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). Some of the points relate specifically to my experiences with Redler – others are more general.

1. They steal your life.

Therapists steal the lives of their victims.

Common to all therapists is the belief that they can run your life better than you. It may thus come as something of a surprise when one learns about the messed up lives that one’s therapist leads. In my case; a broken marriage. Based on the propaganda and the claim that they can help you run your life perfectly one would expect that their lives would be shining examples of virtue, fulfilment and success. But in general they aren’t.  One story I’ve heard is that a therapist was apparently beaten up by her son and conducted a therapy session with two black eyes! This, of course, is why it is so important for therapists not to talk about their private lives. The illusion of being a superior being to the client mustn’t come under any threat. 

So, these inadequate people “help” their clients by getting their clients to tell them their problems. The client pours out their problems. (Naturally enough; they really do have problems and need someone to advise them). But then the twist happens. The client is led to believe that the source of the problems in the world lies deep in their past and in their ‘unconscious’. And that resolution to these problems doesn’t happen in the world, by engaging with the world, but by this private discourse (in fact not discourse; it is entirely one-way) between therapist and patient. The patient gives emotionally while the therapist sits there with their paid-for “listening service” – and gives nothing of themselves in return. And while this goes on the patient is ever increasingly drawn away from engagement in the real world – where they belong and where their problems actually need to be solved. 

The therapist steals their emotional energy and their money. A cunning trick. They do this either, in the better cases, for purely mercenary motives. Or, in the worst cases, out of personal inadequacy. An inadequacy which they are trying to compensate for by lording it over the client. 

2. 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.

3. 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 trying to link therapy to Buddhism. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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” or “out-of-touch with themselves”. 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 or 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.

6. 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.

7. 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. 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 local 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, to refocus the matter on the feelings of the ‘patient’ – and to make a problem of these. 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; it is conducted as a private matter between an isolated individual and surveilling consciousness (the therapist) which takes place in a private consulting room (or living room). 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, 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 (your feelings of vengeance are the problem here) 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 framing 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 commercial operation. 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.

8. No response

I’ve been reading a book by Phoebe Caldwell Finding You Finding Me. The book contains a moving description of how Caldwell connects to people with autism by entering into their world. For example; if a young man is obsessively playing with a piece of string she doesn’t dimiss this as a negative behaviour. Rather, she gets involved – joins in, tries to find the game. Caldwell talks about how important it is to give people a meaningful response. This raises their self-esteem and establishes the basis for a meaningful relationship. Caldwell discusses how once a meaningful response is given the person can move on to the next step, and so, a relationship can develop. If someone never receives a meaningful response they can’t move on to the next step; they remain stuck in their inner world. This is why in her work with autistic people Caldwell makes such an effort to give people a meaningful response.

Psychotherapy of course strives to do exactly the opposite. The one consistent practice is not to give the client a response. In the case of this writer Leon Redler simply sat there hiding behind a clipboard “taking notes”. (For all I know he could have been working out his next shopping list). This really is the central method/trick of psychoanalytically derived psychotherapy. The therapist does not give the client a meaningful response. And so the client cannot ‘move on’. And so they sit there, stuck and frustrated, unable to go forwards, their self-esteem and confidence slowly ebbing away. An ideal situation from the point of view of the therapist interested primarily in their fee.

Ricard Webster makes just this point about the trick of psychoanlysis in his book Why Freud was Wrong – Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis. [2] It is by letting the client tell the therapist their secrets but by withholding any response that the therapist makes it hard for the client to leave.

9. Two types of psychotherapist

There are two types of therapists. The first believe in it. This type think of themselves as lordly helpers. They are weak individuals who compensate for their weakness by “helping” others. These ones are the most harmful.

The second type are in it for the money. Being a therapist is an easy way of earning £25.00 – £60.00 ph with no serious qualifications. They often work from home and have no overheads. If they weren’t therapists many of these people would struggle to get employment as a shop-assistant. These people cause much less harm because occasionally, despite the greed, they are able to relate to people normally. (Which is, after all, what the vast majority of people “in therapy” need).

10. Laingianism

  1. I am so wonderful and such a developed human being that people are healed just by sitting in my presence.
  2. Everyone needs this kind of healing.
  3. My accountant handles the fees.

11. Redler’s method

It is difficult to know. He never told me – (I didn’t ask; as discussed elsewhere I fell into the role of passive and trusting patient pretty easily at the first push). It may not even be a method; rather a series of tactics. But I think I note the following; 1) a very earnest attempt to focus the patient’s attention internally. If I discussed the external world he would want to refocus my attention on my interior world as quickly as possible. 2) An attempt to discourage me from thinking about my problems. 3) An attempt to sabotage my attempts at independence and to foster anything which would lead to increased dependency – on him, on my family, on social structures.

In fact this is Laing’s regression technique which he used with people severely ill with schizophrenia. (And which, as Foucault has shown, is based in 19th century asylums).

Whether or not it is helpful for people in such a state I don’t know. Maybe it is.

What I am clear about is that it was entirely inappropriate to use with a young man in full possession of all his faculties whose actual existential problem (I use the word existential deliberately) was in fact “what should I do with my life” – that is essentially a problem of careers guidance. I can also say it did me no good at all.

I was very clear with Redler that this was my problem; – I didn’t know what to do with my life. It was obvious I was not severely mentally ill. What was he doing?

12. You are just shuffling paperclips

One of Redler’s tactics was to undermine my self-confidence. I’m afraid I think this was quite deliberate. For example; when I was about 22 I had a job in London for a national level charity. I had two roles; one was to manage the membership database – handle enquiries about membership etc., and the other was to edit and do the layout of the charity’s newsletter. The former was something of a clerical role, the latter quite creative. It could easily have been the starting point for a meaningful career in PR in the charity sector. I can’t remember the exact context but at one point when I was discussing this job with Redler he disparagingly said something like “all you are doing there is shuffling paperclips”. Obviously this undermined my confidence and ‘damaged my self-esteem’. It wasn’t even accurate. I would guess that the context for this remark was that Redler himself does not appear, based on his online CV, to have ever held a ‘real’ job. He seems to have moved from being a student via a highly dubious “apprenticeship” with a struck-off drug-using psychiatrist to his bizarre private practice as an “independent mental health expert” (or some phrase like that). Of course he had to disparage his relatively speaking normal client who in normal terms had already achieved more than him.

Another occasion; I had, after some struggle, left the ‘Therapeutic Community’ which Redler had referred me to. I came into the first therapy session following this with (I recall) considerable bounce in my step. Redler noticed this and made a snide remark about how you are walking confidently (or something along those lines). Of course, drawing attention to an aspect of someone’s behaviour is a sure-fire way of getting them to stop it. Instead of ‘validating’ my decision and resultant increase in self-confidence Redler was attacking it. Of course; the next step after getting rid of the weight of this ‘Therapeutic Community’ would have been to kick him out. He was sabotaging this possibility. Like a cult leader he was always engaged in making me dependent on him. Possibly like a cult leader he somehow believed that this was in my interests. (Jim Jones believed it was in the interests of his followers to poison themselves rather than be rescued by US authorities).

13. Undermining the client

Key to Redler’s “method” was to consistently undermine the independence of the client. In the above and in my other writings I have given a lot of examples of this. He constantly targeted any signs of independence; any initiative I took that might have taken me out of therapy was especially targeted (my visit to a Buddhist centre was targeted because he understood, correctly that I might have replaced him with Buddhism, my breaking free of his ‘therapy household’ was, rather blatantly, targeted, because, of course, he understood he might have been next, and so on).

Of course in part this was simply because I (a client) represented a valuable income stream. For someone like Redler who outside of the therapy world was simply someone with a (I think 2) Undergraduate University degrees and a rather blank CV keeping clients glued to him was obviously essential. But also, and rather sadly, this point is possibly to his credit, it that is saves him from simply being a complete charlatan; undermining the independence of the client is actually a valid psychiatric technique. (See Foucault’s Madness and Civilization). Essentially, the idea of 19th century psychiatry was madness was caused by too much wilfulness and independence on the part of the patients. The cure was to reduce them to the status of a minor. This was all that Redler was doing. He was practising 19th century authoritarian psychiatry.

I remember how, early on in the “treatment” I had told him that I had had some sessions of CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) on the NHS in Oxford. I told him I thought psychoanalysis might help me more. Of course he was eager to encourage and fan this view; he waved CBT away. Of course that won’t help you at all. With hindsight; CBT is a modern technique with limited aims which might help some people. It has a specific aim and method; nothing is shrouded in mystique (“transference”, “insight”, “the therapeutic relationship”). The patient can see for themselves if it is working. I’m not particular extolling CBT but it contrasts with psychotherapy (psychoanalytical) in that doesn’t seek to engender long-term dependence on the part of the client. Because it is ‘delivered’, usually, in the publicly free to use NHS it is largely free of the financial imperative which drives private psychotherapy.

14. Causing harm in the name of doing good

I came across this in a book on meditation recently:

The meditator’s intention is to purge her own mind of anger, prejudice, and ill will, and she is actively engaged in the process of getting rid of greed, tension, and insensitivity. Those are the very items that obstruct her compassion for others. Until they are gone, any good works that she does are likely to be just an extension of her own ego, and of no real help in the long run. Harm in the name of help is one of the oldest games. The grand inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition spouted the loftiest of motives. [3]

And, indeed, Redler, his disgraced “mentor” R. D. Laing, and in general all therapists do indeed “spout the loftiest of motives”. (Especially Laing). If you look at therapeutic literature you will find endless claims that therapists are motivated by a disinterested desire to “help” their patients. It is taken as self-evidently true that no therapist could conceivably ever be motivated by their own need for money. In reality – take a step back – this is absurd. Therapists (and “counsellors”) are typically self-employed individuals running in effect small businesses. Like any other individual running a small business they have bills to pay, rent, a mortgage, (family members who demand money with menaces in the case of one of my therapists), alimony, and so on. And given a choice between easing their client into a few more sessions, or lots more sessions, or forgoing the income they always choose what is objectively best for the client in a disinterested way? They never think about their own income? This would make them either very irresponsible individuals or saints, in fact both; some kind of crazy saints. It is transparently delusional and not true. Either they believe it in which case they are delusional and can hardly help you with your sanity, or they are conning you.


  1. Phoebe Caldwell Finding You Finding Me 2005
  2. Ricard Webster Why Freud was Wrong – Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis. Basic Books 1996.
  3. Gunaratana, Henepola. Mindfulness in Plain English (pp. 20-21). Wisdom Publications. Kindle Edition.

Author: justinwyllie

EFL Teacher and Photographer