I’m a fan of reading in support of therapy/alongside therapy/instead of therapy – hence my bibliotherapy page – but it may not be obvious as to why. It’s not just about reading highly recommended self-help books – of which I rate many – that promise to improve your wellbeing, but about a much broader repertoire of literature, and also how you read it, and maybe who you read with too.
Memoirs are a brilliant way to learn about various life experiences – maybe because we want to support another going through something similar, or because we want to feel understood by an author describing experiences of our own. I’ve recommended Ariel Leve’s An Abbreviated Life to more than one daughter of a narcissistic parent, and Daniel Smith’s The Monkey Mind to many in the grip of anxiety. Rachel Cusk drew criticism for her written candour about pregnancy and mothering, but I know plenty of women who drew strength from it – and a man who told me it helped him understand his partner. I sincerely hope that my book, The Brink of Being, will be a resource to anyone hoping to support another in the wake of a miscarriage.
Research also backs up what we intuitively know – that reading fiction can broaden our emotional world and teach us to empathise more with other lives – maybe especially so when stories take us to places and cultures that we may never know of, or have known. My recent reading of the beautiful Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay With Me taught me more about the shame of childlessness in Nigeria than anything I’d read before. But reading fiction – that succeeds in gathering all our attention – can also serve as a holiday from a mind consumed with rumination and distress. An interviewee on a recent Front Row with Stig Abell describes this conscious escapism so well.
I’ve also known book groups to become, with or without intention, places of support. I always welcome my client’s responses to their literature of choice – as with any material brought to a session, it’s invariably valuable grist to the mill.