Good therapy reads

Here’s some of my favorite recent reads!

Trauma Stewardship – Laura Van Dernoot Lipsky

This book was recommended to me by a fellow faculty member at ASU. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to ensure that the mistakes in practice I’ve seen when I was a student, employee, intern, and supervisee aren’t being passed along to the next generation of social workers and therapists as I find myself in the position of teaching and mentoring others. One thing I’ve noticed in my practice is how many people enter into this type of work due to their own traumas and experiences. This is both one of the great strengths of social workers and also the biggest downfall of some. Those who have effectively processed and overcome their own struggles are the best mentors and their firsthand knowledge is invaluable. However, there are a huge number of people who have not done their internal work at all, have done it partially, or are totally unaware that they need to do the work in the first place. I think of coworkers who frequently blew up in anger, overshared with their clients about their own stresses, or worked themselves so hard they became sick and couldn’t function because they couldn’t set their own boundaries. This book is really a breath of fresh air and I recommend it to any person who does any type of work, therapeutic or otherwise, that uses their idealism and identity. It’s not just a set of how-tos about “self-care” like taking breaks, it really gets in depth about how burnout looks and how it’s avoided.

The Sociopath Next Door – Martha Stout

This book has a catchy title and I was attracted to it after another therapist whom I talk to regularly in a consult group recommended it. Sociopaths are so interesting to many of us because we lack understanding about what they are, and media depictions love to paint them as terrifying villains. The biggest success of this book for me was to demystify and also take away some of the fear I felt when considering people who lack empathy. The author, a therapist, outlines some common presentations in reality of sociopathy, and how they manifest in everyday settings. I had assumed all sociopaths were either in prison or CEOs, and this debunked a lot of myths for me. The refreshing ending of this book also outlines how sad and small the lives of most sociopaths become, because without love there is only emptiness. Beyond just human interest, this book is also of great value to people who have been harmed by others in their lives since it gives some guidance on how to listen to your internal signals that something is not right with a person and how you can protect yourself.

Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents – Lindsay C. Gibson

I wish this book had a different title, I’ve had students giggle at the phrase “adult children” because it brings to mind a baby in a tuxedo or some other version of man-baby. For those who are unfamiliar, the phrase is used to differentiate between people who are currently children of emotionally immature parents, and those who were children at one point but are now adults. It’s typically used in phrases like “adult children of alcoholics” to delineate that the intended audience is adults, who will likely talk about their experiences as children or their relationships with their parents. Anyway, the strength of the book itself is that I feel it fills a void for many people who know that there is something not quite right with their relationships with their parents, but absent any kind of formal diagnosis, known abuse, or substance use, they struggle to label and understand what it is that isn’t quite right. I also appreciate that this book does not go into blaming and accusing parents who lack emotional skills in parenting, as people do the best they can with what they have. This book will categorize different types of parenting that often cause problems for children, and what those problems look like when those children enter into adulthood. The second half of the book is useful for any person who has struggled to set boundaries with other people or identify if their relationships are healthy and equitable. My favorite thing was the end of the book’s appendix which contains a short questionnaire about actions that denote emotional maturity. I’ve sent this to countless friends and clients who are unsure if a relationship is healthy or not.

Love’s Executioner – Irvin D. Yalom

I had a professor years ago teach Yalom’s group therapy book but I remember that semester I was hanging on by a thread with my classes so unfortunately I did very little reading from it. I heard of this book from Psychology in Seattle, when Kirk’s friend Bob said he read this book and it caused him to want to be a therapist, and when he wrote to Dr. Yalom, he actually got a response. I thought that was so interesting and so rare I downloaded it on my audible and started listening right away. This is a collection of 10 stories of psychotherapy compiled from Dr. Yalom’s own experience, and each case is the story of one client. The stories are fascinating, compelling, and beautifully told. Aside from the value to me as a therapist of normalizing and educating me on psychotherapy practice issues, it’s really a great read. Dr. Yalom comes across as very relatable, which I did not expect given that he is such a renowned professor and writer who taught at Stanford. The chapter “Fat Lady” which has understandably been controversial with many readers, was actually one of my favorites because Dr. Yalom turned his analysis unflinchingly towards himself and explored his own fatphobia, and how working with a specific client helped him overcome this. This being written in the late 80s, I was actually impressed that he acknowledged fatphobia as a concept and as a problem at all. He does address the controversy of this chapter in his afterward, and I appreciate his introspection. It is very easy for a therapist to write about their practice and show themselves as the hero, much more so for someone as well-known as Dr. Yalom, but the fact that he exposes some of his most ugly thoughts was part of what really impressed me with this work.

A Life Worth Living – Marsha Linehan

Marsha Linehan is the founder of DBT, or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. This therapy type has been widely influential in the latter part of the 20th century and I would say it’s changed all of therapy practice for good. Essentially, the therapy focuses on mindfulness, understanding one’s own emotional states and how those function in relationships with others, and then how to regulate and take care of these emotions. Linehan is a professor currently at University of Washington and designed this therapy modality for use with people with borderline personality disorder. She herself was given this diagnosis in the mid-1960s and this book outlines her experience spending two years in a mental institution when she was experiencing extreme symptoms including self-harm and suicide attempts. The book is the story of her life and her exploration of her own condition which led her to develop DBT and research with patients that many therapists do not want to work with – people who are highly symptomatic and suicidal. The most powerful image from this book that continues to stick with me is the scene at the end where she revisits the institution where she had stayed for two years, this time as a famous speaker. She had not told colleagues or friends about that stay, and she decided to reveal this information in a speech before a crowd. I loved this image because not only did she reveal her own past which showed the depth of the work she had done with herself, but also that she made a separate speech to the patients in the institution and told them that she had once been where they were, so that they could see there was hope for the future.

Not a therapy book, but a great read: The Space Between Us – Reyna Grande

This is the true story of a woman whose family grew up on opposite sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, and her own immigration journey. Reyna’s childhood stories are enchanting, sad, beautiful, funny, and just so very real. I chose to read this book because I wanted to expand my knowledge of how U.S.-Mexico migration affects people on a personal, human level. Since I am new to Arizona and have never lived near the Mexico border before, I am finding that I meet many people who have been affected in some way by immigration policy in a much different way than what I had previously known. In my work in Minnesota, I met refugees from Africa and Asia, and had some exposure through friends of the immigration process for adults on student or work visas. The migration from Mexico to the United States has a wholly different cultural element than what I had previous exposure to. Reyna describes her understanding as a child about “el otro lado” (the other side) where her friends believed only good things happened, and her mother leaving her as a small child in order to work and send money home. The family separation and its impact on her whole family system struck me as well as I was considering the developmental impact on children of U.S. immigration policy. Eventually she and her siblings cross the border, and through a program, obtain U.S. citizenship. The trauma her family has experienced affects them in many ways and Grande continues working her way through college despite many obstacles. Grande is an imaginative and illustrative writer and her stories are a pleasure to read, overall this was an emotional experience.

Best fiction I’ve read in a long time – White Tiger – Aravind Adiga

This book has had some controversial reviews online, I will not debate on whether or not this is representative in any way of the people of India as a whole, but I will say that it was a fun read and does raise interesting questions about the human condition. The fictional story tells of a man named Balram who is born in rural India into a lower caste and finds ways (some ethical, some not) to scrape up into more and more wealth and eventually changes his identity to be a successful business owner in Bangalore. The storytelling is engaging and the book is framed as a letter Balram writes to the visiting Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao. Balram poises his life as an example of Indian “entrepreneurship” as he has escaped the life of the lower-caste through various (sometimes violent) maneuvers. The book has also been made into a movie which I feel stays mostly true to the novel, although it of course omits many entertaining stories and scenes from Balram’s youth which were really illustrative of his character. I have found that a lot of the popular media we get in the United States that depicts people from countries such as India will fall into the “poverty porn” category, and I find it kind of gross and paternalistic the ways that people in poverty are depicted. Personally, I feel that depictions of impoverished people as somehow made noble because of their poverty is just a way that wealthier people can more easily turn away from their responsibility, and say, “Well, look how happy they are with their simple lives.” In one scene, Balram plays with this idea as he is driving a rich couple through the rural countryside and, after his boss notices that he touches his hand to his face in acknowledgement of a religious site, he makes more and more exaggerated gestures to perform the part for his boss, who exclaims to his wife how pious and religious these simple country people are. Balram is a sort of anti-hero, who observes the people around him with striking metaphors, and this was a rare book that I was sad to have finished because I wanted to continue hearing the story.

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