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Self-Help Books and Psychotherapy

By: Kelly Dsouza

One of the most significant differences between psychotherapy and self-help books is the absence of a therapeutic relationship. The nature and quality of the relationship is an important determinant that explains the success of therapy. (Wampold, 2001). As mentioned in one of our previous articles, the therapist and the client typically work collaboratively to find the best treatment options. One of the major criticisms of self-help books has been the assumption that ‘one size fits all.’ When left with so many choices, a reader might select a self-help book that doesn’t necessarily serve as a good fit for himself/herself. The discrepancy between the prescribed philosophy in a self-help book and oneself can have negative consequences. (Starker, 1989).

According to the transactional theory by Rosenblatt (1968) we make sense of a transaction through language and communication by reorganizing, revising and drawing from our personal linguistic experiences. Thus, when we read a book, the meaning exists between the transaction between the reader and the text. The reader transacts with the text in a book and not with the author who initially intends the meaning of the text. A reader may select some aspects within the text to focus on and may disregard the other elements in the background based on his/her conscious or unconscious stance. When a self-help book points to available options or directions to take, the reader will follow which path he/she will accept and which lead is worthy of being ignored. This is where a good understanding of the transactional theory can help. The reader may misunderstand the original intention of the author. This can cause a lack of consensus on the paradigm, which may further encourage the reader to apply the right advice to the wrong situation.

A self-help book can either be a growth-oriented book or a problem-focused book. When reading a self-help book to achieve change, this can result in natural consequences like self-blame and could ultimately lead to worse symptoms. (Rosen, 1987). Self-help books have been known to help individuals with depression and anxiety, but it's important to note that in these cases, the severity of symptoms was mild. (Cuijpers, 1997). Also, the use of self-help books in isolation may not have as successful outcomes. (Glasgow and Rosen, 1978).

But what about a self-help book that your therapist recommends?

Some therapists may use self-help books and prescribe them to their clients in conjunction with ongoing intervention. Self Help books within psychotherapy can be beneficial when it adds clarity, information, and direction. It can also take on an integrative role where the critical elements in a self-help book are applied to the client’s life. When a psychotherapist recommends a particular self-help book, he/she will often consider whether the client can complete the material prescribed in the book, if it is congruent with the treatment goals, and if it applies to the client’s personal life. Thus, it is more customized to the individual's therapy goals. A therapist may also often match the stage of therapy with a particular reading. There are many considerations a therapist may take while recommending a self-help book. A therapist may not suggest a self-help book to a client who is likely to intellectualize it and stray away from therapy. (Campbell et al., 2003).

While Self-help books have been known to be effective, it is essential to select a text carefully. There are a number of factors a therapist may take into consideration before recommending a particular self-help book. It is also important to remember that self-help books are not synonymous to psychotherapy.

Campbell, L. F., & Smith, T. P. (2003). Integrating Self-Help Books into Psychotherapy. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 59(2), 177–186.

Cuijpers, P. (1997). Bibliotherapy in unipolar depression: a meta-analysis.Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry,28, 139–147.

Do self-help books help? | Request PDF. Available from: [accessed Oct 12 2018].

Glasgow, R. E., & Rosen, G. M. (1978). Behavioral bibliotherapy: A review of self-help behavior therapy manuals. Psychological Bulletin, 85(1), 1-23.

Rosenblatt, Louise M. LITERATURE AS EXPLORATION, 3d ed. New York: Noble and Noble, 1968

Starker,  S. (1988).  Do-it-yourself  therapy; The prescription  of self-help books by psychologists.Psychotherapy,25, 142–146

Wampold, B. E. (2001).The great psychotherapy debate: Models, methods, and findings. New Jersey:Lawrence Erlbaum Associate

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