WiseWords #14: from Irvin Yalom to Stephen Grosz
Since starting therapy I have been fascinated by this wonderful and often mysterious process. I love reading about therapy, but with an important caveat – I try and remember that there is no ‘right way’ to do therapy, and everyone’s story is different. The focus of our therapy should be our own story, and there is no prescribed path to the end point of the process. Bearing that caveat in mind, however, these were three of the books I found most helpful on the subject.
Psychodynamic Counselling in a Nutshell by Susan Howard
This is an incredibly accessible book which assumes no prior knowledge of therapy. It helped me to understand the transference that I was experiencing in sessions and it also enabled me to see the differences between the CBT and short-term psychodynamic therapy I’d had in the past, and the long-term, open-ended therapy I’m engaged in now. My previous experience had given me unconscious expectations of the process, which this book helped me to redress.
The book starts by describing some of the key concepts of the psychodynamic approach, including: the unconscious inner world and the power of dreams; our inner conflicts and resistance to change; psychological defences such as projection; and the ways in which our early childhood experiences influence our adulthood. Susan Howard then moves on to give a brief history of the development of psychoanalysis and the route by which changes in thought and practice led to the psychodynamic model. The key ideas of Freud, Jung, Klein, Winnicott and Bowlby are outlined. Following this, the books describes what happens in a psychodynamic session, touching on areas such as therapeutic neutrality, transference and countertransference. The latter chapters are directed more at therapists than clients, but provide interesting insights into therapists’ own processes during a session.
The Gift of Therapy by Irvin Yalom
Irvin Yalom is a well-known psychotherapist and writer, and the sub-heading of this book is ‘An open letter to a new generation of therapists and their patients: Reflections on being a therapist’. Though it is presented as a series of ‘tips for beginner therapists’, it is of just as much interest to patients. It is a treasure trove of experience, wisdom and anecdotes, and with 85 short chapters, is easy to dip in and out of. A flavour of the book can be given by some of its chapter headings: ‘Let the patient matter’, ‘Acknowledge your errors’, ‘Blank screen? Forget it! Be real’, ‘Talk about death’, ‘Don’t be afraid of touching your patient’, ‘Focus on resistance to decision’, ‘Don’t take explanation too seriously’, and ‘Freud was not always wrong’.
I love Yalom’s writing, and for me this book was a turning point in my understanding of the therapeutic relationship. Though other books, such as Susan Howard’s above, had spoken of the therapeutic relationship as being the agent of change, it was Yalom’s books, this one included, which really brought that home for me. He wrote: “But it is not the content of the intellectual treasure trove that matters but the hunt, which is the perfect therapy mating task…the beauty of it is that it keeps patient and therapist tightly connected while the real agent of change – the therapeutic relationship – is germinating”.
The Examined Life: How we Lose and Find Ourselves by Stephen Grosz
Like Yalom, Stephen Grosz is a superb story-teller, and this book grabbed me from its very first sentences. It is a collection of beautiful stories, snapshots, and encounters between patient and analyst. They are simple stories, about the profound complexity of human experience. They are moving, sensitive, and above all insightful. I read this book more than two years into my therapy journey, and I think it resonated all the more, for that fact. When you have been in therapy for even a little while, you come to see that it changes you, but it also changes the way that you think. You learn to look for the unique reasons, within your own story, that account for the way things are and seem for you. This is the process Grosz describes in each of his stories, which are themed into sections on ‘Beginning’, ‘Telling lies’, ‘Loving’, ‘Changing’, and ‘Leaving’ – mirroring, perhaps, an individual’s journey through therapy. One chapter, entitled ‘On being a patient’, stood out for me as a crystallization of the essence of therapy. Towards the end of story, after describing his analysis (with another therapist) to Grosz, the patient says “What’s different now is that I have in my memory this repertoire of exchanges with my analyst to call on, that I can use to understand my way out of a painful moment. I feel less lonely now”. That is where I’m headed, and Stephen Grosz has written a beautiful account of others’ unique paths towards that destination.