… saith the patient. Then saith the doctor, “Fear not, my patient. If it felt right to you at the time, then it was right. Now go, and feel guilty no more.”
As silly as it sounds, interactions amounting essentially to the above are happening in psychotherapists’ offices across the United States millions of times per week, probably even as you read this. Over the past few decades, fewer and fewer Americans have attended regular church services; rampant divorce has put fewer parents in American children’s homes to teach, let alone to exemplify, strong morals and values; and public-school teachers have regressively shied away from teaching morals and values in their classrooms lest they be accused of proselytizing students. It’s no wonder, then, that millions of Americans in search of answers to moral dilemmas have been turning increasingly to psychotherapists, America’s new “secular clergy.”
But the typical therapist’s office is scarcely a house of moral certitude. More typically, it’s a relatively amoral house of orthodox nonjudgmental-ism, and that’s really no surprise, either. In my experience, many if not most people who train to become therapists are drawn to their profession in significant part by a belief that much of human behavior is mystery, shaped largely by extrinsic forces beyond the conscious awareness, let alone the control, of the individual. These therapists tend to be secular humanists whose well-intentioned, overarching goal is each individual patient’s “happiness.” As such, they tend to convey unconditional positive regard for their patients and to conceptualize negative emotions like guilt and shame as impediments to happiness that must be eradicated regardless of their geneses.
A couple of years ago, I read a column written by a woman who had pursued an extramarital affair and had ultimately abandoned her husband and children to be with her affair partner. The author referred to her therapist as having been the “shaman” or “spiritual guide” who had helped her to find the “courage” to pursue happiness with the affair partner. Then, over this past Easter weekend, I read a column written by a different woman who had been in a sexual relationship with a single father and had developed an attachment to his young child before deciding to end the adult relationship and to instead fulfill her desire for biological motherhood through artificial insemination. The latter column’s author described having asked her therapist for advice on whether and how to “break up” with the man’s 2-year-old child and having been counseled simply that it was “folly” to put the child’s happiness above the author’s own happiness.
Think this kind of adult self-worship, validated by therapists, isn’t trickling down to America’s kids? I recall a therapy session that I conducted, several years ago now, in which one of my own teenage patients disclosed to me that she had been smoking marijuana with friends on weekends. I asked her whether she knew about the potential effects of drugs on her body and mind and whether she knew how her drug use might be expected to affect her relationships with her parents, her relationships with her peers, her reputation and legal record, her current and future education, her current and future employment, etc. Eventually, she covered her ears and yelled at me, “Stop it, you’re making me feel bad!” to which I replied, “It’s about time.”
Bad feelings aren’t all bad. Emotions like guilt and shame are actually some of the first indicators of a need to reflect upon and to think about our actions, to apply our intellect – that uniquely human gift that allows us to discern right from wrong even in the absence of extrinsic moral guidance – to our past, present and potential behavior. Those emotions help us to recognize when our behavior is destructive, of ourselves and/or of others, and to make both appropriate amends and course corrections. Yes, they can outlast their usefulness and become unproductive, but in today’s American culture, I believe that we have more people who aren’t feeling enough guilt and shame than we have people who are harboring excessive amounts of either.
In my professional experience, a major problem with Americans turning to therapists for moral guidance is that the average therapist is neither well-trained nor inclined to teach patients to use negative emotions productively. Instead, the average therapist is trained and inclined to eradicate negative emotions as illness and/or as antithetical to happiness. If a patient’s negative emotions are spontaneous or extrinsic in origin, then I’m fine with that approach. But if negative emotions are the products of the patient’s own destructive behavior, then I believe that the true folly is the pursuit of the patient’s happiness as an overarching goal when true happiness is not an end but rather a byproduct of purposeful, productive behavior (just ask any of the numerous celebrities who appear to “have it all” yet have attempted suicide to escape the painful “emptiness” of their lives).
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that Americans shouldn’t see therapists if they experience symptoms of mental illness, or if they value an objective and supportive sounding board when immersed in difficult situations, or if they need subject-matter expertise on proven-effective ways to solve personal, interpersonal, parenting, or professional problems. What I am saying is that Americans shouldn’t rely on the typical therapist for the solutions to dilemmas that are essentially moral rather than clinical. Therapy generally is not a good shortcut around the concerted intellectual, interpersonal, introspective and spiritual effort involved in acquiring and applying a framework of morals and values within which to live a purposeful, productive life. Like a great clergy member, I believe it is possible for a great therapist to help one acquire and apply such a framework, but in my professional experience, therapists both inclined and equipped to do so are few and far between.