During the past twenty years, I have taught courses in intellectual history via a “Great Books” program. From teaching these books, I learned a great deal. But never did I expect that I would learn a great deal about myself as an individual. But I did, and among the great literature, nowhere did I learn more about the “self” than in reading and teaching the great epics.
In the epics, the hero generally finds his mid-life interrupted and the need to take an unexpected and treacherous journey. On the journey, he becomes who he really is and, finally, returns home to see things in new perspective. In other words, the heroes transitioned from “Act 1” to “Act 2” of their lives through the crucible of unanticipated events and challenges.
I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, when I learned that eminent psychotherapist Irvin Yalom had written a retrospective autobiography that detailed how he had “become himself” through mid-life and late-life experiences and encounters. His unexpected journey involved the lessons he learned from his therapeutic clients; as he encountered them, he learned about himself.
Becoming Myself is organized into short chapters. Each chapter offers a vignette from Yalom’s life, including fascinating stories from his encounters with clients and travels abroad. More than anything, Yalom focuses on what he has learned from the love of his life, his wife Marilyn, and how she has enabled his many successes in life.
The author structures the book around short chapters detailing his interactions with various clients. Woven through the client profiles are Yalom’s reflections on his own life. During his younger years, he was a self-proclaimed disturber of the peace who caused unrest in his family by his rebellion and chronic disrespect. He expresses regret that he was not able to connect relationally with his working-class immigrant parents before they passed away. During his mid-life, he was a medical student-become-psychotherapist who married the love of his life. During his later life, he is a celebrated psychotherapist and grandfather who has finally “found” himself.
Each chapter’s client stories—around which Yalom’s personal narrative is woven—are fascinating in-and-of-themselves. They provide the reader a glimpse of how Yalom counseled people with a wide variety of issues, and thus serve as a sort of long-distance counseling regimen for the reader. Additionally, Yalom shows how his interactions with clients affected him personally. “My clients’ memories more often trigger my own,” he writes, “my work on their future, calls upon and disturbs my past, and I find myself reconsidering my own story.” Yalom is quite vulnerable, even detailing how he fell in love with a few of his clients and even lapsed into occasional drug use.
Yalom’s Life Lessons
Some of the lessons Yalom learned benefited not only himself, personally, but also his profession as a psychotherapist. Some of those lessons led to innovations within his field. He is one of the founding fathers of “existential psychotherapy,” one of the leading proponents of authentic personal interaction between therapist and patient, and progenitor of the concept of “therapeutic self-disclosure.”
In his seminal book, Existential Psychotherapy, Yalom identifies death, freedom, isolation, and meaningless, as the four ultimate concerns in life. He argues that human experiences such as these—as well as anxiety, alienation, and depression—do not necessarily imply the presence of mental illness; instead, they are part of normal human development and maturation. By recognizing the presence of these fears and feelings, one can forge a more meaningful life.
As Yalom began to practice what is now known as existential psychotherapy, he also began to realize the extent to which authentic interpersonal relationships are vital for negotiating one’s life in a healthy manner. This insight caused Yalom to become the founder and patriarch of group therapy, in which participants analyze themselves by analyzing their interactions with, and reaction to, other people in the group. For the participant, these groups become a microcosm of the real world, a laboratory where they learn to relate to those around them.
In the initial stages of leading such groups, Yalom formulated the concept of therapeutic self-disclosure, in which the therapist foregoes clinical neutrality—the orthodox Freudian approach in which the therapist remains impersonal and detached during sessions—in favor of authentic personal interaction with the patient. Yalom’s insight is that a therapist-patient session can itself be a form of group therapy. The patient learns about himself or herself through authentic personal interaction with the therapist.
In Becoming Myself, Yalom led group therapy for people suffering from terminal cancer. While doing so, Yalom came upon his second innovation, the insight that every person’s subconscious dread of death causes the majority of our psychotherapeutic problems. Thus, Yalom might ask a patient to, for example, draw a narrative timeline of their life and to plot the point on that timeline where the present moment is situated. This exercise helps the patient confront the shortness of life and deal with it as a fact; thus, the patient can be liberated to live the remainder of his or her life without regret. It is never too late to turn one’s life around.
Other lessons Yalom learned benefited him personally, without explicit significance for his professional life. In many passages, he writes less as a therapist and more as an existential pilgrim meandering and retracing many of the paths he walked earlier in life.
He is unrelentingly honest and delightfully self-deprecatory as he describes his early life in a rat-infested home and dangerous neighborhood; here he became a young rebel, some of whose choices he now frowns upon, but here he also learned to rely on himself and think for himself. Most significantly, during his childhood and adolescent years, he developed a longing for a mentor and for heartfelt connections with other people.
Later in life, he experimented with drugs and participated in the excesses of the 60s. He built a successful career as a psychiatrist, professor, and psychotherapist, and even fell in love with a few of his clients. He married the love of his life and became a father and doting grandfather. Through all of these life experiences, he learned to cultivate gratitude, love, and empathy.
Becoming Our Best Self
Becoming Myself is a heartfelt, wise, and exquisitely well-written book. It offers to the reader lessons in introspection and happy living, from a world-renowned psychotherapist and wonderful human being. I read it from cover to cover on the weekend. Completing the book was a goodbye for which I was ill-prepared.
Yet, I remember what I learned from another great writer, Plato, who recorded moments from the life of Socrates, his mentor. As Plato recounts, Socrates’ great conviction was that the unexamined life is not worth living. Indeed, it is not. And what Socrates argued didactically, Yalom reveals narratively. Reading his memoir is itself therapeutic. By describing his own personal development honestly—admitting his flaws, exposing his struggles, sharing his insights and victories—he offers hope to the reader that we can live reasonably happy and meaningful lives.
Think about it. We regularly examine the things that are most important to us. We examine our health, going for regular checkups. We look into the health of our cars, going in for regular service checks. We pay attention to our finances, checking our bank accounts and investments. We might also regularly examine the sports world, social media, our appearance, the news, the weather, or our email.
The point is this: if something is important to us, even only subconsciously, we examine it regularly. How much more should we examine ourselves?
After all, God examines our lives. Thus, nobody lives an unexamined life because the Creator himself sees everything about us. Consider the prophet Jeremiah’s declaration that God sees and test a person’s heart (Jer 11:20; 20:12), that his “eyes are open to all the ways of the sons of men” (Jer 32:19). Similarly, the Psalmist and Wisdom writer observe God’s all-knowing gaze (Ps 7:9; Prov 17:3).
Thus, we must prayerfully open ourselves by asking God to enable us to regularly make rigorous evaluations of our feelings, thoughts, inner life, conscience, faith. Unexamined feelings can lead us astray from reality and our mental health. Unexamined consciences are not worth heeding. Unexamined faith is not worth it’s weight in salt.
Thus, Let’s do what Yalom did, but with God as our guide. Let’s use the people, events, and experiences of our lives to cause us to examine ourselves.