Absorbing reflections reaching more widely than merely the ‘new generation of therapists and their patients’
I admire the wisdom and compassion expressed in the writing and the thinking behind the writing of existential humanistic psychotherapist Irvin Yalom
Now in his late 80s, Yalom inspires not just those who practice psychotherapy, counselling, psychoanalysis or psychiatry. He is a philosophical thinker, rather than one who focuses on human ‘lesions’ or pathologies. Or, as he simply, profoundly says :
A diagnosis limits vision; it diminishes ability to relate to the other as a person. Once we make a diagnosis, we tend to selectively inattend to aspects of the patient that do not fit into that particular diagnosis
He has written books which tell the stories (anonymised, given narrative structure, and with permission) or particular encounters with patients over his decades of practice. These do not read like dry, clinical, case histories. Yalom inhabits the understanding that what is happening in the psychotherapeutic encounter is what happens in any human encounter – relationship. The therapist, though they must strive to understand their own subjective agenda within the client/practitioner encounter, can never be a robotic observer, but always brings themselves into the field of encounter with the client, as much as the client brings themselves into that field. And the connection itself will shape outcomes.
Yalom also, as to some extent here, writes books which are perhaps a little less geared towards the lay-person, but which might serve as useful guide or instruction to anyone engaged in holding any kind of therapeutic space, whether one to one, or with groups
He also writes a third kind of book, one where he turns deep thinking about philosophy and the questions which surely we all return to, across our lives, the attempt to understand primal ‘whys’ into the form of dramatic narrative. For Yalom is as much a writer, an imaginative, dramatic, shaping one, as he is someone working within the pursuit of emotional, integral healing and wholeness for individuals seeking this in the psychotherapy field.
Something I absolutely appreciate with Yalom is his acknowledgement and laying bare of his own errors, challenges and difficulties in his work. Perhaps this is one reason is so genuinely admired, so genuinely an inspirer – he shows his failures, reveals how the journey of practice goes wrong.
I like the central idea, expressed in many different ways in his books, of holding fast to the idea of the wholeness within the individual, however broken they might appear :
As a young psychotherapy student the most useful book I read was Karen Horney’s Neurosis and Human Growth. And the single most useful concept in that book was the notion that the human being has an inbuilt propensity towards self-realization. If obstacles are removed, Horney believed, the individual will develop into a mature, fully realized adult, just as an acorn will develop into an oak tree
Yalom is always revealing far more than the ostensible subject matter of his books, and, is always writing about meaning with wider reach
I underlined page after page, as being useful to return to, whether thinking about my own professional requirements, or, those deeper thoughts about the ‘whys’
Here is an example, ostensibly Yalom is cautioning against the fashion for shorter trainings, shorter interventions, and the following of rigid single patterns of thought in psychiatric evaluations and treatments, but more is opened out
In these days of relentless attack on the field of psychotherapy, the analytic institutes may become the last bastion, the repository of collected psychotherapy wisdom, in much the same way the church for centuries was the repository of philosophical wisdom and the only realm where serious existential questions – life purpose, values, ethics, responsibility, freedom, death, community, connectedness – were discussed. There are similarities between psychoanalytic institutes and religious institutions of the past, and it is important that we do not repeat the tendencies of some religious institutions to suppress other forums of thoughtful discourse and to legislate what thinkers are allowed to think