Therapy Aphorisms 3 [Psychotherapy]

This text forms part of my series on psychotherapy. For the personal context (e.g. my dealings with Leon Redler, a sidekick of discredited sixties psychiatrist R. D. Laing, please see my therapy page).

  1. The natural process

Therapy, all forms of therapy, tell you that “self-development” is a natural process. You have to let it happen. The idea is that there is some kind of natural inner process. You have to stop blocking it – you have to “release” the blocks.  “The answer lies within”. Your therapist can help stimulate this natural process.

This is fundamentally not true. There is no inner natural process of development. Self-development; if it means a stronger mind, “knowing yourself”, better ethics – or any other criteria which philosophers have put forwards throughout history as criteria for self-development means effort. Anything meaningful requires effort. It doesn’t happen by itself.

The “self-development” which therapists talk about started in California in the sixties. It is a hedonistic ideal of emotional self-indulgence. It requires no self-discipline. Its highest virtue is “losing your inhibitions”.

“Radical psychotherapy” e.g. that practised by Laing and his sidekick Redler is an especially egregious form of this culture of emotional indulgence and hedonism posing as spirituality.

2. Not Buddhism

All moderns forms of therapy and counselling are derived from Freud and psychoanalysis. They’ve dropped the parts which are inconvenient from a marketing point of view and rewritten the cover story a bit (“insight” has taken over from “transference”). But it’s basically the same product.

And the key here is that Freud based his theories on “hysterical” patients in a hospital. The root idea is that the doctor cures the patient. The patient is… the patient. Passive, ignorant of science, the patient should passively receive the cure dispensed by the all-knowing and wise (usually male) doctor. The patient is required to take no initiative, take no responsibility for their own situation, understand nothing, simply “align their behaviours with the course of treatment”. And all will be well.

Which is, fundamentally, not how things work. The very opposite is true. To resolve her problems the patient needs to take the initiative, needs to take responsibility for her own mind and develop understanding. In Buddhism this is made clear; purifying your mind is a personal matter. No one can do it for you. It is particularly sad to see so-called “radical” therapists (like Leon Redler, Laing’s sidekick) trying to link therapy to Buddhism to therapy. Buddhism is concerned with developing the mind. Therapy is about encouraging he client to wallow in emotional indulgence and passing this process off as something useful. (Again; the only concrete outcome is that money and prestige accrue to the therapist).

Mental development simply doesn’t come from telling someone stories about childhood emotional disappointments for £40.00 an hour.  This way leads to dependency, fragility and a weak mind. To change your life you need to take individual effort and concrete steps to develop your mind and take actual steps in the real world.

3. Skills v. treatment

Getting better at your life is a question of developing a certain skill in handling situations. Therapy, with its model of illness and treatment, does not help in the slightest with this task.

Therapy will tell you that you need to lance a boil and then your life will be better. The model is a medical one; your problems in life have a cause (the boil) and if you remove this then things will go better. But the reality is that for things to go better in your life you have to learn new behavioural skills. It is an active process, led by reason and the conscious mind. removing a supposed boil (in fact it doesn’t exist) may make you appear better in the eyes of the therapist. The therapist is fixing the patient as an object – (removing the boil which ’causes’ his problems). But you are a subject and being fixed as an object will bring no benefit. On the contrary; in as much as you accept this objectified view of yourself you will be diminished and will be in a worse position than if you had no contact with therapy at all.

4. You’re the sick one

The ideology of R. D. Laing was that everyone was sick or “off-track”. This of course meant that normal healthy people should be treated as if they were very seriously ill.

The motivation to do this is of course to do with the size of the market. Laing made his name by promoting the idea that ‘schizophrenics’ were more intelligible than generally believed and that it was possible to talk with them; if you listened to them rather than put them into a clinical pigeon-hole then what they said made sense. Based on this he developed a form of therapy which involved listening carefully to the schizophrenic rather than prescribing treatment (lobotomy, drugs etc.). The problem is that there aren’t all that many diagnosed schizophrenics around. Worse; once you are operating in the private sector, as Laing was when he left his NHS post, you don’t have access to any. Thus the need to develop a ‘theory’ that would explain why everyone needs this treatment. This was the sociological theory that society is “off-course”, that everyone in it is therefore ‘off-course’ (or has lost their way in Redler’s rendition), and that schizophrenics are the beacons showing the way back. (Analysing ideologies in terms of their actual driving forces is an established part of sociological methodology. Laing didn’t have a sociological awareness and so could not critique his own ideology).

From a clinical point of view this means that anyone who comes to see the therapist is automatically seized upon as someone who suffers from this predefined societal condition. They are “off-course”. This means that everyone gets the same treatment, regardless of their unique and individual circumstances. And, thus we have come full circle. A standardized treatment being blindly and insensitively being provided without any real attempt to get to know the patient as an individual.

Laing’s theory fails precisely because it lacked any real social critique and lacks any sociological analysis. It just reproduced the patterns (paradigms) of this society such as top-down hierarchical delivery of services and disciplinary mechanisms of power, in a new form.

5. How they screw you over

Everyone needs confirmation. An infant develops precisely by receiving confirmation from his or her mother. But this need for confirmation doesn’t stop when you grow you. Most people, even the most ‘normal’ or healthy retain some need for confirmation. People who are vulnerable because they are going through a difficult time may ‘regress’ somewhat and need more confirmation. These are the people who are targeted by therapy advertising. Those who have been bereaved, who have lost their job, ended a relationship or just are “confused about life direction”.

When they go to see their therapist will they get confirmation? No. The chief ‘method’ of the therapist is precisely to deny them this confirmation. There is some psychoanalytic theory here – this (apparently) breaks down (undermines) unhealthy patterns – and in this breakdown new adaptations will develop. (Laing’s ‘treatment’ of schizophrenics being a case in point). In fact what this will do is just make the patient lose what confidence they had. They will become dependent and vulnerable. “One day this important person (with all these ‘medical’ credentials) will answer me, will confirm what I say, will offer me confirmation”. The patient lives on in hope. In fact the therapist will never offer confirmation. The patient’s already low self-confidence just ebbs away. Ideal from the point of view of the therapist who continues to collect the fat fee as long as this goes on.

The theory is that if no confirmation is offered the old maladaptive patterns are broken and the patient will create new and “autonomous” ones – will become an adult. But in reality the “therapeutic relationship” with its “asymmetry of power” provides no context in which the patient – defined as “sick” by the very nature of being a “patient” – can develop these supposed adult patterns. Therapy simply goes round and round, undermining the old patterns (including the useful ones), while never providing the social context (an actual close relationship or straightforward advice) in which new patterns could develop.

6. It is always your fault

The simple (and obvious) fact is that if people are messed up someone messed them up. Human beings are amazingly resilient. Children can grow and develop in the harshest of environments. The norm is for self-development. Apart from cases of actual physical disability (and therapy is completely silent on those) if people are messed up it is because someone screwed them up. But therapy cannot accept this because it would mean that the focus of the work should really be on applying justice to those who did the messing up (sexual and serious emotional abuse) not on ‘treating’ those who experienced it. And there would therefore be no ‘therapy’ and no fees. The analogy for this in terms of disciplinary systems is how these days (this is a social myth but grounded in real experience of course) if you report a crime to the police you will be offered victim support counselling but there is no chance of them actually trying to catch the criminals.

I remember when I told Leon Redler about my experiences of child sexual abuse at a prep-school in Oxford. (The ‘Dragon’ school). I told him that I had spoken to the police about some of the abusers and I had given them a set of letters from my friends supporting my claims. I had approached the police not because I seriously wanted them to prosecute the abusers, ( I thought it unlikely that they would), but because I felt it important to clarify that what had happened, much of which had been passed off as ‘normal school discipline’, had in fact been abuse. Redler immediately misunderstood and assumed that I was after a criminal prosecution. He then proceeded to mock my (supposed, not in fact actual) desire for vengeance. To impute that there was something wrong with me for wanting this legal revenge. (Which in fact I hadn’t wanted particularly anyway; at least a court case was certainly not my main aim). The police did not launch a case because, they said, the offences (touching, groping, indecent assault) were below their bar for historical cases. This was in the 1990s. I suspect that they were also afraid of tackling the prep-school which was well established in the local power structures; the headmaster at the time of my contact with the police even sat on an important Social Services committee. Nonetheless the fact that the police ‘believed’ me and agreed with me that there were concerns made some small difference and ‘cleared the air’ a little for me.

From the point of view of therapy though all this is ‘external’. It needs police officers, detectives, lawyers, and courts, not therapists – and thus provides no income stream for them. So they ignore it or, as in the case above, denigrate it. Redler invented a catchy little phrase for his therapy business “Just Listening” but there was no concern at all for justice here. Justice is a social concept and therapy turns away from the social. When Redler responded to my account of being abused and of having reported it to the police by mocking my supposed feeling of vengeance he was changing a social and political and legal question into one of ‘feelings’ and the interiority of consciousness in the ‘patient’. He was, urgently, getting away from the external world where the abuse took place and where, in fact, the resolution needed to take place. This internalisation of the problem in the patient aligns with the old-fashioned view which makes the one who experienced abuse the sick one. (“You dirty boy with your dirty mind, how could you let the teacher stick his hand down your pyjamas”) – which was the view that was prevalent in the onlookers and enablers of the abuse at my 1970s prep-school. Jeffrey Masson has charted how Freud initially believed that his clients really had suffered sexual abuse but changed the focus to blame their supposed internal phantasy mechanisms. Masson argues that this was done by Freud in order to allow the development of his treatment model. The internalisation of abuse as something chiefly a matter of the patient’s feelings and phantasy life is a way of making money out of actual sexual abuse. It goes without saying that there can be no resolution of the problem here and that this false treatment will hinder not help people who have experienced abuse.

My main motive in approaching the police in this matter was to receive clarification that what had happened was wrong. The whole motif of the abuse from one of the main perpetrators at this school had been precisely to blur boundaries between the normal world (right and wrong, school rules, normal punishment) and a weird and sexually deviant world of his own. The police can only offer (it is true) justice and ‘revenge’. This can help a little bit; people who receive this kind of justice will certainly feel listened to and, if the case is successfully prosecuted, a clarification that what happened was wrong. But the helpful part is the clarification; not the punishment of the criminal. I would agree with Redler that simply exercising revenge is not helpful. (Though, as I mention above, this was not my primary motive and was something which Redler imputed to me). On the other hand, surprisingly, therapy cannot provide the simple clarification “I hear you, I believe you and what happened was wrong” that people who have been abused may benefit from. This is because therapy is a private commercial matter between two parties. If the therapist really thought child sexual abuse was wrong he would join with his client in solidarity in denouncing it. And this solidarity would necessarily mean giving up charging fees. That would be the end of therapy. Neither therapy nor the courts can help someone who has been sexually abused. But the courts can offer something tangible – a social clarification of what is right and wrong. Therapy cannot even offer this.

Author: justinwyllie

EFL Teacher and Photographer