Is it ever too late in life to change? Despite many decades of accomplished professional practice and conspicuous recognition for his achievements, the psychotherapist Irvin Yalom was stunned to discover he still had personal work to do.
In his memoir, Becoming Myself , he recalls attending an academic event where he realises (1) he is to be the target of gentle but sustained mockery from his Stanford University colleagues. That night he has a powerful dream from which he wakes to conclude, ‘I am still looking for validation, but not from my wife, my children, my friends, colleagues, students or patients, but from my mother!’
Although Yalom’s real mother was long dead at the time of his unsettling dream, his self-discovery revealed that her frequent harshly critical judgements of him as a child had become part of his lifelong personality, rising suddenly within him at times of stress, such as when he became the particular focus of others’ attention. In his dream, isolated and scared, he plaintively cries out, ‘How did I do, Momma? How did I do?’.
We might pause to consider how it could possibly be that a richly experienced practitioner, one expert in helping others to understand themselves better, could be so suddenly blindsided by such a self-revelation. On the other hand, what Yalom is disclosing about his experience here might be seen as one of the most fundamental of human realities.
In psychotherapy we speak of the developmental process of ‘introjection’, whereby we unconsciously adopt the thoughts, feelings and behaviours of significant others, particularly the most powerful others in our early lives. In the modality of Transactional Analysis we call this part of us our Parent ‘ego state’. This proposes that during the
development of our ‘self’ we naturally take into our own way of being key aspects of the others we depend on, how they think, feel and behave: we thereby install their potency into our developing personality.
This is a natural survival strategy and serves us well when it provides us with valuable parental impulses that guide us to operate safely in the world and help us to nurture ourselves when under stress. The downside of this strategy is that, depending on the quality of the care we received and how we responded to it, the Parent ego state we carry
forward can contain persecutory impulses, parental fears and smothering tendencies combining in us to create significant inner conflict in our adult life.
Engaging in psychotherapy can be effective in helping us to explore those aspects of ourselves that seem to echo the powerful personalities of our past lives. Careful exploration with a curious and empathic therapist can help us to surface parental messages we may be carrying that contribute to previously unexamined self beliefs. In uncovering these ‘introjects’ we can more clearly see how what we chose to take on from others in the days when we first learnt to be ourselves might be limiting us now in living more freely and spontaneously in the world.
Yalom’s insight, late into his own life, was to see that the way he had incorporated his mother’s harshness into his own process was preventing him from being able to truly recognise and celebrate his own worth.
His particular way of dealing with this was to look for the compassion in himself for ‘that mother that I disliked so thoroughly.’ He writes of achieving a different perspective on her through his later realisation she had a deeply conflictual relationship with her own mother, always remaining desperate for a recognition from her that never came.
Coming to understand the possible motivations behind his mother’s persecutory behaviour, Yalom found a way in which he could simultaneously diminish the power of the fierce inner critic that he had made of her. Like many of his patients, he discovered it was never too late to become himself.
Chris Horton is a registered member of the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy (BACP) and a psychotherapeutic counsellor with experience in a diverse range of occupational settings. He works with individuals (young people/adults) in private practice. He is available at our Lewes and Brighton & Hove Practice.
Further reading by Chris Horton –
(1) Yalom, I (2017). Becoming Myself: A Psychiatrist’s Memoir. Piatkus 1