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Is Psychology Good For Us? Are Therapists Necessary?

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Are Therapists Necessary?

Doctor. Doctor. Doctor. Doctor. How many doctors are there on this planet? – K-Pax, 2001 Film

Any discussion today on psychological matters touches a deep nerve.

Maybe this was always the case, but I suspect that in earlier times, due to far less complex environments and options, as well as far more taxing lives compared to the high standard of our comfort zones, people lived more, and spoke less. When you’re busy most of the day toiling in a field to be able to bring home bread and potatoes for dinner; when wars are raging and despots dictate your life; when you have no empty hours for leisure and other indulgences; when you are living at poverty level and survival is at stake; when all you know is about your own life and of a few others living nearby, as opposed to today’s global village where everyone knows of everyone else’s misery, you have far less time to quarrel with your spouse and agonize over not being able to purchase the latest model of whatever. And you definitely have far less time to speak about your anxieties and fears, which feed them further.

Perhaps when people think less about themselves they are better off and healthier (or at least more immune to the effects of festering dysfunctionality).

But in our times things are dramatically different. Any conversation about our emotional and mental issues is a lightning rod for strong reactions from every possible corner.

No surprise then that I received, as one can imagine, a disproportionate amount of responses to my last two articles, Medicine, Psychology and Spirituality, and Are You Damaged Goods?

Two of them stand out in their contrasting perspectives. They reflect the extreme diversity of opinions and confusion raging today (in so many circles) around the role of psychology, behavioral science and therapists.

One writes: “Why such disdain for therapists?!” Another: “Why do you respect psychology so much?!”

The former elaborates: “Though psychology does have its limits, we cannot ignore thousands of studies showing the efficacy of psychotherapy. There is an entire body of modern psychological literature based on years of research. Additionally, the therapeutic profession has become far more sophisticated and nuanced in the last years from its inception one century ago. Therapists today never claim to ‘fix’ anything – people must ‘fix’ things for themselves. With tools and techniques, patience and professionalism, and deep insight into how the mind works, a therapist merely aids individuals in the process of healing, if that’s what the patient wants to do.

“How can you dismiss an entire profession by wondering whether mental health professionals believe in healing “damaged goods?” It is a basic tenet of all modern day therapy that people can change and heal. Otherwise, what’s the point?”

Frankly, I believe that this writer is projecting and reading his own ideas into my words, because no where did I dismiss outright the psychological profession; quite the contrary (as evidenced in the second comment which criticizes my respect for the profession) – just go back and read my first article. Yet I am deliberately citing his comments to make a critical point how psychology is shrouded in a cloud of facts and myths combined (perhaps perpetuated by those invested in the marketing of the industry). Read on.

LCSW, Rus Devorah (Darcy) Wallen, writes: “I’m letting you know that the therapist you spoke with has a limited perspective. He probably didn’t have much in the reservoir of techniques other than supportive listening and mirroring. We do much more these days for those with trauma. And YES, in many people the actual trauma is healed to the point that they no longer see themselves as damaged goods. They gain a new perspective and stop blaming themselves for the abuse that they have suffered and then they emerge bigger and better (as you know Torah and Chassidus explain). That may also be one of the limitations of a Jew going to a therapist who is not a ‘believer.’ As you know, The Rebbe was in favor of Torah observant therapists, since matters of psychology are matters of the soul. Additionally, any therapy in 2014 that does not contain behavioral change is not as highly considered in such cases where people have had trauma and need corrective experiences.

In one of the Rebbe’s discourses, he explains that now (in the post-Tanya era) we can actually change more than our behaviors and character, we can change ourselves internally and transform our most essential selves. If that is the case, I as a therapist with a Torah informed practice can never lose hope, and must always instill the hope that it is possible to change with G-d’s help. I would think in this area, it would be forbidden to discourage a client as your student’s therapist did. As The Rebbe says, ‘You as a Doctor should also strengthen the faith and trust in G-d [of your patients]’ (Igros Kodesh Vol. 4 p. 444).”

On the other extreme, the latter comment, “why do you respect psychology so much?!” goes on to criticize psychology. “I submit,” he writes, “that psychology today may be more a cause than a solution to our problems. Not to say that it has no benefits, especially for certain situations, but all in all it allows us to indulge and thus perpetuate our issues, lowering expectations and justifying almost anything – all in the name of self-nurturing, reclaiming the abandoned inner child.

“I should know. Years upon years of therapy of all sorts, which I admit has helped me in many ways, has caused me to become a greater narcissist – and a far more sophisticated one (with better tools to cover my tracks). And sadly I see the same in many of my friends.

“The happiest people are the ones that don’t focus on themselves and their psyches. The ones who are so occupied with serving a cause and a higher calling that they don’t have time to think and agonize over things. Most of our generation is just too much into themselves for their own good. Dwelling on your problems can often make them worse. At times I also think that therapeutic healing is as, if not more, important for the therapist than it is for the client. Some therapists feed off of it, so you can imagine the distortions this may introduce.

“I really don’t want to come across as one who is hurling a blanket accusation against the entire industry. I certainly don’t want to suggest that therapy does not help a number of people, and they should not be discouraged to pursue and find a good therapist (which are few and far in between); but I believe it is healthy to candidly discuss a profession that deals with the subtleties of the human mind, heart and soul. This is not just about healing a broken arm; it is about the very dignity and essence of what makes us tick. In the name of free inquiry and scientific discovery it is vital that we come away with an honest understanding of mental health and the mental health industry. We need to separate between therapy as ‘business’ and therapy as soul-healing.”

Again, just like I wrote about the first opinion in support of psychology, I am citing this position not because I agree or disagree with it, but simply to paint an accurate portrait of the very different and contradictory views simmering in this field.

Rabbi Yaakov Winner, a prominent educator and mashpia (mentor) in Melbourne, writes: “It is in my extremely humble view that the world should put a greater emphasis on self-control and code of conduct and prioritize defining acceptable behavior and unacceptable behavior. Let the dialogue be about the habits of healthy people, rather than our preoccupation with psychotherapy which customarily discharges obligations and responsibility. Therapy seems to delay immediate and practical forms of prevention, the “first line of defense,” from potential problems. The focus should be on strength of character and integrity with the ensuing behavior which would reflect that.

“I humbly believe that if this were the culture of our society, many of our current issues in the areas of morals and ethics would diminish drastically. Obviously, I do not mean to undermine therapy altogether. My primary concern here is that society does not have the luxury to wait until the therapy will help. We need to find the more direct and effective solutions. Call it the “Band-Aid” if you wish. But first, the flowing loss of blood must be stopped. Only then can we work to find the cause. I personally believe that this was part of the Rebbe’s vision (besides for heralding the Messianic Era) in propagating the Seven Noahide Laws, which serve as a Universal Code of Conduct for mankind.”

Another Rabbi and educator, professionally trained in family counseling, writes: “I have merited, with G-d’s help, to work with adolescents for the past two decades. One of the most frustrating things with which we have to contend, albeit on rare occasions, is when a student who might be in need of ‘professional’ assistance consults a therapist. And it seems that by and large the help they receive is a license to rest and relax. It’s official, ‘He can’t handle anxiety.’ How easy it is for psychiatrists to say ‘Rabbi, you just have to lower your expectations.’ Why, thank you! Meanwhile, I’m thinking, ‘Is this why you needed to study medicine for twelve years!? To let me know how you underestimate people!?’

“It is quite possible that one of the greatest crimes against humanity is psychology’s diminishing of the human species, or the Depreciation of the Masses. Contrast this to Chassidus, whose singular greatest contribution and benefit, perhaps, may be in revealing the Infinite Potentiality of Man. The sanctity of life. Our preciousness is unmeasurable and our qualities, inestimable. The Baal Shem Tov said ‘Just as the greatest minds will never fathom the vast treasures that lie hidden in the earth, no one can appreciate the treasures that lie hidden within the soul.’

“In case anyone wants to dismiss my words as radical, please read an excellent essay by NY Times columnist David Brooks, Heroes of Uncertainty (May, 2013), describing the limits of the entire field of psychiatry – something that comes up quite often in the field of education, where the existence of a “problem” student may have to be addressed.”

In his article, Brooks writes:

“The problem is that the behavioral sciences like psychiatry are not really sciences; they are semi-sciences. The underlying reality they describe is just not as regularized as the underlying reality of, say, a solar system…

“All of this is not to damn people in the mental health fields. On the contrary, they are heroes who alleviate the most elusive of all suffering, even though they are overmatched by the complexity and variability of the problems that confront them. I just wish they would portray themselves as they really are. Psychiatrists are not heroes of science. They are heroes of uncertainty, using improvisation, knowledge and artistry to improve people’s lives.

“The field of psychiatry is better in practice than it is in theory. The best psychiatrists are not austerely technical, like the official handbook’s approach; they combine technical expertise with personal knowledge. They are daring adapters, perpetually adjusting in ways more imaginative than scientific rigor.
“The best psychiatrists are not coming up with abstract rules that homogenize treatments. They are combining an awareness of common patterns with an acute attention to the specific circumstances of a unique human being…

“The desire to be more like the hard sciences has distorted economics, education, political science, psychiatry and other behavioral fields. It’s led practitioners to claim more knowledge than they can possibly have. It’s devalued a certain sort of hybrid mentality that is better suited to these realms, the mentality that has one foot in the world of science and one in the liberal arts, that involves bringing multiple vantage points to human behavior.

“Hippocrates once observed, “It’s more important to know what sort of person has a disease than to know what sort of disease a person has.” That’s certainly true in the behavioral sciences and in policy making generally, though these days it is often a neglected truth.”

***

OK, so where does this all leave us?

If your head is spinning, don’t feel alone.

It’s expected that any discussion around the psyche and the mind is going to, well, leave our mind reeling. The very ethereal nature of our inner workings lends itself to all types of ambiguity and theories, even conflicting ones.

We thus have a full range of opinions – based on observations, studies, speculation, experimentation – about what makes us tick. And what goes wrong when we aren’t ticking that well. As opposed to, say, a physical clock, which we can break open and dissect, the human spirit, mind and emotions don’t lend themselves to such analysis. They are far more sublime, not to mention invisible.

The tools and methods (for the most part) required to address our mental and emotional health are equally intangible and subtle. Sensitivity, empathy and gentleness are as important, if not more, than instruments, tests and empirical data. Intelligence and brilliance alone is inadequate.

This is the reason why soul healers in Judaism were always first and foremost known for their… – can you guess what?

They were known for their humility. (Moses, the ultimate soul-doctor, was the humblest man on earth). For their utter rejection of any commercialization of their art. Souls are not for sale. They saw their work as divine and noble. As G-d’s work. And did not want to taint it in any way with other agendas and objectives. Ulterior motives pollute any entity, but when it comes to souls it is lethal. Subjective self-interests (let alone arrogance) doesn’t work well when seeking truth, honesty and integrity – critical component in bringing healing to a soul who has been wounded by duplicity, selfishness and insecurity.

So in the final analysis: Is psychology good for us?

Like anything, it depends how you use it.

If it becomes a system that is smug and self-promoting then it most likely will cause more problems than it solves. Like any science, especially a soft science, man-made psychology is imperfect. It’s man’s attempt to understand and treat the human condition – the mysteries of the mind, heart and soul. At best, it is a work in progress. As such, it should not be worshipped. Yet, it has developed sophisticated theories and methods that have helped many people.

Psychology is best when its methods are infused with humility and the constant search for new ways to look at ourselves. One that takes into account nuance and embraces the human mystique. A psychology that does not feed into mans’ basest instincts, but one that expects the most of us. Psychology is at its worst when it stubbornly insists that it knows the limitations of human capability, and lowers expectations of us.

In the humble opinion of this writer, the best psychology would be one that fuses mans’ discoveries with the Torah’s view of the soul and its potential. I am therefore a serious proponent of creating a new psychological model that integrates the best of both worlds: Mans’ search and the divine blueprint.

Are therapists necessary?

In the present world in which we live the answer is yes. As explained in the previous article, G-d blessed us with minds, hearts and the ability to study, examine and analyze ourselves and each other. He also gave the healer permission to heal, which includes the obligation to heal.

Yet, at the same time, as we care for divine souls we should look to the Torah which provides us with an x-ray of the human soul and psyche. We should be striving to a psychology imbued with the confidence in the resilience and fortitude of the soul, and one that follows a higher moral calling.

The therapist must also approach his/her work with the utmost humility and respect for the dignity of every soul. As such the world of psychology needs to humbly acknowledge its limits, avoid by all means self-worship, welcome critique and challenge, be brutally vigilant and honest in setting the highest standards for what is the most noble of all ventures: Tenderly caring for a divine soul on earth.

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Chaya Gross

BHWhen speaking of psychology and understanding we are dealing with the workings of the mind/soul it is almost impossible to evaluate success or failure. As a clinical social worker I chose never to work in the field for money because it seemed misleading. What I have done for over 20 years is counsel people to look at their strengths instead of the their weaknesses, and their blessings instead of their pain. And a new profession has grown out of this approach called coaching! Or as the Rebbe advised mashpiim. Ultimately we never get there. Life is a process of ups… Read more »