by Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW, MSW
I recently returned from the Evolution of Psychotherapy conference in California, or “Woodstock for therapists” as my former college professor calls it. All the big and shiny Rock Star Therapists were there: Peter Levine, Dan Seigel, Jack Kornfield, Scott Miller, Julie and John Gottman, Marcia Linehan, Sue Johnson, Irvin Yalom, Harriet Lerner, Harvile Hendrix, Bill O’Hanlon and a whole host of others. I’m leaving their post-name educational initials off to spare you the Acronym-Overdose.
Every four years, ten thousand of the world’s most educationally oriented therapists descend upon the Anaheim convention center for a week of the latest research on mental health factors, relationship repair, enhancing positive motivation, the role of epi-genetics, influences of brain development, trauma and the like. I would be remiss here if I didn’t add there is always one night set aside for dancing and that therapists—while generally a pretty shlubby and well fed group of folk—can in fact bust a move.
The thing I found most interesting was not the information presented (honestly the much-touted “latest research” is rarely surprising or unique) but rather the personalities of the presenters themselves.
Specifically I was intrigued by the ability or lack of ability among the presenters to hold their famed expertise with grace and humility. One very entertaining and arrogant presenter stated plainly, “I’m in awe of my brain.” He was in fact a sharp guy and a heck of a good therapist for suicidal trauma patients, but I wouldn’t want to hang out with him. Another dramatically announced “I have never said this about myself in public before” and told us the very thing she said eight years ago at a previous conference. Some presenters used panel discussions to grandstand or were openly hostile of peers on the same panel.
In contrast, another shared her experience of turning to the advice of other experts to handle her conflict with her son, a conflict which she as a world-renowned relationship expert felt particularly sheepish to be enduring. She told us about her failure to engage her teenage son in a mutually respectful way and then she told us about how she recognized the error in her approach, and in doing so, she both repaired her relationship with her son and earned my lifelong respect.
Still another pointed out her husband in the audience so that if anyone needed to criticize her appearance as she was speaking—as had happened in a previous engagement within earshot of her mother—they wouldn’t upset her family members. This kind of open display of humor and humility rivets me in ways that mere professional facility does not.
I am curious about how experts allow or don’t allow themselves to include personal fears and failures as part of their public story. I love the space that making—and recognizing—and admitting—mistakes opens up within our rigidly held beliefs about who we are and how the world works.
There is little difference to me between my professional work as a therapist—helping people inhabit and integrate and care for their whole selves—and my personal work as a human—learning how to inhabit and integrate and care for my whole self.
My hope for all of us in the New Year is growth in the process of integrating all our lovely and not so lovely bits.