29 Jun Group Psychotherapy For The Psychotherapist: The Life and Wisdom of Irvin Yalom, M.D.

Posted at 3:47 pm in Group Therapy by jlbworks

Group Psychotherapy For The Psychotherapist:

The Life and Wisdom of Irvin Yalom, M.D.

By Philip Chanin, Ed.D., ABPP, CGP

Board Certified Clinical Psychologist

Assistant Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry

Vanderbilt University Medical Center



“It’s terribly important for group therapists to become members in group therapy because you learn so much about yourself, receive feedback from others on how you relate to others, how you come across interpersonally to people…Thirty-five years ago, myself and others started a therapy group for psychiatrists. We later accepted psychologists. It has been going for 35 years! There is no leader; it’s a peer group. The group meets for 90 minutes, every other week. I still attend the group, which is led by a different rotating peer each group. The group has helped me with my loss of my wife; they are all there for me. We are active, it’s never boring. No one has ever dropped out, though a handful of people have died…Every group is a good meeting, we all work together. If someone is in distress, we deal with that. We look at how everyone is relating with each other, who’s been silent, etc. (“An Interview with Irvin Yalom, M.D.” in the Newsletter of the American Group Psychotherapy Association, Spring, 2020, p. 8)

For several generations of American psychotherapists, the name Irvin Yalom is associated with group psychotherapy. In 1970, he published The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy.

Psychiatrist Jerome Frank described this as “the best book that exists on the subject.”

In this book, Dr. Yalom lays out the research literature in group psychotherapy and the social psychology of small group behavior. He also explores how individuals function in a group context, and especially how members in group therapy gain insights into themselves and the human condition from their participation. At the age of 89, with his co-author Molyn Leszcz, M.D., Dr. Yalom recently finished the 6th edition of his seminal work on group psychotherapy.

Dr. Yalom’s description of his own personal involvement in peer group therapy for 35 years should be an encouragement to all psychotherapists to seek out this kind of experience for themselves. For myself, I believe that while 40 years of personal psychotherapy has been immensely valuable for me, and has certainly helped me greatly in doing psychotherapy with my patients, it is my personal experience in groups and in group therapy that have been most responsible for helping me to feel accepted by others on a deep level.

In 1992, I attended my first meeting of The American Academy of Psychotherapists. Members of the Academy form peer groups, similar to the one that Dr. Yalom describes above, which meet several times each year for intense group process. Since 1994, for 26 years, I have been one of 14 members of such a “Family Group.” The other members of my group live in California, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Georgia, and Washington, D.C. We have met twice each year for 15-20 hours of peer group therapy. We have been there for each other through divorces, the deaths of many of our parents, chronic illnesses, births of grandchildren, and, most recently, the death of the husband of our eldest member, aged 85. In the alchemy of our decades together, we have celebrated our successes, mourned our losses, and I have experienced my own growth and healing.

For the past 21 years, I have been one of six members of a peer men’s group. Like Dr. Yalom’s group described above, we meet for 90 minutes, every other week, usually in my office but also sometimes in one of our homes. As Dr. Yalom says, “We are active, it’s never boring…Every group is a good meeting, we all work together. If someone is in distress, we deal with that. We look at how everyone is relating, who’s been silent, etc.” As with my Academy group, we have supported each other over 21 years through the deaths of parents, hardships of adult children, and many other challenging life events. We also celebrate our own and our children’s successes, and there is plenty of laughter.

Several other group experiences with member of the Nashville Psychotherapy Institute have also been vital in my own personal and professional growth. Dr. David McMillan and I developed a peer therapy group of 14 members based on the theories of the renowned group therapist Yvonne Agazarian. I was a member of a weekly peer consultation group for 7 years. And for the past 9 years, I have been a member of an intensive modern analytic group therapy training group, organized by Dr. Zach Bryant and led by renowned group therapist Jeff Hudson from Austin, Texas. I often say to patients that one of the goals of psychotherapy is to enable one “to live unselfconsciously in the world.” My group experiences have played an enormous role in helping me personally to do this.

In closing this article, I return to the above quoted interview with Irvin Yalom. He says, “Every therapist should have a therapy group for themselves to prevent burnout and for their continued professional and personal growth…If I can influence the field, therapists should be seeing peers and talking about their issues, their patients. I am an experienced therapist, but I am always learning from others in groups.” (p. 8)