Friday, May 18, 2012

Yalom on Relationship

Irvin Yalom is a bada$$.  He is Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Stanford University.  He is author of many books about psychotherapy (Love's Executioner and Momma and the Meaning of Life) and textbooks (The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy).

The following excerpt is from Momma and the Meaning of Life:
My first step was to move the members into a circle and to ask the three residents to sit behind the patients, out of their immediate line of vision. I started the meeting in my usual manner by attempting to orient the members to group therapy. I introduced myself, suggested we use first names, and informed them that I would be there for the next four days. "After that, the two residents" - whom I named and pointed out - will lead the group. The group's purpose," I went on, "is to help each of you learn more about your relationships with others."As I glanced at the human devastation before me - Martin's withered limbs, Carol's death-mask grin, the intravenous bottles feeding Rosa and Carol the vital nutrients they refused to take by mouth, Dorothy's urine bottle holding the urine siphoned from her paralyzed bladder, Magnolia's paralyzed legs - my words seemed puny and foolish. These people needed so much, and "help with relationships" seemed so pitifully little. But what was the point of pretending that groups could do more than they could? Remember your mantra, I kept reminding myself: small is beautiful. Small is beautiful - small goals, small successes.
I referred to my inpatient group as the "agenda group" because I always began a meeting by asking each member to formulate an agenda - to identify some aspect of themselves that they wished to change.  The group worked better if its members' agendas pertained to relationship skills - especially to something that could be worked on in the here-and-now of the group.  Patients who were hospitalized for major life problems were always puzzled by the focus on relationships and failed to see the relevance of the agenda task.  I always answered, "I know that troubled relationships may not have been the reason for your hospitalization, but I've found over the years that everyone who has encountered significant psychological distress can profit by improving their mode of relating to others.  The important point is that we can get the most of this meeting by focusing on relationships because that's what groups do bestThat's the real strength of group therapy...For some patients, forming an agenda was the therapy.  To learn simply to identify a problem and to ask for help was therapy enough for many in our brief time together. 
In class, I tell stories all the time - about former clients, my mother, my daughter, all my significant relationships.  I got some anonymous feedback in week 3:  "Too many non-relevant topics (nothing to do with Social Work)."  I tell stories about relationships because Social Work is all about relationships. I am now trying to be more explicit about the connection that every story has to Social Work.

The most important relationship is the one we are having with ourselves.  The relationships we have with others are just a projection of this.  When people are mean to us or do not value us, it is not about us.  Love and forgive others because you love and forgive yourself.  We all want to be cherished just as we are.  These are some of the things that I know about relationships.  I am always learning.

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