Archive for November, 2009

Ok there’s been a recent mini-upsurge on the topic  of therapists using  /  not using ’scientifically- proven’ approaches to helping clients, namely a Newsweek article entitled Ignoring the Evidence: Why do Psychologists Reject Science? (http://www.newsweek.com/id/216506) and  other on-line articles from colleagues in  the field.

Here’s my written response to  this latest flurry on science and therapy that I wanted to share with you:

As a practitioner of a post-modern ( well maybe at this point even post-post modern) approach to helping people develop called social therapy (www.eastsideinstitute.org / http://www.Letsdevelopphilly.org) I would like to add to the conversation that there is/has been a growing body of theorists, academics and practitioners in psychology who point out the limitations and distortions of still trying to use the tools and methods of modernist science as a way to legitimize and evaluate the practice of sound, helpful and ethical approaches of therapy.

I think we need to come up with new sciences new tools and methods to help inform so-called best practices that take into consideration our subjective-ness, our non-generalize-ability, and recognizing in the most serious and sophisticated way that it is the relationship you build with your clients that helps them.

I invite us to ask whether understanding human life needs to be a cultural and philosophical activity, rather than a scientific one. Whether people the world over would be better served if we looked at the human landscape with a painter’s, poet’s, and storyteller’s sensibilities instead of with the biologist’s and physicist’s scientific tools.



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I recently listened with intrigue to several interviews of Barbara Ehrenreich (author of the well read Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America).   She’s been on the publicity circuit for her new book Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (Metropolitan Books, 2009).

This opens what I think is an interesting and thought-provoking dialogue regarding the impact of the think-positive movement.  What I took from the interviews is that Ehrenreich critiques the sometimes overly-used, overly-simplified Pollyanna-ish mantra to ‘just stay positive and good things will happen’, including cures for our cancers and money in our bank accounts before we foreclose on our mortgages (see the popularity of The Secret and any Oprah show).

I am looking forward to reading the book to explore her critique further.  What exactly is the cultural-political-social-emotional effect of the increasingly popularized positivity movement, with all the pink ribbons for breast cancer and self-help / pop-psychology tips to have positive attitude in the face of life’s difficulties?  Of course this critique runs the risk of over-simplification as well, i.e.)  Ehrenreich’s argument for being more realistic might be just the other side of the same coin:  optimism  / realism.

With that caveat in mind, though, I think it is an interesting conversation / debate, raising questions such as:

  • What do we mean by “positive” anyway – what is a positive attitude, positive thinking?  Is it the permanently happy-faced / turn-lemons–into-lemonade attitude that annoys us after about 30 seconds?  Or is it more like the loving-kindness that Buddhists and mindfulness-based therapists expound upon: giving love and kindness to ourselves and others is The Way, or are we talking about something else altogether
  • What is the moralism and judgmentalism that (necessarily?) comes with using the terms positive and negative? Are these dualistic categories another over-simplification? For example, is sharing  / socializing / giving something difficult that going on– you know, the messy stuff of humanness: fear, bitterness, anger –  is that negative?  What if that sharing of the messy stuff builds a closer relationship and helps the person having difficulty…is that negative or positive? And who or what decides what column – N or P  –  a particular thought or action falls under?

I digress, as my thought in looking forward to reading the book is that the ‘problem’ with some segments of the positivity movement is not the issue of being positive in-and-of-itself, if we define positivity as being kind, open, supportive towards ourselves and the world. The ‘problem’ might be that there is this stronghold modernist-scientific belief in causality: if you are positive it will somehow cause your cancer to go away or cause your marriage to be fixed or cause a check to come to your mailbox.   But what if we go with another non-linear, non-causal perspective, and look at how maybe thinking and living positively is a nice, decent way (albeit just one of many ways) to live life with others – not that it will cause any particular outcome that you want, it just is. What do you think?


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I’m reading this book called Ending the Pursuit of Happiness by Barry Magid (Wisdom Publications, 2008). He is Zen practitioner as well as a psychoanalyst.   He points out the importance that vulnerability plays in our emotion health.  He says that as long as we try to avoid or are afraid of feeling vulnerable, we are paradoxically more defensive and unable to be fully human.   Being fully human is what makes us strong:  able to respond to life’s pains and pressures, and joys and surprises.

So, a way to be vulnerable is to embrace that we do in fact need each other and need support and don’t know what we are doing sometimes (or more than sometimes!).  That’s hard given our fierce commitment to American Individualism and the Western bias of intellectualism (being smart = better person).

I am reminded of the work created by my mentor Dr. Fred Newman (Lets Develop, CLRP Publications, 1994) where he invites us to not only accept and embrace our feelings of vulnerability but to actively GIVE our vulnerability to others:  don’t be so possessive for goodness sake and instead, see our human-ness (“I’m scared”, “I need your help”, “I don’t know what to do”, etc.)  as good material to give to others to build with!  What do I mean good material to build with?    Well, you tell me:  next time you want to act cool, put together, like you know what your doing when you are scared, anxious, confused – share your vulnerability with the person you are with and ask for help.  Tell me what happens, what you and the person produce together,  and how sharing impacted on you.

Imagine that. Well, I not only imagine this I work hard to practice that advice in my own life and with my clients.  And I find that I am of course failing all the time.   After all  – like the rest of us  – I like to look smart / be a Knower / look good.   I am starting my New Year’s resolution early this year and want to resolve to ask for your help to ask for your help more!  Here’s to being vulnerable together!!!!  What do you think?

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