Mainstream Psychology Can Go Fuck Itself – Holly Truhlar
I blame mainstream Western psychology for a lot of the neoliberal bullshit we’re all inundated with. As I’ve gone further into the field of psychology (I have a Masters in counseling psychology and work with therapy clients regularly), I’ve come to see it as mostly individualized, white-centered, male-led, capitalist propaganda. While this isn’t always true, generally speaking, it’s an issue, and it’s having devastating impacts on our ability to respond to the large-scale cooperative dilemmas we’re currently facing as a species.
In therapy, most people are taught to care for themselves. To speak their needs. Perhaps to communicate more clearly. And, we’re taught to look at our “unhealthy” patterns and change them. Mostly, this is a form of responsibilism and narcissism that hardly addresses the larger issues we’re dealing with as a species, as a planet. It puts the onus on the individual and takes the focus off of the violent and divisive systems we’re in.
It distracts us from the bigger predicaments: near-term social collapse IS imminent due to the global climate crisis and ecocide resulting from capitalism, imperialism, racism, and patriarchy (the kyriarchy). It’s already happening, yet mainstream psychology and most therapists I know of, are not developing the language and skills to help people live with climate truth and organize towards any meaningful revolution.
Sadly, in dominant Western culture, the whole concept of therapy, particularly “self care,” is overly self-indulgent and often harmful to the communal well-being (particularly given the urgency of the planetary crisis we’re in). Financially stable, white liberals, who are virtually inactive in any meaningful on-the-ground movement, now use this term to excuse adolescent-narcissism and the perpetuation of violence on those who are more oppressed (store-bought cosmetics and bath products are sociopathic products given the process by which they’re created and sold, and many “relaxation” practices, such as yoga, are appropriated). In other words, the term self-care has been hijacked by the personal wellness industry and disassociated from its political roots with very harmful impacts to gaining any real revolutionary momentum.
Of course, the practice of mainstream psychology is made increasingly problematic and divisive because therapy is often only accessible to people with significant time and resources. This is even more true because many quality therapists—practitioners who can deeply attune and hold multiple levels of awareness—often opt out of the insurance system and charge higher rates (though I realize some programs and sliding scale opportunities are available to those with less financial resources).
Not to mention, most “helping professionals” are steeped in consensus reality and remain ignorant and in denial about oppressive systems, the climate crisis, and impending social collapse. Barely anyone wants to talk seriously (professionally) about abrupt climate change and impending social collapse because there’s fear of overwhelm, despair, and losing credibility. As stated above, the field lacks vocabulary, training, and capacity to respond in an honest way, and so we continue to enable sociopathic behavior under the guise of creating empowered or autonomous individuals.
I feel deeply concerned and outraged about the ways in which financially-secure or otherwise privileged people (white, male-bodied, cis), have used their (legitimate) wounding and trauma as excuses for narcissism and a lack of accountability. Excuses to continue incredibly harmful behavior and take little action towards dismantling oppressive and violent systems that are threatening our entire species and planet. Excuses to perpetually explore their own woundology, and “personal development,” well into adulthood and what should be elderhood. Excuses to continue to center themselves and their needs in a way that will inevitably leave, or has already left, younger generations with no thrivable or survivable future.
To be even more specific, I’ve seen discomfort being labeled as “unsafe” by those who are at no physical or emotional risk of actual violation. For example, able-bodied White-men claiming they were “unsafe” or “unheld” in a charged situation where they were being held accountable for harmful behavior. I’ve seen parts work (internal family systems, voice dialogue, constellations work) used as a way to avert responsibility by casually blaming one’s unexamined part for harm caused to those with less power. I’ve seen trauma used as an excuse for perpetuating patterns of avoidance and disorganized attachment towards those with little to no choice regarding the relationship.
And I see this having started and deepened as mainstream psychology, a still adolescent field of study and practice, has taken over the conversation regarding our mental, emotional, spiritual, and relational well-beings. (This has also coincided with the maturation, or lack thereof, of the liberal-boomer generation—which is a whole essay in and of itself… stay tuned). As with all things capitalist, patriarchal, and committed to the growth of civilization, psychology is used mostly as a tool of the oppressor to keep us divided into individual causes rather than working in solidarity with our class structure.
It’s created a false narrative where what’s healthy and desirable is the self-regulated individual who can meet their own needs and state their boundaries clearly. If the individual isn’t being emphasized (see attachment-based therapies), then the romantic partnership or nuclear family is given a hyper-focus, often to the exclusion or detriment of community. There’s little credence given to the group or collective wisdom that’s expressed in each of our bodies and dreams when we commit to a shared vision with a group of beloveds. When we try to gather and deeply intertwine our lives, we’re often termed co-dependent, enmeshed, unrealistic, insane, or generally needy. In other words, Western psychology is a bunch of bullshit that keeps us isolated and over-functioning (self-regulation is much less efficient than co-regulation of a group’s collective nervous system).
I’m not writing this just to rant. I’m writing this because the amount of harm I’m seeing done, in the name of mental health and psychological intervention, is serious and severe. I’m writing this because I want to warn you, everyone, about the impact a shitty therapist, or entire field, can have on us. I want you to run far and fast if your therapist isn’t continually pointing out the dehumanizing systems we’re all living within that are designed to cause depression, oppression, isolation, violence, and suicidality. If you’re climate-crisis and collapse aware, and your therapist isn’t talking to you directly about what’s happening in these realms, or downplays your grief, holy outrage, despair, and fear, get the fuck out of there—gaslighting is never a healing intervention.
To be clear, I see tremendous benefit in people getting support in looking at their patterns and processing trauma. I understand that one of the only ways to do this in our society is through individual or couples therapy. I also understand that some people will be harmed by, or cause harm to, a community process; some people need to START with individual or couples work.
AND I want to continually question the way traditional psychology plays into the cult of individualism and privatization. I want to question the way in which we’re taught to “own” our patterns, “own” our anger. As if these are just ours. As if we should own them rather than build relationship with them. (Notice the capitalist or consumerist language of “owning” being used even when we’re talking about aspects of our individual and collective psyches.) As if one person, or even two, could hold all any of us are carrying at this point.
Instead of continuing to perpetuate these sociopathic narratives, I want to explore the communal processes we can support and create to encourage collective processing and nervous system regulation—ritual, spoken word and music, group somatics. I want to drop the insane idea that we must love ourselves first, and process all our shit before, we can step into relationship. Let’s question the widespread use of bourgeois practices that require one-on-one work and significant investment. Let’s put the same amount of resources, time, and effort into building communities of practice and care. (For those of us with significant dominant identities, let’s deeply interrogate how we can best do this without using, harming, or harvesting from those who are more oppressed.)
Because the truth is, we don’t have time for this shit. We have a small window in which we MAY be able to learn the skills needed to co-regulate with each other and organize for the needed revolution (or end-of-life care for our species). Skills we desperately need as things continue to fray and fall apart. At this point, I believe we can only do this if we stop idolizing and quoting the colonized and sickened ideology that is mainstream psychology (+social work and the entire coaching industry). If we step outside of these dominating narratives, then we may be able to feel and discern our way back to each other, back to sanity.
1- I’m not the only or first person to write about this. Thank you to Clarissa Pinkola Estés for continually recognizing the importance of myth and culture as we explore our psyches, wounds, and gifts. Read: Women Who Run With the Wolves.
2- Thank you to James Hillman who saw and criticized how “the therapized world had internalized all the problems.” Read James Hillman says It’s not All in Your Head.
3- This shit is nuanced and requires ongoing inquiry. When I’m taking issue with white-dominated, self-care propaganda, I’m talking about well-off, white people doing perpetual “self-care” at the expense of others’ well-being while not actually organizing towards social change in any beneficially impactful way. I’m NOT taking issue with self-care for people who are doing significant community organizing and/or activism that’s working towards a survivable/thrivable future for EVERYONE. I’m NOT taking issue with people with oppressed identities taking care of themselves in order to survive and push-back on the violence that’s perpetuated on them and their communities. Read: Subversive Self-Care: Centering Black Women’s Wellness by Shanesha Brooks-Tatum.
4- In reference to yoga being appropriated–Thank you to Bear Hebert for writing this thought provoking and on-point essay: Beyond Appropriation: A Letter to My Fellow White Yoga Teachers.
5- Thank you to Carmen Spagnola (my Carmie) for writing the potent essay “Portrait of Marriage. (Yes, it’s mine.)” She beautifully indicts the traumatizing patriarchal culture as the cause of many relationship challenges, particularly difficult insecure attachment patterns.
6- Thank you to the Climate Psychology Alliance for offering tools and analysis of the predicament we’re facing as a species. Thank you Margaret Klein Salamon and Jem Bendell for furthering the conversation around climate truth and how we can respond. Let’s keep talking about how we can face the reality of this crisis with care and skill.