Career and Personal Role Models, Heros and Mentors*
March 2010
By Michael Isaacs


For purposes of this article, I will be viewing role models as people we choose to mirror in our life’s journey.  Heroes are those we highly admire and often idealize. Mentors predominantly function in the teaching and coaching role. One person may embody one or more of these prototypes at a time, so some of my characterizations may appear fuzzy at times due to overlapping.

Role models and heroes often change with different stages of life. In my latency years, my heroes were cowboys, especially Roy Rodgers; the Phantom, a fearless awesome cartoon character; and Superman. At this stage, I dont remember what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I do know that I never wanted to be a fireman or policeman.

In my preteens and teens, I loved to hear the singing of crooner Frankie Laine. especially the song, Jezebel. Also, during this time period, rooting for the New York Yankees baseball team was a passion. I worshipped all its team members, especially Joe DiMaggio and pitcher Whitey Ford. What I wanted to be when I grew up, however, was not a baseball player, but a professional pop singer like Frankie Laine or a sports radio broadcaster announcer like Mel Allen of the New York Yankees baseball team.

Occasionally our heroes become our models. For example, a middle-aged patient of mine had cancer n his late teens. After successful treatment, he perceived his oncologist as saving his life. This doctor was his hero. His physician hero became his role model to the extent that he went on become a knowledgeable and compassionate medical doctor.

While it is only infrequently that our heroes become our main role model, it is true that many of the attributes of our heroes become aspects of our role modeling. For example, the poet Walt Whitman is one of my heroes.  Yet I have no desire to live like him. However, he has influenced my role modeling by his choosing to express his observational powers in writing, which in his case was free-flowing poetry.

Our early first role models are our parents, for their behavior and our dependence on them is our first life experience. Even if their behavior is not exemplary, out of familiarity, loyalty, and needing their love, we often hold on to them as role models for too long and sometimes forever.  As therapists, how often we hear the surprise of our patients when they are upset when they become aware of how they are repeating some qualities of their parents, which qualities they abhor.

My father was my first role model. From his influence, I have incorporated the importance of education, his emphasis on moderation, his value in stable family life, his analytical mind, and importance of reputation in the community. He was an attorney and a municipal court judge. I also inherited his sense of humor, although his humor sometimes descended to puns that were not of high quality.

Thus, it is not a surprise that after college, I attended law school. That was based on identifying with my father’s masculine yang side. After law school, I went on to obtain a master’s degree in social work, which decision was partially based on my mother’s kindness and compassion, my feminine nurturing yin side.

After my graduate school training in social work was completed, I started a career in law and solely practiced law for ten years, first with my father and then several years later started my own private practice. At the same time, I commenced individual and group psychotherapy. My first therapist was a psychiatrist who was just finishing his program at the William Alanson White Institute in New York City.

In his waiting room on a table there was a sculpture of Rodin’s “The Thinker”. The thinker was sitting bent over looking at the ground in deep thought.  I was impressed and awed by this figure who I perceived to be reflective and curious, willing to face his conflicts and demons with curiosity and courage.

After my father, my therapist was my second career role model. In my two years of treatment with him, I learned about the world of the unconscious and my own hidden world. He emphasized the analysis of dreams. From him I was inspired to read the books of therapists such as Eric Fromm, Karen Horney, Viktor Frankel, Rollo May, and Harry Stack Sullivan.

I idealized my therapist. I wanted to be like him, listening to people and to helping solve their conflicts and problems. He rose to the level of a hero.

During these ten years, I also started a life-long spiritual path, being strongly influenced by the ancient Indian wisdom and MY PRACTICE. I taught and practiced yoga and meditation and studied under a guru for many years. There were many heroes during my years of study of Vedanta MY PRACTICE. The most prominent one was Swami  Vivekenanda. He was one of the first illumined Indians to visit America in the latter part of the 1800’s and the beginning of the 1900’s.

With my new experiences in Eastern MY PRACTICE and practices, not only was the world of the unconscious open to my experience, but now the area of the super-conscious. In addition to the statue of “The Thinker” imbedded in my role modeling, there entered a statue of Buddha, sitting in silence with eyes closed going inward and with a blissful face.

While practicing law had its rewards, I knew that only being a lawyer would not be fulfilling. For me it lacked passion. Thoughts of changing career directions crossed my mind. In addition to thinking about becoming a psychotherapist, I mulled over becoming an academic in the intellectual field of religious and spiritual studies. I also contemplated making law practice more interesting and lucrative by going back to law school in the evenings to obtain a masters degree taxation to specialize in this field.

After ten years as an attorney I decided to change of career direction. I decided that my true passion was in humanism, psychotherapy, and the relationship between therapy and spirituality. I decided to obtain training in psychoanalysis part time, while continuing my law practice.

It took me eight years to obtain my certification as a lay analyst from the New Jersey Psychoanalytic Institute. There I had many opportunities to role model as to how I would eventually be as a psychoanalyst. There were many mentors to observe-my Freudian analyst and a host of supervisors and fellow candidates. I can’t say that my analyst was my hero since over the many years of analysis I began to realize his weaknesses and imperfections and eventually came to terms with them. Although he was not my hero, many of his attributes I role modeled in my own practice. Among them were his concentrated ability to listen, intellectual and emotional curiosity, patience, empathy, and setting the frame.

During my training, certain mentors were role models for my practice. One supervising analyst helped me to take myself less seriously and enjoy the sessions more. Another supervising analyst’s enthusiasm for Freud and helping me better understand and appreciate Freud were invaluable. The writers and theoreticians that most influenced me in addition to Freud were Donald Winnicott and William Ronald Fairbairn from the English object relations school of thought.

The fact that I had two concurrent inner growth paths was often confusing. The theories and purposes on the quest towards happiness and fulfillment in psychotherapy and spirituality, of course, had underlying differences. When I brought up events like meditation and other spiritual dealings with my spiritual teacher, my analyst took a dim view of why I needed all that. Similarly, when I told my spiritual teacher about psychoanalysis, he conveyed his skepticism about the relevance of delving into past family history, dreams, and free association.

After becoming a certified analyst, I still continued as a lawyer until my therapy practice grew such that I saw patients full time. After my certification, my spiritual practices also continued, but I opened up to learn more and practice spiritual principles from various religions. A particular influence in my spiritual path has been the world renowned mystic and spiritual healer, Joel S Goldsmith whose spiritual truth principles are based on the interpretations on the Old and New Testament. 

In 1994 I wrote an article that discussed the similarity of and differences between psychotherapy and spirituality. I concluded that the longer I observed the dual paths of psychotherapy and spirituality the more I was impressed by the tenacity of emotional problems and blockages. That is, that more harm is done to us by not accepting our “humanity” than by not realizing our “spirituality.” This article can be found on my website  

In the course of my workload I treated many patients whose role models, heroes, and mentors were religious and spiritual figures, past and present. Some of these figures were authentic and others were not. What was discovered was that many spiritual aspirants were “spiritual bypassing.” That is, their spiritual quests had diverted them from dealing with repressed material as to childhood conflicts. They had bypassed unresolved childhood issues to pursue spiritual endeavors. For example, devotion to an idealized spiritual teacher or teaching allowed negative emotions about the natural father to remain repressed. Many seekers on extreme spiritual paths such as cults have been fortunate to learn from therapy and otherwise that their heroes, role models, and mentors were misguided and were obstacles to their growth.

Over the years doing psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic therapy, there were new role models, heroes, and mentors that arose for me. I came to appreciate that on occasion my patients themselves were my heroes, role models, and mentors! I will only mention two psychoanalysts that influenced me significantly as therapist role models. One is Joseph Weiss, M.D. the author of HOW PSYCHOTHERAPY WORKS. He emphasized the role of guilt in pathology, client testing of the therapist, and how the therapist can pass these tests. The other was Thomas Hora, M.D., a psychoanalytically trained existential psychiatrist and spiritual teacher.  

In my later stage of life, I came to realize that the gender nature of my role models, heroes, and mentors had been modified. In my earlier stages mostly all of my analysts, mentors, heroes, role models, and spiritual teachers had been men. Now I have included more women to my sphere. In one psycho-spiritual group that I have been attending for many years all but two members are women. This pattern of respecting and companioning with knowledgeable and nurturing women has helped me in the transference to receive some modeling that my mother was incapable of giving me.  

* Published by CLIO’S PSYCHE, March 2010, Volume 16, Number 4
Michael S. Isaacs, MSW, NCPsyA, JD
San Francisco, California

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