The 6 Books This Clinical Psychologist Has All Her Students Read To Understand The Human Spirit
You might be surprised to learn this, but training for mental health professionals typically focuses on standard textbooks, professional articles, and case material. What is not included in that training are any of the blockbuster books in the areas of personal growth and development. That's right—formal education in working with people and mental health does not include any mention of TED talks, self-help, or items that hit the New York Times best-sellers list that have been inspiring millions to take charge of their own wellness and growth.
For a profession that aims to meet people where they are and enhance their quality of life, this is a huge missed opportunity. This is not to suggest that professional mental health training abandon the science and wisdom of traditional training, nor is it an endorsement of all personal development literature across the board. But there is a wealth of knowledge available outside of peer-reviewed journals that can help us understand the nature of the human spirit. The best news? Anyone can access this information in order to understand how their mind works and learn strategies for change.
The following list highlights books I consider essential reading for everyone—required reading for my students, strongly recommended for my clients, and the subject of ongoing gifts to friends and family. By reading these six books, you will develop a new way to understand stress, reduce discomfort in social situations (and always know what to say!), face fear, and recognize the power of your thoughts to guide your actions. Most importantly, reading them is a way to truly know that you are not alone in your self-doubt and feelings of vulnerability. Each of these books interweaves science and personal experience, highlighting the courage in being who you are and learning ways to shift your perspective and thereby shift your life.
Another part of the appeal is that many of these books are not just deficit-focused (as is the norm in much of the psychological literature). These books are focused on self-growth and can benefit anyone and everyone, regardless of having a mental health diagnosis or not. They are simply about living your best life, no matter where you are starting.
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert
In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert brings to light one of the central aspects of human experience—fear. She shares her personal vulnerabilities and her struggles with fear and draws us in, as we nod our heads silently and think, "Me too. I know what that's like." This is the beauty of shared human experience, our bonds of common humanity. And her central advice is psychological wisdom at its best: "It seems to me that the less I fight my fear, the less it fights back. If I can relax, fear relaxes, too."
Gilbert doesn't hold back: She lists over a page worth of reasons that people avoid creativity (and as someone who spent 55 of my 56 years believing I wasn't creative, she's right on the money). She introduces us to the idea that creativity is a gift of being human and urges the reader to open to exploration, even though it's scary. The idea isn't to be fearless; it's to create despite the fear.
Gilbert's straightforward language and open discussion of fear, creativity, bravery, and being willing to move outside of our self-imposed box really is magic—an example of honestly confronting hard issues while remaining caring, compassionate, and hopeful. Her approach models both an understanding of common feelings and how to approach the conversation. It's like having a loving aunt reassure and remind you that you are more than you realize. Order the book here.
Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself: How to Lose Your Mind and Create a New One by Dr. Joe Dispenza
Dr. Joe Dispenza shares his remarkable story of physical recovery from a horrible accident as an illustration of the power of the mind-body connection. As a chiropractor, he backs his revelation up with scientific information from quantum physics, neuroscience, brain chemistry, biology, and genetics in a manner that is both comprehensive and understandable.
His main point? "If you want a new outcome, you will have to break the habit of being yourself, and reinvent a new self." Pure gold. From a psychological perspective, we develop a pattern of perspective on how we see ourselves and the world. And no change is going to come about until there is a shift in that perspective. We do know that we can "rewire" our brain to develop new habits and responses (this is the basis of cognitive behavioral therapy, as well as several other well-respected treatment approaches).
When you start to realize that your way of approaching the world is a habit, then you can begin to develop the skill to alter that habit in a different direction. It becomes a more practical, manageable task, and beyond that, it provides hope. Order the book here.
Captivate: The Science of Succeeding With People by Vanessa Van Edwards
Vanessa Van Edwards describes herself as a "professional people watcher" and a "recovering boring person." With a fabulous sense of humor and real-life examples that are so accurate you cringe, she brings her extensive knowledge of interpreting human behavior into living color. Van Edwards has trained extensively in SETT (Subtle Expression Training Tool) with Dr. Paul Ekman, mastering the art of accurately interpreting facial micro-expressions. She has her own behavior research lab, called Science of People, which provides the data that supports her tools and behavior hacks to interpersonal relationships.
This book provides techniques for the full range of human interaction, sharing specific examples for both personal and professional situations. The foundational fact you learn is that first impressions really do count: "Whether we like to admit it or not, we decide if we like someone, if we trust someone, and if we want a relationship with someone within the first few seconds of meeting them."
Not only does Van Edwards provide strong research evidence; she also provides insight into what's happening for other people underneath their words. Captivate provides invaluable tools to both understanding other people and developing an awareness of how your own reactions come across to others. Seriously, who can't benefit from learning how to handle awkward situations and insecurity more comfortably? If you're human, this book makes a difference. Order the book here.
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck, Ph.D.
You've probably heard about growth mindset vs. fixed mindset; the concept is inching its way into psychology but is everywhere in the fields of leadership, peak performance, and motivation. Growth mindset is a concept that is central to child rearing, education, development of confidence, and productivity. Based on her research in the field of motivation, Dr. Dweck's book points the way to a new understanding of how people can alter patterns that inhibit success:
"After seven experiments with hundreds of children, we had some of the clearest findings I've ever seen: Praising children's intelligence harms their motivation, and it harms their performance. How can that be? Don't children love to be praised? Yes, children love praise. And they especially love to be praised for their intelligence and talent. It really does give them a boost, a special glow—but only for the moment. The minute they hit a snag, their confidence goes out the window, and their motivation hits rock bottom. If success means they're smart, then failure means they're [stupid]. That's the fixed mindset."
Being human means we are thinking beings with a mindset. Dr. Dweck shows us how to both recognize mindset in the different areas of our life (hint: we have more than one mindset) and how to effectively make changes that move us forward. It's breathtakingly simple, yet powerful, and will change your life. Order the book here.
The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brené Brown, Ph.D.
Dr. Brené Brown is a researcher at the University of Houston with both a master's and a doctorate in social work. In The Gifts of Imperfection, she shares her research findings on shame and vulnerability and provides clear guidelines for living a "wholehearted life." Brown pulls the cover off shame, exposing this universal emotion to the light of day.
Dr. Brown shines a light on the destructiveness of perfectionism, which she describes as a "self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame." The book even provides important data linking perfectionism to the genesis of many mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, addiction, and "life paralysis." These teachings are enormously helpful for readers trying to address their own self-doubt and fears.
With her own brand of courageous authenticity, Dr. Brown includes personal anecdotes that highlight the common themes from her research. Like Gilbert, her honesty and vulnerability shine through, providing a framework to recognize the truth in common experience and busting the myth of perfectionism. Shame is a universal emotion, and Dr. Brown's book creates a pathway to self-acceptance and growth for everyone. Order the book here.
The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.
If you're alive, there's no getting away from stress. This is true for every human being in the world. Bringing new information about brain functioning, mindset, and the cognitive, emotional, and physical sequelae of stress into our everyday life seems like a no-brainer. As a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, Dr. Kelly McGonigal describes herself as "a pioneer in the field of 'science-help,'" as written in her university biography. She has a personal mission of translating psychological and neuroscientific insights into practical strategies for improving well-being.
In this book, Dr. McGonigal shares insights from her research and the classes she teaches at Stanford in an informative, friendly fashion. Her research redefines how we think of stress and the effects on our functioning by moving from the mindset that stress is harmful to a mindset that stress is enhancing. She impressively demonstrates how shifting the stress mindset radically improves actual performance in a wide variety of "stressful" situations. Learning how to use stress for growth opens exciting new possibilities for change and growth. Order the book here.
Ready to get reading?
For my students, working effectively with people requires understanding, connection, and compassion—for yourself and for others. It turns out these are the sam
e skills that we all need to live our own best lives. As technology has grown, so has accessibility and consumption of information (who hasn't Googled to find out more about a diagnosis or condition?). People want to understand why they feel the way they do and how to feel better. Even those who do seek treatment through therapy are often looking for concrete tools and strategies they can use to help themselves outside their weekly appointments.
Each of these authors has taken important psychological concepts and presented them in a format that encourages personal growth and change. We don't need everyone to get a degree in mental health in order to live their best life. What we all can do is to expand our knowledge and awareness by incorporating the scientific advances and approaches that make a difference for ourselves as human beings. Reading books like the six described above are a great way to convert scientific findings into a productive, insightful narrative that everyone can use.
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