A Discussion with Dr. Irvin Yalom

Sep 8, 2011 by Tom Dellner

One of the great perks of serving as CalSouthern’s editor of university publications is the opportunity to travel to conferences around the country, listening to some of the finest minds in psychology, law, and business discuss developing trends and best practices within their fields of specialty. These are wonderful learning experiences, and they’ve given me the opportunity to develop relationships and gain exposure to emerging topics that have resulted in many of the articles you see in the new content section of the CalSouthern website.

Irvin Yalom, Ph.D.
Irvin Yalom, Ph.D.

A short time ago, I attended the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists’ 47th Annual conference in Burlingame, California, just outside of San Francisco. The keynote address was delivered by Dr. Irvin D. Yalom, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Stanford University, an accomplished psychotherapist, and an acclaimed author of both fiction and non-fiction.

Dr. Yalom’s remarks were fascinating—the highlight of the conference, in my opinion. His presentation was less a speech than a discussion—facilitated aptly by Dr. H. Dan Smith—during which Dr. Yalom almost nonchalantly dispensed pearls of wisdom to the packed house. Let me share a few of them with you now:

  • On his career options, as presented to him by his extended family in the hardscrabble Washington, DC neighborhood where he grew up: “I was given only two choices. I could become a doctor, or a failure.”
  • “We all have an innate ability to grow and to heal. My task as therapist is to remove the obstacles from my patient’s path.”
  • “Let your patient matter to you. Let them influence and change you. And don’t let this be a secret to them. This sort of self-disclosure is essential because it is the relationship that heals.”
  • Similarly, “It’s important that we share what we know about why therapy works with the patient.” An interesting technique Dr. Yalom uses with groups is to invite other psychotherapists to observe the group, and then allow the group to listen to the therapists as they discuss what they observed.
  • “Empathy is the cornerstone to effective therapy. You must develop the ability to see through your patient’s window.”
  • “If therapy is going to work—really work—the therapist needs to take a risk every session.”
  • “The greater the sense of unlived life, the greater the death anxiety.” Dr. Yalom went on to discuss the desperate need to develop a school of therapy that deals specifically with existential questions as a source of anxiety: dealing with randomness, a sense of purposelessness of life, anxiety arising from a belief in the absolute finality of death, etc.

But I’m just an interested observer, with no psychological training outside of a few classes in college many—many—years ago. I’d love to hear the reactions of mental health providers or students in CalSouthern’s School of Behavioral Sciences. What do you think of Dr. Yalom’s thoughts? Have you read The Gift of Therapy of any of Dr. Yalom’s other works? Please post your comments below.

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