By Katy Byrom, GA
Bounding into the Anaheim Convention Center for the Evolution of Psychotherapy conference this past November, I felt as if I had stepped through the looking glass. All of a sudden, the personalities I had read about in my basic theory textbooks were sharing the same line for the ladies’ room. It was difficult at times not to be star struck; “Hi, Marsha! I just loved you in that DBT demonstration!” Recapping the experience with some fellow Pepperdine students who were also in attendance – all of us new to field after switching gears from a previous career path – it is plain that this conference will go down in our memory books as the one that reeled us in.
The microcosm that is the Evolution of Psychotherapy is so well crafted that it often feels as big as the field itself – CBT, DBT, mindfulness-based therapy, Buddhist psychology, positive psychology, hypnosis, neuropsychology, child, couples, and family psychology were all seated at the table. At certain times, the dinner conversation got contentious, as with the debate between Scott Miller and Steven Hayes over whether technique or the ability to adapt to client feedback is the secret ingredient within effective therapy. At other times, things got quirky, as when Bill O’Hanlon demonstrated the power of group think by showing a clip of a lone rebel, who –engaged in some awkward rhythmic-type flailing at the edge of a reggae concert – started a dance revolution among the crowd that first trickled in to mock him, but then flocked to avoid being left out of the fun. Sometimes things got pretty out there, as with Ernest Rossi, whose ideas on the epigenetics of creating new consciousness are so big that even he got lost amid the beautiful expanse. There were moments of genuine sweetness, as in every time the Gottmans were in the same room together. There were some squirm-worthy moments as well, like when a certain member of the audience attempted to commandeer the entire post-presentation Q&A to plug his nascent manuscript on abuses of power within clinical practice (Note: Don’t be that conference attendee). Fortunately, to re-center yourself, you could simply meander down the hall to where Jack Kornfield was emanating the deep and ancient glow of the compassionate Buddhist.
Among the takeaways from this year’s conference is that it’s an exciting time to want to be a therapist, although it’s difficult to know whether the field is burgeoning with a wave of new findings from neuroscience or dying out – an impending casualty of insufficiently trained therapists operating under the burden of managed care. I suppose it depends on which room you’re seated in – the one where Daniel Siegel is unriddling the adolescent brain with the jubilance of a Halleluiah chorus, or the one where Scott Miller is inciting an emergency mobilization around the elephant in the room – namely, that therapy is no more effective today than it was 60 years ago. Despite the shaky view of the future of psychotherapy, the torrent of ideas waltzing and colliding across the ballrooms of the expansive Anaheim Convention Center left me reeling with anticipation at being among the next generation to jump into the fray and help determine the direction in which the field will shift.
For me, the definite highlight was the generosity of spirit sprinkled over the conference attendees by the older generations – Minuchin, Meichenbaum, Yalom, and Beck, among others – who still very clearly relished the mystery of what happens between therapist and client. Having long ago carved out their places within the field, they had nothing to prove, but much to give away in terms of wisdom accrued over the decades of working as clinicians and researchers. It seemed that those personalities whose reputations warranted the greatest reverence did the most to demystify their practices and laugh at themselves. Don Meichenbaum, for instance, insisted that he learned all he needed to know from the 1980’s T.V. sleuth Columbo, and repeatedly offered that the best skill a therapist could have is the ability to play dumb. Salvador Minuchin promised to show us at least half of everything he knew in 7 minutes. I cannot say whether he accomplished this feat, but he made an impression with his ability to help families deeply entrenched in a particular way of interacting to see each other anew. Irvin Yalom, with his masterful narrative style, told stories from inside the therapy room, where he seemed to revel in the experience of shape-shifting between existential healer and confounded novice (often within the course of a single session) as he fielded the unique challenges posed to him by clients young and old. Then there was the venerable Aaron Beck, up-close-and personal via Skype, whose work in integrating cognitive theory to apply to diverse populations is still very much at the forefront of ushering in the next evolution of psychotherapy. Apart from their remarkably keen minds and prolific bodies of work, what impressed me about each of these speakers was their humanity – their capacity to look with the eyes of a child to discover the unique strengths of each client. Drinking in the wisdom of these giants, I felt a sense of urgency to prepare myself for living up to the privilege of standing upon their shoulders.
Want a further taste of the 2013 Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference? Session handouts are available at http://www.evolutionofpsychotherapy.com/handouts/. A full conference DVD will also be available later this year at https://erickson-foundation.org/store/.