NPJ Book Review: Existential Psychotherapy by Irvin Yalom

Existential Psychotherapy by Irvin Yalom (1980) This is the work of a prominent thinker that inspires and provokes. I read this work in the mid-1980’and still use it as a reference. It seems to be more relevant with each passing year. Irvin Yalom, a psychiatrist, writes in sensitive and scholarly terms and offers provocative insights about the primary problems of human existence. He tackles in-depth the issues of death, life, anxiety, freedom, isolation and meaninglessness. If you are unfamiliar with existentialism this book is a primer on it, especially within a therapeutic context.

Yalom writes about the responsibility human beings have for each other’s welfare and the dilemma people face. “The human being seems to require meaning. To live without goals, values, or ideals, seems to provoke…considerable distress. In severe form it may lead to the decision to end one’s life.”

Yalom through patient experiences, draws upon philosophy, psychology and literature, among other studies and shows how “individuals facing death are able to live better lives…”

At one juncture Yalom talks about the prescient challenge for the seeker of meaning – how easy it is to give up responsibility and follow the dictates rendered under a populist authoritarian personality. The problem with authoritarian based systems is that they do not breed personal autonomy. (The authoritarian espouses activities and policies that encourage people to follow their, the authoritarian, rules and in effect turn over all authority to the “leader” that knows best). The consequence is the authoritarian “ends up stifling freedom….“It is sophistry to claim…that a product of personal responsibility may emerge from a procedure of authoritarianism.”

Where do humans find solace – in accepting the responsibility of their individual freedom to be…in man’s search for meaning Yalom quotes the philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel…”without the world God is not god…God is god only insofar as he knows himself and his self-knowledge of his consciousness of himself in man and man’s knowledge of God.

The poet Rainer Marie Rilke puts it in a different way:

“What will you do, God, if I die?

I am your jug, what if I shatter?

I am your drink, what if I spoil?

I am your robe and your profession

Losing me, you lose your meaning.”

Yalom’s approach to his work in existential therapy is a dynamic that focuses on concerns rooted in human existence. “Each of us craves perdurance (theory of persistence and identity), groundness, community, and pattern; and yet we must all face inevitable death, groundlessness, isolation, and meaninglessness.” And we must be wary of those who popularize their cause as if those causes were ours and offer a sense of meaning when their only purpose is greater power and wealth at others expense… this is an exceptional read and reference tool.