November 1st, 2015

A night with my invisible friend

When my friend had to bow out of an educational event we had planned to attend together, I thought I would be on my own. I never expected to be sitting with a guy who snuck into the auditorium by registering under my name.

He was my younger self and he’s been popping up more and more these days since my retirement, reminding me what I used to think and feel about anything and everything.

He surprised me that late summer evening when he appeared at a videoconference featuring Dr. Irvin Yalom at Stanford University being interviewed by Dr. Bob Childs of William James College.

I did not know what to expect that night but I learned long ago that the topic of a lecture or workshop can be less important than the opportunity to interact, even by proxy, with a person whose work you admire.

This is not to say that I am well acquainted with Dr. Yalom’s work. I had not read any of his extensive writings on group psychotherapy nor did I know that he is the author of several novels.

One book of stories, the details of which I no longer recall, was enough to tell me that he was a person who appreciated the richness of human life in all of its nobility and messiness.

My younger self was not happy with my spotty reading of one of the masters but I shot him a look that said I was not asking for his opinion.

The interview opened with the picture of a modest conference room where Dr. Yalom sat at the head of an ordinary table, a notebook in front of him and his briefcase beside him on the floor.

Because he could see only the interviewer and not the audience, Dr. Yalom asked for a description of the setting and the approximate size of the audience. I don’t remember the attendance estimate but I am sure it did not include the other selves that accompanied many of us that night.

In response to Dr. Childs’ relaxed yet focused interviewing style, Dr. Yalom talked about the importance of our relationships with our patients in the here and now. He explained how he routinely asks his patients how they are doing, what feelings they took out of the last session and what were the moments when they felt close or far away from him in the therapy session.

He stressed the importance of empathy, unconditional positive regard and genuineness, which he reminded us are all correlated with a positive outcome in therapy.

Undoubtedly everyone in the room recognized these concepts as the foundation of Carl Rogers’ theory and practice of psychotherapy.

My younger self remembered learning about these concepts in graduate school and confessed that he preferred the less transparent, more probing and actively integrating position of the psychodynamic approach.

Well, that was his opinion and he’s entitled to it. He came by it naturally enough through his psychodyamically oriented training and, to be perfectly honest, he never was one to stray too far from what was considered orthodoxy in the field.

As for me, I rather liked what Yalom was saying and didn’t consider it at all incompatible with helping people develop insight into the ways they clung to outmoded solutions to life’s challenges.

Yalom discussed his position on self-disclosure in therapy and told how he shared with one of his patients his own experience of conflict with his mother and his regret about having missed an opportunity to reach out to her.

His patient had a similar conflict with her father and Yalom suggested that she might want to reach out to him.

I appreciated his courage in revealing himself to his patient in this way and understood the rationale behind his decision. Even so I wasn’t sure how comfortable I would be doing the same thing. My younger self wouldn’t have considered disclosing something so personal. When it came to a conflict with parents, he might not have even realized that he had one.

As the interview progressed, Dr. Yalom shared his belief in the value of his personal therapy, told a moving story about the impact of talking to an unresponsive catatonic patient and answered a wide range of questions from the audience

He referred to some of the books he had written and said he was currently writing a memoir. Seen even through the layers of electronic technology that make videoconferencing possible, he was as transparent and genuine with us as he encouraged us to be with our patients. He continues to work into his eighties on a reduced schedule and spontaneously acknowledges his awareness of his mortality.

He joked about the extra 30 seconds it sometimes takes him to retrieve words and hailed the arrival of each latecomer when it appeared.

Yalom’s message resonated with me and the changes he described experiencing as he grew older are becoming increasingly familiar.

My younger self agreed with much that he said but the word finding part went right over his head. After all, he’s just a kid.

Still, he holds some of my best memories, good ideas, cherished ideals and an abundance of energy. I suspect there is a lot we can learn from one another but I do wish he would stop taking me by surprise.

Alan Bodnar is a psychologist at the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital.

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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