The Day I Met Irvin Yalom
Yalom is a widely respected existential psychiatrist whose books are referenced in many therapy schools (especially his book/guide on Group Therapy). In 2013, I emailed him to see if he meets with therapy students, and I was shocked to get an answer saying that yes he does consultations. So I flew to San Francisco and met with him for an hour.
I was nervous and out of breath as I walked through San Francisco’s Chinatown to get to his office. I have a theory that the really good therapists make clients climb to get to them. My therapist’s entrance has 24 steps. My previous therapist who sprinkled CBT on me (with handouts and blank stares) only had 4 steps. Yalom has the straight up-and-down hills of San Francisco. I arrived early at his office, found a park bench overlooking the city, and sat with my thoughts. At 2:45pm, I went to the front door buzzer and hit the number for “Yalom.” He answered, and told me “to head up.” I went to the stairwell, climbed a few levels, and realized there were about 100 offices and ten floors. I returned to the lobby and heard him calling: “Marc, Marc, Marc!” I wondered if it was a bad start that I was already lost and Irvin Yalom was calling my name. We then walked to the elevator, and he asked how school was going. I mentioned that I have another year of studying before starting an internship, and that I was in a different school before this one. He apparently noticed that I winced as I said this, and he called me on it. He wondered if he hurt my feelings by asking that question. I said I just felt shame because I had basically repeated the first year of school again. He mentioned it was very positive that I had the presence to get out of a program that wasn’t helping me become a good therapist. I quietly thought it was funny we weren’t even in his office yet, and I was already pinned to the elevator panel of the here-and-now… Halfway through the session, I mustered up some courage and asked about the here-and-now between us so far. I think it surprised us both, and then he smiled and mentioned that I have anxiety. He said it very matter-of-factly, as if he were reading a newspaper article out-loud to someone. He said that he struggles with it as well. His wife thinks it is amusing that he runs groups and gives presentations because those are the things that terrify him. It felt like we needed to talk about what was happening in the room before we could fully engage in an honest conversation about struggles and heartache. He referred to me as a wounded healer (Carl Jung) which I thought was encouraging. I figured that was probably the hardest thing to ask Yalom, so I jumped in again and brought up the topic of how evil afflicts clients. Why not? This might be my only opportunity to ask him whatever is on my mind. I had recently read a couple of Scott Peck’s books on evil. Yalom was not impressed with this, and said the guy wrote one popular book and a really horrible novel. I nodded and said, “Yeah I can see that you would have that perspective. You’re Yalom.” He said that evil “as an entity” isn’t something he believes in as an atheist, but he has visited clients in jail who have murdered people. He just focuses on the client’s past and what caused this person to become a certain way. This led to a discussion on the existence of God. He told me that the blood vessels behind the eyes are so poorly designed that it proves a designing Creator could not have been present. It was interesting that he said he would never try to disprove someone’s belief system and replace it with nothing, especially when the belief gives the person hope. The focus on the here-and-now was intense and I found myself both pursuing it and also being unsure about it. It was a bit uncomfortable to have so much attention given to every expression on my face. A few times, I felt that what I tried to share was logically dissected for analytical review. The here-and-now can open unexpected windows, but I learned that it can also miss the heart of what a client is trying to share with a therapist. I might be spoiled with the emphasis on emotion in the practicum conversations about "where the feelings are landing right now." At the end of our session, I asked him what advice he would give his younger-therapist-self. He suggested getting really good supervision, participating in consult groups, having close friends who are also in this process, and doing whatever is possible to increase social support. He said the job is lonely and isolating without it. When he was in school, he went to therapy 4-5 times a week with all different therapists (psychoanalysis, CBT, gestalt, existential, etc). He invited me to come back in a few years, and with that we shook hands and said goodbye. I felt honored that he took the time to talk with me, and I appreciated the opportunity to face a big fear. What shocked me though was that I got to see his humanity – he is a flawed being just like the rest of us. My tendency to idolize celebrities or successful people tends to limit my ability to recognize that I also bring good things. Every voice is important, whether it be a well-seasoned therapist/author, or an innocent child. We are all a work-in-progress.