Tag Archives: Irvin Yalom

What Kind of a Man Attends the 4th National Psychotherapy with Men Conference?

Several years ago a former student caught up with me in the hall outside my office in the College of Education at the University of Montana. He had taken an Intro to Psychology course from me way back in 1982. He re-introduced himself, complimented me on my teaching from three decades previously, and then, glancing at my name on the door, asked, “What kind of a man hyphenates his last name?”

I was speechless (which doesn’t happen all that often). He had just told me of his divorce; he had marveled at me being married for 25 years; and yet there it was, a small-dose of straight on masculine-shaming.

I said what most of us probably say when questioned about our masculinity.

I said nothing.

In retrospect, I wish I’d said: “I hyphenated my name because I’m the kind of man who wants to stay married and have a real partnership with his wife.” Hmm. That might have been over-the-top.
I didn’t have a balanced answer then and I’m not sure I have a good one now. But, how about cutting to the chase and meeting his question with one of my own?

“What kind of a man questions another man about his masculinity?”

That might have been fun, but obviously not perfect. And that’s the point; it can be difficult to find the right words in response to comments on our masculinity.

This past Saturday I had the privilege of embracing all dimensions of my humanity, without needing to worry about sideways—or straight on—masculinity comments. That’s because I had the good fortune of attending the 4th National Psychotherapy with Men Conference. Of course, my comfort might have been because the chief conference organizer, Matt Englar-Carlson, a faculty member in the Department of Counseling at Cal State Fullerton, is also a hyphenator. But more likely it was because this particular conference was all about acceptance, inclusion, listening, understanding, learning . . . and most of all CONNECTION. Masculine shaming was nowhere in the room.

The conference organizers, Englar-Carlson, David Shepard, and Rebekah Smart, set the tone for understanding and inclusiveness in their opening comments. The opening keynote followed and it was BY A WOMAN . . . which this leads me to back to my masculine-shaming theme for today:

“What kind of a MEN AND MASCULINITY organization sponsors a conference on psychotherapy with men and then has an opening keynote speech BY A WOMAN?”

Answer: “The kind of organization populated by people who have the good judgment to be very interested in listening to and understanding women’s perspectives.”

And so we all got to listen to—not just any woman (although that would have been fine too, because the conference wasn’t about status)—but the renowned Judith Jordan, author of many books and co-director of the Jean Baker Miller Institute. How cool is that?

After Jordan explored how we can raise boys to be competent and connected men, we scattered to different break-out sessions. As my adolescent clients would say, this sucked because it’s hard to make hard choices. My principle regret of the whole conference was that even though I have two last names, there’s still only one of me and so I couldn’t attend EVERY SESSION, but instead had make choices. And although I was perfectly happy to start my break-out experiences listening to Christopher Kilmartin, professor of psychology at the University of Mary Washington, as Irvin Yalom would say, it meant the death of the rest of my choices.

But seriously . . . here’s the important question: “What kind of a man accepts a faculty position at an institution named THE UNIVERSITY OF MARY WASHINGTON?”

Answer: “The same kind of man who gets asked to spend a year teaching sexual assault prevention at the Air Force Academy.” Now that’s a pretty good answer.

Kilmartin was awesome (just ask my wife, because I’ve been quoting him all week). But being at his break-out session made me miss the amazing Jon Carlson who might be the kindest, gentlest, and most humble person I know with hundreds of professional publications, video productions, and spare time to raise five children (two adopted) including the hyphenated conference organizer, who happens to have full professor status despite looking like he just shaved for the first time last week.

Naturally, the psychotherapy with men conference lunch had a vegetarian option (at this point I should also mention the Starbucks coffee and whole wheat bagels in the morning and the Panera coffee and cookies in the afternoon). Right after lunch, we gathered to listen to Fredric Rabinowitz, the afternoon keynote. Rabinowitz, who also happens to play tournament poker, talked about Deepening Psychotherapy with Men. He emphasized that, for men, there’s a substantial vocabulary about defenses, but not Department of Connection. For the past 20+ years he has helped men go deep and express their pain and loss in ways that are (surprise!) contrary to how society expects men to express their pain and loss. Unfortunately, Rabinowitz had to miss an annual fancy poker tournament to attend the conference . . . which leads to the obvious question:

“What kind of a man misses a poker tournament to talk with a bunch of sensitive psychotherapy-types?”

Answer: “A pretty cool dude who knows his priorities.”

After Rabinowitz’s keynote, there were more decisions. In my program I had circled presentations by David Shepard and Michele Harway as well as Chris Liang. But I should confess here-and-now that I got slightly intoxicated with Panera coffee and cookies and ended up wandering into the wrong room with three Canadian presenters who were talking about how to help men transition from military to civilian life. It might have partially been the coffee, but the Three Canadians ROCKED MY WORLD . . . which begs the question:

“What kind of a man gets his world rocked by Three Canadians?”

Answer: “The kind of man who recognizes they have such fabulous clinical skills and compassion and cleverness that it makes him wish he was born and raised in Vancouver, B.C. instead of Vancouver, Washington (not that there’s anything wrong with Vancouver, WA).”

After my Canadian experience I staggered into Mark Stevens’s presentation on Engaging Men in the Process of Psychotherapy. Stevens showed photos of little boys and asked us to remember that ALL OF OUR MALE CLIENTS were once sensitive boys (not little men). He urged us to engage men slowly, but to not judge or underestimate them in ways that minimize or shrink their humanity. This was awesome, but I have to ask:

“What kind of a man shows photos of little boys during a professional presentation?”

Answer: “The kind of man who understands how to work effectively with men.”

At this conference you didn’t need a hyphenated name and you didn’t need an un-hyphenated name, because there was no shaming either way. There was just acceptance; acceptance of being scared boys and scared girls who are doing the best we can to openly affirm and connect with each other. And these connections reached across races, to the transgendered, to the women, and even to graduate students. If you’re interested in this sort of thing (and I think you should be), you should check out Division 51 of the American Psychological Association at: http://www.division51.org/

BTW, at the post-conference social I got to meet lore m. dickey, who presented earlier in the day on Affirmative Practice with Transgender Clients. He immediately shared with me that he is a female to male transsexual. That’s the sort of openness and connection you get at the Psychotherapy with Men conference. But I’m sure you know this leads me to another purposely masculinity-shaming question.

“What kind of a man chooses to go through a female to male transgender process?”

“The kind of a man who has achieved clarity about his male identity.”

The day ended with me hanging out with the Three Canadians—whom I should name here (Marvin Westwood, David Kuhl, and Duncan Shields). They welcomed me to their table at the social time where we engaged in an extended international mutual appreciation festival. You should really look them up.

All this brings me to my final question:

“What kind of a man writes an fluffy, complimentary, and sycophantic blog about the 4th National Psychotherapy with Men Conference?”

Answer: “The kind of man who wants to offer the conference organizers and participants the thanks and praise they deserve.”

 

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Reflections on Listening to Irvin Yalom at the ACA Conference

After a few hectic and overstimulating days at the ACA World Conference in San Francisco, I’ve now secured the back table at a Starbucks in Vancouver, WA for brief written reflection. This reflection weaves quotations (and paraphrases) from the great Irvin Yalom into my own personal conference experiences.

My formal conference highlight was watching and listening as NPR’s Craig Windham interviewed Yalom onstage for the keynote. After listening to Yalom’s keynote six years ago, I think the interview format was an ingenious method for capturing a more personal glimpse into Yalom and his writing than a stand and deliver keynote speech.

I especially enjoyed listening to Yalom reflect on his early years. Two statements stand out:

On his career decision-making as a child of Russian immigrants: “We had two choices: We could become a doctor or a failure.”

On his unparalleled greatness within the field of group psychotherapy: “My wife thinks it’s rather ironic that I became an expert in group psychotherapy, because I’m really quite uncomfortable in groups.”

Early in his “speech” Yalom emphasized the importance of counselors to the field of psychotherapy. In several ways he made curiously stimulating statements emphasizing (I’m paraphrasing now) that counselors are the future of psychotherapy. As a hybrid counselor and psychologist, I wonder if he would have made the same statements had he been keynoting at the annual American Psychological Association meeting.

My reactions to Yalom’s claim about counselors being the future of psychotherapy are free-ranging like the chickens in our backyard, but here are two:

Yes, I think counselors will be the future of psychotherapy, but only if we’re able to stop getting in our own way . . . And psychologists will undoubtedly be the future of measuring psychotherapy efficacy . . . if they (or we) can manage to focus on issues more meaningful than pharmacology and neuroscience.

For those curious about where Yalom finds his writing inspiration, in response to Windham’s questioning, he disclosed that as a Californian he has mastered the evening hot tub experience. Subsequently, he’s able to write most productively in the morning about “what I’ve learned in the hot tub.” I suspect there’s a bit more to it than that . . . but for those of us aspiring toward more writing greatness it makes for a solid rationale for nightly inspirational hot-tubbing.

On the popularity of his Group Psychotherapy text, Yalom stated: “I suspect it’s because of the stories in the book that I smuggled in . . .”

On his personal experience of fame (keep in mind that about 4K of us had to line up like rock concert fans to see him), he shared his own sort of dissociated imposter feelings:

“There’s a part of this that is very unreal. I don’t have any foundation. My parents were uneducated. They had very little schooling. I don’t have any foundation behind me. It’s a little shaky for me. I compare it to a lily growing in a swamp. There’s no foundation underneath. No matter how successful I am, I question . . . is this really me. Am I really successful?”

As an existential psychotherapist, it’s not surprising that Yalom believes deeply in helping clients pursue meaning. This is where it gets personal for all of us. He said, “Cancer cures psychoneurosis” and that “Life cannot be postponed.” Over the years he has helped many clients focus on their regrets—which often translate into moments when they weren’t able to face life and life fully in the moment. But we shouldn’t mistake Yalom’s live-in-the-moment philosophy for old-fashioned California hot-tub hedonism.  Yalom’s version of living in the moment is at once emotional AND intellectual; it is inspirational AND intentional.

Yalom also said that “Storytelling . . . may be the very best way I can teach.” Lucky for me I’ve gathered a few teaching stories over the years. Sometimes a combination of reality and my own constructive fiction, at this ACA I had a chance to share many stories. First, in a six hour pre-conference Learning Institute on Wednesday attended by 32 fabulous counselors, and later in an ACA-sponsored Friday session on Connecting and Working Effectively with Challenging Youth attended by about 200. In terms of reaping my own share of attention and praise, this was perhaps my best ACA conference ever.

But then Sunday morning comes. And when I awaken, what grand thoughts trickle into my consciousness? Do I think of the 25 people who lined up to have me sign copies of “Tough Kids, Cool Counseling?” Do I lie on the floor of my high-school educated parents home—where I’ve stopped for a short visit—feeling smug satisfaction about the glory I felt when Craig Windham of NPR fame also stood in line to have me sign a book FOR HIM. Do I reflect on the sweet and ego-boosting comments he shared with me about my work?

Nope. Nothing so grand knocks on the door of my early morning awareness. Instead, I’m transported back to a moment when, immediately after speaking to 200 conference attendees and spontaneously signing a couple books and receiving repeated praise from participants, a bold young woman approached me. She had attended BOTH my six hour workshop AND my 90 minute talk . . . and so forgive me my anticipation of praise as I looked into her eyes. But instead, she tells me that she’s not sure she learned anything from the six hour workshop. My well-practiced response is to welcome the criticism, while fending off disappointment and defensiveness. I feel precariously situated on my own lily pad. She goes on to explain that she’d “accidentally” gotten stuck in the 90 minute presentation and that based on what I’d talked about in there she thought I’d want the constructive feedback. “Of course I do,” I say . . . “Of course I do . . . and thank you very much for that.”

This is the stinging mantra to which I awaken this lovely and cloudy Sunday morning. A mantra of self-doubt . . . of possible regret . . . of wondering what I did wrong . . . of how I might improve myself.

Which brings me back to one of my favorite Yalom quotations (from his Group Psychotherapy text) about universality:

“During my own 600-hour analysis I had a striking personal encounter with the therapeutic factor of universality . . . I was very much troubled by the fact that, despite my strong positive sentiments, I was beset with death wishes for [my mother], as I stood to inherit part of her estate. My analyst responded simply, “That seems to be the way we’re built.” That artless statement offered not only offered considerable relief but enabled me to explore my ambivalence in great depth.” (p. 7)

Thank you Dr. Yalom for helping me and many others more deeply understand ambivalence, regret, self-doubt, personal meaning, death, and many of the other interesting ways the human psyche is built. And thank you, bold young woman, for providing me with hot-tub-free grist for my morning therapeutic writing mill.