Books as therapy (kinda)

(N.B.: I am using the word therapy in this post mostly int he non-clinical, self-improvement sense of the word, and I don’t mean to imply that books can somehow replace a professional therapist.)

(via wewiorka_wagner on flickr)

A friend of mine has recently been re-reading a self-help book that she originally read as a teenager, and found very helpful. She’s finding the re-read helpful as well, but in different ways, and she has a very different perspective on a lot of the content now than she did when she was younger.

I find that this is a common experience for me when re-reading or re-watching media that I originally encountered in a different chapter of my life, and sometimes a very powerful one. It’s an incredibly powerful way of learning about yourself, of reminding yourself of how far you’ve come, of what you’ve been through, the things you’ve learned, and all of the little ways in which your outlook and experiences of the world have changed in the intervening time.

While the example of my friend is actually dealing with a book on cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness, this is a thing that also works with fiction, or with nonfiction that doesn’t have an explicit therapeutic purpose. Simply revisiting something that you have strong memories of (you have to know how you felt about/reacted to it the first time around for comparison purposes) can be a great way of increasing your awareness of your present self, even if your self-image hasn’t kept up with the very real changes you’ve been through.

I am not the person I was in high school. I’m very different in many ways. I’m not even all that similar to the person I was in my undergrad. And nothing highlights the changes to me quite so much as my feelings about various media.

As Ann-Marie MacDonald put it so brilliantly in As the Crow Flies, “There are some stories you can’t hear enough. They are the same every time you hear them. But you are not. That’s one reliable way of understanding time.” It is the constancy of stories that makes them so valuable – they are the controlled variable that allows you to explore the ways that the rest of the world has effected you. And for me, the effect can be somewhat therapeutic.

But it’s not the only way that I use reading as a form of self-administered therapy. For me, reading was a powerful experience long before I realized the value of revisiting works, and this second form of therapy actually more closely resembles the actual ways is which bibliotherapy (a form of therapy that, like so many forms of psychological therapy, has very little research on its effectiveness) is administered. The basic idea of bibliotherapy is that it can be empowering to read stories of people facing challenges similar to one’s own, and overcoming them. Simple enough, that.

For me, this is less about specific life experiences, and more about my emotional life. It is very meaningful to me to read descriptions of emotions that I have had but have struggled to articulate. This is helpful on two levels: first, it validates my feelings in a way, at least in making me feel not alone, and secondly, over time reading has been one factor that has greatly improved my ability to put words to the things I am feeling, and to express my emotional needs.

In addition to giving words to my thoughts, sometimes the things I read provide me with alternate perspectives or new ways of framing my mental-emotional state. And sometimes these new perspectives allow me to refocus my mental energies in more productive and centred ways.

Books have helped me to grow and understand myself in countless ways throughout my life, is most of what I’m trying to say.

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