It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.
What? You thought psychotherapy was a way to help others to become “normal,” that is, to conform to social norms. When someone tells another, “You need professional help!” it usually means the other is not behaving in a way that is acceptable. The “bible” of mental health, the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition), is chock full of labels for socially unacceptable behavior we need to treat and cure, if possible. Give ‘em drugs, talk some sense into ‘em, make ‘em see their “distorted thinking,” and so on.
These people who (allegedly) need help typically aren’t “going along with some program” (their parents’, their teachers’, their priests’ or ministers’, their boss’, their friends’, their spouse’s, Madison Avenue’s, and so on). They wind up feeling judged, criticized, pressured, belittled, or shamed as a result. Therapy (at its worst) helps give these people insight as to the impulses, wishes, and desires (coming from what Freud called “the Id”) they might have that go against the program. These people can then take these insights and … do what? Feel worse? Feel guilty? Blame themselves?
At this point, you (especially if you are a therapist) may be objecting to this characterization of therapy. After all, isn’t an empathic, non-judgmental relationship the key to successful therapy? To this, I say a resounding “yes!” Yet, I challenge you to become more aware of how what you say during therapy (or in real life, for you non-therapists) is shaming and blaming, even when you don’t intend it to be. For example, say a therapist opens a session with a depressed person by saying, “So I see you are still feeling depressed.” This may seem empathic, and it may be. Yet there is a judgment implied (“you are still …”) and the client could easily feel blamed for not feeling better. As an aside, the therapist may also feel bad for not helping the client to feel better by this point – but that’s the therapist’s problem.
What might happen if a therapist actually provided his or her client with a truly empathic, non-judgmental relationship? Might the client start to feel better about themselves? Might they start to learn who they really are? Might they feel more confident in expressing themselves, even if they are not going along with the (quite possibly dysfunctional) program?
Another therapist (say me :-)) might open a session with our intrepid imaginary client by saying, “It feels like the depression is really weighing heavy on you today.” This is also empathic, yet (in my opinion) has less of a blaming or judgmental flavor, thus allowing the client to feel the way he or she feels and not feel worse because of it. (Your comment on my opinion is invited.)
Taking a step back from all this then, isn’t “successful psychotherapy” a subversive activity? Doesn’t it help people “be who they are,” instead of being who someone else thinks they should be? Doesn’t it allow people to be at peace with their impulses, wishes, and desires (Id) rather than being anxious or depressed about going against what has (for better or worse) been programmed into them (which Freud called the “Superego”)?
Wouldn’t therapists help their clients greatly by being more sensitive to the ways they judge or blame their clients, and hence serve as part of their blaming, shaming, guilt-producing “superego?” Wouldn’t therapists help their clients more if they started being more subversive, so to speak, and stop imposing a moral standard on them? Whether you are a therapist, a client, or thinking about therapy, please let me know what you think!
Author’s Note: The ideas behind these thoughts stem from:
- The theories of Bernard Apfelbaum, Ph.D.
- A book called “Teaching as a Subversive Activity.”
Copyright 2013 Daniel J. Metevier