11 March 2014

Top 6 books for Personal Development

By Amanda Williamson

Here is a list of the books that influenced me, that helped me grow as a person, at various stages of my life, pre and post counsellor training.

I first came across this book in my mid 20's. I was staying at an uncle's house and working my way through his popular psychology books. The first one I read was Families and How To Survive Them by John Cleese and Robin Skynner, which was fascinating to me at the time, but I would not recommend it because some of the theories are very out of date, and I object to their theory of homosexuality (it's all to do with the parents' dysfunctions…apparently). I'm OK - You're OK is similarly very dated, first published in the States in 1967 but, I feel, more useful.

I'm OK - You're OK is a basic guide to the branch of integrative psychotherapy known as Transactional Analysis (TA). I have had a love-hate relationship with TA since first reading this book, going from thinking it's the best thing ever to help make sense of the subconscious games that people play, to then by my 30's and when training as a counsellor, really turning off TA because it seemed to try and put everybody and their interactions into neat boxes that don't always make sense. I do have an aversion to reductionist approaches. TA also seemed to attract a fairly zealous following and I also find that off-putting. I don't believe that any one person, philosophy or approach has all of the answers to the undeniably difficult task of being a human.

But, as I started practising as a counsellor, I found that there are basic elements of TA that help encapsulate the dynamics of dialogue so clearly that once shown the fundamentals, a client can start making shifts in their less functional relationships quickly, sometimes immediately.

The book describes the fundamentals of TA and the Parent-Adult-Child ego states, each of which is a potential source of dialogue with another or with ourselves. The more consistently functional of these being the Adult ego state (responding to the here and now), with the Parent and Child being our presenting past. This book is a great starting point for trying to understand unhealthy relationships.

Follow on read: Games People Play by Eric Berne - a useful (if somewhat dated) exploration of the series of transactions that constitute psychological, subconscious games.

This is a book I read when I had an early mid-life crisis in my early 30's. I had lost myself to being a parent of young children and life had been a blur of obligation and others' needs. The youngest had started playgroup and as well as squeezing in voluntary work at the local school and learning to drive, I started to explore philosophy. Had I been introduced to the concept as a youngster I have no doubt that I would have followed an academic path involving philosophy. I recall my internal dialogue as a pre-schooler, laying awake for hours at night, thinking about how to understand what other people feel like, and whether they see the colour blue in the same way as I. I just thought that I was a weirdo and I didn't believe that anybody understood my way of thinking.

This book is a great, practical introduction to how the concept of philosophy can make life better. It is divided into 6 areas of life's difficulties providing philosophical consolation for Unpopularity, Not Having Enough Money, Frustration, Inadequacy, A Broken Heart and Difficulties. 

I really value the way in which Alain de Botton writes. I had previously enjoyed his books The Art of Travel, Status Anxiety and Essays in Love, and his TV series The Perfect Home (based upon another of his excellent books - The Architecture of Happiness). His style is straightforward and there's a warmth as it would appear that Alain writes somewhat subjectively which I personally find much more valuable (and brave) than attempts at objective writing - always rather dull and clinical I find.

Follow on read: When Nietzsche Wept by Irvin Yalom - breathtaking, exquisite exploration of a fictional birth of psychotherapy that incorporates some existential philosophy. Also The Age of Reason by Jean-Paul Sartre - again, fictional but much easier to digest than the ideas presented in Sartre's non-fiction tome on existentialism "Being and Nothingness".

This book is flawed - I don't see eye-to-eye with everything Oliver James has to say in the field of psychology, but this was a very useful read to me which I read a few years prior to commencing my training. I suppose it is a sort of updated Families and How to Survive Them (without the cartoons and jokes) in that it looks at our development from birth and the influences, mainly parents and schooling, that can shape us. I found it quite a fascinating read and recommended it to many who also got real value from reading it. However, Oliver James does seem to be more from the "nurture over nature" school. Modern psychology seems to be swinging back to giving nature more credence than previously granted. That said, I found Oliver James more readable than current "nature over nurture" pusher Steven Pinker and am struggling to get through his rather dry The Blank Slate. This gets me wondering, how important is the personality behind the ideas…

I was given this book by a fellow student on my counselling diploma course who is now a very dear friend. He thought that I'd love it and he was right. I have always been interested in the scientific component of counselling and why it works. This book is one of three which inspired my first year presentation. We were to do a 20 minute talk on something related to counselling. Not one to restrict myself to a closed issue such as a certain approach or technique I decided to explore the very open-ended question of why change is hard. I did a handout to go with the talk which can be read here; Emotions and the Chemistry of Change.

I also mention Evolve Your Brain in this post I wrote about martial arts and psychotherapy. This book really did help me to understand why it is difficult to change certain behaviours as well as how to continue to develop ourselves and maximise our potential. As part of that presentation I compiled some clips from the movie What The Bleep Do We Know! into a short video, only two and a half minutes but  a very useful synopsis. Your browser may allow you to see the clip below but if not it can be accessed by this link.

The book also offers insight into how not to turn into your parents and to forge your own path beyond middle age. 

This book is also why I sometimes ask clients to try brushing their teeth with the opposite hand to usual…or to remember when they learned to drive and how clunky it felt. Change is hard but with rehearsal and commitment it can happen...

Follow up read: I am going to pre-recommend Joe Dispenza's next book, You Are The Placebo, in the hope that it is better than his last offering Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself, which whilst decent enough, was quite repetitive and perhaps best read as a precursor to Evolve Your Brain. 

I also read this during my first year of training as a counsellor having found it in the bathroom of a fellow student. It is not so popular as Tolle's more famous The Power of Now, which attracts me to it all the more. If the Power of Now is about mindfulness, then A New Earth is more about understanding   our psychology with a language different to that of Transactional Analysis, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and other approaches to psychology but similar in that it provides a blueprint for understanding the fundamentals of our nature,  incorporating the presence of our emotional scars and how the ego is formed and kept alive.

It was a few years ago that I read it and I really must read it again. There aren't many self-help books that I can say that about.

I regard this book as helpful for people who are facing the last bastion of therapy - non-acceptance of self and I think of those cheesy chestnuts such as "love begins with oneself". We can gain a lot of insight and understanding about ourselves through therapy and/or self-help books but often, in my experience, many of us carry on clinging onto a concept of ourselves that gets in the way of self-actualisation. That concept includes facets of our self that we deny or are ashamed of. The Compassionate Mind explains how we are wired a certain way - to feel anger, shame and other "negative" emotions. Moreover, we have competing "systems" that make it difficult to us to act in the way we want to at all times. I review the book more extensively here

It's a hefty book but there are decent, scientific-ish explanations for our struggles and can help towards embracing ourselves in our entirety, warts and all. 

Follow on read: Falling Upward - A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr I'm only part way through this but enjoying it. It is written from very spiritual point of view but this does not jar with my personal approach to spirituality (pantheistic rather than monotheistic).

My hope is that someone, somewhere will feel inspired enough to give one or more of these books a go, and that reading it/them will have a positive, beneficial impact in the same way they have on me.

Amanda Williamson is a BACP Senior Accredited counsellor working in Exeter, Devon

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