Therapy Or Brainwashing?

There is something particularly odious – in my view – about the way in which we in the West approach what (until very recently) used to be called ‘mental illness’. We may use a slightly different terminology now, preferring to talk in terms of ‘conditions’ rather than ‘illness’, but our approach is still the same. There is something very unpleasant – toxic even – in our attitude, and this unpleasantness, I think, stems from our fundamental lack of respect towards the experiences of the people we, as mental health professions, are dealing with.

 

In a nutshell, we’re arrogant; we’re arrogant because we are so convinced that our ‘neat and tidy’ rational way of looking at the world – which we did not arrive at ourselves but rather passively absorbed from the cultural milieu (in a ‘default’ way that requires no effort on our part) – is the right way that we can’t even come close to empathizing with other, often very different, perceptions of reality. This is precisely where our unconscious arrogance lies therefore – it lies in the fact that we (by some special virtue of our own) know what the right way to view reality is. The great philosophers of the past may not have known what the right way to look at reality is, but somehow we do…

 

Not everyone is guilty of this unconscious disrespect of course. The point we are making is that the ‘disrespect’ is systematic – it’s built into whole structure of things and so it’s always going to set the tone. It’s always going to be the dominant influence. Disrespect is always systematic where there is an inbuilt ‘power differential’, when one group of people have more power given to them by society than another, and this is exactly the state of affairs in psychiatry, or in the mental health industries in general.

 

A crude but nevertheless very effective way of determining whether a power differential exists between the professionals whose job it is to work with people suffering from mental health conditions and the people themselves is to ask the question ‘Who is the most successful in society’s terms, a consultant psychiatrist or clinical psychologist (for example) or a psychiatric patient? We’re not supposed to ask this question, of course. It is very politically incorrect suggest that patients might be granted lower social status in the basis of the fact that they are patients (i.e. on the basis that they are not, in most cases, highly qualified professionals but are, rather, sufferers of a mental health condition); it is politically incorrect to suggest it but that doesn’t mean that it is true. We all know that it is true…

 

We don’t want to admit that the actual patients themselves may not have the same social status as the healthcare professionals who are trained to treat them but at the same time we all know very well that this is the case. Society operates purely on the basis of status and prestige, whether we want to admit it or not. Society operates on the basis of the power gradient that exists between those of high status and those of low, and it would be foolish in the extreme to pretend otherwise. Society isn’t a ‘free’ kind of an affair; it’s coercive, in other words. It’s based on following rules….

 

When you as a patient look across the desk at the mental health professional who is dealing with you it is evidently the case that you are looking at someone who has more power than you; this isn’t just power in terms of how we usually understand ‘social status’, it is power in the sense of ‘Which one of us has the authority to say what the proper way to see the world is?’ Power is a basic part of all human interactions – every time we interact with someone we are involved in a struggle (whether we are conscious of it or not). We are involved in the struggle to see who has the power to define the ‘consensus reality’ that is to be negotiated in the interaction. This contest can be very subtle, or it can be very unsubtle indeed! When we are involved in an argument, for example, then this is an unsubtle example of ‘the struggle to see who can define reality’! Our current way of understanding mental health conditions is a perfect illustration of ‘something that has been defined by the powerful’ – when depression (just to give one example) is defined as ‘a mechanical malfunction of the brain’ then this is ‘disrespect’, this is ‘an abuse of power’.

 

There are times when human interactions are not based on power, it is true, but my point is that they are comparatively rare. Interactions that are not based on power are interactions that are based on love, and love – as we all know – is not usually part of the equation! All interactions that are based on the roles we are playing, or the social personas that we are acting out, or on the unquestionable rules that exist in the social game, are predicated upon power. All games full stop are predicated upon the use of power, and we’re all playing games of one sort or another almost all of the time, whether we realize it or not. To not play a game is to be ‘totally honest’, and how often can we afford to be totally honest in a human interaction? When we see our therapist or our psychiatrist or our psychologist the chances are very much that we’re playing a game here too. We’re playing ‘the patient / therapist game’, as Ram Dass says in the following passage-

Then I was a therapist and so many hours a week I had somebody sitting on the other side of the desk, and he was playing patient, I was playing doctor I would run thru my list of theories as he would run through his list of symptoms and we’d compare them and match them up and, you know, it wasn’t enough. It didn’t quite gel.  It was as if psychology had a reason to be as defensive as it was.

The patient / therapist game is a very comforting and familiar one to be sure, but that doesn’t mean that it’s therapeutic! Whilst a good old-fashioned power hierarchy has everything to do with the way we organize social groups (in baboons as much as humans) it has nothing to do with therapy. Therapy isn’t an exercise in power-play, it isn’t an exercise in ‘doing what you’re told’ (or ‘doing what you’re expected to do’). A power gradient between two people (or two groups of people) equals disrespect. The use of power IS disrespect! That’s the whole point – what the use of power comes down to is ‘My way of looking at the world is more valid than your way’. ‘Might is right’, would be another way of putting this. According to Friedrich Nietzsche, what we call truth is simply ‘an interpretation’ and the one who has the most power is – naturally enough – the one whose interpretation passes into law! This is why Nietzsche talks about ‘the impossibility of truth’ –

Against [empiricism], which halts at [observable] phenomena—‘There are only facts’—I would say, no, facts is precisely what there is not, only interpretations. We cannot establish any fact ‘in itself’: perhaps it is folly to want to do such a thing.

‘Everything is subjective [for example, a figment of your reasoning mind],’ you say; but even this is interpretation. The ‘subject’ is not something given, it is something added and invented … [Is] it necessary to posit an interpreter behind the interpretation? …

In so far as the word ‘knowledge’ has any meaning, the world is … interpretable, otherwise it has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings—‘Perspectivism’.

Those who have the power have the right to say what is true and what is not true. It is not just that the powerful ‘decide upon the agenda’, the powerful decide on what game we should be playing (or to put this another way, the powerful decide what reality should consist of, what it is and what it isn’t). Inasmuch as society is a power hierarchy therefore, it is the top of the hierarchy that tells us what reality is, and we don’t get to question it. We don’t even know that our perceptions of reality have been defined for us! So if we’re in this situation of not being aware that our perceptions of reality have been defined for us (because we’re ‘socially adapted’) then it is inevitably the case that we will impose the very same assumptions we have passively absorbed upon everyone else we meet, without realizing that we are doing this.

 

This is of course a very important thing to be aware of, but when we’re talking about therapy, it becomes even more critical, even more poignant. Being unconsciously socially conditioned means that we are incapable of engaging in ‘honest human interaction’ – the only type of honest human interaction is after all that interaction which takes place without an assumed context, and because we can’t SEE our assumed context, that just isn’t possible. We’re not aware that we’re seeing the world via the lens of our social conditioning and this (as we’ve just said) means that we’re imposing that conditioning on everyone we meet, without knowing that we’re doing it. We’ve been set up as virally-infected ‘zombie-units’ whose job it is to unconsciously propagate the ‘officially approved view or interpretation of reality’ whilst imagining the whole time that we are acting as independent agents!

 

This situation is good from the POV of ‘perpetuating the socialized view of reality’, but not good from the POV of anything that might properly be called ‘therapy’! ‘Therapy’ and ‘brainwashing’ aren’t supposed to be the same thing, after all, and yet we confuse the two all the time… If we’re working in the field of mental health therefore, then the only way we can AVOID imposing our unexamined assumptions on everyone we meet is by taking the trouble to ‘examine’ them (and thereby examine ourselves). This isn’t what happens though – instead of becoming less programmed when we get trained as therapists or doctors or psychologists we get more programmed; instead of becoming more broad-minded we become narrower, as is always the way with specialization…

 

 

 

Art: Taken from bbc.com/ a-tour-of-melbourne-street-art

 

 

 

 

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Invisible Aggression

It’s something we don’t ever seem to see or appreciate in any way but every time two people meet there is always  some kind of ‘power struggle’ going on. So-called ‘communication’ occurs in accordance with a pre-established power-structure. We all know that there is a power hierarchy going on in society and that those persons with high status can wield authority over those with lesser status (or perhaps no status!) but what I’m talking isn’t so much that but a type of ‘confidence’ thing which determines who can push their reality on someone else. This is a contest that goes on (in most cases) without us without realizing that it does and that’s why it might seem strange to suggest that it is such a basic part of human interactions.

 

One reason we don’t usually notice this power struggle going on because most of us have already tacitly agreed to buy into the same consensus reality, and once we have agreed to do this then obviously there is no more struggling! This is like saying that when the ancient Romans conquered a country then there was peace – this is perfectly true but we shouldn’t let the existence of this peace (the Pax Romana, as it was called) blind us to the fact that it was achieved by aggression. When the Roman Legions entered your country this was not a peaceful thing! The same is true with regard to the ‘peace’ that prevails in the consensus reality, the version of reality that we have all agreed to believe in – there might be no more struggling going on but this doesn’t mean that the situation isn’t the result of aggression.

 

When we agree with aggression then that aggression straightaway becomes invisible and if we agree to the structure (whatever it is) that was there beforehand without ever noticing that we have actually ‘agreed’ with anything then this creates the very compelling illusion that there was no violence, no aggression involved. When we meet the consensus reality we almost always do agree with it instantaneously and the reason we do this is because there is a type of trickery going on. The trickery is that the consensus (or ‘tacitly agreed-upon’) reality isn’t presented as a ‘version’ of reality, or an ‘interpretation’ of reality but simply as ‘reality itself’. The aggression that we’re talking about here isn’t by any means overt therefore, but rather it is something very sneaky. It’s so sneaky that we never see it happening – we don’t see ourselves as ‘agreeing to go along with a particular interpretation of reality’ but as ‘agreeing with reality as it actually is’, which is a very different thing indeed.

 

If I go along with reality as it actually is in itself then of course I don’t see this as me ‘caving in’ as a result of some sort of act of aggression – I see it as me being sensible and well-adjusted. Not to go along with reality would be a form of maladaptedness; we could see it as a pathological form of maladaptedness even. But if it is a ‘version’ of reality that we are automatically going along with then even though it could still be a form of useful (or even necessary) adaptation – particularly if it’s the dominant version – this doesn’t alter the fact that we have just been beaten or subdued in what amounts to a covert power-struggle. The aggression isn’t up-front and so we don’t recognize it as such, but it is aggression none the less. What we are calling the ‘consensus reality’ is disguised aggression therefore and because it is there is always going to be a flip-side of suffering and misery involved. When we cave in to aggression always results in suffering because we have lost our autonomy, and it is impossible to hand over our autonomy without suffering the consequences. We might ‘want a peaceful life’, but there is inevitably a price to be paid for this type of ‘peace’…

 

In one way, we need hardly go into the reasons why ‘handing over our autonomy’ is inevitably going to result in suffering. My autonomy isn’t just some minor attribute of my being, it’s who I am and so if I hand this over then I’m handing everything over. It’s not a thing that we can afford to relinquish, no matter what we might think that we’re gaining as a result. In a one-to-one relationship with another person ‘handing over my autonomy’ would mean that I am letting that person determine everything about me, because they are more aggressive, more powerful than I am. I am letting them ride rough-shod all over me and I have agreed to this arrangement because it’s the only way I can get any peace. The aggression in the situation will become invisible to me just as soon as I adapt myself completely to their way of thinking but this does not means that I am going to be happy as a result. I am going to be very far from happy – I’m going to be in a state of profound unhappiness, whether or not I am willing to acknowledge the fact. I have, after all, achieved ‘peace’ at the price of betraying my own true self…

 

It’s as if ‘who I really am’ doesn’t actually exist – it certainly isn’t acknowledged as existing by anyone involved! We have pushed it to one side; we have acted as if it doesn’t matter. This is after all the aim of all aggression, all violence – to get rid of the opposing viewpoint, to get rid of anything that stands in the way of the aggressor. In the hypothetical case that we have just been discussing, I get peace by identifying totally with my aggressor’s will, so that it now seems like my will. This way there is no longer any conflict, there is no longer any struggle, any fighting. But even when I do identify 100% with my aggressor’s point of view, so that my separate will, my separate point of view, no longer seems to exist, this doesn’t mean that who I really am has somehow ceased to exist. My true self is still there even in its absence – it’s just that it now manifests as pain!

 

Our relationship, as socialized human beings, with the ‘consensus reality’, is exactly analogous with the hypothetical scenario that we have just been talking about. Our situation is exactly analogous to an abusive relationship, even though we can’t see it as such. We can’t see it as such because we no longer have any connection with our true selves – that’s how effective the process of socialization has been. When we have adapted ourselves to the consensus reality then there is no other reality as far as we are concerned; if we came across the true (or unconditioned) reality we would not recognize it – we would reject it or run away from it as if from something completely alien to us. The same is also true for ‘who we really are’, the same is true for ‘our true nature’ – if we came across it we would not be able to relate to it in any way, such is the extent of our alienation from ourselves…

 

So when we have been effectively socialized, and have accepted the consensus reality as the only reality there ever could be, then the ‘true self’ (or our ‘true nature’) is absent. It has been gotten rid of. But in its absence it is still present – it is present in the form of pain. Absence of being (or absence of our true nature) is always pain. We reject and attack this core of pain as much as we can, of course. Either that or we repress and deny it as much as we can, which is the other possibility. We all tend to opt for one strategy or the other – either we adopt the strategy of ‘acting out the pain’ by directing our aggression outwards towards others or we repress the pain and act – therefore – aggressively towards ourselves. As a collective, our undying commitment and enthusiasm towards passing on the consensus reality to all new members of society can be seen as ‘the acting out of our unacknowledged inner pain’ therefore, and if we do experience the pain self-doubt or anxiety or lack of confidence in ourselves, etc and we blame ourselves for this (for being somehow weak or a failure) then this is the very same aggression, only in this case it is being directed at ourselves.

 

Our inner ‘core of pain’ isn’t just how we get to know about the loss of our autonomy, the disconnection from our own true nature, it is what our own true nature has now become for us. This is another way of saying that our pain is legitimate and cannot be attributed elsewhere (i.e. either to circumstances or to what other people have either done to us or not done for us). If therefore we go looking for our true selves this pain is what we will find! If we want to be authentically ourselves, or be ‘true to ourselves’, then we will have to ‘be’ this pain! Needless to say, this is the very last thing we want to do – we want to get shot of the pain not ‘own it’, or ‘be it’. Our every instinct tells us to get rid of the pain in any way that we can and when we can’t do this, and when the pain becomes chronic and unendurable, then we go to seek professional help to rid ourselves of it. The pain is now made into a ‘technical problem’ and technical solutions are sought, be this through medication or be it through rational therapies. We apply all of our resources to fixing the problem of the pain and this is – of course – the very antithesis of ‘owning it’. We’re busy disowning it as hard as ever we can…

 

Everyone jumps on this ‘fixing’ or ‘curing’ bandwagon of course because its seems so obviously the right thing to do but the ‘fixing of the problem of the pain’ in what is called neurotic mental illness is actually nothing more than a renewed effort to eradicate our true nature. We couldn’t do it the first time around so we’re coming at it again, with new and better techniques… And yet if our first attempt to eradicate the true self caused such misery, what new and hitherto undreamt of dimensions of pain await us when we put our white coats on and start getting all technical and scientific about it?

 

 

 

Art: William Kurelek (1929-1977) I Spit On Life