Bibliotherapy on compassion
'Bibliotherapy' is an important part of cognitive therapy, either to run alongside a course of therapy or as a self-help tool. I often recommend books to my clients, partly because there is only so much time in a session, so it's much more useful for them to read up about their particular issue and for us to discuss their findings next week. But I also find that many people like to understand why they might be having problems and find their own strategies for solving them – another important idea in cognitive therapy, because ultimately I want my clients to be their own CBT therapist.
In this series of posts, I am going to recommend some of the best books for a number of topics: depression, anxiety, mindfulness, compassion, stress, anger issues, eating disorders and low self-esteem. In this third installment, I will focus on compassion and compassion-focused therapy – a new form of cognitive therapy designed to help with deep-rooted issues such as long-term or cyclical bouts of depression, low self-esteem or unhelpful self-criticism. The idea is that you can read one or all of these books, depending on which appeal to you. And you can read the whole book or dip into the chapters that seem most relevant to you.
1. The Buddha's Brain: the Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom, by Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius. If, like me, you are interested in the science behind meditation and talking therapies like CBT, this is the book for you. The authors explain how our brains are actually shaped by the things we think every day – think negatively and you build neural pathways that make negative thinking your default approach; but focus on feelings like kindness, pleasure, gratitude, generosity and warmth and you build a brain that naturally focuses on these self-nurturing qualities. Don't be put off by the science – it's also a rich, wise, beautifully written book that's packed with common sense techniques you can use to help yourself feel better. This is one of the books I recommend to all my clients, because it just makes you feel so good to read it.
2. The Compassionate Mind Guide to Managing Your Anger, by Russell L Kolts. This warm, wise and helpful book is written by an American clinical psychologist specialising in anger issues, with vast experience of working with groups such as prisoners, for whom destructive anger is clearly a major problem. He draws on Paul Gilbert's compassion-focused therapy to explain the evolutionary/psychological basis of anger, especially its role in protecting us from threats, either real or perceived. CFT focuses on strengthening the parts of our brain that help us feel calm, confident, strong, peaceful and safe; these act as a direct antidote to feelings like hostility or aggression, so are fundamental to feeling less angry and generally happier and more emotionally balanced.
3. Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill, by Matthieu Ricard. Another life-changing book for me – as someone with a strong interest in Buddhism and Buddhist psychology, I found Happiness at the same time inspiring and humbling because it showed me how much I still have to learn, both personally and professionally. Ricard was an eminent French scientist before his interest in Buddhism led him to become a monk, living in the Himalayas and studying with some of the great Tibetan Buddhist teachers. Developing self-kindness and compassion is a key focus in Tibetan Buddhism (which is why the Dalai Lama so often talks about compassion). The author explains, with great clarity and simplicity, how anyone can learn to free themselves of what the Buddha called the 'three poisons of the mind': greed, hatred and delusion. You don't need to be interested in Buddhism to love this book – its message will appeal to anyone on the path of personal growth or who just want to be happier. And that means everyone, doesn't it?