Books, psychotherapy

Books of the Week: Therapy and a Novel

Yesterday I posted about The Lost Man by Jane Harper, but I actually read that one last year, it was just embargoed until recently.

So, what have I read over the last seven days? Only two books, because the week was busy. 

Individual Therapy: A Handbook by Windy Dryden (ed.)

This is on the required reading list for uni, and the version I have is fairly outdated but the principles are still the same so it’s fine. I found it a useful introduction to various psychotherapeutic practices and I much preferred it to the Patterson book I read a couple of weeks ago. There was less of a reliance on secondary texts, and there was a client case study at the end of each chapter, so the reader could see how each style of therapy could play out in practice.

Since each chapter was written by a different person it’s hard to comment on writing style etc., but Dryden did a great job of editing everything together in a structure and order that made sense. There were plenty of principles that could be applied across many different approaches, too. Some of my favourite quotes included the following.

From the chapter on Freud:

A Japanese riddle poses the question ‘What is the most important part of a rice bowl?’ The correct answer is ‘The space inside.’ Silence, the most frequently used Freudian intervention, creates a ‘space inside’ the therapeutic encounter: a space to be filled by patients’ freely associating and resisting, and by therapists’ listening and detecting resistance. Silence is clearly an intervention of fundamental importance. It is therefore regarded as something that therapists actively do rather than as a mere absence of speech.

And again from the Freudian chapter, a thing to keep in mind when our clients are acting out something we’d like to jump in and comment on:

Each of us can tolerate only so much insight.

Brian Thorne, writing on person-centred therapy, said the following, which I’m coming to realise more and more with each week of the course.

To be a trustworthy person is not something which can be simulated for very long and in a very real sense person-centred therapists can only be as trustworthy for another as they are for themselves. Therapists’ attitudes to themselves thus become of cardinal importance. If I am to be acceptant of another’s feelings and experiences and to be open to the possible exploration of material long since blocked off from awareness I must feel a deep level of acceptance for myself. If I cannot trust myself to acknowledge and accept my own feelings without adverse judgement or self-recrimination it is unlikely that I shall appear sufficiently trustworthy to a client who may have much deeper cause to feel ashamed or worthless. If, too, I am in constant fear that I shall be overwhelmed by an upsurging of unacceptable data into my own awareness then I am unlikely to convey to my client that I am genuinely open to the full explanation of his own doubts and fears.

Relatedly, and more concisely:

The task of empathic understanding can be accomplished only by people who are secure enough in their own identity to move into another’s world without the fear of being overwhelmed by it.

I feel like this course is making me a better person. Or perhaps not ‘better’, as such; rather settling more deeply into the person I am. It’s a positive feeling but it’s challenging at the same time.

In amongst all of this, however, it’s important to acknowledge both as a client and as a therapist how difficult it is to make big psychological changes. Emmy van Deurzen-Smith sums this up nicely in the chapter on existential therapy:

Many people avoid authentic living, because it is terrifying… Even the solidity of a self-image of sickness or madness can seem more attractive than having to struggle with yourself and face your unsubstantiality.

Existential psychotherapy is the type I ultimately want to practise, and this paragraph in van Deurzen-Smith’s section made me simultaneously afraid of trying to become one and excited about trying to rise to the challenge:

It should be clear… that existential therapists are required to be wise and capable of profound and wide-ranging understanding of what it means to be human. The criteria of what makes for a good existential therapist are so high that the chances of finding bad existential therapists must be considerable.

Gulp.

This was another thing I liked about the book:

So, yeah. As you can tell, I liked this book a lot. It was a good introduction to the most widely used styles of therapy, and I imagine the later editions will be good too. Definitely recommended if you’re studying to be a psychotherapist, or just interested in the field.


A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton

A Kind of Freedom follows the story of a Creole family living in New Orleans. We begin with Evelyn during the second world war; then we meet her daughter Jackie in the ’80s, and finally we see Jackie’s son, T.C., coming of age in the modern world. All the stories are written simultaneously, so you get alternating chapters jumping back and forth between the past and the present. This provides an interesting juxtaposition but gets a little distracting at times.

The stories themselves are compelling: Evelyn falls for a man her parents don’t like; Jackie’s husband is addicted to crack but she’s desperate to stay loyal to him anyway; and T.C. is trying to straighten his life out after a brief stretch in prison.

The way they’re written, though, not so much.

It’s hard to read a novel directly after reading a book like The Elements of Style because it really highlights all the things the author is doing that make the story read less fluently. There were a lot of examples of this in A Kind of Freedom and at times I found it hard to concentrate on the storyline because of it. Some of that was because I’d just read The Elements of Style, but I think I would have noticed it at certain points anyway.

So, do I recommend it? Not especially. It was OK – far from the worst book I’ve ever read – but I wouldn’t want to read it again and I can’t think of an occasion on which I’d recommend it to someone.

What have you read this week? What would you recommend? 

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