The Sins of Psychotherapism
Brave New World depicts a dystopia in which fathers and mothers are regarded as an obscenity – the result of the influence of Freudian psychology and the bottle-nurture of babies among a sexually liberated populace. Huxley’s brilliant novel strikes the modern reader as uncannily prescient of the world we now live in. However, the novel failed to predict other ways in which psychotherapism would one day inflict damage on modern societies.
By calling this phenomenon “psychotherapism” rather than “therapism,” the term preferred by some critics, I aim to call attention to its historic roots in the psychotherapy instituted by Freud, Jung, and others. In One Nation Under Therapy, Satel and Hoff-Sommers define it as “pathologizing normal human emotion, promoting the illusion that we are very fragile beings, and urging grand emotional displays as the prescription for coping.” To that they add the belief that “ psychology can and should take the place of ethics and religion.”
A mountain of books about this subject has accumulated over decades. Many were written by psychologists and psychiatrists and have titles like Beware the Talking Cure; Manufacturing Victims: What the Psychology Industry Is Doing to People; The Myth of Psychotherapy; The Shrinking of America; The Road to Malpsychia; Psychotherapy as Religion; Fool’s Paradise: The Unreal World of Pop Psychology; and House of Cards: Psychology and Psychotherapy Built on Myth. They conclude that the time has come to focus attention on this phenomenon as a source of many of our social and moral ills.
The attack on psychotherapism can be summarized as follows:
1. Psychotherapism is mostly fraudulent. For more than 80 years, considerable research has been done looking into its effectiveness, and the weight of the evidence indicates that it is ineffectual at best and harmful at worst.
This is not to say that psychotherapists are con artists with evil intentions. No doubt many are well-meaning people who genuinely want to alleviate human suffering, and certainly many people have felt encouraged by their therapists. However, much of this may be simply the relief that comes from unburdening one’s concerns to a sympathetic ear. Indeed, amateur therapists such as teachers have done as well as trained, credentialed therapists in some research studies.
The big problem is that there is little or no reliable scientific proof for believing that talking about one’s problems really leads to solving those problems, or to improved well-being. Long ago the philosopher Karl Popper pointed out that Freudian psychology, like Marxism, was a pseudo-science, since it claimed to explain everything and could not be experimentally proven to be false. That reality has not changed, as many writers like Dawes in his book House of Cards have pointed out.
More ominously, much evidence exists that psychotherapy can sometimes do great harm. For example, counseling the victims of traumatic events like plane crashes often aggravates their suffering and prolongs the time it takes for them to recover emotionally.
2. Rejecting traditional ideas of sin and responsibility, pyschotherapism has muddied moral discussion with its ever-changing and inconsistent claims about the causes of bad behavior. At one time homosexuality was considered a mental sickness by the American Psychological Association; now homophobia is.
Despite its usual stance against moral censure, psychotherapism is far from non-judgmental. In place of traditional moral criticism, psychotherapy has simply invented a whole new vocabulary for belittling people. Terms such as “dysfunctional” and “repressed” have become the new terms of disapprobation.
Furthermore, psychotherapism has encouraged the trend of judging people’s motives and speculating on their secret thoughts rather than looking at their explicit views and outward behavior. When political commentators accuse Obama’s critics of racism, they are expressing psychotherapism’s tendency to encourage us to guess at the contents of people’s hidden thoughts. Even worse, criminal justice has often been compromised by the intrusion of such psychotherapeutic speculations into the legal process.
3. Applying this new moral outlook to everyday life has had terrible effects on family relationships in particular. Freud’s view of infant sexuality toward parents became the first salvo in a prolonged campaign to poison relations between parents and children.
Since the time of Freud, psychotherapism’s obsession with the topic of sexual satisfaction/repression led in turn to dismantling sexual taboos, with predictable destructive results in marriage and family life. More serious still, a focus on childhood emotional wounds, popularized by humanistic psychology, naturally bred resentment of one’s parents for not being perfectly supportive. In their book on the harm done by recovered-memory therapy, Making Monsters, Ofshe and Watters describe how children become “filled with righteous hatred” toward parents as a result of therapists dredging up supposed past parental misbehavior. In their view, these therapists, “like those who physically victimize people, deserve moral condemnation.” Some parents have even suffered to the extent of imprisonment based on false memories of sexual abuse, but many more have been alienated from their children by the notion that these children have suffered irreparable mental damage by their upbringing.
In place of “Honor your father and mother,” psychotherapism has often substituted “Indict your father and mother.” Making Monsters relates instances of people abruptly breaking off all relations with family members as a result of the advice of psychotherapists in cases in which no physical danger was involved. Since they hear only one side of the matter, these therapists are not qualified to judge family relationships.
4. Finally, psychotherapism has often usurped the place of religion, becoming in effect a new religion of the self. This was the deliberate aim of humanistic psychologists such as Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, who held traditional Judeo-Christian religion in contempt. They envisioned psychology replacing monotheistic religion in a future utopia, which Maslow called Eupsychia.
Surprisingly, many religious organizations have enthusiastically cooperated with their own colonization by psychotherapism. I remember well my pastoral counseling professor in seminary many years ago extolling the wisdom of Carl Rogers and criticizing pastors who refused to embrace it. The historian Holifield chronicles this development in American Christianity in his book A History of Pastoral Care in America: From Salvation to Self-Realization. Nowadays even church pastors write books offering religion packaged as a self-actualization program, such as the bestseller The Purpose-Driven Life. Some have dubbed this odd amalgam “psychoheresy.”
Unfortunately, this approach can lead to religious narcissism rather than the worship of God. Ironically, now secular research psychologists such as Twenge and Campbell in their book The Narcissism Epidemic take such church leaders to task for promoting self-esteem, an idea derived originally from the world of psychology. Recent research has debunked the widespread belief in the benefits of self-esteem, an outgrowth of psychotherapism.
Clearly, psychotherapism deserves a great measure of blame for helping to plunge modern societies into the moral and social disarray they are now experiencing. Yet despite its obvious failures and destructive influences, psychotherapism continues to be the reigning wisdom in much of academia and mass culture. Like communism, it has generally escaped condemnation for its crimes.