Tag Archives: Yalom

Yalom discusses power of therapeutic relationships at ACA Virtual Conference Experience

By Lindsey Phillips April 12, 2021

Dr. Irvin Yalom, an American existential psychiatrist and emeritus professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, is renowned for his ability to probe into the human psyche and for his interpersonal therapy groups. During the keynote to kick off the second week of the American Counseling Association’s 2021 Virtual Conference Experience, he offered a peek into his own life, sharing how therapeutic relationships have helped him personally and professionally, including in processing his grief over his wife’s death.

As part of the keynote, Jude Austin, an assistant professor and clinical mental health counseling track coordinator at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor and a private practitioner in Temple, Texas, spoke with Yalom about his early life, the beginning of his professional journey, his status as an icon of the mental health professions, and his latest book, A Matter of Death and Life.

Discovering existential therapy

After earning a Doctor of Medicine from Boston University School of Medicine, Yalom completed an internship at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York and a residency at the Henry Phipps Psychiatric Clinic of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Yalom said it was during his residency at Johns Hopkins that he discovered the field of interpersonal relationships and became “more interested in working with people rather than with medicine,” which set him apart from other psychiatry students.

He credits Existence, a book co-edited by Rollo May, an American existential psychologist, with introducing him to the interconnection between philosophy and psychiatry. It also prompted him to enroll in a yearlong philosophy course at Johns Hopkins while completing his residency.

At the time, psychiatry professor Jerome Franks served as an influential mentor to Yalom, who recalled spending hours during his training observing Franks’ therapy groups through a two-way mirror. This experience taught him that therapy was relational, he told the keynote audience. Franks’ therapy groups focused on how the group members related to one another. “It [wasn’t] about their parents and early life, etc. … It [was] looking at interpersonal relationships,” Yalom explained.

Yalom said that a mistake he made with a client years later served to remind him again of the importance of the client-therapist relationship. He found that he couldn’t connect with this particular client during their session. He felt disappointed and considered it one of the least successful sessions he had ever had, which he mentioned in his session notes. Then he committed a therapist’s worst nightmare: He accidently emailed his session notes to the client, not himself.

The client wrote back, acknowledging that she was hurt by his comments. In their next session, however, things changed because she opened up. Yalom learned that she was training to be a social worker and was reading his group therapy textbook in her class. “I interpreted her behavior in the here and now as being indicative of her inability to relate to people, but in fact it was something else entirely. All these people were praising my textbook, and she just felt very intimidated by me,” he said.

“Working on the here and now is working on the space … between me and patient,” Yalom noted. He explained that when he does single-session consultations, at some point, he will say, “Let’s take a look at how you and I are doing in this session. What’s that like for you?” He finds that the relationship between the therapist and client is often a microcosm of their relationships with other people.

Finding his way through grief

Yalom told the keynote audience that he and his wife, Marilyn Yalom, who was a world-renowned scholar in gender studies and a professor of French and comparative literature, were inseparable from the time they met when he was 15 years old. When they discovered that she was dying of cancer, she asked him to write about the experience with her. He agreed, and they wrote A Matter of Death and Life, which provides a candid description of how she prepared to die and how he struggled (and continues to struggle) to live without her.

After Marilyn’s death in November 2019, Yalom found himself rereading his own books, which he acknowledged has been very good therapy for him. He recently reread his 1999 book Momma and the Meaning of Life: Tales of Psychotherapy, particularly the chapter “Seven Advanced Lessons in the Therapy of Grief,” with renewed interest.

He recalled a former patient who repeatedly complained that he had a “perfect life” and couldn’t relate to how she felt. Yalom said that he would argue with her and ask, “Do we have to be the same for me to treat you?”

After losing his wife, Yalom said, he has reflected on that past experience with the patient. “Now, going through this, I think she’s right,” he admitted to the audience. “I know how she feels. I could do a better job with her now.”

Advice to new professionals

Austin observed that it takes courage to be in the here and now with clients and asked Yalom if he had any suggestions for counselors who are struggling to be present with clients. Yalom’s advice: Go to group therapy.

“Group therapy is an enormously good way for you to really look at how you can present yourself to other people. And if you’re being evasive [and] you’re not letting people in, the group will let you know,” he said.

He also encouraged counselors to enter therapy because it allows them to experience various therapeutic approaches firsthand. That is a great way to learn how approaches work and how they each offer something different, he asserted.

Yalom also shared a technique that he has applied with his own groups. He dictates summaries of what happens in group sessions and emails those notes to the group members so they can discuss that perspective in the following session. Yalom noted that the group members often argue with him about how he got it wrong, but such conversation leads to deeper discussion and insight about how we relate to people.

Yalom told the audience that he has been in and out of therapy several times and is currently in therapy as he processes his grief over the loss of his wife. His honesty about his experiences — both in his professional life and his personal life — is a comforting reminder of the humanity of therapists. It sends an inspiring message to other mental health professionals that they too are still growing and learning, and that is how it should be.

Dr. Irvin Yalom gives the opening keynote address in March 2017 at ACA’s annual conference & Expo in San Francisco. (Photo by Paul Sakuma Photography)


This keynote address is part of a month of virtual events, including hundreds of educational sessions and three additional keynotes, that lasts through April 30.

Find out more about the American Counseling Association’s 2021 Virtual Conference Experience at counseling.org/conference/conference-2021

Registration is open until April 30; participants will have access to all conference content until May 31.



Lindsey Phillips is a contributing writer to Counseling Today and a UX content strategist. Contact her at hello@lindseynphillips.com or through her website at lindseynphillips.com.


Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Yalom urges ACA attendees to hold fast to self-care and the therapeutic alliance

By Laurie Meyers March 17, 2017

At Friday’s opening keynote session of the American Counseling Association 2017 Conference & Expo in San Francisco, psychotherapy sage Dr. Irvin Yalom shared his insights on everything from self-care and vulnerability as a therapist to counseling by text, his love of literature and the essential nature of the therapeutic bond.

Yalom, one of the most influential mental health professionals of our time, began the session by answering a question about the importance of self-care for counselors from moderator Adele Cehrs, the CEO of Epic PR Group and a former journalist. Yalom credited strong personal relationships, including his marriage of 60-plus years and consistent peer support, as keys to his

Dr. Irvin Yalom gives the opening keynote address at ACA’s annual conference & Expo March 17. (Photo by Paul Sakuma Photography)

own personal self-care. For many years, he has been an active participant in a “leaderless” therapy group for psychotherapists (among other groups) that meets for 90 minutes every two weeks. Within the confines of these confidential group sessions, members share their day-to-day struggles and client interactions that have evoked personal problems or concerns.

“I urge you to get into a group like that,” he told the more than 3,000 counselors assembled for the keynote. “It’s a key part of my week. I never miss a meeting if I can avoid it. That is my major source of self-care. That and getting therapy.”

Likewise, Yalom encouraged counselors in the audience to secure their own personal therapy, not just once, but many times throughout their careers.

In response to a question from Cehrs, Yalom also spoke about how and why he often chooses to “reveal” some aspect of himself in interactions with his clients. He said that his upcoming memoir — which he believes will be the last book that he will write — touches on this topic in some depth.

Yalom said he always tries to be “real” with clients and bring something of himself to the session. When Cehrs asked if he thought that he’d ever crossed a line and revealed too much, he thought for a moment before replying no.

“I can be quite revealing … but always in service of therapy,” he said.

Part of being revealing is choosing to be vulnerable as a therapist and admitting to his clients that he doesn’t have all the answers — a practice he started early in his career. Offering an example, Yalom recalled the first session he had as a young therapist with a female client in her 30s. He asked her what brought her to therapy.

“She said, ‘Well, I’m a lesbian,’” he recounts. This was in 1955, Yalom notes, and he genuinely had no frame of reference for this client at that time. “I don’t know what that is,” he told the client. “Could you please educate me?”

Yalom also recalled another valuable lesson he learned early on that cemented his belief that it could be valuable to put himself into his interactions with clients. While working in a long-term care facility, he was charged with treating a woman with catatonia. He met with her every day, but she never spoke. In fact, she was completely unresponsive, much like a living statue. Unsure of how to connect with a client who couldn’t respond, Yalom decided he would simply talk to her. He began sharing with her what he’d read that morning in the newspaper or talking about how he was doing.

Several months later, the patient was prescribed a new drug that had an amazing therapeutic effect, dispelling the catatonia and allowing the woman to speak again. Yalom was curious about her perception of the “therapy” he had tried during her period of catatonia and asked her what it was like.

“Dr. Yalom,” the woman said, “you were my bread and butter.”

This also demonstrated to Yalom the power of the therapeutic bond. He saw that simply by interacting with the woman and showing her that she still had value, even when she was catatonic, he had brought her comfort.

Yalom, an emeritus professor of psychiatry at the Stanford University School of Medicine, is also known as a prolific writer of both nonfiction and fiction, including his widely praised “teaching stories” and “teaching novels.” He described these works to the audience as having “one leg in literature and one leg in psychotherapy.”

“When I was a teenager, I had this strong idea that the best thing one could do was to write a novel,” Yalom told the audience. However, he revealed, as the child of Russian immigrants, he essentially had two options when it came to career choice: “We could become doctors, or we could become failures.” Although, in truth, there was a third option. “We could go into business with our father,” he added.

Yalom also responded to queries about advice for new counselors and his views on the role of technology in counseling. He expressed regret that so many new counselors work in environments that focus solely on cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) because it is labeled an evidence-based model. “CBT omits the essence of psychotherapy — the interpersonal nature of the therapeutic relationship,” Yalom asserted.

When asked about telecounseling, Yalom talked about being invited to work for a company that facilitates counseling via text. He initially thought it was a horrible idea, but the organization convinced him to supervise some novice psychotherapists. Yalom was surprised by what he learned.

“They [the psychotherapists] weren’t doing what I would have done, but it was working,” he said. “Clients felt very connected.”

But when the company expanded to telephone and video counseling, clients weren’t as enthusiastic.

“There is a whole new generation that wants to talk that way [by text],” Yalom says. “They’re not comfortable on the phone or on video.”

Innovations such as these have the power to help many people, Yalom noted. Still, he reminded his supervisees — and the audience at his keynote — not to lose sight of the therapeutic alliance, even when using new technologies.

“You can still ask [the client], ‘How are things going between us?’”



Dr. Irvin Yalom (left) shared insights from his storied career and answered questions from the audience at ACA’s annual conference & Expo March 17. At right is moderator Adele Cehrs, CEO of Epic PR Group and a former journalist. (Photo by Paul Sakuma Photography)


Dr. Irvin Yalom signs books and meets attendees after his keynote address at ACA’s annual Conference & Expo March 17. (Photo by Paul Sakuma Photography)


For more photos from the conference and Yalom’s keynote, see bit.ly/1MOAysM




Laurie Meyers is senior writer at Counseling Today. Contact her at LMeyers@counseling.org




Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Counseling Connoisseur: What Would Yalom Do? A Tribute

By Cheryl Fisher March 10, 2017


Editor’s note: CT Online columnist Cheryl Fisher writes this appreciation of Irvin Yalom in anticipation of his keynote address at ACA’s upcoming 2017 Conference & Expo in San Francisco. Find out more at counseling.org/conference/sanfransisco2017.




“What I want is to be intimate with the knowledge that life is temporary. And then, in the light (or shadow) of that knowledge, to know how to live. How to live now.”

― Irvin Yalom, Creatures of a Day: And Other Tales of Psychotherapy


I have a passion for books. You know, the old-fashioned paper kind. The kind that are transforming, as they [themselves] are transformed by every crinkled, coffee-stained page and dog-eared corner with smudges of comments penciled in the margin. The kind that, once read, become a part of one’s being. I love books so much that this past summer, I had beautiful built-in bookshelves installed in my home, along with a window seat where I fancied myself enjoying my literary mecca. I have shelves devoted to theologians, philosophers, feminist scholars and mental and holistic health experts ― with a smattering of best-selling novels and summer romance paperbacks.

As I reflect on the insights penned on the pages of the many volumes now perched on my bookshelves, my attention turns to the vast wisdom found in the works of Irvin Yalom. His work, spanning decades, contributes to the counseling profession in ways that transformed psychotherapy from science to art. In The Gift of Therapy: An Open Letter to a New Generation of Therapists and Their Patients, Yalom invites the clinician to not only invest in, but therapeutically utilize, the client-counselor relationship that presents in each session. Through a series of vignettes, Love’s Executioner provides examples of the tender and complex tapestry of human experience that occurs between the therapist and client: “A therapist helps a patient not by sifting through the past but by being lovingly present with that person; by being trustworthy, interested, and by believing that their joint activity will ultimately be redemptive and healing.”

In Momma and the Meaning of Life, Yalom graciously offers his experience in grappling with his relationship with his own mother (“who had a poisonous tongue”) years after her death. He further examines grief therapy intimately by exploring the many facets of loss and death. He continues his exploration of death anxiety in Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death, where he posits, “It’s not easy to live every moment wholly aware of death. It’s like trying to stare the sun in the face; you can stand only so much of it.” He returns to the topic of death anxiety as he explores his own mortality in his more recent release, Creatures of a Day and Other Tales of Psychotherapy.

In his fictional teaching novels — The Schopenhauer Cure, The Spinoza Problem, Lying on the Couch and, my personal favorite, When Nietzsche Wept — Yalom plucks key philosophers and physicians from history and transplants them into a terrace of tales that not only explore the complexity of human behavior and mental processes, but dare to venture into the minds of those who struggle to understand it.

Yalom’s words and transparency have informed my own practice and guided me to discover my ultimate message as a counselor educator: “Illuminate the shadow and embrace your humanity so that you may fully consummate your life. For we are people, not pathologies seeking to connect to oneself, others and the Sacred.”


In tribute to this great clinician, author and educator, I offer online readers the article I wrote as a final letter to my graduating counseling students, titled What Would Yalom Do? Ten Nuggets of Wisdom for Counselors Old and New.





Cheryl Fisher


Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland, and a visiting full-time faculty member in the Pastoral Counseling Department at Loyola University Maryland. Her current research examines sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer. She is working on a book titled Homegrown Psychotherapy: Scientifically Based Organic Practices that speaks to nature-based wisdom. Contact her at cyfisherphd@gmail.com.




Dr. Irvin Yalom will speak Friday, March 17 at the 2017 ACA Conference & Expo in San Francisco and will sign books afterward. His keynote will also be live-streamed online. Find out more at counseling.org/conference/sanfrancisco2017


Find out more about his work and books at yalom.com





Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.


Irvin Yalom to welcome questions at ACA Conference

By Bethany Bray January 31, 2017

Attendees of the American Counseling Association 2017 Conference & Expo in San Francisco will have an opportunity to direct their questions to a living legend in the field of mental health.

Irvin Yalom, noted psychiatrist, author and scholar, will deliver the opening keynote speech on March 17 at the ACA Conference. He plans to format his talk as a live interview, fielding questions from the audience. Afterward, he will sign books and take photos with attendees.

“Dr. Yalom has influenced my personal and professional life for many years; his books have often brought a light to my thought process and a shine to my heart,” says Catherine B. Roland, ACA president and chair of the counseling program at the Washington, D.C., campus of the

Dr. Irvin Yalom, pictured at ACA’s 2012 Conference & Expo in San Francisco.

Chicago School of Professional Psychology. “He is the perfect person to speak, given his gentle direction forward — always forward, with hope.”

ACA’s 2017 conference will run March 16-19 at the Moscone West Convention Center
in San Francisco. Jessica Pettitt will give the Saturday keynote address on March 18.

An existential psychiatrist, Yalom is professor emeritus of psychiatry at Stanford University and author of more than a dozen books, both nonfiction and fiction. He also delivered the keynote address the last time that ACA held its conference in San Francisco, in 2012.

Yalom lives with his wife, Marilyn, in California, where he writes and sees clients at his private practice. His latest title, a memoir, is in the editing process and will be published by Basic Books.


CT Online sent Yalom some questions to learn more and get his thoughts on speaking at the upcoming ACA Conference.



What motivated you to accept this speaking engagement to address thousands of professional counselors?

I am devoted to our field of helping others in need, and I am honored to be invited to address such a large and important group of therapists.


What can American Counseling Association members expect from your keynote? What might you talk about?

The format is an interview, and I’m open to discussing my personal history and the development of my particular interests in the field. Namely, group therapy, individual therapy with an emphasis on existential factors and the use of the relationship, and my use of narrative in teaching psychotherapy.


Many counselors consider you a professional influence and inspiration. What would you want them to know about your experiences and career path?

[In my keynote, I’ll be] glad to discuss my own development in the field and how I’ve reacted toward psychoanalysis and interpersonal approaches, group approaches and groups for learning interpersonal skills and for inpatient and outpatient psychotherapy.


What advice would you give professional counselors, particularly those who may be early in their careers?

Learn as much as possible about all the various approaches, but don’t forget that it is the intensity, the depth and the genuineness of the therapist-client relationship that really is the instrument of change. Also get yourself into therapy — and I advise [seeing a therapist] more than once and with individuals from varying schools [therapy methods]. And leap at the opportunity to be in a group with peers.





Dr. Irvin Yalom will speak Friday, March 17, at the 2017 ACA Conference & Expo in San Francisco and sign books afterward. His keynote will also be live-streamed online. Find out more at counseling.org/conference/sanfrancisco2017


Find out more about his work and his books at yalom.com





Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org


Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook at facebook.com/CounselingToday.






Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.


Review: ‘Yalom’s Cure’ offers an honest glimpse into psychiatrist’s life

By Bethany Bray April 18, 2016

Psychiatrist Irvin Yalom is a giant in the field – a well-known author and scholar. But his life hasn’t always taken an easy or clearly-marked route to success.

The new documentary Yalom’s Cure offers a glimpse of the man beyond his many degrees, accolades and accomplishments.

Yalom offers insights through on-camera interviews and shares some of the history and experiences that have made him who he is today. An existential psychiatrist, Yalom is a professor emeritus of psychiatry at Stanford University and author of more than a dozen books, both nonfiction and fiction.


“Therapists are in therapy their entire lives,” Yalom muses in the film’s narrative. “Learning, changing, (and) growing is kind of part of our lifelong education. So knowing oneself is very important. Socrates spent a long time teaching that, and I very much agree with him.”

Directed by Swiss filmmaker Sabine Gisiger, Yalom’s Cure is done in a biographical style, including interviews with Yalom, his wife Marilyn and their children and grandchildren.

Through footage of family vacations and scenes of Yalom at home and at work, we are given a glimpse of Yalom’s family dynamics, his long-lasting relationship with Marilyn, his reflections on a life of learning and his professional and personal struggles along the way.

“If we don’t understand ourselves we may not be able to understand others, or appreciate others,” Yalom says. “I’m a guide on this voyage of self-exploration. I’m a guide because I’ve been there before.”

The film weaves footage of his professional life – including a brief clip of him at ACA’s 2012 Conference & Expo in San Francisco, where he was keynote speaker – with scenes of him working with a client, childhood photos, family home videos and archive footage of him leading group sessions in training videos from the 1970s and 1980s. Yalom’s contemplative narrative is also voiced over footage of him riding a bicycle, lost in thought or pouring over notes in his office or cooking with Marilyn or laughing with her in a hot tub.

He talks openly about his family relationships and the many phases of life that led to his professional journey from medical school in the 1950s to becoming a psychiatrist, professor and author.

Yalom trained with a Freudian analyst while at Johns Hopkins University in the 1950s. The many hours he spent with this therapist taught him “how not to be with patients,” he says. With the Freudian method – “a very bad model,” says Yalom – the therapist is unreactive and unengaged with what the client is saying.

Clients need an authentic, genuine relationship with a therapist, he says, in which the clinician is “both participant and observer.”

Yalom goes on to talk about his early start with group work, his professional journey and his calling to write.

Every person feels worry and stress – it is universal, although different cultures deal with it differently, Yalom muses.

“That is something that therapy can help you realize,” he says. “It’s a ‘welcome to the human race’ kind of thing.”

Yalom was one of the most-mentioned figures in Counseling Today’s recent “Influential thinkers” project. Numerous counselors said Yalom was someone who most influenced their professional work.

Born in 1931, Yalom was 80 at the time of the filming of Yalom’s Cure. He continues to see clients at his private practice in California, write and do speaking engagements. His latest book, Creatures of a Day: And Other Tales of Psychotherapy, was released in February.

“I feel freer and not anxious about things. I feel very creative and very excited about my work,” Yalom says, breaking into a smile. “I just want to say to the younger people (who are watching): There may be even better days ahead.”





Yalom’s Cure was screened in Los Angeles this spring. The DVD is now available for purchase.


For more information or to watch the trailer, visit yalomscure.com





Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org


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