Personal therapy in troubled times
Your personal therapy is not just about you — how could it be? We're all in a whole lot of trouble.
At the individual level, some of the trouble is due to our own uniquely personal ‘demons’ and the emotional harm done to us by others. Counselling and therapy can usually help with that. But at the collective level, many of the troubles in our lives are caused by the technological, ecological, and political systems we are all part of.
Nationally and globally, we’re seeing multiple systems, institutions and networks either breaking down or generating more problems than they're supposed to be solving. And the scale of the trouble is vast. And no amount of personal therapy, however profoundly healing or transformative, is going to fix it.
I'm not saying anything new or surprising here: this paradox was pointed out and vividly described decades ago. A book published in 1993 — a collection of dialogues between James Hillman and Michael Ventura — was provocatively titled We've Had 100 Years Of Psychotherapy And The World's Getting Worse, and thirty years later its challenge is even more vital. ‘The Therapy Paradigm’, despite the great range of its psychological insights into the alleviation of personal suffering, is clearly not the answer to all our problems.
Keep on keeping on
Life carries on of course. Institutions of all kinds do survive. To use a very well-known example, the NHS seems to be forever at the point of systemic collapse, but this doesn't mean that thousands of patients aren't receiving excellent medical care every day. How is this possible? Individual workers at all levels of the organisation keep on going, despite the extreme demands placed on them — and some are helped by counselling and therapy when they're off work, or at risk of being signed off, with chronically high levels of stress and anxiety. Then most of them return to the workplace to face the same pressure. It's a similar story in other sectors, especially education and local government.
Therapy for society?
This situation illustrates a longstanding criticism of psychotherapy and counselling. In plain terms, the critique views therapy as a process in which distressed individuals are ‘therapised’ as if they are ill, with no regard for the distressing social conditions in which they're living and working. In other words, it's society that's sick, not the individual. And the treatments that are offered are also sick in this sense because they perpetuate what's wrong with the existing social structures. In short, the critique asserts that therapy does nothing to challenge the status quo. (I've greatly simplified the argument, but not because I disagree with it.)
On the ground, thousands of practitioners in my profession offer their services to the public often at reduced rates or for free in certain circumstances (such as supporting front-line staff during a pandemic and other emergencies). Many of my colleagues in private practice also work for charities as volunteers. Most of them are of course aware of the wider sociopolitical context, and many agree that counselling and therapy are potentially powerful agents for change towards a fairer and healthier society. But it seems to be the case that very few counsellors and psychotherapists view their practice as explicitly working towards greater social justice.
Psychosocially speaking ...
The way I see it and seek to practise it, one-to-one therapeutic dialogue is a small and intricate part of a large and complex effort to — in the plainest possible words — make things better for everyone. That might sound naïve, but in fact this work tends to liberate us from any unhelpful innocence we may have about the realities of our existence and the part we play in our own suffering. Liberation takes commitment and effort. For self-improvement and world-improvement, therapy is not a soft option.
... we are all strangers in trouble
Therapy is mostly about re-discovering or waking up to one’s whole self and living an emotionally satisfying and socially connected life as a flawed yet flourishing human being. Becoming better at being who you are (and yes, “better” is a word that needs a lot of unpacking) is a benefit to other people in your world — not only to those who know you but also strangers you encounter. Every day, most of us are practising the art of being a kind stranger. This helps to alleviate the trouble we're in. And yet the trouble keeps on coming and still needs to be faced. In my experience over many years, both as a client and a therapist, personal therapy provides a solid base from which to turn and face all sorts of trouble.