Postmodernism and You: Psychology
Jim Fidelibus, Ph.D.
Many Realities, Many Minds
All kinds of diverse people appear in the case load of a general-practice
psychologist or psychotherapist. Each patient holds a set of assumptions
about life, morality and relationships which is supported by a
particular cultural context, and each set of assumptions is, to
some extent, incompatible with the others. New-age consciousness,
evangelical Christianity and secular atheism are not easily reconciled.
They could be viewed, in a sense, as separate "realities."
Yet each of these patients seek assistance from the same professional.
This is why many therapists view their offices as crucibles of
multiple "realities." Therapists learn to enter into,
and operate within, the assumptions each of these realities in
attempting to be helpful. To some extent, therapists' professional
livelihood depends on their ability to serially switch channels
from one patient's reality to another as a typical work-day unfolds.
Operating within these diverse realities--and regarding each as
valid within its own frame of reference--is all within a day's
work for today's therapist. Consequently, therapists are taught
how to suspend their own view, and be of "many minds."
To be of many minds means to make room within oneself
for diverse ways of thinking in an effort to relate to each. It
means to regard truth as plural and relative, rather than singular
and absolute. Contemporary therapists would say that what is "true"
for me in my cultural context may not be what is "true"
for you in yours. To be of many minds is to regard each
individual's "reality" as valid within its own context
and on equal footing with all other "realities."
Being of "many minds" is the postmodern mind set. Postmodernism
is made for contemporary times. By radically relativizing the
concept of truth, it argues for the presence of multiple culturally-determined
realities, all of equal validity.
This price we pay for such an outlook can easily become intolerable.
Postmodernism creates a world-view which is ultimately untenable
and unlivable. From a psychological perspective, when lived-out
consistently, it fragments the individual's sense of personal
identity and promotes a sense of isolation.
Postmodernism and Psychology
For the reasons covered above, therapists today are increasingly
concluding that effective helping is culture-bound. The very strategy
that works within one cultural context may make no sense in another.
They argue that:
- Communication and language patterns are bound with the structure
of power within the family system
- Pathology doesn't reside within the "identified patient,"
but within the interactional patterns of the family
- The "identified patient" merely bears the symptoms
of dysfunctional family communication patterns
- Symptoms are a form of language (i.e. metaphors)
In each of these assumptions, the centrality of language betrays
the influence of postmodernism. The use of language defines and
identities of those in charge as well as those who are "sick."
It constructs the "reality" of each individual as it's
defined within the family "culture."
Postmodern-influenced therapies often use language maneuvers
to effect change because of their belief that reality is a language
construct. A clear example is paradoxical intervention in which
the therapist prescribes the symptom--an approach we discuss in
some detail in The Death of Truth. [This approach is articulated
by, among others, by Jay Haley Problem Solving Therapy,
(New York: Harper & Row, 1976)].
Modern Vs. Postmodern Therapies
Differing views of reality are nothing new to psychotherapy.
Modern counseling approaches in psychology have long assumed,
as postmodernists do, that the ways patients see themselves aren't
objectively true. This is a central belief in the schools of cognitive
and cognitive-behavioral therapy. However, they further assume,
unlike postmodernists, that the patient will become well by
developing a more objective--or truer--self-appraisal through
the process of therapy. The therapist's job is to guide the
patient into areas where important information and experiences
have been left-out or misunderstood. Modern cognitive-behavioral
therapists help patients move from an inaccurate to a more accurate
view of self based on objective evidence.
In postmodern versions of therapy, however, things are different.
First, as we have seen, people's lives are considered "texts"
in the sense that they are narratives. To postmodernists, we each
"live in story," therapists included. They argue that,
to assume that the therapist's construction of reality (or
narrative) is superior to, or truer than, the patient's, is arrogant.
According to postmodernism, the therapist's views are just as
culture-bound as the patient's, and therefore the therapist can
claim no interpretation superior to the patient's. The therapist
never tries to "correct" the patient's narrative by
comparing it to any standard of "truth." Rather,
the postmodern therapist seeks to disrupt the client's personal
narrative by switching the frame-of-reference. He seeks to change
meanings, and refers to "marginalized subtexts" or alternative
interpretations. [For an important early work in this field, see
Jacques Lacan, The Language of the Self, (Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins Press, 1968)]
Postmodern Loss of Identity
Those of us who are postmodernists feel compelled to act without
a foundation in truth. When this is the case, we are in a position
of not really knowing why we do what we do, or why we believe
what we believe. It's all a matter of where, and with whom, we
happen to be at the moment. Consequently, we lose a sense of
who we are--we lose a sense of identity--in a world of equally
valid, but dissonant, alternatives.
One way to reduce the dissonance is to surrender to the culture
of the moment--to exchange a consistent self-identity for shifting
cultural identity. Thus, coasting through the ebb-and-flow of
social change, we yield an independent "I" for an ever-changing
"we." This is the direction postmodernists would have
us take, as Cregen explains.
Postmodern psychology argues for the erasure of the category
of self. No longer can one securely determine what it is to
be a specific kind of person--male or female--or even a person
at all. As the category of the individual person fades from view,
consciousness of social construction becomes focal. We realize
increasingly that who and what we are is not so much the result
of our "personal essence" (real feelings, deep beliefs,
and the like), but of how we are constructed in various social
Postmodern Loss of Identity is Not Self-sacrifice
Do not, however, confuse the postmodern de-emphasis on self as
equivalent to a self-sacrificing attitude. Postmodernism doesn't
account for self-sacrifice as anything more than a metaphor--a
way of communicating. True self-sacrifice is a distinctively biblical
concept. While substituting "We" for "I" might
seem to self-giving, it can easily produce as much harm as good.
The loss of self-identity has been associated with some of the
most unsettling findings in the entire psychology research literature.
The loss of self-identity isn't only frightening. It can be tragic.
We need to think back no further than Waco or Guyana to see the
devastation that can result from the surrender of self-identity
to a culture.
Loss of personal identity and truth may lead to some devastating
- Loss of Individual Freedom - Cultural determinism led
to the definition of Jews as non-persons, resulting in their
near extermination in Europe. Cultural determinism has led to
the definition of the unborn as non-persons, resulting in their
destruction by the millions. When society is left to determine
who counts, anything is possible.
- Danger to Mental Health - With the loss of self, or
identity, culture is given enormous power. If I cannot stand
apart from my culture, then I am completely controlled by it.
Whether I can feel good about myself, and whether I really matter
at all, is determined by society and those who run it.
- Mental Illness An Illusion - If there is no self apart
from a social construction, then mental illness is an illusion.
Dysfunction must be seen exclusively in the social environment.
While this is often the case, this way of thinking can also
contribute to a radical sense of victimization in which emotional
problems are too easily interpreted as purely the result of
past abuse. Such theories ignore the individual's response to
- Psychology As An Instrument Of Social Control - Not
long ago in the Soviet Union, psychology became the tool of
choice for waging war against those who would not conform to
the totalitarian standards of the state. From the time of Breshnev
on, the Soviets often preferred to put dissidents into psychiatric
wards rather than into Gulags. Without the applications of objective
diagnostic standards, it could well be that anyone who fails
to conform to the status quo (who perhaps is too "intolerant"
or "fundamentalist") may be considered insane.
Postmodernism is a stealth-destroyer. It may seem open-minded
and comfortably tolerant on the surface, but with its denial of
the individual and its fascination with power, the makings of
manipulation are all present. People may not recognize its danger
until it's too late.
The Rest of the Story
In The Death of Truth you will see:
- Examples of specific postmodern therapeutic strategies
- The thinking of key postmodern thinkers in their own words
- How biblical Christians should respond to the postmodern shift
in the field of psychotherapy
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