Beyond Individual Psychology: How Psychology Shames
When an Individual’s Healing is Everyone’s Responsibility
Posted May 31, 2015
Much of popular psychology presumes that the difficulties a person faces—be that addiction, depression, anxiety or self-esteem—are caused by, and therefore must be addressed by, the individual. This assumption is not always made explicit, but it can be seen in the fact that the analyses as well as the counsel provided almost always focuses solely on the individual.
However, we also live in a web of relationships, including family, friendships, organizations, cultures, and subcultures. This web of relationships also plays a role in our struggles. For example, it is easy for many to see that a gay youth’s suicidality is not only a result of that particular youth’s individual psychology; their suffering is part of a web of relationships with friends and family as well as the attitudes and beliefs of the larger culture. The same is true for addictions and many other psychological difficulties. In the words of Arnold Mindell, Ph.D., these symptoms are “city shadows”—shadow material of a larger community that impacts some individuals more than others. Accordingly, addressing these difficulties must also include making changes in the larger structures of the individual’s relationships and society and seeing the individual in a larger context. Ignoring this causes shame to the individual.
Beyond Individual Psychology: How Psychology Shames
In my experience, there is no symptom that belongs only to the individual, whether that symptom is emotional, spiritual, physical, social, or financial. Accordingly, when I work with addicts, I always ask myself, “Am I working with one person, a family dynamic, a cultural dynamic, or an ethnic dynamic?” Similarly, when I work with a woman who is suffering from dissatisfaction with her body image or weight, I always think, “Am I working with just this woman or a gender dynamic, a generational story, or global sexism?” And when I work with a person who has cancer, I always ask myself, “Am I working with this one person’s health or with the impact of capitalism, or a gender issue (e.g., breast cancer; prostate cancer)? And when I work with a person who is depressed, I always contemplate, “Is what presses this person down an aspect of patriarchy or a culture that marginalizes their gifts?"
When we don’t consider psychological symptoms as part of this larger web, our attitude towards ourselves and others make it more likely we will feel shame about our suffering and our inability to heal if we can’t relieve our symptoms in short order. In essence, the individual may come to think that their difficulty is only about them—their limits, their pathology, their deficiencies, and their failure.
Consider, for example, the fact that many women hate their bodies. Yes, I know "hatred" is a strong word, but white washing it is just one more way of underestimating the power of women’s internalized criticism. The power of this self-hatred is evidenced by a plethora of data, including the fact that 97% of women are cruel to their bodies every day and that 50-70% of normal-weight girls think they are overweight and 81% of 10 year-olds are afraid of being fat.
So, when a woman comes to see me looking to lose weight or change her eating habits, I want to know why she wants to lose weight. When she answers this question, I listen carefully to hear if she says, “I want to be healthier.” Sometimes this is only one part of her dissatisfaction. However, it is almost always also true that she doesn’t like herself and is ashamed of the way she looks.
Why is this so important to account for? Why not just help her change her diet and exercise patterns? The answer is simple: When a woman hates her body, it is her body hatred that motivates her to lose weight. The consequence: it almost always backlashes – meaning that the weight loss effort will not sustain. In a real way, she defies and resists the motivation of self-hatred and asserts herself by not following through with her diet.
Not understanding this gender-related dynamic risks inadvertently adding to the self-hatred and shame that may arise when she believes she has failed.
Or consider the man who came to me feeling depressed. He complained of “not being able to do anything.” When I pressed further, I learned that he was being less effective at work and less present for his wife’s needs. He was white, middle class, and grew up with a father who urged him to be successful by driving him to work hard and support his family. Earlier in his life, when his own needs arose, he was able to marginalize them and stick with his earlier conditioning—focusing on his work and family. However, at the time we met, his deeper needs were not so easily put aside or swept under the rug. The power of his own needs now acted like a weight, pulling him down, resisting his usual pattern and his old conditioning and tiring him as if they were trying to get him to drop out of his current life. He experienced this as a kind of depression.
Why not help him with the depression independent of his gender and class? Because understanding him meant to understand the forces that would keep him trying to stay “up”—be hardworking, productive and family oriented. If we were to leave out this kind of understanding and instead simply tell him, “Pay attention to your own needs; stop being there for everyone else!” we would likely fail to lift him from his depression, as our response wouldn’t sufficiently appreciate the power of the pattern established by his father, his father’s father, and the patriarchal assumptions that he had internalized.
These patterns are not benign—they cannot be changed by platitudes like “Just do it.” They must be understood for the power they hold over so many men’s lives. This person needed to reinvent himself as a man by questioning the values his family and culture supported and then by finding the courage and fortitude to live differently.
We often seek healing as individuals, and rightly so, but I believe our healing is often connected to others—to family, to community, to culture, to the globe. Some of us can make progress on our own; others need the rest of us to usher in the healing, lift the burden off the individual, and free them from the shame of “personal failure.” Whether we are gay or straight, white or black, depressed or manic, victim or perpetrator, or rich or poor, the suffering we experience is not only ours. It belongs to us all. And to those who have had a difficult time making certain changes, may I say, "It may not only be up to you."
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