Alisa Donaldson

Three reasons why reading books does not replace psychotherapy

“Why do I need to pay hundreds of dollars to see a therapist, when there are plenty of self-help books I could read instead?”

This question was voiced to me by a very good friend, in between lemonade sips in my backyard. We were having a great heart-to-heart moment, the kind that good friends have, and I knew this question was sincere. I have to admit, I’ve asked it myself. 

I love books. In fact I’m writing this article with books in my car that I just picked up at a bookstore. I went in for one, and came out with three. My genre of weakness is decidedly self-help. 

So, first let me be clear: books are wonderful. A book can present the culmination of a person or persons’ lifework, all distilled into a finite number of pages at your fingertips. A book is a magical representation of our ability today to share, access and process information at a rate that our great great grandparents could only dream of. If personal growth is our goal, books can be an incredibly helpful means to that end. I personally have a list of books that I give credit to being life-changing for me, and I like to imagine this list will never stop growing. I’m also always happy to give a great book recommendation.

However… and I say this as both a therapist and as a client myself (yes, I also have a therapist)… I firmly believe that books cannot and will not be an adequate replacement for live, therapist-facilitated therapy. 


I’m so glad you asked! Allow me to present three considerations, best enjoyed with a glass of lemonade.

1) In all of life there is a balance. Different people need to hear different sides, depending on where they are in life. A therapist can make that differentiation, whereas (typically) a book won’t.

Allow me to explain. Let’s look at grief, for example. If someone has just incurred a loss, be it they lost their job, or a loved one passed away, or their partner cheated on them and they feel like they lost an understanding of what they thought their relationship was… it would be un-human to tell that person not to grieve. Grieving is a natural, necessary, even useful process. Now, if I had a client before me who “stuffs down” their grief, trying to distance themselves from it, trying to package it up and put it away and out of sight, then my role is to help them learn to become present with their grief, and to feel the hard feelings. 

However, I may have a client who uses a very different strategy. Rather than distancing from the very difficult feelings, there is a total surrender to them, perhaps even a cultivation of them. This person has been crying and feeling miserable for a very long time, with no signs of feeling better soon. For them, I may take a very different role, one of supporting them in setting limits to their suffering, and in imagining a life beyond their grief. 

I know, I know, these are two very different approaches. They’re paradoxical. But then, most of life is. A good therapist will work in the balance of a paradox, and decipher for their client which side of the balance they need to hear. 

A book may or may not do that. In fact, books are often written in over-simplicity, delivering an exciting, fresh crystallization of a concept. And if the concept feels radical or counter-cultural, then the over-emphasis is even more intense, even more one-sided. 

Admittedly, there are great books out there, that present a balance, that give both sides of a paradox. Or maybe, if you’re a heavy reader, you may provide your own balance by reading books that present different points of view. Just keep in mind that it could take you a very long time to find them, whereas speaking with a good therapist can streamline the process, allowing you to go quickly in the direction that is customized for where you are in life. 

2) We (typically) don’t know our own “stuck points.”

Continuing with the grief example, if someone just recently incurred a loss, then grief may be an obvious topic. But what about a more complex situation? What about the young mother who finds herself being short-tempered with her daughter, only to find out, through the process of therapy, that her “anger” issue is really not anger towards her daughter at all, but the outplay of a deeply-set grief that she incurred years ago, when she was her daughter’s age? (Trust me, this kind of stuff happens). Also through therapy, she manages to access that grief, process it, and consolidate her growth in a way that means she no longer gets impulsively angry with her daughter. 

For that person, she is not even aware of her long-time grief being the “stuck point” for her, so she’s not going to head over to the local Chapters to find a book about grief. Most of us are somewhat blind to the patterns, behaviours, and stuck points that trip us up. A good therapist is trained to notice, and to compassionately guide us to those areas in our lives that need our attention. 

3) Sometimes, we need someone else to provide safety for us.

In the therapist world, we talk about safety A LOT. It’s huge. 

Much of our unhelpful patterns can really be traced to a perceived threat, and a protective move against that threat. And once we have lived for years with a protective, safety-seeking pattern, it can be really hard to challenge it, because to do so will feel, um, unsafe. Add in the intensifier that we are biologically and psychologically hard-wired (h-a-r-d–w-i-r-e-d) to look out for and avoid things that feel unsafe (moreover, this usually happens sub-consciously, so we don’t even know we are doing the avoiding), and you’ll see that it’s no small feat to make a change that is different than our usual protective patterns.

And often, the quickest way to do that is to have someone (aka therapist) providing a “replacement” sense of safety for us. Someone else in the room who isn’t afraid of what we might find when we get real and honest with ourselves. Someone else who can maintain and demonstrate compassion and caring when we lose sight of those for ourselves. Someone who is bearing witness to our realities, and responding moment by moment to each shift and turn of experience. 

A book simply can’t do that. 

In review, books can be a tremendous resource, and I certainly encourage my clients to seek after and find any materials that aide in their pursuit of personal growth. But if you’re serious about learning about yourself, changing old patterns, and growing into a healthier and happier you, find yourself a good therapist, too.