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Down the rabbit hole… Why I learned bibliotherapy, and how it can help people

In my spare time as a kid, I was usually engrossed in a book, movie or cartoon. I would then draw the characters, re-enact them with costumes and props, or write new stories featuring them. Recently I realised that I learned a lot of the skills I need for my work as a clinical psychologist from my favourite childhood stories - skills such as empathy, understanding different people, connection and choosing to do what is important over what is easy. I have now built a career around teaching and using these skills, and I can’t be present with my clients without them.

When I was little, my obsessive behaviours around stories were a tad concerning to my parents. My poor mum had to spend a year explaining to people that her four-year-old daughter would only answer to the name “Alice”, because at the time I truly believed I was Alice in Wonderland and went everywhere in my Alice dress. Once that phase was over, my preschool teacher started complaining that I was constantly interrupting her to recount scenes from my new obsession, The Wizard of Oz.

As a psychologist, I sometimes receive referrals that include the types of behaviours I used to display, and I laugh to myself when I read things like “won’t stop talking about his favourite TV show”, “thinks she really is Elsa from Frozen”, “obsessive, rigid play around the film Transylvania” … Maybe if seeing a psychologist was more socially acceptable in the early 90s, my parents might have taken me to see one, too.

When I was a bit older, I discovered Nickelodeon cartoons, often hijacking dinner table conversations to teach the family what I'd learned about collaboration from the latest episode of CatDog, whose central characters were Siamese twins (a cat and dog), who had to navigate life while attached at the hip.

Or I would attempt to do a deep dive into the psychological subtext of one of my other favourite cartoons, Hey Arnold! - centred around an orphan living with his grandpa in the inner city, where he encountered all sorts of hilarious and intriguing characters and situations.

In high school, I discovered the expansive world of JRR Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings, and my brother and I sometimes reminisce about the summer of 2002, when we watched The Fellowship of the Ring on DVD over twenty times (plus the six-hours of special features). Two decades later, we can still recite practically the entire film. Among many lessons, Tolkien’s stories taught me to appreciate and protect the beauty of nature, and the importance of the values of courage, collaboration and friendship, lessons that definitely influenced my identity as an adult.

Speaking of courage, collaboration and friendship, alongside these different phases of obsession I went through growing up, I was also part of the cohort labelled by many as “the Harry Potter generation”, because we were roughly the same age as Harry when each book came out. I had the experience, shared by millions of other young people at the time, of counting down to the next book in the series being released, reading the whole thing within a day, then joining with friends to intensely analyse and debate the latest revelations.

If we can separate the stories themselves from the comments of their now highly divisive author, I often wonder about the impact of having millions of young brains absorbing these tales centred around heroic teenagers, fighting for their world. I don’t know many young people who don’t have a strong sense of justice and a willingness to stand up for it – the characteristics of many of the younger characters portrayed in the Harry Potter series.

After finishing high school, I said goodbye to ‘new Harry Potter book’ rituals, and entered the highly competitive professional pathway of clinical psychology. Although I majored in theatre studies alongside my psychology major, and at one point almost dropped out altogether to become a musician, over time I learned to appreciate the stimulating and rewarding career trajectory I was on, and decided to choose psychology over my lifelong dream of working in the arts. But my passion for stories and creativity has never died, and over time I've started to look for ways to merge my creative interests with my job.

After completing my university studies, I entered the high-demand working life of a psychologist in modern industrial society, where mental health issues are a common side effect of the lifestyle most people are programmed into living, thanks largely to colonisation and capitalism. My reading list became predominantly non-fiction psychology texts, and my viewing habits became escapist and reactive. My capacity to explore books and films purely out of interest and enjoyment was limited, as is the case for many people after leaving school.

Then COVID-19 hit, and suddenly I had free time again for the first time since school. One silver lining of the numerous lockdowns in my city was the extra time I had to reconnect with the types of films, shows and books that make me think deeply. I also finally had the time to do two things I'd been interested in for a while but too time poor to look further into - courses in creative writing and bibliotherapy.

Bibliotherapy is the therapeutic use of stories. An example might be: a person comes to therapy struggling to work through a particular issue, and their therapist provides them with story prescriptions - recommending films and books that may help them work through the issue. Their therapist may also provide them with reflective activities to enhance the therapeutic benefits of the story.

Another example might be a person noticing that they had a very strong emotional reaction to a film, show or book, and bringing that reaction to explore in therapy to help them process something from their own life that may have been brought up by it. I already do this from time to time with people I work with, but I now have specific training in it.

I also love using stories to help people develop strategies for daily life to help them get through tough times and unpleasant emotions – for example, for myself, I used my interest in Star Wars to develop the metaphor of the “Jedi Council” to work through my own conflicted thoughts and feelings about a decision – using the character of Yoda to help me find a wise and balanced path forward when other parts of me might be arguing unproductively with each other.

Some of the potential benefits of bibliotherapy are that:

  • It can be a less confronting way to address issues that might otherwise be hard to bring up due to feelings of guilt, shame, fear or difficulty finding the words for them. By exploring these issues through a character's story, whether fictional or real, it can help us work through feelings of isolation and shame, because the issue is shared with others.

  • It harnesses the natural human tendency to hook into a good story – after all, stories are how we have passed on the history and learnings of previous generations (I highly recommend reading The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall for an in-depth analysis of the impact of stories on the world).

  • Being able to consciously integrate something creative that we enjoy can add vitality and energise the therapy experience.

  • Sometimes the stories in books or films can trigger us in unexpected ways, and bring up important issues that we were not conscious of, which we might not have brought to therapy otherwise.

I decided to train in bibliotherapy because I know many people who, like me, are addicted to good stories, and I wanted to find a way of bringing this more into my clinical work. After completing bibliotherapy training, I realised that an important reason I have always loved stories so much is that they helped me figure out the sort of person I wanted to be, and understand the experiences of an array of people from different backgrounds, helping further develop empathy and open-mindedness. They helped me examine the human experience from a safe-enough distance to question my own beliefs, expectations and values, making me a more flexible thinker. In a nutshell, they gave me therapy.

Since learning more about bibliotherapy, I am motivated to use the therapeutic benefits of the many incredible stories available to watch and read in my work. I am also keen to creatively expand the options in my therapy toolbox. I am looking forward to experimenting with the new skills I have learned.

If you are interested in discussing how bibliotherapy might help you, feel free to contact me via my website contact form, or through my private practice, MyMind -

Image credits:

  • Alice in Wonderland image courtesy of Walt Disney Productions, 1951

  • The Wizard of Oz image courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1939

  • CatDog image courtesy of Nickelodeon Studios, 1998

  • Hey Arnold! image courtesy of Nickelodeon Studios, 1996

  • The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring image courtesy of New Line Cinema, 2001

  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows image courtesy of Warner Bros., 2011


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