Quentin Dunne

Quentin Dunne, LMFT


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Member Columnist — Quentin Dunne, MS, LMFT

The Gift of Therapy:
An Open Letter to a New Generation of
Therapists and Their Patients

by Irvin D. Yalom, M.D.

Book Review by Quentin Dunne

One of the more valuable and insightful nonfiction book genres is that of a mentor offering heartfelt words of wisdom and encouragement to a mentee, or more likely for widely published titles, mentees. A particularly (and deservedly) popular example of this genre can be found in Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, a collection of 10 letters written by Rilke to an aspiring poet named Franz Xaver Kappus. Inspired by Letters, as well as similar other books, famed psychotherapist Irvin D. Yalom wrote The Gift of Therapy to provide a lifetime of observations, recommendations, and anecdotes to young (and not-so-young) mental health clinicians. While The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy is probably the Yalom title most likely to be read by students pursuing graduate degrees in the field of mental health, Gift is richly deserving of being equally read as of it offers tips that are both insightful in quality and generous in quantity.

First published in 2003 and then expanded with a 20-page “New Thoughts, New Developments” section in 2009, Yalom’s book is comprised of an introduction and 85 short chapters. A brief sampling of the chapters — “Let the Patient Matter to You,” “Talk About Life Meaning,” and “Freedom” among them — offers a good indication of the direction in which Yalom hopes to inspire the reader.

He is clear and direct about distrusting “one size fits all” treatments focused on immediate symptom relief in favor of a more in-depth and interpersonal approach which helps the patient explore and enrich his or her inner life for the sake of living with greater integrity and intentionality. Indeed, chapter 10 is titled “Create a New Therapy for Each Patient” and features the following exhortation: “Therapists must convey to the patient that their paramount task is to build a relationship together that will itself become the agent of change. It is extremely difficult to teach this skill in a crash course using a protocol. Above all, the therapist must be prepared to go wherever the patient goes, do all that is necessary to continue building trust and safety in the relationship.”

Among the book’s considerable strengths, is that the chapters are short but never shallow, easily digestible but always pragmatic and passionately articulated. Whether advising therapists to be more authentic and (to a degree) transparent with their patients, encouraging them to regularly ask clients about their dreams, or recommending therapists engage in their own long-term personal therapy, Yalom writes from the heart as well as the head. He deeply believes that therapy can facilitate real and lasting healing and growth and wants the reader-therapist to be as committed as possible to his or her role in that process.

Of course, while Yalom’s primary intended audience is that of mental health professionals, there is no reason why the book cannot be of value to those either currently in therapy or considering it. Yalom is clearly fascinated by the psychotherapeutic process and how to demystify the process, not for the sake of stripping it of its sacred qualities, but to make it more accessible and engaging to anyone who might be intimidated by it. To this end, he is quite willing to admit to his own struggles and mistakes as a therapist, and, even more important, what he learned and how he grew from them.

Irvin D. Yalom is hardly an obscure name in the world of psychotherapy. He has received enough attention and acclaim for the past few decades that yet one more laudatory review might seem harmless, but hardly necessary. Even so, there are very good reasons for all that attention and acclaim and The Gift of Therapy is a sterling, inspiring example of why. This reader has always felt compelled to up his game as a therapist after either reading the book from cover to cover or simply dipping into a chapter or two. If you haven’t read the book, it’s more than worth it to see if you experience a similar effect.

Quentin Dunne, M.S., LMFT provides nature-based therapy services in Woodland Hills and Topanga. He is a member of the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy and specializes in the areas of trauma recovery, grief and loss/pet loss, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. He can be reached by phone at 818.636.8639 and through his website, www.naturetherapyheals.com.

San Fernando Valley Chapter – California Marriage and Family Therapists