Irvin Yalom's Advice for New Psychotherapists

Are you starting your professional career in the clinical psychological field? If so, in this article, we'll give you some recommendations from one of the most prestigious and experienced professors at Stanford University.
Irvin Yalom's Advice for New Psychotherapists

Last update: 22 October, 2022

Fear and uncertainty are normal responses when any of us is beginning a journey toward new goals. Therefore, it’s natural for new psychotherapists to feel nervous before their first consultation. However, they soon see how, despite not completely disappearing, as their professional career progresses, this concern subsides.

Irvin Yalom is a professor at Stanford University (USA). His main works include The Gift of Therapy: An Open Letter to a New Generation of Therapists and Their Patients. In it, he shares a series of recommendations based on his years of professional practice and conversations with other psychologists who also ended up developing successful professional careers.

Here, we’ll give you a list of Irvin Yalom’s recommendations for new psychotherapists.

1. Psychotherapist and patient: fellow travelers

Trust between the client/patient and therapist is a sine qua non condition for successful evaluation and intervention. Today, there are different terms that attempt to describe this relationship. For example, patient/therapist, client/counselor, and analysand/analyst. Each professional chooses how to name the people they serve and how they prefer to be called.

Irvin Yalom proposes the link should be considered as the kind that would be established naturally between two travel companions. This is a good way to shorten the distance between the two parties.

In fact, he proposes a renewal of the traditional and markedly asymmetric relationship between the ‘doctor’ and the ‘sick’ or the ‘wise’ versus the ‘ignorant’. On the contrary, he seeks to establish a bidirectional and dynamic bond between two human beings.

Patient treats his depression in therapy

2. Provide positive support

By becoming clients or patients, people generate a series of expectations around the psychotherapist and the events that take place in the therapeutic process. In fact, they should both expect and receive positive support.

Providing positive support is essential in individual therapy. It means recognizing and exploiting the virtues of the client. For instance, their courage to face past wounds, their social skills, kindness, sense of humor, commitment to the therapeutic space, etc.

“Keep in mind the therapist’s great power – power that, in part, stems from our having been privy to our patients most intimate life events, thoughts, and fantasies. Acceptance and support from one who knows you so intimately is enormously affirming.”

-Irvin Yalom-

3. Be empathic

Thousands of years ago, Terence said, ” I am human and I think nothing human is alien to me”. Without a doubt, the ability to empathize represents one of the great skills a psychotherapist should possess.

It means knowing who’s sitting in front of us and being able to look through their eyes. However, at times it’s extremely complicated to know what they’re feeling. In fact, we might assume that they’re feeling the same way as us. But everyone looks at the world from their own perspective. Therefore, knowing a client’s personal history will allow us to be more empathetic with them.

4. Care for our clients

It’s true that our clients aren’t our friends. After all, we don’t invite them to our birthday parties or call them when we’re sick. That said, they’re people we care about, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Indeed, clients don’t disappear from our minds at the end of each session until the beginning of the next. We’re reminded of them often, we come up with ideas regarding treatment and they may even appear in our dreams. We must allow our patients to influence and change us.

5. Acknowledge our own mistakes

When we first start out as psychologists we’re only just beginning our psychotherapeutic journey. Therefore, we’ll often make mistakes. However, we’ll continue to do so until the day of our last consultation. That’s because we’re human beings and human beings make mistakes.

It’s important to identify and admit our mistakes. Any attempt to deny or hide them will only end up working against us.

6. Use the information our emotions give us

Emotions contain valuable information for the course of any therapeutic process. Thus, it’s advisable that we don’t lose sight of our own emotional states during evaluations, interventions, and follow-ups.

7. Avoid the false cure

The first psychoanalysts called the transference cure a false cure. This is the apparent substantial and sudden improvement that occurs simply because a therapist has joined the social circle of support of the patient/client person as a reinforcement.

It’s dangerous to take this improvement as a product of the therapeutic intervention because it’s not really like that. In fact, the therapeutic relationship is an ephemeral element, a channel, and not a resource that makes the client more autonomous.

8. Help our clients take responsibility for themselves

For clients to take charge of their own lives and take charge of what they do and feel is one of the great objectives of psychotherapy. Indeed, clients should be able to move away from the victim position and stop insisting that all their problems are explained by external factors. For example, the actions of other people, social injustices, or political mismanagement.

As psychotherapists, we must encourage them to take responsibility. How they do it depends on us.

“Some arrive quickly at an understanding of their role in their discomfiture: others find responsibility assumption so difficult that it constitutes the major part of therapy, and once that step is taken, therapeutic change may occur almost automatically and effortlessly”.

-Irvin Yalom-

Man doing therapy

9. Undergo therapy

Good psychotherapists undergo or have undergone therapy. This is simply because, as psychotherapists, we’re our most important instruments. We must know ourselves and work on self-knowledge. In fact, we need to be able to delve into our own histories and face our dark sides.

As a matter of fact, therapy represents an excellent training opportunity. We need to be able to distance ourselves from sectarianism in relation to the therapeutic approach and to be able to appreciate the existing diversity. What better way to learn about a particular trend than by delving into it as a consultant?

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  • Ciracì, F. (2008). Irvin Yalom y la filosofia come terapia. Irvin Yalom y la filosofia come terapia , 1000-1005.
  • Irvin, Yalom (2002). El don de la terapia. Carta abierta a una nueva generacion de terapeutas y a sus pacientes. Ediciones Destino.