26 April 2012

A session with Yalom - Part 3

Click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2

It was damp everywhere from the recent downpour and the chair outside was wet. The home office was of modest size and elegant looking with a pretty garden.

Right on 12:30 the door opened and there stood Irv. I went inside and moved towards the fairly old and comfortable looking armchairs. The home office was a pleasing space with a relaxing feel about it, although I was far from relaxed. I was quite nervous which is probably the first thing I said to Irv.

We sat down and I registered the box of tissues on the table. Then we started. There followed just shy of an hour of interaction with one of my favourite authors and someone for whom I have great respect and admiration. I laughed and I cried.

Now, what follows is not a blow-by-blow account of all that passed between Irv and I. I did record the session with Irv’s kind permission.  In retrospect I am so glad that I did as on listening back I could hear things that Irv said that I clearly did not hear at the time.  A lot of what was discussed is very personal and intimate but there were some general issues that we talked about which I think that others could get some value from hearing.

How did I find Irvin? – Well, he speaks like he writes – intelligently and authoritatively, but I found him warmer than I imagined and his voice softer. He asked me a lot of questions to begin with, about my childhood, children, relationship history. I am not used to being led like this, but of course, this was a one-off session; I appreciate that he was gathering information, at quite a rate, which he later deftly wove into the session in an insightful and ultimately helpful way.

Near the start of the session I brought up the authenticity issue. Rather than an intellectual discussion of semantics and philosophy, which is what I was angling at, Irv kept it where it belonged:

Amanda: My lifelong quest is to try and find out what authenticity is, and that seems to be at the bottom of a lot of my ‘stuff’, and I have a fear that there is no such thing and that as humans we are very good at using our logic to justify our actions. I find that quite a scary concept. And I know that I, as a human being yearn for connection with others.

Irv: Can you just say a little bit to me about why authenticity is particularly important to you? How do you relate to the concept of authenticity?

Amanda: I know how easy it is to lie. Lying makes me feel uncomfortable whether it’s me doing it or someone else.

Irv: Do you have a history of that? Is it a particularly common experience…?

Amanda: I suppose I’ve been let down a lot, historically, been misled. I know that we’re surrounded by lies on a societal level.

Irv: On a societal…what about a personal level?

Amanda: On a personal level, yes, and that’s….I know there’s a yearning for connection…

From that point the topic of authenticity remained on a personal level. I think that Irvin had to steer me away from a cognitive and philosophical discussion to the personal. These issues are important to me for a reason and talking my way philosophically around them does not actually get to the root of it – me. I know this when I’m with a client and I bring them to the level of  their experience rather than an external level. It was very interesting for me to listen afterwards to my subconscious attempts to take it away from me, to the safer, bigger world of outside-of-me. I hope that I am as gentle with clients as Irv was with me at steering me back to me!

He complimented me on being on this journey with  3 kids (including a teenager – one who happens to verbally challenge my stereotype-generalisation of teenagers – good for him!) and us getting on well – a journey which he knows many have undertaken, with kids, including himself, and which he understands is usually a harrowing experience.

He was very kind and helpful in pointing out the good that I have done with my life, despite certain setbacks, and pressed that I had successfully broken the cycle (he had to press as I just wasn’t taking it on board, and, indeed, it was only on hearing the recording that I finally heard it properly!). So I got a lot out of that.

Irv asked about my counselling work and I took the opportunity to ask about one of my themes:

Amanda: Is it an authentic healing process or do we subconsciously pass on our construct resulting in the client taking on a similar construct? 

Irv: That’s a good question. They’re taking on what you give them and they have to see it in the light of their own internal language. They build it again inside of them to fit with their own past experiences. I’ve never had the feeling that people take on my construct. But they build a new one because their whole life circumstances are so very different. And for you, you will get certain things from seeing me or seeing your therapist… and other people won’t do it that way, they’ll take other things. Everyone deals with it quite differently. So I think, my only feeling is you really just have to be present with your clients and give them what you can, and trust them to take what they need out of it.

This was great for me to hear as for me it is being present with the client that seems to work best. I shared with Irv that I think that therapy is about the relationship I form with a client, and they see that I actually feel love for them, that they perceive that somehow.

Irv:  They have a capacity then to form a really good relationship once in their life at least or be with someone who can actually love them. Well, that gives them an internal reference point, they know they’ll be able to do that again, and will keep you in mind a lot. I think that’s really important.

The session then turned again to more personal issues – of course those issues are part of who I am and  I was grateful to explore in the greater context of the situation – meeting my hero and receiving his wisdom.

We talked about my disappointment at his cancellation and my discomfort around being less important to him than he was to me. Referring to what he had gleaned about my childhood experiences, he seemed to really empathise about why this might be particularly difficult for me. I really felt that he had a lot of understanding of what it must be to be me.

I asked Irvin what he got out of what he does:

Irv: A great deal. First of all, the same things you’re saying. It’s important for me and it gives me a sense of meaning in my life, to be able to work with people and give them some meaning as well. The other thing is, and I think this may be true for you as well, is that I feel that I’m pretty good at this, I know what I’m doing. And I think you do have a bit of that also, and you know, it feels good when you do something you’re being really effective in, so there’s that. There’s something about the whole intimate connection , even though it’s very brief, it is always warming to me. There’s something about, I like to get into the lives of other people, to their stories. Maybe as a writer there’s some of that for me too...its not their story but it’s an idea…ignites in my heart.

Amanda: That’s interesting that you say that because you get ideas for the stories you write and you like getting into other people’s lives and stories and I do feel a little bit guilty about that…hearing other people’s secrets…I feel so privileged but also, a bit…not scared, but in awe of the fact that I’m in that privileged position and that they trust me that much.

Irvin then referred to a paragraph he wrote in his book “The Gift of Therapy”, which I have reproduced here as it is a poignant and important point for therapists:

“We are cradlers of secrets. Every day patients grace us with their secrets, often never before shared. Receiving such secrets is a privilege to the very few. The secrets provide a backstage view of the human condition without social frills, role playing, bravado or stage posturing…Those who are cradlers of secrets are granted a clarifying lens through which to view the world – a view with less distortion, denial, and illusion, a view of the way things really are.”

With that in mind, I can see why, with my lifelong quest for authenticity,  I find my work so rewarding. And if I can help anybody feel as content and passionate about life as I do, then it is with purpose.

On reflection, something else incredibly valuable I have gained from this session, is that my thoughts around therapist self-disclosure have been solidified. There are many, wildly differing opinions about the appropriateness and usefulness of therapist self-disclosure. One of the things that attracts me to Yalom is the honesty he reveals in his writing and in session with him I felt I knew enough about him to feel comfortable with him. His honesty about his shortcomings and humanness put me at ease before I even met him.

I have, since starting private practice, decided to be as upfront as I can about myself and my approach in my marketing literature. Anyone familiar with my blogs will see that I reveal a lot more in my posts than many other counsellors do. The reason why I do this is that I want people to have a flavour of who I am and what they can expect – what makes me different to other counsellors, rather than what makes me the same. The aim is to give the client real choice – to enter into a therapeutic relationship with me with open eyes. Now, post-Irv, I have real experience of the benefits of knowing something about the therapist beforehand. 

My thoughts throughout have included the relationship I have with my own therapist. Indeed, it was he who recommended Yalom's books to me when I was first training. From my point of view I have a safe, trusting and wonderful relationship with him. After the session, I couldn't help but compare him to Yalom, and would say he is at least as good. In fact, I would always choose my therapist when I reflect on what we have shared, how I have grown through my relationship with him, and because he is who he is.

The session with Yalom taught me a lot about myself, and my work. The personal development began long before the appointment itself and continues, as the session becomes a memory, and I ponder on what we discussed, and integrate it into the present.

Most important, of course, is that Irvin Yalom is still one of my heroes.

A final point - I strongly urge anybody involved in or interested in the counselling and psychotherapy profession to read Yalom’s non-fiction works, and for everybody to read his fictional works.

With thanks to Irvin Yalom for his kind permission to include quotes from the session and the excerpt from his book.


Unknown said...

Good to read the final instalment of the journey.
I'm really glad that you got so much out of the session and also the reflecting about it afterwards.
I think you are right in your ideas on therapist self-disclosure, for one it's good to know that a counsellor is human after all! ;-)
I'm embarking on my MSc in September, trying to decide between clinical and counselling psychology (eventually, when I get around to being a real 'grown up'!). Just seems that the counselling training is a minefield to be negotiated by only those 'in the know'...am working on it!
If you were to recommend somewhere to start with his books, which would it be? (bearing in mind, at the moment I have the concentration span of a gnat?!)
Take care,

Amanda Williamson (She/her) said...

Thanks Laura, for your feedback. Difficult decision for you to make - my hunch is that you would make a good counsellor, as you aren't afraid to go to dark places yourself. It's not for the faint-hearted though so be warned. I do absoutely love it, but it did take until I was 35 to decide what I really wanted to do with my life.
With regards to Yalom's books - Love's Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy is a good starting point. It is a selection of case studies which are actually fascinating tales. Good for poor concentration as they are relatively short stories. His fictional novel When Nietszche Wept is just beautiful, but it isn't light reading by any means. There is a film version of it out on DVD which I haven't seen yet.

Dana Regalado, MA, CAC II, CFI said...

Irvin Yalom is one of my (few select) heroes as well. Many items you note resonate with my own experience, aside from seizing an opportunity to visit with Yalom in the flesh (yes, I do envy you). Thank you for sharing what read to me, by and large, as an open and humble self-reveal at an important moment in your personal "hero's journey"... best wishes to you on your way.

Amanda Williamson (She/her) said...

Thank you Dana - your comments mean a lot to me. Good taste in heroes! Although I wonder who your other heroes are...? Very best wishes to you too.

Victor Yalom, PhD said...

Amanda--thanks for your lovely writeup--like him your writing is engaging and honest. Nice to hear a fresh perspective on your meeting with my father....one of my heroes too! At the risk of being self-promoting (what the heck), readers who are interested in more resources on his work can find them at: http://www.psychotherapy.net/learning-centers/expert/irvin-yalom.

laws said...

I am a trainee student from the Iron Mill and we met you on the Intro weekend and when you had passed your viva.....
Rose from the Iron Mill sent us the link to your meeting.
What a privilege it must of been for you... it sounded and read like an amazing experince, one of which i feel quite envious of! I like you value his honesty and some of his writing has had a profound effect on my process and journey to being a counsellor.
Thank you for a very enjoyable read
Laura Kirkland

lisa said...

Dear Amanda I was sharing the fantasy of travelling to San Fran with my peer on our way home from college(IMI) only a couple weeks ago! not sure we will actually make it a reality but i loved reading about your experience of meeting Irvin. I have read a few of Irvin's books and i find them so breathtakingly honest and inspiring, i cant get enough of them, and compared to some of the reading i need to do for my course work, he is a Joy! I hope by the time i finish my training i will have the courage i feel it must have taken you to live out what most of us just fantasize about. I did meet you at IMI when i began my course and one of the things you said has stayed with me, it was " be responsible for your own learning". So thank you for sharing.

Amanda Williamson (She/her) said...

Hi Laura, Hi Lisa, thank you both for your comments. I wish you all the very best in this journey you have started towards becoming counsellors. Your time at the Iron Mill can be a great foundation to an ongoing process. Since leaving there I have not stopped processing! My fond regards to your group. It was so lovely to share my Viva joy and I do miss being part of my group. You'll be there before you know it. In the meantime, enjoy the here and now. Amanda

Susanne Joannou said...

Amazing and real. What a powerful experience you have had. Thank you for sharing your fortunate experience with me and thank you for confirming what I have know for a long time; Irvin Yalom is as if sent from above. He has inspired me and I too feel richer as a therapist thanks to his incredibly insightful writing. Now he has managed to pass on this inspiration through you to a new level

Sarah Ashworth said...

Imagine how the world of psychotherapy would have been robbed if one day, a few decades ago, the following had occurred....

"Hey Irv, I think you should write a book, the way you communicate is magical and your writing could transform lives."

Irv: *rubs chin*
"Hmmm......................................................can't be arsed."

Mandoh, I love reading what you write. As with Yalom's work, your writing illustrates your blistering intelligence, humanity and general fabness. I've looked forward to each instalment of your meeting with this great man as much as I've looked forward to reading his books.
More please.

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