Find a good enough solution

May 4, 2007

With party politics and voter turnouts waning but many citizens active on local and global issues, experts ponder what might stir a democratic revival

Politics isn't suffering from apathy but from too much passion and too many aspirations that can only lead to disappointment. Andrew Samuels suggests that 'therapy thinking' can help free us from our sense of depressive despair

The political world is increasingly coming into the counselling room, according to surveys of psychotherapists and counsellors I and others have conducted between 1989 and the present. Clients are raising questions about the environment, economic inequality and political leadership more often than therapists were taught to expect. Our emotional lives are deeply affected by what is seen on the news.

But what do people really mean when they say they feel depressed or guilty about issues such as the environment, climate change or species depletion?

Many psychotherapists understand depression as resulting from a person's feeling angry and destructive towards someone he or she basically loves and needs. That is why bereaved people can become depressed. They may feel that their bad feelings towards the dead person somehow caused the death, or they may be angry at having been left.

In either case, there is a feeling of being responsible that leads to guilt, self-reproach (often of delusional proportions) and very low spirits, along with a lack of emotional, cognitive and physical energy.

It's that feeling of guilty responsibility that interests psychotherapists such as me who want to bring "therapy thinking" to bear on political problems.

Take climate change. We love the Earth, but we see how destructive we can be towards it. Our guilt then paralyses us, and we enter a political depression we struggle to overcome. The question of anger comes up in relation to almost any political theme. It doesn't matter which side of a debate one is on, and one does not have to be directly affected to feel angry, though excluded and disadvantaged people are more likely to. The point is that when a person has anger in a form that cannot be managed or resolved, he will find some kind of depression and guilt. So it is not surprising that cutting-edge thinking in the therapy world considers that depression has social and political roots.

Leadership is the political theme that gets my clients the most worked up and critical of how things are in our political culture. In psychotherapy, we use the term "good enough". This is taken from developmental theory, where it is used in relation to a parent figure who is neither idealised as perfect nor denigrated for having failed. Failure is, as parents know, inevitable. The question is whether children manage to tolerate their parents' failures.

In politics, the place where we urgently need something like good enough is in relation to our leaders. At present we tend to build them up and idealise them. Then, as we see in the case of Tony Blair, the populace and the media work together to destroy the hitherto invulnerable leader.

Good-enoughness implies a relation to and acceptance of failure: the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott said that the mother must fail the baby - but in the baby's own way. We can take the idea out of the family context so that, without claiming that leaders are merely parents writ large, we could try to do something new with their failures.

The idea, which is relevant to leadership in any situation, is to release leaders from the shackles of always having to be in control and always having to be right. They could start to be less heroic, less macho and become more collaborative with citizens, more "sibling leaders". They can fail the country - but in the country's own way.

To alter our ideas about leaders also means to alter our ideas about ourselves as citizens. A lot has been written recently about apathy and a loss of hope and belief in politics. But, listening to clients and to people who attend my "political clinics", at which feelings about politics are shared and worked with, I'd like to suggest that the problem with our polity is not apathy. The problem is, rather, too much passion, too many aspirations, a belief in perfect solutions - which leads, inevitably, to disappointment and withdrawal. What looks like apathy is actually a pervasive sense of powerlessness, often coupled with intensely guilty self-criticism.

If we can accept that political perfection is unattainable, if we ask of ourselves only that we be good enough citizens, we may be freed from the sense of depressive despair that mires us at present, so that political hope can reawaken.

Andrew Samuels is professor of analytical psychology at Essex University, a psychotherapist and a political consultant. He is author of Politics on the Couch: Citizenship and the Internal Life.

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