There is a powerful penchant when things are difficult, painful, or disturbing to face ourselves and ask “What’s wrong with me?” This attitude and way of thinking about ourselves has become the cornerstone of what I think of as mainstream psychology and forms the basis of my complaint about mainstream psychology or what I sometimes call, “Dr. Phil psychology.”
Psychology has had always had an allopathic bias – looking at difficulties as problems to fix- but the mainstreaming of psychology by people like Dr. Phil has accelerated and amplified this message. Many depth psychologists know that, when it comes to psychology, you don’t “fix” people’s problems. Unlike in medicine, where curing a person of an illness means ridding the person of that illness, when it comes to psychological problems, ridding a person of their problems means getting rid of parts of that person. In other words, our problems are part of us – integral parts of us. In fact, these problems often represent aspects of ourselves that we need for our healing and wholeness. As such, dealing with our problems from a psychological point of view means integrating aspects of our problems and their meaning for our lives. Ridding ourselves of them is an assault on our inner diversity and often the diversity we represent in our relationships, family, and community.
Unlike Dr. Phil, who teaches that if what you’re doing isn’t working you should change it, I believe in a psychology that says if what you are doing is not getting you where you want to go, then perhaps you are trying to get to a place that is not yours to achieve or is somehow in violation of your nature. I believe that we need a psychology that believes in people – what happens to them, what happens because of them, and what they manifest; that we need a psychology that believes there is meaning in even the most gross and contemptible; and that we need a psychology that believes that wellness can be found right in the middle of what Zorba the Greek called, “the whole catastrophe.” We need a psychology that distinguishes itself from other helping and healing professions, be they medical or spiritual in nature – for me that means one that helps make a better world not by eliminating what appears bad or disturbing, but one that helps us witness in a more loving way the awkward and often uncomfortable emergence of the new and the diversity within us and among us.
This does not mean we should not fight with, restrain, or educate what we believe is wrong or unjust – this impulse is part of our wholeness too. What it does mean is that attempts to fix, eradicate, or normalize what disturbs us is often ineffective and our lack of empathy is often a result of the projection of aspects of ourselves, and indeed, aspect of ourselves that are waiting for transformation like the frogs in those childhood fairytales we once devoutly listened to.
In writing Talking Back to Dr. Phil: Alternatives to Mainstream Psychology, I use Dr. Phil, specifically his daytime television show, as a representative or straw man for the mainstreaming of psychology. Dr. Phil is not “the problem,” he is just one person forwarding a belief that many of us practice – looking at ourselves, focusing on what is wrong with us, and trying to fix ourselves.
Talking Back also offers an alternative view of psychology- one that celebrates diversity, nurtures the nature of individuals and groups, and teaches people how to appreciate and elder the people and groups around them. Being a teacher and student of the process-oriented psychology of Dr. Arnold Mindell, I chose this particular approach to represent the alternative.
Talking Back flows from my belief that psychology has a unique calling as a healing profession. It must ask questions like – What kind of person, relationship, or group is asking for my help?; If that person or group flowered, what would they look like?; and How do I respect, nurture, and love that path and nature? It would be mindful of the fact that people don’t always fit into society’s norms and that accommodation and assimilation are not always the best solution to that dilemma. It would help people navigate the difficulties they encounter when they come up against forces opposed to the expression of their nature.
In addition, I believe that psychology should not only help its clients, but also educate the collective. However, it must go beyond the communication and enforcement of norms, which too often lead people to judge and mistreat themselves and others, it should foster a vision of diversity and wholeness through that diversity. It should teach us all to look beneath the surface of our behavior and problems and beyond the kind of armchair diagnoses that most of us make of ourselves and others. It should teach us that our natures are beautiful, powerful, and intelligent and that our difficulties and disturbing expressions may be a harbinger of our nature and development rather than an illness to rid ourselves of. It should teach us to lovingly witness what we find most disturbing and what we can, by ourselves, least believe in.