Therapist Corey Yeager’s Book Turns the Reader Inward

The Minnesota-based psychotherapist for the Detroit Pistons basketball team reflects on his own life of self-searching
Corey Yeager sits in his "sacred space" next to his family dogs, Champ (top) and ESPN
Corey Yeager sits in his “sacred space” next to his family dogs, Champ (top) and ESPN

Photo by David Ellis

“Forget ‘author.’ Add ‘model’ to your resume,” Carrie Yeager jokes to her husband, Corey Yeager, who sits a few feet away in the Yeager family’s Brooklyn Park home as a photographer readies his camera. For the photo shoot, the 53-year-old therapist is ensconced in his “sacred space”—a well-worn leather chair where he wrote most of his new self-help book, “How Am I Doing?: 40 Conversations to Have With Yourself.” Two shih tzus have stationed themselves near Corey like tiny guardians—Champ, perched next to Corey’s shoulder, and ESPN, curled up on the ottoman.

Prior to authorship, Corey had already filled out a tall resume. Among his former clients are some big names: the Smithsonian Institute, the Oprah Winfrey Network. Last year, he appeared on the Apple TV+ show “The Me You Can’t See,” co-hosted by Winfrey and Prince Harry, to offer therapeutic expertise. He previously served as director of educational equity for Minneapolis Public Schools, helped to break in the state’s Office of Black Male Student Achievement, and, as a researcher, dug into the “family system” by which he says African Americans have supported one another’s emotional and mental wellness through community bonds and “fictive kinship.”

In late 2018, Corey also started as the psychotherapist for the Detroit Pistons basketball team, regularly flying to Michigan for sessions with the players. The Pistons hired him shortly before the National Basketball Association mandated that teams retain at least one mental health professional. He chose to commute to Detroit rather than disturb his roots in Minnesota, where he has lived about half his life. “Even though I wish I could be home more, the family’s deeply understanding of the work that I do,” he says later.

All four of the Yeager sons play, or played, football, so Corey and Carrie travel to Iowa and North Carolina for college games, and wedge high school practices into the airtight, color-coded schedule on Carrie’s laptop. A football player himself growing up, Corey made it to the National Football League draft after a standout Division I run at Long Beach State—but the NFL didn’t pick him. Feeling crushed, he ultimately moved on, and by his mid-30s, Corey was working at Ford Motor Company’s St. Paul plant. By then, he had met and married Carrie, who saw something in him that he had overlooked. At 6’3”, he says his size long defined him. “I think I had been sold a bill of goods that my physical stature was really what made me who I am. I was absolutely wrong.” Carrie pushed Corey to take night classes at Metropolitan State University, and when the plant shuttered, he says he turned down a $100,000 payout for an educational scholarship.

What led him to become a marriage and family therapist? “I had some struggles with alcohol, and Carrie and I, maybe seven years or eight years into our marriage, went to therapy together,” he says. Therapy had never graced his radar—but now he wanted more of it. The first in his family to get a bachelor’s degree, Corey went on to earn a master’s in psychotherapy from Argosy University and a doctorate degree in family social science from the University of Minnesota. As a therapist, he may be exercising what he says his grandmother named his “gift of discernment” back when he was 10 years old. “People’s stories are deeply important to me, so if you tell me a story, I cherish that … because you didn’t have to share that with me.”

Set for an Oct. 18 release, “How Am I Doing?” deploys a series of questions, along with Corey’s own self-reflections, that he has commonly posed to his clients. The hardest question, he says, hinges on nuance: “Do you love to win, or hate to lose?” (Corey loves to win.) The prompts are open-ended, but the first—“Who knows you best?”—has a correct answer, he suggests: No one knows you better than you do. “This is what therapy is about,” he says. “It’s about eliciting a-ha moments, becoming more aware of yourself and others.”

When the photo shoot ends, Corey comes in from the front yard, seeming fresh and energized, and sinks again into his sacred space. This interview has been edited for length.

Corey Yeager writes at his Brooklyn Park home
Corey Yeager writes at his Brooklyn Park home

Photo by David Ellis

Could you tell me about this chair being your “sacred space”?

Oftentimes, sacred spaces call us; we don’t necessarily call them. And I think that’s what happened here. We always had a centrally located seat that I’ve claimed. Over time, we had a lot of family conversations with me sitting here and the family sitting around me—moments where I was in thought about where we’re headed as a family.  Then, as I started to write the book, I was sitting here. God, this space right here is central to so many things that we do, that I do. This is sacred to me.

The first prompt asks, “Who knows you best?” Is this a question you had to ask yourself at some point in your life?

The book is really about the emphasis that we’ve had in our lives, as human beings, to look outside of ourselves first. I think that’s backwards. Before I can be a good husband, before I can be a good father, a good therapist, I have to first be good to Corey.

This really was the genesis of that initial question, “Who knows you best?” Over time, as I began to do therapeutic work, I was always coming back to these questions, these thoughts. And people would always talk about, “Well, my mom knows me better,” or “My wife knows me better.” But I would always kind of be challenging, like, your mom knows everything about you? “Well, not everything.” Who’s the only person that knows everything about you? “Well, that’d be me.”

Well, that means you know you better than anyone else. My wife knows things about me that my mom will never know. My mom knows things about me that my wife will never hear. But I know all of those pieces. So, that means I know myself best. Getting to know who we are innately, at the core of who we are, I think is critically important. And it’s important to how we show up in the world. If I know myself better, I’ll show up in the world better. I’ll be a better father. Because I know me. I’ll be a better husband because I know me better.

Can you see a time in your life when you didn’t know yourself?

Yes. One thing that stands out for me, as a time when I didn’t know myself, is when my wife, Carrie, continuously said to me, “You need to go back to school.” I’m like, well, why? Why do I need to go back? Well, she was seeing something in me that I wasn’t able to see yet. But she was seeing it. Obviously, that was a moment when I didn’t really know myself yet. I didn’t know myself deeply. But if you’d have asked me then, I probably would have thought I knew myself pretty well.

I think this is the evolution of life. Ten years ago, when I was forty-something, and now, when I’m 53—I look back to 10 years ago: I didn’t know anything. I thought I knew everything I needed to know at 43. But now that I’m 53, I look back and I say, “You were an idiot.” That’s the evolution of life, that we’re not supposed to know it all. And what I know today is, if the Lord blesses me to live another 10 years, I’ll look back and say, “At 53, you were still stupid! You were a dummy.” I think … this evolution, and understanding and giving grace to ourselves, is critically important.

When you were about to get involved with the NBA as a therapist, did it almost feel too close to something that would be painful to think about—how you went far in football but weren’t picked by the NFL?

No, I think that I’ve always had the yearning and kind of love and passion for sports. So, as I began my master’s, my grandmother, Granny, who I write about in the book, was in her early 90s. I called her and said, “Granny, I’m going to go into a master’s program.” Well, my grandmother had a sixth-grade education but was easily the most wise person I’ve ever encountered; I don’t foresee encountering anyone as wise as her in my lifetime. And she said, “Well, baby, I don’t know what a master’s is. But this is what I want you to do: I want you to sit down. I want you to write out whatever your dream is for that master’s, or that education. Fold it up, tuck it in your Bible, and go about your work.” So, I did. I wrote down, in 2007, “I want to find a way to use therapy to work in the NFL or the NBA.” I wrote that down 15 years ago, tucked it away, and went about my business—but always thinking I want to find a way to be a part of that sports world and connect psychology to it.

Last year, The New York Times reported that more Black people were turning to therapy, and a number of Black public figures spoke openly about seeking that kind of help. Megan Thee Stallion, for instance, talked about a stigma in Black communities around therapy and mental wellness. Could you speak to that stigma and cultural shift?

I think the cultural shift is incremental. Very small, but important nonetheless. This stigma that is occurring, in terms of mental wellness and that approach for the African American community specifically, is rooted in a 400-year history in this country. So, it is not just, ‘We don’t like therapy.’ It has a long story that must be told, that has to be contextualized.

I think one of the struggles that we have … is that we decontextualize race. It’s more comfortable to decontextualize. Take the context of what happened to that group of people—don’t talk about that a lot. Just say, “Hey, rugged individualism! Everybody’s got a chance in this country!” I understand that. But there are also contextual factors that play in.

This stigma that the African American community has is rooted in a long and storied history, that is not trusting of the networks, the social endeavors that will say, “Hey, come on in, we’re going to treat you well.” Yeah, what happened in the Tuskegee Institute? What happened with all of those pieces that made us say, “Hey, we don’t necessarily trust that”? So, we’re not going to just jump in and tell you our deep-rooted struggles and stories, because we have a lower level of trust, and rightfully so. I think there’s some change, but our trust level is still very low. 

Your book ends on the idea of grace. What is the meaning of grace?

I see grace as finding the ability that, if someone, or ourselves, makes a mistake, or makes a stumble or fumble, I can say, “No, that’s alright. Don’t worry about it. It’s OK. We can move past that.” I think, as human beings, we’re good at doing that with everyone else. We’re not great at doing it with ourselves. We don’t give ourselves that same grace that we give everyone else. It’s one of the reasons I closed with grace, because I think the next thing I want to talk about, and write about, is probably more deeply looking at, “So, what is grace? How do we use it? What does it mean to us? How does it benefit us? Why do we struggle with giving grace to ourselves?” That’s something that you’ll see with me: I’m always curious about a lot of things.

Where do you think that curiosity comes from?

It has to come from those early years in my upbringing. My dad was sick and passed away when I was 15. And I remember, when he passed away, thinking, “The world is continuing to move, but I have to deal with the loss of my father. I wonder why no one is addressing this issue in the way that I think they should.” But I didn’t say it to anyone. I was thinking about it. No one was really talking through that. I didn’t go to therapy. But I was struggling. So, I think those are some early roots of me being curious about things that I may not be able to change but I wanted to understand more.

Today, what would you tell your younger self, just after you didn’t get that NFL draft pick?

I would tell my younger self, “Hey, somehow, it’s all going to work out. Because you’re a good person. And you’re a hard worker. It may not seem like it’s going to work out in the struggles that you’re going to have to traverse. But it will ultimately all work out.’’ So, if I could have heard those words, I think it would have been helpful. Because I had no idea, when football was done—I didn’t have a degree, I had no idea what I was going to do. None. I say it all the time: In life, we must be rivers, not ponds. A pond can be a stagnant piece of water. But a river is ever regenerating and moving. So, as human beings, that’s what we have to do. We have to keep moving.