Ecotherapy for the Eco Soul

The Psychotherapy Community Should Stop Treating Us As If We Were Machines

| July-August

Ecotherapy Illustration

image by Stuart Bradford

Over the past several years the field of psychotherapy, already fragmented, has become even more deeply divided. The mainstream (defined by the direction chosen by the majority of practitioners) seems to offer certainty and security—a system that will, when the glitches are worked out, deliver mental health like a well-oiled machine.

The values of the mainstream are revealed in its language: treatment goals, standardized protocols, measurable outcomes, cost-benefit analysis. This is the language of the machine, and from the perspective of a machine, these concepts make sense. The prevailing metaphor for our culture is the computer. We speak of human beings in terms of hardware and software, of programming, of being “online.” In such a linear system, speed and efficiency are the highest values.

The first problem with this perspective is that we tend to mistake our metaphors for reality. The second problem is with the language itself, which tends to de-animate the world, reducing it (and us) to a collection of objects being acted upon by other objects. It leads us to experience ourselves as more or less poorly functioning machines.

Treatment becomes a matter of fixing the broken machine or reprogramming it. Therapists become service technicians whose job it is to get clients back online as quickly and as cost-effectively as possible.

But what of the basic question of why human machines keep breaking down; why they continue to develop symptoms such as substance abuse, antisocial behavior, anxiety, phobias, and depression? I contend that symptoms occur because human beings are not machines. We are sensual, curious, and creative. Most of all, we are soft, protean, organic beings, not mechanical components.

Most people in our culture have been treated like objects all their lives. This is the source of the wound underlying most of the human misery that therapists encounter. Because people have come to experience themselves as objects, they in turn objectify other people and commodify the world. They feel alienated, isolated, and empty.

jojo harper
8/17/2009 5:38:27 PM

I get this general take, but so many places are crime and drug ridden urban areas...what are we supposed to find some community garden on the end of the freeway aqueduct and start filtering the filthy waters.... These people all live in Bucolic villages in Northern California...they have long ago abandoned us. Now they selling some notion that it isn't as bad as it seems. But worse were supposed to figure out some escape from the SuperJail and join them. Where? How do I get out of here? I want a tree, a brook, some animals, and free range for myself......maybe I just need to start walking in askew direction from freeway....GIAAALLLLO.

6/24/2009 7:52:25 AM

I love this post! Mr. Robinson is absolutely right about machine metaphors subsuming all of society, and the field of mental health in particular. The issue is critical because the perspective and the vocabulary have to change before any problems they create can be seriously addressed. There is a researcher and writer named Steve Talbott who has been doing wonderful work in this regard for the past decade; he publishes a quarterly newsletter that is freely available at: