ACA Blog

John Sommers-Flanagan
Apr 05, 2012

Reflections on Listening to Irvin Yalom at the ACA Conference

After a few hectic and overstimulating days at the ACA World Conference in San Francisco, I’ve now secured the back table at a Starbucks in Vancouver, WA for brief written reflection. This reflection weaves quotations (and paraphrases) from the great Irvin Yalom into my own personal conference experiences. My formal conference highlight was watching and listening as NPR’s Craig Windham interviewed Yalom onstage for the keynote. After listening to Yalom’s keynote six years ago, I think the interview format was an ingenious method for capturing a more personal glimpse into Yalom and his writing than a stand and deliver keynote speech.

I especially enjoyed listening to Yalom reflect on his early years. Two statements stand out:
On his career decision-making as a child of Russian immigrants: “We had two choices: We could become a doctor or a failure.”
On his unparalleled greatness within the field of group psychotherapy: “My wife thinks it’s rather ironic that I became an expert in group psychotherapy, because I’m really quite uncomfortable in groups.”

Early in his “speech” Yalom emphasized the importance of counselors to the field of psychotherapy. In several ways he made curiously stimulating statements emphasizing (I’m paraphrasing now) that counselors are the future of psychotherapy. As a hybrid counselor and psychologist, I wonder if he would have made the same statements had he been keynoting at the annual American Psychological Association meeting.

My reactions to Yalom’s claim about counselors being the future of psychotherapy are free-ranging like the chickens in our backyard, but here are two:
Yes, I think counselors will be the future of psychotherapy, but only if we’re able to stop getting in our own way . . . And psychologists will undoubtedly be the future of measuring psychotherapy efficacy . . . if they (or we) can manage to focus on issues more meaningful than pharmacology and neuroscience.

For those curious about where Yalom finds his writing inspiration, in response to Windham’s questioning, he disclosed that as a Californian he has mastered the evening hot tub experience. Subsequently, he’s able to write most productively in the morning about “what I’ve learned in the hot tub.” I suspect there’s a bit more to it than that . . . but for those of us aspiring toward more writing greatness it makes for a solid rationale for nightly inspirational hot-tubbing.
On the popularity of his Group Psychotherapy text, Yalom stated: “I suspect it’s because of the stories in the book that I smuggled in . . .”

On his personal experience of fame (keep in mind that about 4K of us had to line up like rock concert fans to see him), he shared his own sort of dissociated imposter feelings:
There’s a part of this that is very unreal. I don’t have any foundation. My parents were uneducated. They had very little schooling. I don’t have any foundation behind me. It’s a little shaky for me. I compare it to a lily growing in a swamp. There’s no foundation underneath. No matter how successful I am, I question . . . is this really me. Am I really successful?

As an existential psychotherapist, it’s not surprising that Yalom believes deeply in helping clients pursue meaning. This is where it gets personal for all of us. He said, “Cancer cures psychoneurosis” and that “Life cannot be postponed.” Over the years he has helped many clients focus on their regrets—which often translate into moments when they weren’t able to face life and life fully in the moment. But we shouldn’t mistake Yalom’s live-in-the-moment philosophy for old-fashioned California hot-tub hedonism. Yalom’s version of living in the moment is at once emotional AND intellectual; it is inspirational AND intentional.

Yalom also said that “Storytelling . . . may be the very best way I can teach.” Lucky for me I’ve gathered a few teaching stories over the years. Sometimes a combination of reality and my own constructive fiction, at this ACA I had a chance to share many stories. First, in a six hour pre-conference Learning Institute on Wednesday attended by 32 fabulous counselors, and later in an ACA-sponsored Friday session on Connecting and Working Effectively with Challenging Youth attended by about 200. In terms of reaping my own share of attention and praise, this was perhaps my best ACA conference ever.

But then Sunday morning comes. And when I awaken, what grand thoughts trickle into my consciousness? Do I think of the 25 people who lined up to have me sign copies of “Tough Kids, Cool Counseling?” Do I lie on the floor of my high-school educated parents home—where I’ve stopped for a short visit—feeling smug satisfaction about the glory I felt when Craig Windham of NPR fame also stood in line to have me sign a book FOR HIM. Do I reflect on the sweet and ego-boosting comments he shared with me about my work?

Nope. Nothing so grand knocks on the door of my early morning awareness. Instead, I’m transported back to a moment when, immediately after speaking to 200 conference attendees and spontaneously signing a couple books and receiving repeated praise from participants, a bold young woman approached me. She had attended BOTH my six hour workshop AND my 90 minute talk . . . and so forgive me my anticipation of praise as I looked into her eyes. But instead, she boldly told me that she’s not sure she learned anything from the six hour workshop. My well-practiced response is to welcome the criticism, while fending off disappointment and defensiveness. I feel precariously situated on my own lily pad. She goes on to explain that she’d “accidentally” gotten stuck in the 90 minute presentation and that based on what I’d talked about in there she thought I’d want the constructive feedback. “Of course I do,” I say . . . “Of course I do . . . and thank you very much for that.”

And this is the stinging mantra to which I awaken this lovely and cloudy Sunday morning. A mantra of self-doubt . . . of possible regret . . . of wondering what I did wrong . . . of how I might improve myself.

Which brings me back to one of my favorite Yalom quotations (from his Group Psychotherapy text) about universality:
During my own 600-hour analysis I had a striking personal encounter with the therapeutic factor of universality . . . I was very much troubled by the fact that, despite my strong positive sentiments, I was beset with death wishes for [my mother], as I stood to inherit part of her estate. My analyst responded simply, “That seems to be the way we’re built.” That artless statement offered not only offered considerable relief but enabled me to explore my ambivalence in great depth. (p. 7)

Thank you Dr. Yalom for helping me and many others more deeply understand ambivalence, regret, self-doubt, personal meaning, death, and many of the other interesting ways the human psyche is built. And thank you, bold young woman, for providing me with hot-tub-free grist for my morning therapeutic writing mill.



John Sommers-Flanagan is a counselor and a Professor at the Department of Counselor Education, College of Education and Human Sciences, at the University of Montana in Missoula, Montana.

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