The Man, The Myth, The Yalom: My Thoughts on Intimacy in the Therapeutic Relationship.
Last weekend, I had the privilege of attending the 2018 Psychotherapy Networker Symposium in Washington, DC. It was here that I squeezed into a back row seat in a packed auditorium for the chance to witness one of the greats, Irvin Yalom. For those who don't know, Irvin Yalom is something of a legend in psychology world. Most therapists first encounter Yalom's work during their introductory classes in respective graduate programs. Many of us continue to reference his literature for inspiration, guidance, and insight as we continue our journey toward professional growth in our clinical practices.
Let me begin by saying that Yalom did not disappoint. He lived up to his legacy, and at 86-years-young, managed to captivate a room full of therapists who had endured four long days of networking and continuing education presentations (no easy feat). His speech combined humor, warmth, wisdom, and just the right amount of zest. The two themes in his presentation revolved around the importance of narrative work, and the value of self-disclosure-- the latter of which I will weigh in on.
Yalom presented his stance on self-disclosure by sharing a story about a client whom he met with for a consultation, who had resigned herself to hopelessness due to her many "failed" attempts at therapy and addiction treatment over the years. After falling short at his attempts to engage this client through validation and reassurance, Yalom resorted to sharing a picture of his childhood home. He described holding back tears as he showed his client an image depicting his impoverished childhood, with the intention of offering some hope about the possibility of growth despite seemingly impossible obstacles. In his second example, a client experienced the loss of several family members in a short period of time. She discussed her grief, comparing her sense of loneliness to riding on a train with no other passengers. Once again, Yalom pulled upon his own life experiences, and disclosed that he, too, wrestled with existential fears compounded by the loss of his friends. The client's response? "Perhaps there is someone else on the train, after all."
And that's Yalom, in a nutshell. Incredibly authentic, in-tune with the emotional needs of his clients, and eager to connect in whichever way will best serve the client. So often we shy away from vulnerability out of fear of connecting, or, God forbid, crossing a boundary with our clients. Let me preface my stance by clarifying that any good clinician understands the importance of boundaries, and I am by no means looking to challenge the necessity of maintaining those limits. It would, of course, be inappropriate to ignore the instincts that allow us to maintain professional relationships. Rather, I'm proposing that we pause for a moment prior to setting those limits, and ask ourselves who the boundary is really intended to protect: ourselves or the client?
See, therapists are often quick to set a swift boundary at the first sign of intimacy. Oftentimes our clinical training or the organizations we work for insist on it. However, perhaps excessive boundary-setting limits human connection between the therapist and client. Too often, the fear of crossing boundaries leads us too far in the wrong direction, to the point where we build impenetrable walls between ourselves and the client, keeping our humanity out of the client's reach. In my own practice, I'd like to revisit the potential benefits of modeling authenticity and vulnerability through the occasional self-disclosure.
Self-disclosure, like many other indulgences in life, should be used artfully and sparingly. Like a secret ingredient in a family recipe, self-disclosure is best used in moderation so as to not overwhelm the other ingredients, but rather enhance the overall relationship between them. The tiniest bit of vulnerability from a therapist can go a long way, and can enrich the connection between clinician and client when used skillfully. However, when used in excess, self-disclosure can detract from the substance of our sessions.
My take away? It's time to challenge the fear of being vulnerable in my sessions when used to protect against the potential of genuinely caring. Boundaries should be set for the benefit of the client, rather than the therapist. I'd like to accept the challenge of incorporating some ingenuity, spontaneity, and vulnerability in a world full of regimented, manualized therapy. Yalom embraced his therapeutic instincts by responding to his gut sense of the client's needs, rather than allowing rigid rules to direct his practice. I hope to embrace his wisdom by emulating this gift. I hope to allow my clients to see my human side as a means of really connecting.