Thursday, May 12, 2005

OD'ing on Oprah & Therapism

Steve Salerno, author of the forthcoming Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless, writes on the side effects of the empowerment movement in today's National Review Online:

The larger point is that, with the gods of empowerment cheering in the background, society has embraced concepts like confidence and self-esteem despite scant evidence that they're reliably correlated with positive outcomes. The work of legitimate psychology notables Roy Baumeister and Martin Seligman indicates that often, high self-worth is a marker for negative behavior, as diagnosed in sociopaths and drug kingpins. Furthermore, self-esteem may be expressed in the kind of braggadocio -"I'm fine just the way I am, thank you" - that actually inhibits personal growth.
Read the rest of "Overdosing on Oprah" here.

I'm reading a related book in snippets - One Nation Under Therapy: How the Helping Culture is Eroding Self-Reliance. Its authors, Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel, M.D., reject what they call the doctrine of "therapism" which:
....valorizes openness, emotional self-absorption and the sharing of feelings. It encompasses several additional assumptions: that vulnerability, rather than strength, characterizes the American psyche; and that a diffident, anguished, and emotionally apprehensive public requires a vast array of therapists, self-esteem educators, grief counselors, workshoppers, healers, and traumatologists to lead it through the trials of everyday life. Children, more than any group, are targeted for therapeutic improvement (p. 5).
I'm still in the first chapter ("The Myth of the Fragile Child") in which the authors also cite the research conducted by Roy Baumeister et al. The study found no significant connection between feelings of high self-worth and academic achievement, interpersonal relationship, or healthy lifestyles. Sommers and Satel write:
On the contrary, high self-regard is very often found in people who are narcissistic and have an inflated sense of popularity and likeability. Such self-aggrandizing beliefs, said the authors, exist "mainly in their own minds." Furthermore, those with exaggerated estimates of self-worth often become hostile when others criticize or reject them. "People who have elevated or inflated views of themselves tend to alienate others," the authors concluded (pp. 31-32).
I think a persuasive case can be made that therapism has invaded the church and, in many cases, has become the hermeneutic lens through which we understand the gospel. It is therapism that leads some to insist that implicit in Christ's commands to love God with our whole selves and our neighbor as ourselves is the mandate to love ourselves. Therapism leads us to believe that unmet needs rather than craving hearts are the cause of our sins. Therapism advocates forgiving primarily because of its therapeutic benefits contrary to the Bible's emphasis on our extending forgiveness because we have been mercifully forgiven by a thrice-holy God through the blood of His Son's cross.

Therapism is a powerful expression of the spirit of our age which we must understand if we are to heed the call not to be conformed to it. The following quote from Wendy Kaminer's I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional: The Recovery Movement and Other Self-Help Fashions evidences that the world is watching:
Although many, if not most, religious books are published by religious presses and speak to subcultures of believers, especially conservative Christians, they partake in prevailing mainstream notions about goodness, health, selfhood, and social relations (p. 123).


Mike said...

The alarm sounded by Sommers and Satel, among others, is nothing new: those of us in the field of Christian counseling and therapy have been aware of it for a long time. (Bruce Narramore wrote a book thirty years ago taking himself and others to task for unbiblical psychology.) The problem in the church has been the blind acceptance of psychologists who are clinically trained but theological novices.

Those who have training in both disciplines - such as John Trent, Henry Cloud, John Townsend, and many others - have worked hard to form their psychology by their theology. Others, notably Larry Crabb, have done the opposite: they inform their theology with their psychology. All the talk and jargon is present, but the substance and exegetical, theological foundation is sadly lacking.

We all would do well to pay careful attention to whom we listen. A Ph.D. in psychology does not necessarily know more about theology than the person that hands you a cart a WalMart or Sam's. This is not to demean the latter - it is honest work - but only to stress that a Ph.D. in one area does not make you an expert in another.

There are those of us who struggle to help clients accept reality. Rom 12.3 is foundational here, I believe, for it says (among other things) that God doesn't want us to have high self-esteem or low self-esteem; he wants us to have accurate self-esteem. Part of my job is to help people understand that they are average, regardless of what their mother or Joel Osteen might have told them.

What many of us who are Christian counselors, with training in both psychology and theology,* do with Christian clients is clinical discipleship. There are people with special needs who need someone to lead them out of the dark. The Christian subculture, however, in addition to its dedication to image management instead of authentic living, has no stomach for suffering and runs from others who do suffer. Or, as the cliche declares, we shoot our wounded. Whatever happened to not breaking off bruised reeds or not quenching a smoldering wick?

Until the church gets back to doing what it is supposed to be doing and not just providing feel-good services with mindless, trance-inducing choruses written by modalists, Christian counselors will not only be necessary but busy.

*There are those Christian counselors without theological training who provide biblical therapy. They are generally humble enough to learn from theological experts, however, and are far from common. Many read their Bibles through the lenses of psychology rather than carefully scrutinizing their psychology through the corrective visionware of theology and God's truth.

Rosemarie said...

These are topics for which I carry such passion! Mike's comments about bruised reeds made me think of Richard Sibbes work on the topic. "It is a very hard thing to bring a dull and evasive heart to cry with feeling for mercy. Our hearts, like criminals, until they are beaten from all evasions, never cry for the mercy of the Judge. Again, this bruising makes us set a high price upon Christ. Then the gospel becomes the gospel indeed; then the fig-leaves of morality will do us no good. And it makes us more thankful, and from thankfulness, more fruitful in our lives; for what makes many so cold and barren, but that bruising for sin never endeared God's grace to them?"

Some 350 years ago William Bridge in his work "A Lifting up for the Downcast" identified nine areas that cause people discouragement*. 1) Their greater and grosser sins, 2) Weak understanding of grace, 3) Failing or non-acceptance of duty 4) Non assurance of the love of God, 5)Temptation, 6) Fear of being deserted by God, 7)Affliction, 8) Unserviceableness (lack of usefulness), 9) The condition itself (discouragement untreated leads to more and deeper discouragement). The cure? "And so the doctrine plainly is this: Faith is the help against all discouragements."

The common threads in Sibbes' and Bridges' are sin and theology. The majority of today's Christian counseling authors list everything from bad boundaries, unsafe people, lack of self-esteem, chemical imbalances and a variety of disorders as our sources of discouragement. There are also two pervasive themes; victimization and the medical or disease model.

Proverbs 14:2 warns us "there is a way which seems right to a man but in the end leads to death." Paul told Timothy in I Timothy 1:5 "...but the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart, a good conscience and a sound faith." These are the standards I have adopted as a counselor and frankly I'll take Sibbes and Bridges over Cloud and Townsend et al any day.

*350 years ago discouragement was also described as cast-down and disquieted -all of which was seen as calamitous.