Interview with Victor Yalom, Ph.D.
Therapy Blog Author
Founder & CEO of Psychotherapy.net
About Victor: Victor Yalom, Ph.D. is the founder, CEO, resident cartoonist< and occasional blogger of Psychotherapy.net. He has conducted workshops in existential-humanistic and group therapy in the US, Mexico, and China. He no longer maintains an active private practice, but still co-leads a group, and occasionally consults with therapists and individuals. More about Victor and his artwork at sfpsychologist.com.
[OnlineCounselingPrograms.com] How has Psychotherapy.net evolved since its inception?
[Victor Yalom, Ph.D.] When I finished up grad school in psychology, I realized that I really was still a beginner in terms of doing therapy, so I sought out opportunities to further my skills. As luck would have it, I ended up doing some intensive training with a brilliant psychologist named James Bugental. He was a great teacher, and wrote some very important books, including The Art of the Psychotherapist, but his greatest talent was revealed when he did psychotherapy demonstrations. I felt that his artistry needed to be captured on video, so a fellow student and I made a videotape (yes, a VHS tape!) of him doing two sessions with a client.
I had no plans to start a business, but I quickly realized that there was a demand for high quality therapy training videos. We are in a very strange profession, where unlike almost any other profession, where trainees learn by watching mentors work (think medicine, law, dentistry, teaching, plumbing, or performing arts), we are somehow supposed to master a very difficult craft in somewhat of a vacuum.
So I’ve spent the last 22 years producing and curating a collection of over 300 videos featuring the masters in our field. What started as basically a hobby, or labor of love, grew into a small business, and during this time our vision has expanded, so Psychotherapy.net now offers articles, interviews with expert therapists, blogs, CE courses, and therapy cartoons which I draw.
[OnlineCounselingPrograms.com] The Gift of Therapy by your father Irvin Yalom, M.D. could be considered a comprehensive foundation and beginner’s insight into therapy and practice. How do you believe that your videos of therapy in action provide this same insight to therapists and counselors-in-training?
[Victor Yalom, Ph.D.] Wow, it’s flattering to have our videos mentioned in the same paragraph as his book! It certainly contains many, many pearls of wisdom from his long and illustrious career and I’d encourage any therapist, beginning or experienced, to read it. He goes into a lot of detail on how to work in the “here-and-now”—and that is an often misunderstood term. It’s really a specific way to examine what is happening in the relationship between therapist and client. He makes it sound relatively straightforward, and I think it can be, but from my experience it’s quite challenging to do well, and I think a lot of therapists struggle with this—or really avoid this almost entirely.
The strength of our videos is that students of therapy (and I consider myself a lifelong student) have the opportunity view master therapists in action, and see all the verbal and non-verbal components that make up a therapy encounter: not only the content of the words, but facial expression, body language, tone of voice, rhythm of the interaction. The research in our field shows over and over again that it is not the therapeutic model that counts, it is the nature of the therapeutic relationship which is primary. You really can’t learn that from a textbook. It takes a lot of practice, supervision, and feedback, among other things. Watching videos alone isn’t the answer either, but I have learned a tremendous amount watch the greats in our field on video, and I’d really encourage all therapists to do this.
[OnlineCounselingPrograms.com] The therapy cartoon section on your online magazine is certainly a highlight of Psychotherapy.net. What is the purpose of creating and providing these comics?
[Victor Yalom, Ph.D.] I could probably weave some elegant theories about this…but seriously…they are just cartoons! The purpose is for my own amusement, and they seem to tickle some of our readers, so I’m happy about that. When I drew my first cartoons, they were basically stick figures, so I paid artists to redraw my initial efforts. But that led to me to my (still rather primitive) attempts at drawing, and from there I went on to painting, and creating objects in wood and now metal. So it’s been a creative journey, and that does give me faith that we all have the inner capacity to grow in unexpected ways. And when we sit with our clients, I think it’s important to have that faith, and be open to expecting the unexpected.
[OnlineCounselingPrograms.com] Can you walk us through your education and training to become a psychologist? Was there a particular aspect of your education that has been instrumental in shaping you into the professional you are today?
[Victor Yalom, Ph.D.] Like many in our field, I entered the profession for reasons that weren’t obvious at the time. I was painfully lonely and rather at a loss what to do professionally, but had had some experience with personal therapy that was helpful. My father encouraged me to consider going into psychology, and fortunately I followed his advice. Certainly my training with Bugental (mentioned above) and informally with my father, have been instrumental in my growth as a therapist. I’ve also had the great fortune to collaborate with many of the greats in our field while making training videos. There are too many to list here, but a few names come to mind: Sue Johnson, Peter Levine, Erv Polster, Otto Kernberg, Reid Wilson, just to mention a few. Every time I make a video I learn a tremendous amount.
And like the rest of us, I’ve had some major bumps along the way. I wouldn’t want to relive them, but I can say that they’ve increased my level of empathy and understanding, and that has certainly made me a better therapist and human being.
Another thing that’s been very helpful is the experience of co-leading a therapy group with my friend and colleague, M.J. Paris, PhD. So much of the work of therapists can be quite isolating; we can have this deep connection with our clients, but we are still working alone. Co-leading a group has been a great experience in that we get to see each other work, learn from each other, discuss our mutual clients, support each other, and so much more. I’d encourage therapists to consider running groups—and specifically co-leading groups—at some time in their career. Sure, you have to split the fee, but not having to do it all on your own is priceless.
[OnlineCounselingPrograms.com] What advice would you give to graduate students pursuing a degree in mental health who are developing their theoretical orientation with the many types of approaches and therapies in existence?
[Victor Yalom, Ph.D.] Well I must echo the advice I have heard my father give many times: expose yourself to a wide range of orientations. Try to learn as much as you can from all your teachers and supervisors—as well as your therapists—most have something important to offer. You may be drawn to one approach or other at different points in your career, and having a theoretical “tribe” to belong to can be comforting. But it can also be limiting! So hopefully as you grow and mature as a person, you will gradually adapt a way of being and working with clients that is congruent with who you are. If your sense of humor is integral to your being, find a way to bring that into your sessions. If you love art or music or movement, explore whether you can integrate that into you practice.
[OnlineCounselingPrograms.com] Is there anything else you would like to add?
[Victor Yalom, Ph.D.] Being a therapist can be a great profession, but like all professions, it’s not without its challenges. One of the great pitfalls is isolation—so do all you can to counter that. Attend consultation groups, whether led by a senior colleague, or run by peers. And find a way to keep growing and developing. I was kind of shocked to read recently that years of experience of the therapist does not lead to better outcomes! This was quoted in a book by a former student and now friend Tony Rousmaniere, Deliberate Practice for Psychotherapists. It’s a great book which argues that we need to practice to get better, and practicing is like tennis players hitting drills, or musicians playing scales. It’s not just doing therapy sessions, it’s practicing specific skills. I can’t summarize this in a paragraph, but I’d encourage my colleagues who want to keep improving to read this.
Thank you, Victor! Learn more about Psychotherapy.net on our Therapy Blogs list.
Last updated: April 2020