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A New Therapy for Politics?

Andrew Samuels

The crisis in politics is also an opportunity to revitalize the system, argues British psychotherapist Andrew Samuels in his controversial and much discussed new book Politics on the Couch

Psychotherapists have always believed that their insights could be as useful to society at large as to the individuals they treated. Freud spoke of understanding “the riddles of the world,” while Jung said that therapists “cannot avoid coming to grips with contemporary history.” But, categorically refusing the help on offer, the world never showed up for its first therapy session. And maybe it was wise not to do so. Many attempts to link psychotherapeutic insights and social issues have boiled down to little more than insisting that everything is psychological – thereby allowing the therapist to maintain a posture of being above the fray. Meanwhile, the fashion for analyzing political figures in public has, quite rightly, been ridiculed, undermining the idea of the therapist as a responsible social commentator.

But if therapeutic concepts have not yet been usefully applied to our political life, perhaps their time has finally come. As more and more people grow disgusted with the political system now in place, the sense grows that current political arrangements now in place have little potential to solve our society’s problems. We may become increasingly willing to consider alternative approaches. While politics will always be about struggles for power and the control of resources, a new understanding is gradually evolving that, as feminism taught us, the personal is indeed political – and vice versa. It is here that therapists might have something to contribute.

Take the question of leadership. One of the most dangerous, outmoded, yet persistent themes in our political life is the belief in the heroic leader. But as long as leadership remains a story about heroes, we will continue to have a demoralized populace and a power-hungry elite. We need, therefore, to change the psychological relationship between politicians and citizens. We have to accept the idea that our leaders will inevitably disappoint us at least some of the time, and that leadership is, in a sense, the art of managing failure. We can then look at those failures and see what can be learned from them, rather than blaming the old and yearning for the new heroic leader. These are the kinds of processes that therapists and their clients routinely engage in. In the public sphere, we have to reenact the painful business of coming to terms with the limitations of those we once childishly looked up, accepting finally that no-one can be better than “good-enough.” And some of us have to find it in ourselves to go beyond cynicism and a sense of abandonment (which can be equally childish) to trust some of the leaders some of the time.

To alter our ideas about leaders also means to alter our ideas about ourselves as citizens. A lot has been written about apathy recently. But there is a sense in which the problem is too much passion, too many aspirations, a belief in perfect solutions – leading, inevitably, to disappointment and withdrawal. What looks like apathy is actually a pervasive sense of powerlessness, often coupled with intense self-criticism. Feeling that we cannot achieve everything we know needs to be done – we have neither the power nor the skills to solve the daunting problems of poverty, injustice, despoliation of the environment – we give up on politics, retreat into our private lives (leaving our political aspirations and values to slumber) and do nothing. Again, the insights of psychotherapy might be useful here. If we can accept that political perfection is unattainable, if we ask of ourselves only that we be good-enough citizens (just as we can only hope for good- enough leaders), we may be freed from the sense of despair that paralyzes us at present, so that those political hopes and impulses can reawaken.

Even those who would describe themselves as “apolitical” – people who do not directly participate in any political process – are likely to have private feelings about political events. But the traditional view of politics has meant that these feelings have no outlet in the world. In the political workshops I have conducted over the years, I am continually struck by the amount of untapped political energy (as opposed to political power) that exists in the populace at large. People describe all sorts of bodily and emotional responses to the events in Kosovo, or to the problem of homelessness, or to the lack of any sense of community in the places where they live. But they see no way of converting these responses into practical political action. They simply feel overwhelmed by them. It is one of the goals of the workshops to find ways of articulating the feelings participants have about political events and issues so they can begin to deal with them differently in the “rational” realm. Again, the process is strikingly similar to that of therapy. Citizens are enabled to unblock their political as well as their psychological energies.

Another thing I have discovered in these workshops is that people’s style of politics depends very much on their personalities and character traits – a fact that gets overlooked when we divide citizens into categories based only on the opinions they hold and the way they vote. In relation to politics, as in life generally, there are introverts and extraverts. Similarly, there are people who tend to go by their spontaneous emotional responses and people who think things through in detail before arriving at a position.

For a variety of reasons, some of which have to do with personal background, some with innate temperament, people live out their political natures in different ways. Some become violent terrorists, others pacifists. Some seek out empirical back-up for their ideas; others fly by the seat of their pants. Some actively enjoy co-operative political activity; others endure the nightmare of trying to accomplish things in a group only for the sake of the ends being pursued.

The notion of political styles or types is very useful when addressing conflict, whether it is interpersonal, within an organisation, or between nations. Just as introverts and extraverts suffer from mutual incomprehension, people of a particular political type often have very little idea how a person of a different type is actually “doing” politics. This is not to say that political content is irrelevant, only that those who by no means share a common goal may tend to use similar methods to accomplish their ends. And those who are on the same side may express their suggestions in very different terms and disagree about the best ways to achieve their goals.

If the existence of different political types within a single group can make for disagreement, it is also true that opposing groups may find they have more in common than they think. Several years ago, I conducted some discussion groups in Jerusalem involving Israelis from Jewish and Palestinian backgrounds. I suggested to the group a list of political types and invited them to choose one or two that seemed particularly apt for themselves. (The list ran as follows: Warrior, terrorist, exhibitionist, leader, activist, parent, follower, child, martyr, victim, trickster, healer, analyst, negotiator, bridge-builder, diplomat, philosopher, mystic, ostrich.) It quickly emerged that .there were similarities in political type that cut across the ideological divisions of the two groups. It then became possible to link up individuals from one camp of a particular political type with similar individuals from the other camp. Within this restructured format, with bridge-builders speaking to bridge-builders and terrorists speaking to terrorists, less inhibited and more engaged dialogue took place.

Finally, I want to comment on the huge rise in the incidence of depression in the United States in the past decade. I predict that the experience of the Presidential election will boost the figures even more. Why? We know that at the heart of people’s experience of depression lie feelings of guilt and self-reproach. But therapists regularly find that behind this guilt and self-reproach are rage, anger and aggression. What triggers the depression is the unfounded fantasy that the anger the person feels has destroyed something or someone valuable, which in turn causes the guilt.

Our growing understanding that emotional and social experience are linked is very helpful here. After all, many groups in society have good reason to feel angry: Poor people, ethnic minorities, women (and some men), those with health problems, parents faced with inadequate schools, workers in soul-destroying jobs, and citizens appalled at what we are doing to the environment. You don’t even have to suffer directly to be angry at such collective problems, and the election made many Americans very angry – and depressed – indeed.

This article was first published in The Times Higher Education Supplement in January 2001.

Politics on the Couch: Citizenship and the Internal Life is published by Other Press/Karnac Books, price $16. Call 212 924 3344 or toll free 1 877 THE OTHER (843 6843) or fax 212 414 9654 or e-mail orders@otherpress.com

© Andrew Samuels 2001. All rights reserved.


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