Our first book of 2018 was ‘Love’s Executioner’, by Irvin D. Yalom. The book takes the form of ten psychotherapy case studies from the author’s notes, anonymised and fictionalised to protect the patients’ identities, but with plenty of factual insight on Yalom’s methods, clinical approach and feelings towards his patients.
The book was recommended to Shauna by one of her coaching clients, and, simply, we all loved it. Weeks before we met, our WhatsApp channel was fizzing with energy and anticipation of the conversation. The book deals with inherently intangible subjects - emotions (and in particular fear), personalities, subjectivity, relationships - and yet it is so REAL. It has real people, real emotion, real honesty, real experiences, real responses. It strives for utter objectivity and truth, and at times it does so by celebrating its author’s own subjectivity and bias.
As coaches, facilitators and development professionals, we engaged on three levels. We were fascinated by the field of psychotherapy and its approach to the human condition; we engaged with the questions the book asked each of us about aspects of our own practice, which often neighbours the field of psychotherapy but is distinct from it; and we enjoyed the stories and the colourful, relatable characters at their centres, not least the author himself.
Each of the cases draws on one of four central ‘fears’ at the heart of the author’s psychotherapeutic approach: a fear of death, the paradox of freedom, a fear of being alone, and existential dread. Each of those fears has the power to cause otherwise rational, successful and functional people to behave strangely - to sabotage their own careers, to cling to long-dead relationships, to sustain self-destructive habits.
Each case showed us that seemingly irrational behaviour has a deep, underlying driver that can be linked back to one of those four fears. By digging deep enough into an individual’s past, beliefs, internal monologue, personal narratives, we find that self-destructive behaviour is often based in self-preservation, driven by a fear of death, loneliness, purpose or choice.
Interestingly for a collection of stories that is on the face of it about truth and objectivity, the way Yalom’s subjectivity shines through is part of the book’s power. Despite all his training, deep expertise, reputation and research (and yes, he has a healthy regard for his own intelligence and expertise), Yalom continually bares his own biases and imperfections for us to observe. In particular, he needs his women to be slim and attractive - fat people repel him. Youth clearly appeals to him more than age, despite the fact that many of his patients are relatively old. He documents in his notes that he finds one of his patients terribly boring. Experiencing an unhelpfully emotional response to a patient, he applies to himself Hemingway’s label of ‘wet-thinking Jewish psychiatrist’. He does not claim to be objective, and in fact uses his own biases to shed more light on the relationship between himself and his patients - letting him truly ‘dance in the moment’ with his clients. Though we loved the book because of this, there are plenty of reviews on Goodreads and elsewhere from people who could not abide the author’s disarming honesty and self-awareness - not everyone is so ready to accept that a trusted professional might be sitting in secret judgement of his patients.
As coaches we were drawn to this tension - that our own search for objectivity will always be impacted by our subjectivity and bias, and that we often grapple with countertransference - and it was helpful and reassuring to read of the same tension in the work of such a well-regarded professional.
What does it mean to be a therapist, or a coach? Recognising our own flaws, biases and preconceptions without judgement is critical if we are to help our clients. We are not just conduits or empty pipes through which our clients’ development flows; we shape and affect the process, and we are not (and arguably should not) ever absolutely neutral. Striving for an awareness of what we bring to the relationship, calling it out and understanding how it impacts on ourselves and our clients though - that is truly valuable. At one point Yalom frames a complete absence of countertransference as the very definition of perfection for psychotherapists - a possibly unachievable ideal for his profession.
Ultimately, we are all biased, flawed, and subjective, even, or particularly, those of us whose work focuses on helping others to work through their own biases and flaws; and our search for truth will never completely change that. Objectivity is therefore something we continue to strive for, not something we presume to have; and our desire and ultimate ability to discover, understand, accept and accommodate our own subjectivity and imperfection in the service of other people can make us better and more effective as coaches and development professionals. To borrow a phrase from the book, ‘Deep inside there is a rich, teeming world which, if confronted, brings terrible fear but also offers redemption through illumination’.