Is politics a candidate for therapy?

January 19, 2001

As traditional politics struggles to cope with changing economic and social demands, Andrew Samuels argues that psychotherapy might offer some inspiration.

Politics in many western countries has broken down. We urgently need ideas and approaches that go beyond the traditional ways we think about political activity. A worldwide move to revitalise politics has emerged, drawing together political theorists, ecologists, economists and sociologists. Perhaps it is time to consider how psychotherapy might contribute to the transformation for which so many people yearn. Some might consider such a notion provocative - even outrageous - but they should remember where conventional political thought has led us.

Psychotherapy is not only a means of easing or understanding personal distress. There are links between internal life and political and social issues that, if explored, add to our understanding of and our capacity to move freely in both of these realms. As citizens, we need to balance the politics of the internal world of emotional, personal and family experiences with the psychology of outer world matters such as leadership, environmentalism and nationalism. Psychotherapy can also help to remodel politics by generating a sense of meaning, both in private and in public life.

But before this balance can be achieved, we need to clarify the notion of citizenship, to recognise that citizens require a conscious familiarity with both the internal and external dimensions of their experience.

Consider the idea that there is a "politician" in everyone. The inner politician struggles to develop a degree of political self-awareness that allows the individual to move from personal matters to a sense of social responsibility, developing the capacity to engage as freely and effectively in politics as the system permits. This political self-awareness requires us to understand how our political attitudes and commitments have been affected psychologically by family, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality and socioeconomic status. Conversely, we must come to terms with how our personalities have been irradiated by the political times in which we live.

Think of your first "political memory", the first time in your life you can recall becoming aware of power issues in society, the existence of a famous politician, a world event, or of living in one country as opposed to another. Is our ability to retrieve and evaluate our political memories not handicapped by the lack of an appropriate language for it? Historically, citizenship has expressed itself in changing linguistic forms: today's citizens might begin to speak a hybrid language of psychotherapy and politics, though not the kind the media uses - those pseudo-psychological analyses of the characters of our leaders.

I have seen a kind of hybrid language emerge in my clinical work. One of my clients, an Italian banker of 35, had a dream in which there was a powerful image of a beautiful mountain lake with deep, clear, crystalline water. The client's first association was that the lake was a symbol of his soul, or at least his potential to develop a deep, clear, soulful attitude to life. His next - and unexpected - association was to the pollution on the Adriatic coast of Italy, which had clogged the coastal waters with algae and weeds. He began to explore the connections between soul and pollution. Can one's soul remain pure while there is pollution in one's home waters? How could the lake, mysterious and isolated, relate to the mass tourism economy being damaged by algae on the Adriatic?

He began to wonder: who owns this lake? Who should control access to such a scarce resource? Who is responsible for protecting the lake from pollution? From psychological issues, such as how his problems interfered with (or polluted) his development, he moved to political issues such as environmental destruction and the degradations - as well as the opportunities - presented by mass tourism. And then he moved from the political level to the internal one, and back to politics again (it does not have to be one or the other). The dream played a part in the client's life choice to give up banking and return to Italy to get involved in green politics.

Many people who engage in exploration of their internal life turn away from politics as "dirty", just as many activists pour scorn on psychotherapy as ineffective, excessively introspective, self-indulgent, normative and only for the well-heeled. Each group feels it will lose its self-respect by adopting the concerns and practices of the other.

It is time to challenge this wasteful inner/outer split so that we can tap into and synthesise the creative energies of both. For example, at a "political clinic" in New York shortly after the Los Angeles riots of 1992, I asked the participants (who came from diverse political backgrounds) to recall and record their emotional, fantasy and even physical responses to the riots - just as therapists try to observe and understand such responses in themselves to what their clients tell them. In other words, I invited them to think of themselves as "therapists of the world".

Doing this in a contained setting has a liberating effect. People said that they had often reacted in a bodily or other highly subjective way to political events. They remembered experiencing strange pains in specific parts of their bodies, suffering from general symptoms such as nausea or giddiness, finding themselves mysteriously falling asleep, or noticing odd images coming to mind. But they feared these distressing responses to political issues would not be taken seriously in everyday political discourse, which tends not to regard such phenomena as significant.

You would expect therapists to have a view on social issues that involves personal and family relationships. But there are also some hard areas of policy that can be examined through psychotherapy. Many people believe in sustainable economic development, but the consensus is that it cannot happen without great numbers giving up many features of their comfortable lives. To achieve this requires a huge value shift. What would drive this and set limits on it, if not human psychology and "human nature"?

Therapists can contribute a view of human nature that speaks with authority about benevolence, altruism and the desire to become more connected to others, but without denying the shadow of selfishness, greed and competitiveness. Alongside examples of economic benevolence (such as willingness to pay higher taxes for approved causes), there is also a good deal of economic sadism in people. At workshops on the "economic psyche", I prompt participants to fantasise about winning the lottery. Many people who would not consider themselves materialistic and are committed to social justice come up with images that are quite shocking to them - images of cruelty and exploitation. For example, one philosophy professor fantasised about fencing off the ski slopes at Gstaad for his own personal use. This did not seem so awful until he suddenly blurted out with immense force that he would hire troops to kill anyone who came within a mile. Then he collapsed in tears, appalled at what he had just said.

Time and again in the workshops I conduct, it becomes clear that merely living in a badly organised and unjust economic system affects people's mental health and sense of wellbeing, even if their material situation is not too bad. There is what you could call an "economic guilt field" in operation. This concept could be exploited by economic policy-makers addressing questions of inequality.

Psychotherapy's potential contribution to transforming politics stems from a number of specific ideas as well as its overall world view. The idea of "good-enoughness", for example, could be a significant addition to the political lexicon. A good-enough parent gradually manages the inevitable and increasing failure to meet an infant's expectations of perfect parental provision. Hence the infant neither idealises the parent, passively expecting everything to be done by magic, nor denigrates the parent, feeling abandoned and unloved and, unable to trust others, forced to become too independent too soon. Removed from the family context, the idea of good-enoughness could be applied to leadership, thereby avoiding the pitfalls of idealising or denigrating a leader.

Good-enough leadership and the management of failure are closely linked. This has led me to propose launching a national failure inquiry to continually monitor why political initiatives have not worked out as planned. The NFI could be one of a number of institutions utilising psychotherapy in society. Its function would be to try to understand as fully as possible what has happened, to come to terms with the failure in question and learn lessons for the future, rather than apportion blame. This imaginative approach to failure would mean that citizens lose the "out" of blaming leaders or the system, but create for themselves a greater opportunity to mould the world in which they live.

Of course, there are huge failings in psychotherapy as well, and psychotherapists interested in politics must also expend some energy challenging the old-fashioned and self-interested way their profession is organised. They need to make it easier for people without much money to obtain therapy in all parts of the country and to dispute some of the extremely conservative and moralistic positions many therapists adopt.

In addition, they must do their best to avoid the maddening rectitude of the therapist. Rather than adopting postures of Olympian detachment, they must face the fact that they are "in" the political world, just as they are "in" the clinical relationship with their clients. Hence, for psychotherapists and politicians alike, Samuel Beckett's words have special relevance: "Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

Andrew Samuels is professor of analytical psychology at the University of Essex. Politics on the Couch: Citizenship and the Internal Life is published this week by Profile Books. For a special mail order price of £9.99 including p&p, call 020 7404 3001 or email

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