Reflections on Evolution of Psychotherapy 2017 By Victor Yalom, PhD on 2/2/18 - 10:25 AM

Hard to believe, but it's been 22 years since I set up a small booth at The Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference in 1995 in Las Vegas, peddling my first videotape (yes, VHS) Existential-Humanistic Psychotherapy in Action featuring James Bugental, a teacher of mine who happened to be one of the presenters. At that time the Evolution folks (namely Jeff Zeig, director of the Milton H. Erickson Foundation, which puts on the conferences) was kind enough to contact the other faculty members, and ask them if they had any videotapes to sell, so I ended up having a small collection at my booth. Plus I managed to obtain some copies of my father’s video series on group psychotherapy. I ran an ad in the program, plain text, nothing fancy, which I recall started with this headline: “Yalom. Bugental. You’ve seen them here; now take them home.”

Honestly, I had no plans to start a business at all, I just wanted to sell some of the Bugental videos I had produced to make back my production costs. But we had an overwhelmingly positive response to our videos, and as is often the case, a business was inadvertently born.

Flash forward 22 years, and the Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference is still the event in our field. December’s conference had over 7000 attendees from over 50 countries. Initially every 5 years, then 4, and now the next one will be 3 years from now in 2020, it has been referred to as the Woodstock of Psychotherapy Conference, if you’re old enough to get that reference. Most of the presenters are….in fact sadly many of the granddaddies of the field (and a few of the grand dames) that presented at prior conferences are no longer with us (Rogers, Satir, Whitaker, Bowen, May, Haley, Ellis, Bugental, Lowen, Gendlin, and most recently Minuchin, just to name a few).

Still, many of the same faces and names were presenting, although some are really getting up there in years; Otto Kernberg, Erving Polster, Irvin Yalom and Aaron Beck are some that we hope will be back next time—but based on actuarial tables, we just can’t count on it. Plus there are some representatives from the relatively newer generation of therapists: Sue Johnson, Steven Hayes, Judith Beck and others.

A couple of thoughts: The title of conference, The Evolution of Psychotherapy implies we are evolving as a field. Sometimes I wonder. Given the total lack of family therapists from the current crop (a striking contrast from the early Evolution conferences), this would add evidence to what we all know, which is that family therapy is in serious decline. Suddenly it’s all about the brain…but we wouldn’t have a brain without families, just for starters. And as the attachment folks like Sue Johnson point out, without close connections the brain surely wouldn’t do too well at all (think Harlow’s monkeys). Are we really evolving as a field, or are we just coming up with acronyms for new branded therapies?

There was a greater number of female speakers in this year’s conference than the first conference in 1985, although they were still the minority—although the attendees were overwhelmingly female—eyeballing it I’d say well over 80%. I’m not sure that’s an entirely positive development, and unfortunately I think partly reflects the economic challenges in our field—and now another example of women being overrepresented in lower paying professions (at least compared to other professions requiring comparable education and training). Although women are typically the nurturers in our society, we need men who are compassionate and empathic as healers as well. And as for minorities…I count two in the roster: Derald Wing Sue, and Patricia Arredondo, both of whom were there to speak on multicultural issues in therapy. It will be nice when one day therapists of color are there to speak on issues other than how to do therapy with people of color. I think this says much more about our field and society than this particular conference.

Jeff Zeig and his crew know how to put on a show like no one else in our field. The energy and excitement at Evolution conferences is contagious, and one leaves with feelings comparable to ending a stimulating voyage, or theater festival, or 17 course dinner (not that I’ve partaken): filled, stimulated, tired and rejuvenated at the same time. Looking forward to 2020. If you haven’t been to a previous Evolution conference, mark this on your calendars. Based on actuarial tables, I should be there again.


File under: Musings and Reflections