Politics on the Couch

‘I can’t stop thinking about their faces,’ says a distraught 44-year-old woman to her therapist as her weekly session begins. ‘This morning, I passed a homeless woman and her daughter on the street. Where will they go? What if someone steals the money I gave them?’

It is a delicate moment for someone who has struggled with depression for more than a year. Many therapists would have quickly steered her away from the outer world of social suffering toward the innerscape of family complexes, but psychologist Lane Gerber of Seattle University encourages his client to confront the turbulent feelings stirred up by the street encounter. He explains that he considers her strong reaction to be just as meaningful as any emotional responses she might have to her parents or her children. During subsequent sessions, Gerber and the client explore the ties between the personal world and the political sphere. He points out the parallel between her frustration that no one ever listens to her and the homeless woman’s invisibility. But rather than just highlighting the symbolic similarities between her and the homeless woman, however, Gerber gives equal weight to the client’s concern for the plight of the homeless. This twin perspective helps bridge the gap between his client’s inner world and the wider role she must play as a citizen. Indeed, over time, Gerber says his client not only finds her individual voice but becomes a community activist for homeless people in her town.

Most psychologists (and their clients) assume that sociopolitical concerns should be checked at a therapist’s door. As one woman says, ‘Why should I spend $100 an hour discussing welfare reform?’ But Gerber and other ‘political psychologists’ believe this division is artificial and may even contribute to people’s feelings of loneliness and alienation–the very problems therapy so often seeks to cure. In a world beset by environmental destruction, ethnic strife, and economic injustice, the notion that personal suffering is related only to one’s childhood can seem naive.

Though people have been using psychological insight to understand political matters for some time, examining the political dimensions of pyschological well-being is less common. Andrew Samuels, a professor of analytical psychology at the University of Essex in England, notes: ‘The way we [psychologists] are all trained is that if the client talks about the famine in Africa, you’re supposed to explore the depriving, absent breast–or something like that.’

It was during the Persian Gulf War in 1991 that Samuels, author of Politics on the Couch (Other Press/Karnac, 2001), began changing the way he practices therapy. He noticed more patients bringing in war-inspired dreams, fantasies, and visceral reactions like disgust or fear. While some clients were using Saddam Hussein as a means to talk about their father, just as many ‘were talking about their father when what they really wanted to talk about was Saddam Hussein,’ he says.

Over time, Samuels realized how many of his clients were dramatically affected by large-scale political events. Our reactions to the Holocaust, the Oklahoma City bombing, and even the death of Princess Diana have taught us that human beings are shaped not only by their parents or early-childhood traumas but also by the epic triumphs and tragedies of their era. By honoring rather than dismissing his clients’ gut-level reactions to such crises, Samuels also began to notice that they would ‘reveal their most passionate political convictions that they’d held for a long time but were like guilty secrets.’ He theorized that in addition to sexual, moral, intellectual, and spiritual energy, ‘political energy flowed through the veins of human beings.’

Samuels and other political psychologists believe that people can suffer as much from an inability to find their role in the larger body politic as from other personal problems. Asking the kinds of questions therapists typically use to deepen their patients’ self-knowledge, but with an eye to the political–such as ‘What was your first political memory?’ or ‘How did your family history shape your political perspective?’– was one way, they discovered, that individuals could begin to liberate their innate political instincts.

Overcoming passivity in order to bring about change in one’s life and the surrounding world, says Diane Perlman, a clinical psychologist in the Philadelphia area, is a key component in maintaining psychological health. Perlman posits that just as we have a sex drive or libido, so too is there an instinctive drive for truth and justice–what she has termed ‘verido.’

As more psychotherapists address the split between citizens and the political sphere, perhaps they will not only empower their clients but also help to heal the ailing body politic.

Pythia Peay is a writer based in Washington, D.C. She is the author of Soul Sisters: A Sacred Way for Women, to be published by Tarcher/Putnam in spring 2002. Her article ‘Soul Searching: How to Uncover the Unique Spirit of your Hometown,’ was featured in our Jan./Feb. 2001 cover story. From George (Sept. 1998).

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