Academic journal article North American Journal of Psychology

An Interview with Irvin Yalom

Academic journal article North American Journal of Psychology

An Interview with Irvin Yalom

Article excerpt

Irvin Yalom (interviewed on behalf of NAJP by)

Irvin Yalom is one of the leading individuals in the realm of group therapy. His books have been extensively used in graduate level training courses across America. He has written several books about the therapeutic process including Momma and the Meaning of Life, Lying on the Couch and Love's Executioner.

NAJP: What aspects of pathology are you most concerned about in your latest book, The Schopenhauer Cure (2006)?

IY: I don't think in terms of pathology very often. Rather, I wanted to describe how group therapy operates, how groups work, and how they can help people. The public's understanding of group therapy is completely inadequate, largely because the mass media portrayals of groups are so clouded. It is important for the general public to have a clear idea as to what transpires in groups. I also wanted to talk about the philosopher Schopenhauer and his contributions. Schopenhauer himself had a certain kind of pathology, so I did work with that. But the pathology didn't come first.

Most significant in thinking about Schopenhauer is the chronic depression he had throughout his life, his anhedonia, and his major interpersonal problems, as he was an extremely isolated person. So I worked with those in the novel, not because I was particularly interested in that form of pathology, but because if I was very interested in how Schopenhauer's personality issues influenced the content of his work--the truths he thought he'd arrived at.

I used the group therapy setting to explore these questions. Not with Schopenhauer directly, of course, as I couldn't figure out a way to get him into a therapy group (although I did spend a lot of time trying to find a way to do this). Ultimately I created a character, Phillip, who was kind of a Schopenhauer clone, with the personality traits and world view to make him exactly like Schopenhauer. So, indirectly, I was having Schopenhauer treated in a therapy group.

NAJP: What is the greatest challenge of being a therapist?

IY: I'd say one of the biggest challenges is to gain as much self understanding as possible, because the most important and effective way we can really help the patient is through our own selves. We have to be able to relate deeply and openly to patients. This means that we have to do a lot of work on ourselves, work which evolves continually throughout our lives. This is an absolute necessity for personal therapy. Even now, for example, I feel like I'm changing, growing, learning more about myself and I'm a much better therapist than I was a year or two ago.

I recommend that all therapists enter intense personal therapy, and stay with it for a long period of time. Not only this, but we should also do so more than once, because we encounter different kinds of major problems at different stages in our lives. Self-understanding therapy is a lifelong process. I also think it's important to sample various types of therapy, so we gain personal understanding of what each has to offer that may be helpful to us.

NAJP: As an empathic human being, you must become very attached to your patients; what do you do to set personal boundaries of caring?

IY: It is true that I care a great deal for the patients that I work with. But I don't think that represents a major problem for me. In fact, if I don't care for a particular patient, as happens for all of us, I use that fact as tremendously important data. Grist for the mill so to speak. I make the assumption that as patients are in their therapy hours with us, so are they with other people in their lives and other situations. This may not be true in the first few sessions, but as they ease into therapy, either group or individual therapy, it becomes a kind of social microcosm. So, I use that information.

One area that does become difficult at times is termination. Sometimes I have to push hard against resistance to bring that up for them. …

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