Irvin Yalom

Irvin D. Yalom

Irvin D. Yalom is a contemporary psychiatrist and educator who has written extensively about existential psychotherapy.

Professional Life

Irvin D. Yalom was born on June 13, 1931, in Washington, DC. His parents moved from Russia several years before his birth and opened a grocery store when they arrived in DC. Yalom and his family lived above the grocery store and most of his childhood was spent immersed in books.

Yalom received his BA from George Washington University in 1952 and his MD from Boston University School of Medicine in 1956. Over the next several years, he completed his internship at Mount Sinai Hospital, his residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and he served in the army. In 1962, Yalom began working as an instructor at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, where he eventually advanced to professor of psychiatry in 1973. Yalom achieved professor emeritus status when he retired from Stanford in 1994.

Yalom began his literary career in 1970 with the publication of Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy. Since its release, it has been used as a textbook throughout the world. Yalom has published many more books since, including textbooks, nonfiction, and fiction. Yalom’s 1989 bestseller, Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy, provided a less clinical and more human perspective on ten case histories. In 1992, Yalom published his first novel, When Nietzsche Wept: A Novel of Obsession that won the Commonwealth Gold Medal. Many of Yalom's fiction books incorporate themes from philosophy and existential psychology.

Yalom was awarded with the Foundations Fund Award in 1976 and the Oskar Pfister Award in 2001 from the American Psychiatric Association. His wife, Marilyn Yalom, is a university professor with a PhD in comparative literature. 

Contribution to Psychology

Yalom was a pioneer in the area of existential psychotherapy. Existential psychotherapy emphasizes that mental health problems are frequently caused by struggles with existence. Common themes include fear of death, the drive toward freedom, and the desire to avoid isolation. Existential psychotherapy recognizes four basic human issues that all people struggle with: isolation, meaninglessness, mortality, and freedom. Through his writing, Yalom helped to explain existentialism and demonstrate its importance in therapy.

In addition, Yalom’s study of and practice in group therapy led him to identify eleven specific factors that lead to significant changes and shifts for group members. Though he was first a skeptic, Yalom became a long-time advocate for group therapy; he believed that group therapy produced specific dynamics that increase healing while challenging the therapist. Group therapists are responsible for fostering a culture of cohesiveness, support, and integration. The interaction between group members provides the engine for change, and the therapist’s role is to facilitate that experience.

Yalom’s eleven therapeutic factors that influence change and healing in group therapy:

  1. The instillation of hope creates a feeling of optimism.
  2. Universality helps group members realize that they are not alone in their impulses, problems, and other issues.
  3. Imparting information helps to educate and empower people with knowledge pertaining to their specific psychological situation.
  4. Altruism allows clients to gain a sense of value and significance by helping other group members.
  5. Corrective recapitulation provides for the resolution of family and childhood events within the safety of the group family.
  6. Socializing techniques promote social development, tolerance, empathy, and other interpersonal skills.
  7. Through imitative behavior group members learn to adopt the coping strategies and perspectives of other group members.
  8. Interpersonal learning teaches clients how to develop supportive interpersonal relationships.
  9. Group cohesiveness gives members a sense of acceptance, belonging, value, and security.
  10. Catharsis releases suppressed emotions and promotes healing by disclosing information to group members.
  11. Existential factors incorporate learning how to just exist as part of something larger than oneself. This factor brings a client into the awareness that life will continue on, with pain, death, sadness, regret, and joy. By living existentially, clients learn how to accept these conditions without escaping from them. Instead, they learn how to live with them and through them.

Selected Works by Irvin Yalom:

  • Love's Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy (1989)
  • When Nietzsche Wept (fiction, 1992)
  • The Yalom Reader (1998)
  • Momma and the Meaning of Life (1999)
  • The Gift of Therapy:An Open Letter to a New Generation of Therapists and Their Patients (2002)
  • The Schopenhauer Cure (fiction, 2005)
  • Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death (2008)
  • The Spinoza Problem (fiction, 2012)


  1. Irvin D. Yalom. 2013. Contemporary Authors Online. Retrieved from    
  2. Levy, N. B. (2001). The Yalom Reader: Selections From the Work of a Master Therapist and Storyteller. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 158(4), 665-7. Retrieved from

Last Update: 07-08-2015

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