DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth


NPR and the Social Stigma Around Psychotherapy

Politics aficionados among you have probably heard about National Public Radio (NPR)'s firing of journalist Juan Williams, over his comment about the anxiety he feels getting on a plane with someone dressed in Muslim garb.

The controversy over Williams' firing didn't interest me as much as the comments by NPR's chief, Vivian Schiller, in the aftermath.  In a press conference, Schiller said Williams should have kept his feelings between himself and "his psychiatrist or his publicist."

This stirred up even more controversy, with Williams' supporters blasting Schiller for basically suggesting Williams was mentally ill and in need of a psychiatrist.  Schiller apologized, saying her remark was "thoughtless."

This incident illustrates the continuing strength of the stigma, in our culture, around working with a psychotherapist.  As near as I can tell, Schiller's comment was just a poorly timed joke -- it wasn't meant to be a factual statement that Williams was seeing a psychiatrist.  Nonetheless, people on both sides of the issue took what she said as a serious insult.

Why The Stigma?

Why is it considered insulting in our society to suggest that someone is working with a therapist?  My sense is that there are two reasons.

First, the common belief seems to be that people only see therapists if they're "mentally sick," the same way we see a physician if we have the flu.  Thus, any public figure who's seeing a therapist must be unfit to do his job or hold office.

Another widespread assumption about therapy is that it's something only weak people do.  A strong person, after all, can handle their own psyche and emotions, and doesn't need anyone to help them do it.

Therapy And Humility

I disagree with both of these assumptions.  In fact, I'd be more inclined to trust a public figure -- politician, celebrity, or whatever -- who voluntarily sought out a therapist than one who didn't, especially if they were courageous enough to admit it in public.

Why?  First off, a person working with a therapist is probably doing so because they understand that they, like all humans, are imperfect and have room to grow.  With that understanding, I think, comes humility.

I wouldn't want the country run by someone under the illusion that they had no flaws.  A person who believes they can do no wrong, I think, is dangerous in a leadership position, and history is littered with examples.

Therapy And Personal Growth

What's more, I think it actually takes a lot of strength to be willing to see a therapist.  If we have the good fortune to find a therapist who's ready to do deep work with us, we're going to visit many aspects of ourselves and our personal histories that aren't at all pleasant.

Also, a skilled therapist can help us see "blind spots" in how we relate to the world that we, and people we surround ourselves with, aren't aware of.  Unless someone helps us get conscious of them, our lifelong patterns of people-pleasing, manipulating others, defending ourselves from childhood threats, and so on, can run the choices we make without our knowledge.  I'd be more likely to trust someone whom I knew had worked to develop this kind of awareness.

And yes, I'm speaking from personal experience.  (Oops, there goes my political career!)  I've worked with therapists, but not because I saw myself as sick, broken or weak.  Self-development junkie that I am, I see psychotherapy -- done skillfully -- as one of the most powerful opportunities for personal growth.


Self-Help and Selfishness, Part 2: Cultivating Compassion

We've been talking about the argument, sometimes made by critics of personal growth, that self-development practices are basically selfish.  This criticism goes that, when we "work on ourselves" -- whether by taking workshops, meditating, or something else -- we only benefit ourselves, and the time we spend doing those practices could be better used serving others' needs.

As I noted earlier, there's much research in psychology showing that, the happier we feel, the more generous we're likely to be toward others.  This is why, I suggested, personal growth practices that help us develop peace and happiness benefit more than just the immediate "user."

I can imagine a critic responding:  "but why do all these things to 'develop' compassion?  Why not just go out and be compassionate by giving your time and money to those who need it?"  As Barbara Ehrenreich writes in her important book Bright-Sided, "why not reach out to others in love and solidarity or peer into the natural world for some glimmer of understanding?"

Do Motives Matter?

It seems that, to some personal development critics, being compassionate, kind or generous is simply a matter of taking the right actions.  If you give your time, energy or money to someone, and receive nothing material in exchange, you qualify as a compassionate person.

From this perspective, it doesn't matter whether you actually feel a sense of love or kindness toward the person you're serving.  Perhaps, for instance, you hope to tell others how generous you've been and receive praise.  As long as your actions help someone else, by definition, you're being compassionate.

On the surface, this makes sense.  If I give money to a foundation that helps children with a serious disease, for instance, those children will benefit even if I don't really care about them.  Even if I only want to brag about how giving I am to my friends, or get mentioned as a "platinum-level donor" on the charity's website, I still serve those children with my contribution.

False Compassion Creates Suffering

However, this example becomes more troubling when we look at what I'm getting out of my donation.  I'm giving to the charity because I want recognition from others.  But what if I don't get the kind of recognition I want?  What if my friends don't praise me for my generosity, or at least don't praise me as much as I want?

The answer, I suspect, is that I'll feel resentful.  I'll see my friends as insensitive and uncaring, and retaliate against them in overt or covert ways.  So, by helping someone out of a desire for recognition, I actually set myself and others up for suffering.

This problem becomes clearer when we look at acts of false compassion within a family.  In a common scenario, a parent gives a lot of time and energy to their child, in the secret hope that the child will please the parent in return.

If the child doesn't show the kind of appreciation the parent wants, the parent feels resentful, and strikes back at the child through abuse or neglect.  In other words, when a parent serves their child out of a desire for recognition, rather than genuine love, both parent and child are likely in for suffering.

Compassion as a Way of Being

When we help others out of actual feelings of kindness, rather than a desire to prove that we're "good," we don't create this kind of suffering for ourselves and others.  If our actions are solely motivated by a desire to help, it doesn't matter whether the other person falls over themselves to thank us, and we won't resent them if they don't.

This is why I think personal growth practices that help us develop genuine compassion for others, like Buddhist metta meditation, are so important.  Metta may be the most obvious example, because it involves explicitly wishing all beings well, but many other self-development methods help us cultivate kindness in subtler ways.

The Promise of Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy is a great, and frequently misunderstood, example.  Critics often talk about therapy as if it's merely a self-indulgent exercise in griping about the past (an issue I'll deal with at length later).  I think this ignores many key goals of therapy -- the most important one being, for our purposes, to meet needs that went unrecognized in a client's early childhood.

As I touched on earlier, psychologists often observe that, when a parent's early needs for love and recognition were unmet, they unconsciously seek to meet those needs in their relationship with their children.  In other words, the parent expects the child to give them the affection and appreciation they never got when they were little.  When the child doesn't meet these needs, the parent gets angry and withdraws their love.  (There's an illuminating discussion of this in Kathleen Faller's Social Work with Abused and Neglected Children.)

As long as the parent's childhood needs are unmet, we might say, the parent will have difficulty experiencing real love and compassion for their children.  However, a skilled therapist can help the parent meet those early needs outside the family structure.  When the parent no longer seeks validation from their children, genuine love becomes possible.

Once we can see why actually feeling compassion -- not just looking compassionate -- is important, we understand why "working on ourselves," and our own peace and happiness, can actually be a gift to the world.

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