several of Kelly's students went on to make important contributions to psychotherapy and personality research. Some nice examples include Epting's Personal Construct Counseling and Psychotherapy, Fransella's Essential Practioner's Handbook of Construct Psychology, and the chapter by Leitner and Epting in The Handbook of Humanistic Psychology: Leading Edges in Theory, Research and Practice. Two excellent texts that are more recent are A Psychology for Living: Personal Construct Psychology for Professionals and Clients , by Dalton and Dunnet, and The Child Within: Taking the Young Person's Perspective by Applying Personal Construct Psychology , by Butler and Green.

Memories. They are so important in psychotherapy, as in life. How else can we know who we are and have been? It seems to be by consulting memories and the feelings they contain that we reintegrate a broken self. Therapists can help guide this process. An especially useful book has long been out of print, but it is worth finding a used copy and digesting it and the self-work that it will lead you to: Basic Concepts in Eidetic Psychotherapy, by Akhter Ahsen. Some books have come out about Ahsen's work since but they too went quickly out of print. I haven't read them and can't speak for them. But Ahsen's original book is a good "how-to" for the clinician in leading people to the remarkable transformative power latent in their early memories.