Ink Therapy: Harnessing the Power of Vintage Self-Help Books By Howard Rosenthal, EdD on 6/11/24 - 9:59 AM

My dad was an avid reader, visiting the library weekly as well as purchasing new and used books. As a teenager, I spied a vintage copy of a 1957 work titled How to Live with a Neurotic: At Home and Work and snuck it into my tiny bedroom.
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A Very Brief History of Self-Help Literature

I couldn’t attain complete privacy in my room, shared with my brother, due to the 6-foot barbell we stored under the bed preventing the door from closing fully. But seriously, for the most part who needs privacy when you have weightlifting to focus on?

I discovered the book was written by Albert Ellis, a New York clinical psychologist, and I thought his ideas were monumental. I made up my mind right then and there that one day I would write my own book and interview Ellis. Indeed, many years later, when Ellis was 89 years young, I did, and the interview was much more intriguing than I ever could have imagined. But I digress. 

As a graduate student, I came across his name again, only this time he had teamed up with another clinical psychologist, Robert A. Harper, to pen a 1975 edition of A New Guide to Rational Living. The word “new” was added to the title since the original version was released in 1961. The book outlined how to use Albert Ellis’ Rational Emotive Therapy or RET (now Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy or REBT) to enhance happiness in everyday life. 

Simply put, I thought it was hands-down the best self-help work I had ever read. It turned out I was not alone in my opinion. The head of the publishing company, Melvin Powers, a lay hypnotist and self-made millionaire, whose picture graced the book cover along with his wife, agreed. Powers, one of the premier publishers of paperback self-help literature, said in the foreword, “it may well prove the best psychotherapy book for layman ever written.” Powers ended the foreword with, “You have my best wishes in reading a book that I think will remain the standard for years to come.” (Don’t you love it when others concur with your opinion?)

If the book had an Achilles heel, it was that the text might have been a little too complex for the average person to understand. But an answer was right around the corner.

Enter Wayne Dyer, a counselor educator at St. John’s University, who, after studying Ellis, created an easier-to-comprehend and much more popular book titled, Your Erroneous Zones in 1976. According to some estimates, 100 million copies have been sold! Behind the scenes, a controversy brewed with Ellis claiming Dyer stole his ideas and gave him no credit in Erroneous Zones. Dyer became one of the most popular lecturers and a guest on thousands of television and radio talk shows worldwide.  

The bottom line is that these classic 60s and 70s bibliotherapeutic works are still a goldmine for clients in 2024 and beyond. As I often quip, “Good counseling and self-help never goes out of style.” I have often heard therapists assert that the 1960s and 1970s were the golden age of self-help.

Self-Help Guidance for the Next Generation of Therapists

A few other gems from the era you could suggest as bibliotherapy to assist your current clients could include:

The blockbuster and often provocative 1964 transactional analysis (TA) text Games People Play by the founder of the theory, former psychoanalyst Eric Berne. Or another TA flagship work, I’m OK – You’re Okay, by psychiatrist Thomas A. Harris in 1971.

Taking this theme a bit further, Muriel James and Dorothy Jongeward wrote Born to Win: Transactional Analysis and Gestalt Experiments in 1971, integrating the work of Fritz Perls into the equation. TA made psychotherapy and self-help fun using words like Parent, Adult, and Child, in place of analogous and confusing Freudian terms such as Super-ego, Ego, and Id.

As a final example, clients who wish to blend psychology with spirituality could benefit from M. Scott Peck’s 1978 The Road Less Traveled.  

One unique feature of the books from the era is seemingly that they crossed the invisible line between textbooks/professional literature, and self-help or so-called pop psychology. To put it another way, these works, and many others like them, were as at home in a graduate counseling, psychology, or social work class as they were in the hands of people outside of the mental health field struggling with marital issues, addiction, depression, anxiety over public speaking, or many other challenges of everyday life.

In embracing the timeless wisdom of vintage literature, our current clients can unlock a treasure chest of insight from the past. It’s not just about self-help, it’s about tapping into a reservoir of wisdom that transcends time, offering guidance and solace to all who seek it.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

How have you used self-help books with your own clients?

Which of the author's favorites have you used either personally or professionally?

What other newer self-help books have you found useful in your practice  

File under: Musings and Reflections