Best books about psychotherapy?
July 18, 2006 7:26 AM   Subscribe

I want to learn about psychoanalysis/psychotherapy/etc. -- what are the best books?

I'm interested, in particular, in modern books that synthesize past learnings in the field; excellent books that detail the practice of what it's like to be a therapist; and anything else you consider highly valuable, educational, and enriching in the field.

Engaging writing is a big plus.
posted by shivohum to Science & Nature (12 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Loaded question. Lots of controversy bout each form of psych trx. so it depends a lot on your goals in wanting to learn bout each. I sugg. starting w/Wikipedia reviews of the major psych therapy schools: jungian, analysis, group, cog/behav., RET, eclectic, logotherapy, many others. Then based on that overview, find used books on approaches that interest you. Wouldn't start w/textbooks unless you're thinking of practicing/getting degreed/licensed. Instead, look for books written by those considered to be the founders of the approach in which you're interested.
posted by pallen123 at 7:35 AM on July 18, 2006

Sorry, engaging writing. Aside from self-help books -- some of which are 'engaging', most of the stuff is dry. Irving Yalom's written some great books on group and individual psychotherapy that are very readable. Also, Victor Frankl's watershed book 'Man's Search for Meaning' covers a marginal but important movement called Logotherapy.

Again, depends on your goals. One approach is to identify the 'condition(s)' that most interest you. For example, if you're interested in Borderline Personality Disorder, you'll find a bunch of very engaging books on the topic, written from a psych and parent/friend/colleague point of view.

Analysis and therapy per se are such broad areas of inquiry, may help to narrow down interests or goals first.
posted by pallen123 at 7:39 AM on July 18, 2006

Janet Malcolm's The Impossible Profession is a penetrating and magnificently written treatment of psychoanalysis, though I'd say it's more about the culture and the profession than about the practice of psychotherapy itself. For getting a sense of what cognitive-behavioral therapy is about, the standard book is Feeling Good by David Burns -- this is self-help, not a book about conducting CBT, but it's used constantly and it will give you a good sense of how that side of psychotherapy works. I thought Peter Kramer's Listening to Prozac and Should You Leave? were great -- they address big issues people argue about, but also give a good picture of PK's work as a therapist. Oh, and I almost forgot --- a book less famous than the above, but really worthwhile, is Tanya Luhrmann's Of Two Minds; she's an anthropologist who did fieldwork among psychiatry residents in San Diego. Her book is a really great account of the tension these students go through as they learn psychotherapy and psychopharmacology at the same time, and how they learn to reconcile (or not!) the two very different models of mental illness corresponding to the different strains of treatment.
posted by escabeche at 7:51 AM on July 18, 2006 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the suggestions so far!

I guess I should clarify my goals a little bit. I'm considering psychotherapy as a careeer, so I'm trying to figure out whether I would a) enjoy learning about it for 6 years in a Ph.D. or Psy.D. program and b) enjoy practicing it for decades after that...
posted by shivohum at 7:58 AM on July 18, 2006

Well, there's a lot out there, a lot of it is really good, some is really horrible.

The place to start is Freud. Freud obviously presents a more foundational moment, rather than a synthesis, but I think that many of his most interesting observations have still not been very well integrated into current practice. There's a relatively new series from Penguin that has sought to re-translate a bunch of Freud's central texts, and the translations are quite good. Freud was a really good writer. I actually had a review published of that series, called Freud in America (pdf). The trilogy of everyday life: Interpretation of Dreams, Psychopathology of Everyday Life, and Wit and it's Relation to the Unconcious are all great books. I'd start with the seminal Chapter 7 of Joyce Crick's translation of Interpretation of Dreams.

I think Freud and Man's Soul by Bruno Bettelheim is also a great book about Freud, which is short and makes a compelling argument for his accessibility as a great writer.

Adam Phillips, who has the general editorship of the above mentioned Penguin series, offers great synthesis and engaging writing which combines a general theoretical engagement with clinical material. His book On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored is still one of the best out there about the intersection between theory and practice, and the fascination of the clinical encounter. Terrors and Experts is also quite good. Some of his books (Monogamy, Flirting) are slight but fun, and I've not read his more recent stuff.

DW Winnicott's essays are really very good, and his theory is sound. It's interesting to read a book like Playing and Reality next to a book about analysis with Winnicott written by Margaret Little called, if I remember it right, Psychotic Anxiety and something something. The first part of that book has a masterly story of her difficult analysis with DWW, the second part is a less convincing theoretical essay.

Deborah Luepnitz, who's a big Winnicott fan here in the US has written a couple of interesting books. The first, called, I think, The Family Reconsidered, is a kind of synthesis of family theory and family therapy theory, with a cogent political critique thrown in. Her more recent book called, Schopenhauer's Porcupine, is a series of good case descriptions which is worth reading.

Hope and Dread in Psychoanalysis by Stephen Mitchell is a reasonably recent very well regarded book about, well, analysis, which is syncretic and pretty good. A lot of people think very highly of it.

I think Lacan's Seminar's are really a lot of fun to read, and I think he's still one of the most Freudian Freudian's going (even though he's dead). His writings, Ecrits, are puzzles more than writings and are not a good introduction. Bruce Fink, who's the annointed Lacanian in America has written a couple of very good books on Lacan's theory, including one called The Clinical Lacan about the practice of Lacanian analysis. The previous American Lacanian (now disgraced by the establishment, but perhaps the most Lacanian of all), Stuart Schniederman, is a more interesting and iconoclastic writer, and any of his books are well worth reading, I think his first is an account of his analysis with Lacan himself. Lacan is generally dismissed in the US as being the author of crazy theories which make no sense and are popular in academic lit crit, but I think that's a poor mis-reading (or no reading at all). Over half of the world's anaylsts are Lacanians (just not many in the US), and the more clinical work I do the more I think Lacan's explanatory framework gets an awful lot of things right, crucial things like the position of the analyst in the transference and the structure of the ucs.

I think Donald Spence's book Narrative Truth and Historical Truth is indispensable as an aide to understanding the clinical encounter. I wish more traumatologists would read it, but I'm not convinced that traumatologists can actually read.

There are, of course, a ton of other writers. There's a lot of overly theoretical and boring work, unfortunately too much written by Americans. In general I don't have much truck with American versions of psychoanalysis, which generally fall into the ego psychology (and the newer version: self-psychology) school, which seems to me to be overly normative, elevate the role of the analyst in the name of that normativity, and disregard the strangness of the unconscious.

(Oh, a great synthetic text book which is well written (but still a textbook) is called Inside Out, Outside In. It does a great job of pulling together the major psychoanalytic schools and describing their differences and intersections.)

If you have questions about any of these suggestions feel free to ask.
posted by OmieWise at 8:16 AM on July 18, 2006 [5 favorites]

On preview--If you really just want to be a therapist, I would really recommend an MSW at a clinical school, rather than a PhD. It's shorter, it's the terminal professional degree for social workers, and the range of acceptable theoretical orientations (in my experience) is greater. [Since all psychotherapy works about the same, the theoretical orientation matters to you much more than to the patient.] Overall it's a much better value if you want to be a therapist. (You can even apply to a psychoanalytic institute with an MSW.)

There are obviously things which a PhD in Psychology gets you that an MSW does not, but they don't tend to be related to actually doing psychotherapy per se. If those things (the ability to teach, the ability to test, the ability to rx if you live in New Mexico, the ability to call yourself Dr.) are important (and there's no reason why they shouldn't be), then an MSW is the wrong choice.

Also, my best recommendation above given your clarified goals are On Kissing Tickling and Being Bored, and Schopenhauer's Porcupine.
posted by OmieWise at 8:23 AM on July 18, 2006

I'll second Yalom. I read 'Love's Executioner' awhile back and thought it was fascinating. Not technical or anything -- more like therapy as this intense human drama between therapist and patient, and Yalom is a good enough writer to really pull you in. His brand of therapy is based on existential philosophy, so he brings in a lot of the ideas from Sartre, Nietzsche, etc.

Love's Executioner
Irvin D. Yalom
posted by Bron at 8:24 AM on July 18, 2006

If engaging writing is important to you, (as it should be) then you really can’t do much better than Nancy McWilliams’ “Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy: A Practitioner’s Guide” which stakes out a stylistic position between the jargon-choked, unreadable professional tomes and the chirpy, content-free self-help books. Very down-to-earth. Includes such valuable advice as (paraphrasing) “Don’t allow a 300-pound paranoid schizophrenic to be between you and the office door, in case he decides you are the anti-Christ.” It’s a little pricey but I’m sure you’d be able to get a copy through interlibrary loan.

A good overview of contemporary psychoanalytic thought is “Freud and Beyond: A History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought” by Stephen Mitchell which filled an important gap in my education. I had been seeing a psychodynamic therapist and I kind of assumed that her training began and ended with the bearded doctor from Vienna, whose theories had always bugged me a little. I had no idea that psychoanalytic thought had branched out in a million and one directions since then and had, in many ways, corrected some of Freud’s errors. I wish that psychodynamic therapists did a better job of promoting their work but I suspect that the therapeutic disposition is not well-suited for that.

If you want to walk on the jargon-filled side, I recommend two essays by Heinz Kohut: “Thoughts on Narcissism and Narcissistic Rage” and “Transformations of Narcissism.” Narcissism and related personality disorders are supposedly as characteristic of contemporary life as neurosis was of Freud's era.
posted by jason's_planet at 8:29 AM on July 18, 2006 [1 favorite]

Back when I was in the field, I found Sheldon Kopp's books to be immensely helpful, insighful and engaging. Specifically:

The Hanged Man: Psychotherapy and the Forces of Darkness
If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him!
Guru: Metaphors from a Psychotherapist
No Hidden Meanings

Granted, these are not new books but they will move you in some way.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 8:45 AM on July 18, 2006 [1 favorite]

I second Malcolm's The Impossible Profession. An interesting book about mindfulness and psychotherapy that I loved is Grace Unfolding.

As a longtime analysand who is constantly intrigued by her relationship with her analyst, I enjoyed The Impossibility of Sex.
posted by meerkatty at 9:36 AM on July 18, 2006 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Excellent... thanks everyone!
posted by shivohum at 10:05 AM on July 19, 2006

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