Maximize Your Experience With Books: The Four-Stage Process of Bibliotherapy

Savvy History: Writer – Educator – Musician

If you are here, I’m assuming you are interested in what bibliotherapy is and how it can serve you. In this post, I will help you establish some basics.  In future posts, I will clarify how bibliotherapy can assist you as a reader, a creative person, and a processor of others’ entrepreneurial stories.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a book containing astounding ideas but not been able to apply those principles to my life in a concrete manner. Clearly, my life was better for having read the work, but I wasn’t maximizing the experience. I suppose that is why the concept of bibliotherapy appealed to me enough to craft a study around it.

Choosing a topic for a master's thesis isn’t always easy.  I was ecstatic when I found a way to study systemizing, bibliotherapy, and gifted psychology all at the same time. Below is some of what I learned.

Bibliotherapy: An Old Idea?

Using literature to promote mental wellness is not a new concept.  Plato and Aristotle (along with numerous other philosophers and authors) have mentioned it. 

Bibliotherapy officially began taking shape in the 1920s when some savvy librarians started actively choosing reading materials to address targeted therapeutic needs.

This was a movement where readers would take a suggested book like a "prescription" from well-meaning librarians. However, this wasn’t exactly interactive bibliotherapy as we know it today. A few dissertations on the topic in the 1960s led to some popular guide books, and the practice eventually grew to reach professionals who worked in hospitals and schools.

Lyrics: My First Intro to Bibliotherapy 

I’d like to note, even singer-songwriter Paul Simon wisely claimed to use books and poetry to expand his world (while narrowly defending it at the same time). “I Am a Rock” was an appealing song to me as an awkward middle schooler interested in the counter-culture of the 1960s.

I have my books

And my poetry to protect me

I am shielded in my armor…

However, bibliotherapy is different in the fact that it encourages connection with others.  It doesn’t say, “I have no need of friendship, friendship causes pain.  It's laughter and it's loving I disdain.”  

Looks like he knows how to make friends here...

The main takeaway is, although bibliotherapy is an old concept with several individual interpretations, reading a book willy-nilly and experiencing bibliotherapy are two separate journeys.

What is Bibliotherapy and How is it Used?

The term bibliotherapy refers to carefully planned and structured interactions with literature guided by scaffolded questions and formally produced reflections.  

It is preferably conducted with a facilitator (and possibly in small groups) in order to bring about a dimension of response not possible alone.  The facilitator, the client, and the literature are a dynamic triad all bringing something unique to the sessions.

With the use of fiction or non-fiction books (and even lyrics or poetry), these guided interactions can assist with identity formation, self-worth struggles, confident independent thought, increased self-understanding, and other personal issues.

All the lonely people, where do they all come from?

Imagine you are in therapy.  If someone asks you, “Do you really want to die alone?” you will probably have a different response than if you are asked to discuss the song “Eleanor Rigby” by the Beatles.

In essence, I like bibliotherapy because a “facilitator-client-problem” set-up seems to have an unwanted hierarchical dynamic, whereas the third element of a book (facilitator-client-literature) diffuses possible power struggles.

How I Use Bibliotherapy

Currently, I’m in the business of taking my intellectual grasp of bibliotherapy and putting it into practice with myself, students, and other clients.

Concerning side-hustles, I’ve stopped teaching multi-age guitar and songwriting lessons after school ever since the birth of my son.  However, I can see “restarting” a business with elements of bibliotherapy in the future. I’d love to host a book club on steroids with some possible guitars thrown in... We’ll see.  For now, I still use it as my go-to method for writing songs independently.

Mostly, bibliotherapy is an “add-on” to my academic environment.  It is not as concerned with comprehension or the mastery of foundational skills as it is with individual feelings and the treatment of emotional struggles.  (So basically, I try to slip in some empathy building and self-esteem building into my reading lessons...)

Bibliotherapy: A Four-Stage Process

In bibliotherapy, participants are lead through a four-stage process of identification, catharsis, insight, and universalization with a character or theme in a story.  I’ve also heard it described as a four-stage process of recognition, examination, juxtaposition, and self-application. With some analyzation, you can probably see the similarities behind these two schools of thought regarding the process.  For example, identifying (or recognizing) yourself in a character describes a similar internal event.

1. Identification/Recognition

Have you ever been reading ardently for a while when suddenly an event in the plot or a character’s remark “strikes a chord,” causing you to pause and reflect on your own life?  (I personally spend half of my time reading staring off into space.) At the moment you pause, you become aware of something about yourself or about life that has always been there but never been articulated thoroughly. During such a moment you are making a text-to-self connection (and you are entering the first stage of bibliotherapy).

2. Catharsis/Examination

The word “catharsis” is Greek for “cleansing.”  In this step, we arouse and release what has been suppressed after identifying it.  For example, we often read, watch movies, and tell our own stories because we feel better afterward (even under paradoxical conditions, such as when there is an ending we don’t agree with).  Even if the story itself doesn’t spark an emotional release, sometimes dialogue with others can serve this purpose. Our spontaneous responses (and the spontaneous responses of others around us) can reveal a lot. We often use storylines to release strong reactions to previously ambiguous issues.

3. Insight/Juxtaposition

Without guidance, a lot of us naturally stop the bibliotherapeutic process after identification and emotional release.  (Well, the movie is over. Back to the dishes…)

Entering the stage of juxtaposition takes mental effort because it involves putting two concepts (or two storylines - your life and the life of a character) side by side in order to compare and contrast them.  If taking on this task, it’s important to conduct it in an environment that encourages creative thinking (aka - not with pessimists). If role-models for behavior are possible in the characters, this should be discussed with an openminded person (or group of people) in a situation designed to stimulate original thinking, original connections, and playful attitudes. Creative writing activities can be assigned to solidify new understandings.

4. Universalization/Self-Application

If you find yourself able to integrate insights from the first three steps into your life (while truly sensing the human condition at work in your own story and in your own problems), you have successfully used the power of abstract thought to make bibliotherapy effective. If you take it further to face challenges with awe, cultivate an accurate sense of self-importance, and garner a new level of critical examination towards yourself and the outer world, the story choice and your participation in the reflection are a gift that will keep on giving.

Keep in mind, this can take months or years. Continual reflection and identity formation may develop as your mind wanders back to the story time and time again. Ultimately, you can use the process repeatedly to dive into yourself (while healthily distancing yourself from your life at the same time).

Final Clarifications

The four-stage process mentioned above is what makes bibliotherapy distinct from regular guided reading groups and book clubs. Educational professionals who have studied the process implement bibliotherapy in small group settings.  

In my classroom, it is an intervention that has been used to educate students directly about their behavior. Studies show students surveyed after the implementation of bibliotherapy report positive behavior changes, such as increased participation that is both spontaneous and appropriate.  It is effective for influencing a vast array of social skills, including not interrupting, listening, and tolerating others.

Wherever personal development is taking place, bibliotherapy can be implemented. 

Up next, I apply the four-stage process to Grant Sabatier’s book Financial Freedom.