The New Observer Psychotherapy Therapy aphorisms

Therapy aphorisms

Therapy aphorisms

The “therapeutic relationship”

Therapy makes a great deal about the “therapeutic relationship”. What is the quality of this relationship, in fact?

A œrelationship where one party never divulges anything about himself but encourages another to tell everything and not spare any intimate detail is the opposite of a loving, warm, human relationship of the kind that sets people on their feet.

It is the same sort of relationship as between school-teacher and “pupil”. One way, governed by power. An unequal relationship of dependence and control. Empty of love and ritualised. And this, based on the emotions, just where love and trust are needed.

It”s basically Christianity all over again

A description of medieval confession:

The confession was regarded as a kind of therapeutic process of contrition, whereby the poison of sin is expelled and spiritual health is restored.” [1]

Therapy is the inheritor of this tradition. It is probably equally useless for the individual. But it plays a similar role in toning down social tensions.

The pathetic patients try to get the therapist”s attention

In his novel The Zone of The Interior the American writer Clancy Sigal  [2] has his character Dr Willie Last say that he was bored by 99% of his patients who “root around like pigs in their own emotional shit to buy my attention”. The novel is a satire on Laing and the group around him in the sixties who were taking LSD and setting up communities for “schizophrenics”. Dr. Willie Last is R. D. Laing. Of course there is no way of knowing if Laing actually made this particular remark. The book is fiction. But it points to a facet of therapy.

This is indeed a pattern in therapy. The patient does indeed offer the therapist what he hopes are juicy titbits of emotional grunge from his background in an attempt to get the therapist”s attention. This writer did it himself; bringing up matters not because they bothered him in any way but simply to try to get the therapist”s attention. (In his case that of Laing”s disciple Leon Redler).

But whoever made the remark Sigal reports here is missing the point completely. What is the patient doing? He is in indeed trying to get the therapist”s attention. The detached therapist sits there with a clipboard (as Redler did for example, like a quality control supervisor in a factory) as the patient describes their fraught emotions, their experiences of being sexually abused as a child etc.  While all this is going on the therapist just takes notes. Coolly. The “patient”, mad with frustration and desperate by now for a human response, does indeed start offering up “emotional shit to buy my attention”. They are trying one last time to get a human reaction, to actually get that promised “relationship”.

Having institutionalised, professionalized and commercialised human relations the therapist cannot see this. From his “professional” perspective all he can see is the “pathetic pathology” of the patient. What is the therapist doing when he hangs that sign over their door that says “come and tell me your emotional problems”? It is not to have a normal relationship and it turns out they aren’t really interested in the emotional problems of the patient either…

No political explanation

Therapy has nothing serious to say about what makes people mad.

The current theory is really a broad-brush pedagogical one. The “patient” hasn’t learned a repertoire of emotional skills.

At one point is was because they had too much recourse to phantasy and had thus not adjusted successfully.

Both of these theories isolate the problem in the “patient”. They are completely blind to social, political and economic factors.

In the sixties R. D. Laing thought it might be the family. This was a seemingly more “radical” approach. He didn’t explain though what made mad families. Families can still be “treated”. Social, economic, political systems, culture and history cannot. That is why his analysis has to end there. The theory cannot offer explanations for “mental illness” other than those which imply a professional treatment programme of some kind and something for therapists to do.

Therapy is by its nature about “treating” people. It cannot think about why people might come to need to be “treated”. It does not want to think about this.


Some forms of psychotherapy, especially the hippieish counter-culture “anti-psychiatry” movement, rigorously prioritize the emotions. Everything which isn”t the patient submissively feeding into the transference with emotion and phantasy is undermined. Specifically the capacity for thinking one”s way out of a problem is undermined.

Therapy is anti-intellectual. If the patient is an intellectual, if their path is to develop as an intellectual, we can see just how harmful therapy will be.

In fact, no relationship

Therapy likes to talk about the “therapeutic relationship”. However in all forms of psychotherapy, and to an especial degree in psycho-analytically orientated forms of psychotherapy, there is no relationship.

A relationship is about two people getting to know each other.

In therapy the patient speaks his monologue and the therapist listens. The therapist (to an especial degree in psycho-analytically orientated forms of psychotherapy) avoids giving away anything about themselves. Where they live. Their personal history. How they feel at the moment. How they feel towards the client. None of this is disclosed. As a result no relationship is possible. The patient is objectified.

The phrase therapeutic relationship needs to be understood as a complete phrase. It is not a relationship which is therapeutic. A therapeutic relationship is something other than a relationship. It is something clinical and thus quite cold.

Part of the tragedy is that many of the people who turn to psychotherapy are probably hoping for a relationship.

The answer is not in your unconscious

Psycho-analytically orientated psychotherapy asserts that the answer to your problems / difficulties lies in your unconscious, in your past. Further; it asserts that (unless you are Freud) your unconscious is inaccessible to you without the help of a specialist.

The treatment might take 3 to 5 years of one 50 minute session a week. (At current prices that might involve a total payment of around £9,000.00; it”s not even much). The specialist does not need to have any medical or academic qualifications; they just need to belong to a school of psychoanalysis. There is no guarantee.

In fact this is harmful. It inculcates in the patient/client a sense of helplessness. Their problems lie deep within them. Their problems are intractable. The way to change your behaviour is through analysis of your past. If you work hard at it insights (it used to be transference but they changed it) may arise and lead you to salvation in some kind of posited emotional catharsis. The patient is trained in helplessness and dependency. He is trained to wait on results. He becomes passive in the face of his problems. He has to await the catharsis. The Gods may visit us; but they probably won”t.

In fact you have the capacity to change. For example, millions of people give up smoking every year. They make an effort.

The only person who can have any direct input into your mind is you.

If you think you have to carry around a specialist in your pocket and that your contact with your own mind and your own established patterns has to be mediated with him/her that is a recipe for helplessness. You”ll get worse; not better.

The answer does not lie within (2)

Psychotherapy aims to present a blank face to the patient. The idea is that this will cause all their unconscious “stuff” to surface; in phantasy and transference with the therapist (the mirror). Out of this will emerge the “truth” and “salvation”.

This is transcendentalism and metaphysics. It is the “other world”. Only now it is not somewhere in the sky. It is “within”. Equally unfathomable. And equally requiring a priest to gain access to it. Judeo-Christian superstition. It keeps coming back.

The truth is that what you have to learn you have to acquire by experience and by reflection on that experience. You have to determine your own rules and create your own path.

There is something wrong with you

Implicitly or explicitly your therapist is constantly giving you the message that there is something wrong with you.

Even (if that ever happens) you have a rare therapist who has more respect for people than to continually be giving out that message it remains the case that you are receiving that message. It is implicit in the structure of therapy. One person is established as the supplicant, weak, disabled and in need of help to manage the most basic tasks of living. The other is established as someone competent to help you with this. That is, not weak or disabled. Ergo, there is something wrong with you. This is known as the therapeutic deficit.

However; it is extremely unlikely that there is anything wrong with you. Most people enter psychotherapy not because there is something seriously wrong with them. People enter therapy because they are lonely, and, specifically, without good friends at a time of relative crisis. In this vulnerable position they give in to the allure of the adverts about self-development and claims about the virtue of inward gazing. They accept the false idea that there is something wrong with them in exchange for the few crumbs of comfort to be had from having someone listen to you, even if you have to pay them.

What they really want may be no more than a little comfort, an arm round their shoulder, and possibly (for younger people) some sensible advice (of the sort that they might otherwise have got from a father, uncle or respected adult in their community). Perhaps they need to to join a group activity to take their mind off something.

These basic acts of emotional solidarity and support are indeed missing, for many, in this over-commercialised and socially fragmented society. But the one definite certainty is that you will not get these from psychotherapy. Instead you may get years of insight (for which read unsight as per the revealing typo in one psychotherapy brochure) and emotional dependency. Your self respect will crumble and your ability to make changes in your life will collapse.

The initial problems you experienced are typically both real and quite normal. Look at problems that therapists claim to help with: “life direction”, “bereavement”, “what to do after a relationship ends”, “self-development”, “work stress”, “life changes”, “relationship problems”. These are all normal problems in life which most people encounter at one point of another. There is nothing wrong with you because you are encountering them. They are part of life. If you “go into therapy” to try to solve them you are wasting your time. You are retreating from the real world where these problems play out and where you will solve them. You”ll solve them much, much quicker if you don”t waste your time and money on focussing on your self and going over every negative experience from your childhood because that seems to be what the therapist wants you to talk about (so long, that is, it is not actual trauma). Instead you”ve become part of a cult-like practice of hedonism and narcissism which will have you focussing on your own self endlessly for years.

Emotionally self-centred

Becoming emotionally self-centred is no cure for anything

You are not the victim of your unconscious

Therefore you don’t need a priest (therapist)

You can run your life

If you were really ill maybe not. But most therapists make a point of not “seeing” people who are actually unwell. If you can book an appointment with a therapist you can run your life.

In therapy controlling your feelings is the biggest sin

In reality this is probably what you need to learn how to do.

There is no solidarity in psychotherapy

The therapist, like the private landlord, takes money for meeting a basic human need – for a roof over one’s head, for solidarity.

Therapy tries to get away from the charge that it is a kind of emotional prostitution service by claiming it is not offering comfort. It claims it offers some kind of highly specialist service of personal transformation, like alchemy.

But what people need most deeply is in fact just comfort and solidarity. The technology of transformation which therapy claims to offer isn’t anything that people actually need. And it is a phantasy anyway. As real as medieval alchemy.Â

People cling to their therapist for the small crumbs of comfort that they get while the “technology of transformation” is going on.

Meanwhile the therapist mocks them as “riif-raff” [3] or “pigs rooting around in their own emotional shit”. [2]

The school of life

Therapy tries to put the emotions, life itself, on the same kind of basis as hierarchical, progress driven education. There are experts at the top of the ladder. People progress up through stages towards these higher echelons by acquiring the “emotional skills” appropriate for that level. There are “right” responses and “wrong! ones. “Right” and “wrong” is defined by the persons above one on the ladder. Very few make it to the top. Just as in mass schooled education, the recipients of the training are treated as inferior beings with less rights than those at the top. The process is anti-democratic.

Therapy extends the kind of pedagogy criticised by Ivan Illich for its hierarchical and manipulative nature beyond the realms of knowledge and into the realms of the emotions. Everything is to become controlled, managed, tame and safe. This is a religion of little people.

Weak people

Therapists are weak people who give themselves purpose in life by trying to manage other peoples” lives and tell them what to do.

They talk about the autonomy of the client but all therapists sooner or later, and usually sooner, just try to impose their values on the patient. This is what the “treatment” consists of. They think they have found better values than you and will help you by getting you to adopt them. That’s it. However it is dressed up that is it.

It is natural and healthy for parents to seek to impose their values on their children. But paying someone so they can impose their values on you as an adult is harmful. I.e. being in a parent-child relationship when you are a child is good. But mimicking that, and indeed paying for it, as an adult is harmful. It will make it much harder for you to find your own solution to whatever your problems may be. You need to find your own values.

If you are in therapy you should leave today. Life will cease being dreary. It will become much more fun.

Why you can”t tear yourself away from your therapist

This is because you’ve told them all your secrets. Perhaps you’ve told them about one or two minor sexual fetishes you have? Something bad you did as a child? Your real feelings about your spouse?

And your therapist has given you no reaction.

You just don”t know where you stand. Have you been rejected because you’ve told him, or her, all about the bad aspects of yourself? You just don’t know.

It is abnormal to tell someone all the emotional secrets you normally keep to yourself and close friends or lovers and get no reaction at all. Going back feels better than the sheer weirdness of having told them everything and got no response. And so you go back and the game continues.

Richard Webster wrote about this with his customary forensic brilliance in his book Why Freud Was Wrong. Here is an extract:

Freud seems not to recognise that by commanding his patients to reveal aspects of their lives and feelings which they would normally keep secret, he was placing them in a position of extreme emotional vulnerability. In normal human relationships such revelations tend to be reserved only for those who are emotionally close and intimately trusted. Alternatively they are actually made by would-be lovers as part of an implicit invitation to become intimate. The natural reaction of anyone who makes such revelations during the course of psychotherapy is to expect the analyst to reciprocate their own feelings of intimacy, for it is only in this way that they will be reassured that the ”unclean” elements of their identity which they have revealed in analysis will not cause them to suffer rejection. When such reciprocation is withheld, as it is of necessity – and quite properly – by all orthodox psychoanalysts, it should not be surprising if patients express their deep longing for such intimacy: that they should, in effect, fall in love with their analyst. Nor, when analysts refuse to offer the kind of reassurance which patients feel compelled to seek, should it be at all surprising if patients express the anger and hostility which is aroused by such rejection. [4] 

One response of the patient in this situation is to offer more and more revelations about themselves, quite possibly about matters which they don’t need to seek help about, but simply to try to, finally, get some kind of reaction out of the therapist. At this point the therapist may mock them as “pigs rooting around in their own emotional shit”. [2]

The key to understanding this is to realise that therapists are the opposite of what they claim to be. The claim is implicit in all therapeutic claims-making and sales pitches that therapists are people with a deep and profound human sensibility. In addition they are possessed with special skills which will enable them to help others. Neither of these things is true. In general psychotherapists are emotionally immature people. As we would expect people who claim to be be able to fix other people”s lives better than they can themselves, to be. Typically psychotherapists have less psychological insight than most people, not more.

Psychotherapy is an American invention

The political ideology of America is that each individual is responsible for his own destiny. By hard work and enterprise he can become wealthy. If he fails it is due to personal deficits.

This ideology forms the backdrop to the therapy. If you have some problem in your life it is due to a personal deficit.

The therapist helps you to spot that deficit and work on it. For money. It is a purely commercial proposition. Ideologically, fully located within the American Dream.Â

Therapy is not interested in social and economic conditions which limit people. Nor is it interested in damage which has been caused by abuse and limits flowing from this.

It is interested solely in personal moral deficits. Everything is seen through the eyes of a Puritan minister of the kind whose best buddies are wealthy entrepreneurs.

Psychotherapy is on the side of power.

Psychotherapy accepts the prevailing social, economic and political conditions without even a murmur of disquiet. Psychotherapy has no analysis of, let alone criticism of, power. Psychotherapy is fully on the side of power. Any mismatch or dissonance between an individual and his social environment is always interpreted as being a flaw in the patient/client.

Amusingly at the time of writing this piece a coalition of psychotherapists and counsellors (442 of them) have published an open letter denouncing the effect of cuts in public spending on “the emotional state of the nation”. [5] They are concerned about the effects of the government spending cuts on their clients. That is, they couldn”t give a toss that some people are losing the roof over their heads. They care about the effect this will have on their emotions. There doesn”t appear to be any sign that any one of these 442 therapists and counsellors are planning to cut their fees to help their clients. In short it appears that this is a panicked reaction by the therapy industry which may be losing business.

They complain that the government apparently plans to link some social security payments to people accepting therapeutic interventions to help them get back to work. This is hysterically funny. It is the therapy industry which has driven the ideology that environmental and “external” world problems can always be solved by fixing some internal deficit. Their expression of horror at the idea of mandatory therapy is disingenuous. The idea of imposing therapy on the unemployed is a natural sequitor to what they have been preaching for years. And – we can notice that not one of the 442 concerned counsellors has taken the opportunity to swear they won”t take work from this quarter.

Therapists must be the most myopic and self-interested profession in the country. Even at a time of public sector cuts all they can thinking about is their apolitical work of the emotions. And, of course, their fees.


As therapy cripples the individual so family therapy ruins the family. Family therapy claims to help family relations. In reality by inserting an official and indeed an agent of surveillance – right into the centre of the family the family members become alienated from one another. The Panopticon does not make a good family.

They aren’t interested in you

If they were they wouldn’t be charging you £20.00 – £60.00 (?) per hour to be with you. They are as interested in you as someone carrying out a marketing survey might be. At best what you say will contribute to a general body of knowledge. You personally will gain no benefit.

Some of them believe in it

Like cult leaders psychotherapists divide into two camps. Some of them know it is all hocus-pocus but carry on anyway. And some of them have managed to convince themselves that it is meaningful and that they really are “helping” people.

On this note don”t forget the parable of the Good Samaritan. Not only did he help the stranger who had been abused and who had as a result fallen by the way side. But he didn’t charge an hourly rate for it. And indeed he shelled out a few shekels of his own to put the person he was helping up in a hotel. Note the contrast with psychotherapy. Are they really caring and compassionate?

Leave now

Unlike a dependency on pharmaceuticals there is no medical reason not to cease “seeing” your therapist. There are no biological or medical risks. You may feel a bit shaky for a few days if you”ve become emotionally dependent and vulnerable. But this will pass in a few days. That”s it. Then you”ll be free to carry on your own life.

If they write to you to try to entice you back as some will (despite all the claims about patient autonomy etc.) it is probably best just to ignore the letter. Or you could reply and just ask them not to contact you again. But because of the power dynamics (the sharing has all been one way and the emotional vulnerability has all been on your part) any steps you take to push them away will rebound and will make you feel more dependent. For that reason you really just have to accept that you’ve been tricked. They’ve stolen your intimacy and given you nothing in return. Well. These things happen. The important thing is to get on with the rest of your life, which starts today.


1. Michael Goodich Other Middle Age University of Pennsylvania Press 1998. Introduction

2. Zone of the Interior. Clancy Sigal. Pomona 2005

3. Jeffrey  Masson reports Ferenczi reporting that Freud said this about his patients.

4. Richard Webster. Why Freud Was Wrong. Harper Collins 1995. Chp. 16.