A reader wrote and asked me if for a person with serious emotional issues related to his or her life situation, is there any help to be had from most therapists? He stated, ‘My experience when I was younger was no. The therapy always consisted of trying to convince me to set the bar lower for myself, forego the kind of life I wanted, and accept a state of drug-induced complacency while overlooking deeper ‘philosophical’ issues. One therapist even openly advertised that she treated patients through a ‘feminist, multiculturalist and social justice lens.’ Are hacks like this the norm in the field, and should a person with problems even bother turning to conventional therapy?
This question is very much in line with what I wrote about in my book, ‘Bad Therapy, Good Therapy: And How to Tell the Difference.’
I don’t know if hacks are the norm, but they are indeed prevalent. It’s true that therapists often encourage clients, especially young ones, to lower the bar for themselves. They might not admit it, but that’s what they’re doing.
For example, they tell clients, ‘Don’t be so hard on yourself.’ What does that actually mean? This phrase could be interpreted (especially by a young person) to mean that they live by a certain set of standards. Is the therapist suggesting you should not live by any standards? Or only certain standards? These questions need probing. Therapy is a perfectly fine place to do such probing. But for the most part, this never takes place in therapy. And that’s part of the problem.
It’s also true that therapy often overlooks or ignores philosophical issues. One might say, ‘Philosophy and psychology are two different fields.’ They are, but philosophy is inescapable in life, and therefore inescapable in therapy.
One branch of philosophy is ethics. There’s no way a therapist can advise you, or even have a nonjudgmental conversation with you, without at least implicit reference to ethics.
Conventional ethics holds that it’s proper to sacrifice for others. If a client seeing a therapist has a dilemma between doing what he wants (something that doesn’t harm others, but might disappoint others), and doing what he thinks others want, what’s a therapist to do?
The therapist can take one of two paths: (1) encourage the client to buy into the ethics of self-sacrifice and do what somebody else wants him or her to do, or (2) do what’s best for
him- or herself.
Many therapists will rightly encourage you to do what’s best for yourself. But some will encourage self-sacrifice and warn against ‘selfishness.’ Either way, ethics is part of the conversation, no matter how much the client or the therapist denies it.
Another branch of philosophy is epistemology, or the theory of knowledge, i.e., the theory of how we can be sure of things; how we know what we know. Many people are depressed or anxious because they feel impotent in using their minds to make their way in the world or cope in daily life. Doesn’t it seem reasonable that a therapist’s philosophical attitude will influence, if not shape, the content of the therapy sessions?
These are some of the reasons why I think it’s a fallacy to claim that philosophy has no place in therapy. Philosophy is an inescapable part of therapy, because it’s an inescapable
part of life — particularly the life of the mind.
The therapist who advertises therapy through a ‘feminist, multicultural and social justice lens’ is openly advertising that she brings philosophy into therapy. The specific branch of philosophy she’s talking about here is politics, although she probably means ethics as well. Politics does not explicitly belong in therapy, but ethics is inescapable (and ethics has direct implications for both politics and the individual’s psychological state or actions in daily life.)
According to the ethics of feminism, women are victims and men are victimizers; if not by nature, then via interpersonal patterns so deeply and socially embedded that they might as well be by nature. I would not want to be a male in therapy with such a therapist. Indeed, I would not want to be a female in therapy with such a therapist either, because viewing the world as a helpless victim does a client no favors.
As a therapy client, you would need to be on guard against doing anything the therapist considers ‘against women,’ even though it might have nothing whatsoever to do with gender. For example, if you feel that your wife or girlfriend is possibly mistaken or unreasonable about something, and you want to discuss it, the therapist will very likely be inclined to view this conflict through the lens of ‘male domination’ of women.
It’s similar with the multicultural aspect. If you’re white, conversations would be turned to where you’re in the wrong against anyone who isn’t white. If you’re non-white, then issues and events would be discussed from the angle of you, the victim, against oppressors in the world.
Concluded in tomorrow’s column
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