Therapy and the good life

June 10, 1993

Americans have always been preoccupied with the good life In the 17th century, the Puritans fasted and prayed to find salvation. By the 20th century, science had displaced religion as arbiter of ultimate truths and the good life became a rational quest, pursued under the rubric of psychotherapy.

Now, a century after Freud first propounded his theory of psychoanalysis, controversy rages over the benefits of the "talking cure." The sad spectacle of Woody Allen and Mia Farrow's messy custody battle is a case in point. This whole unconventional family apparently has been in analysis for years, but it doesn't seem to have helped them much. Given such testimonials, it's no wonder a recent U.S. News & World Report cover story could frankly ask: "Does therapy work?"

Experts say therapy is effective -- and the public seems to agree. Each year 16 million Americans seek mental health treatment. Cultivating one's psyche has replaced prayer as a virtue.

Yet critics of the psychotherapeutic ethic complain that it fosters unhealthy self-absorption, narcissism and a tendency to interpret everything in individual terms. The judge in the Allen case seemed to harbor a similar concern when he called Mr. Allen a "self-absorbed, untrustworthy and insensitive" father and a lousy parent.

In 1985 Berkeley sociologist Robert Bellah reported a link between the psychotherapeutic ethic and the erosion of traditional values. Bellah argued that the therapeutic model of self "posits an individual who is able to be the source of his own standards" and "denies all forms of obligation and commitment in relationships." His idea foreshadowed many of the criticisms that would surface in the Allen case a decade later.

Ironically, Freud's original theory was profoundly conservative in its respect for established institutions. The goal of therapy, as Freud saw it, was to enable people to function effectively within those institutions, not to challenge or overturn them. Yet once the idea of "repression" as a socially imposed control mechanism over the individual took hold, it was only a matter of time before the "healing" process became identified in the popular mind with throwing off all social constraints.

One result is that much of the work once dealt with by ministers and churches now is handled by divorce lawyers and courts. A recent author may have captured perfectly the modern dilemma as exemplified by the sad saga of Woody and Mia when he gave his book the whimsical title: "We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy -- and the World's Getting Worse."

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