The Culture of Pretend: How Psychotherapy Keeps Our Communities Sick
Early in my experience as a psychotherapy client I received the therapeutic counsel that “Secrets keep you sick.” As scared as I felt when I identified and then disclosed secrets to my therapist, I saw the healing power that came as as a result. I worked hard in therapy. I realized how much material I had kept secret, even from myself. I learned the power and value of deep insight, as I recalled forgotten events, experiences, and emotions. I committed myself to make the most out of my therapy and that counsel about not keeping secrets proved to be of great personal value. I felt real relief at finally knowing myself and then at allowing someone else to know me to the bone.
I saw some smart and helpful therapists along the way. It is not a stretch to say that psychotherapy very likely saved my life. It definitely improved my life and my regard for myself. But, like most people who have been on either or both sides of “the couch,” I didn’t expect complete healing of everything. I accepted on-going self-doubt, neuroses, bouts of insecurity, and inner triggers and over-reactions as part of being human. I’ve kind of accepted, like Jack Nicholson does in one of my favorite movies, that this is “As Good As I Gets.”
Now, after twenty-five years of being a psychotherapist and some thirty-five years since I first entered therapy as a client, I’m questioning some basic assumptions about the institution of psychotherapy. And it is because of that counsel about not keeping secrets, that I have begun this questioning.
Psychotherapy can help people to acknowledge their own history of unmet needs, hurts, and trauma, and the resulting emotions. It also can help us to acknowledge the pain of friends and family who take the risk to share themselves deeply. Of course that is good and can be helpful. But the institution of psychotherapy also serves to enable a sick, isolating society to remain so. We get patched up enough in our therapist’s office that we can continue to hide the depth of our on-going life challenges from our day-to-day community. That hour in a therapist’s office takes the edge off of our pain and loneliness. So upon walking out the door we are able put on a happy face more effectively. We limp along, individually and collectively, and keep our status as card-carrying members of The Culture of Pretend.
Secrets DO keep us sick. Our secrets keep us strangled with shame. One of the most potent healing effects of twelve-step group recovery work is that people reveal to one another the fact of their addictions and dysfunctions. AA meetings begin with introductions and acknowledgement of each person’s addiction to alcohol. Those repeated revelations of the fact of one’s addiction breaks the back of toxic shame. Recovering addicts do not hide, at least from each other.
So I might introduce myself in a similar manner.
Hello, I’m Sally and I’m a survivor of The Culture of Pretend. Hello, I’m Sally and I’m sad and lonely. Hello, I’m Sally and I have little contact with my family of origin. Hello, I’m Sally and I’m ashamed about sexuality. Hello, I’m Sally and I have issues around money and self-esteem; I’m panicked about climate change; I feel grief over the loss of community; I struggle with my weight and aging body; I regret mistakes I made in the parenting of my children. I’m Sally and I’ve spent hundreds of hours in therapy and I still have wounding and dysfunctional patterns that haven’t healed. I’m Sally, I’m 57 years old and only in the last six years have I learned to communicate clearly, honestly, and effectively with a mate and a small handful of friends.
The river meanders on in different directions, depending on the day, depending on the storm.
Hello, I’m Sally and I have secrets.
I love my work as a psychotherapist. I feel honored to bear witness to the courage of people who unpack their secrets and their shame in front of me. In the safety inside the walls of my office, people get a taste of the health and freedom to be who they are. I work consciously to create that safety. I disclose to my clients that I too am human and continue to have “issues.” I work to help people understand the connections between their past history and their current problems, so they understand where their “issues” come from, and so that they can treat themselves with more patience, kindness, and compassion. I love my work because I see it alleviates some of the suffering, including some of the suffering of toxic shame.
In recent years I’ve grown uncomfortable with the institution of psychotherapy and have begun to call into question the ultimate value of this work. While I create a safe place for people to unpack their secrets, I also simultaneously and unwittingly, collude with the Culture of Pretend. I make it easier for people to cope with, instead of confront, this culture that breeds shame and dysfunction. I send people out the door with their baggage somewhat lightened, repacked in a more orderly fashion, perhaps with some more space where before there had been shame. But, when they hit the street, they likely continue to keep their secrets packed away in that baggage. They continue to hide the fact and details of both their past and on-going suffering. They pick up more unspeakable experience and it gets added to the load. And thus the Culture of Pretend reigns on.
I am trying an experiment. With others in my local community, I’m exploring the idea of creating a “conscious conversation” group, to meet on a weekly basis. It is not a support group for people who share a common dysfunction or addiction. It is not a therapy group for people who are trying to get over a diagnosed neurosis or character disorder with a professional therapist on hand. It is a group interested simply in seeing what happens if we show up and learn to speak honestly, and to listen in turn respectfully, with the intention not to fix, to heal, or to advise, but to understand and to connect. And ultimately to tap into the deeper wisdom that is possible, such as I’ve experienced with groups who stay the course.
As I was thinking about how to create this local group it occurred to me that the best way would be to personally invite people to it, rather than to send out an email invitation or to put up a flyer at the bookstore. I thought about some of the people I might approach. And I got scared. I got scared because of my own shame that I even want and need such a group.
These are some of the shame-based questions that went through my head:
What will people think of me? Will they think I’m lonely and pity me? Will they think me weak and unfit? Will they wonder if I’m trying to start a cult? Will they just be confused by the whole notion? Or will people feel offended by the idea that I want to start a group for “conscious” conversation because that implies that what I experience in my day-to-day interactions is “unconscious” conversation?
Those questions arise because in the Culture of Pretend we aren’t lonely or wounded or in need. Despite the years of therapy and the healing I’ve experienced, there still resides in me a deep fear that I’ll be seen as wrong, sick, and needy because I am not satisfied with the quality of human connection and interaction that is available outside of therapy or weekend workshops. It’s not enough for me. So I’ve doubted myself and wondered if I’m odd and damaged? If what is available in terms of intimate community is not enough for others, would there not already be something in place?
I began to think about conversations regarding this subject I might have with people. Could I ask if they had ever been in therapy and who they currently turn to when they are sad or angry or scared? Could I suggest that all is not well in this community? As I sat with that idea I felt a cold damp chill come over me. What if I’m the only one? What if everyone else is doing just fine?
I know this fearful and shameful inner territory. It’s as old as I am. It began in my family of origin. It’s why I no longer have much contact with them. No one in my family talks about how they actually feel. Since I was very young we all circled up psychically around my mother who, with her incessant talking and obsessive housekeeping, is one of the most anxious and compulsive people I’ve ever met.
In this regard an old saying from the South comes to mind:
“If Mama’s not happy, ain’t nobody happy.”
That rings frighteningly operative for my family. To keep Mama happy, the overriding family rule was to orient around her and her needs, weaknesses, and dysfunctions. There were other specific, unspoken, but very effective corollaries to that general rule:
“Don’t talk about Mama’s craziness,” “Don’t feel anything about Mama’s craziness,” and “Don’t try to do anything about Mama’s craziness.”
In other words, keep Mama’s craziness and your feelings about Mama’s craziness a big secret.
As a result, our family was emotionally isolated. We didn’t talk with each other and we certainly didn’t talk with anyone outside the family. We cut off from our own selves, our own experience. With no safe place to talk and to feel, we shut off access to our own gut responses to the situation. We numbed out and sought refuge in our big brains, in school achievement, in compulsive work, in food, and in some cases in numbing depression. This situation persists in the rest of my family to this day.
Most families have secrets, and most people keep those secrets because, like our family, they have no place that feels safe to unpack them. The exceptional individual or family may visit a therapist’s office on occasion, or, with luck, participate in a self-help recovery group. For members of The Culture of Pretend, the closed doors of a paid professional or support group provide almost the only places to be fully who we are, to speak freely about our experience, and to feel the depth of our feelings. While therapy provides partial relief from shame and isolation, it does not allow us deep connection and honesty in our larger community. We continue to hide much of our experience from one another. That keeps us individually and collectively, sick. The community becomes a collection of individuals who are walking around, acting happy, but toting lockboxes full of secrets. Secrets keep us sick as individuals. And sick individuals hiding from one another do not make a healthy, honest, loving community. And sick communities make a sick American culture, The Culture of Pretend.
Here are some keys with which to unlock the American box of secrets:
More than 10% of Americans are being treated for depression. That comes to 1 in every 8 Americans, and mental health officials believe that the condition is still under-diagnosed and that 1 in 5 should be treated. www.wrongdiagnosis.com/news
About 28 to 30 percent of the population has either a diagnosable mental or addictive disorder. That’s almost a third of our population. www.surgeongeneral.gov
And as a whole we are incredibly isolated.
“A quarter of Americans say they have no one (my emphasis) with whom they can discuss personal troubles, more than double the number who were similarly isolated in 1985. Overall, the number of people Americans have in their closest circle of confidants has dropped from around three to about two.” www.washingtonpost.com
Clearly you and I are not alone in our loneliness and the fact that we have “issues.” And I know I suffer less acutely than many members of the Culture of Pretend. I do have more than two people I can confide in and I’m not depressed or anxious to the degree that would warrant a major diagnosis. So I’m one of the lucky ones. Yet, even though I do not suffer as much as many, I still suffer.
Think about it. A third of the population suffers with either a diagnosable mental disorder or an addiction, and a quarter of the population has not even one person in whom they can confide. People of The Culture of Pretend are troubled, isolated and collectively stuck in our shame. As a result, we habitually and routinely hide these things from each other. It seems many, if not most of us, have lost both the inclination and the skills to establish a network of honest, intimate relationships. We don’t even think to imagine what that might feel like.
Why do we hide?
Think about sitting with someone you know but with whom you are not intimate. Think about not hiding, about acknowledging that you have “issues” with any number of things: anger, helplessness, sadness, fears, family problems, relationship struggles. What do you expect will be the response from the person with whom you are talking?
Likely it will be one of two things. This person will nervously change the subject or rapidly start suggesting solutions, offering advice so that you no longer have to feel unhappy or confused or stuck. Both responses reinforce toxic shame. The first response sends a message that you accidentally broke the code of silence and pretense and need to be rescued from the shame of that by a rapid change of topic. The second sends a message that your problems are simple, that the person has advice that will help. Therefore your suffering results from some way you are inherently inadequate.
People don’t want to reinforce shame with either message. Most people genuinely want to be helpful, either by rescuing you of the shame of having exposed yourself or by offering well-meaning advice. But neither response is truly helpful. Truth is the listener does not want to admit that, down deep, she or he also feels helpless or sad, scared or stuck or enraged. The person doesn’t want to have to feel upset for either of you. So quick advice is offered. And advice provides a good distraction from the uncomfortable feelings of both speaker and listener. It relieves both of the challenge to “sit with” uncomfortable feelings. We accept this kind of interaction as normal social discourse. It’s kind of insane. But because it’s very difficult for most people to “sit with” emotions, we don’t.
What makes it feel so awful to “sit with” our emotions is that heaped on top of those emotions are large doses of shame. We have an ingrained story in the Culture of Pretend that tells us that we shouldn’t feel angry, or sad, scared or helpless. And if we happen to experience one of those “negative” emotions, it should last only very briefly. We should get some advice, and get on with it. We should be happy. After all we live the American Dream. We are the bright, beautiful children of rugged immigrants, noble working class, or good middle- or upper-class families. Our folks struggled to give us a good life. We are well-educated and well-fed. It’s not pretty or appreciative to feel or express these so-called “negative” things. So we hide what we feel. We pretend we’ve got it covered.
That is just a story however. There’s a more accurate story we could start to tell. Here is how I would tell it:
America is part of Empire and our way of life “peaked” many decades ago. There’s much to feel “negative” about, much in our personal and collective past and much in our present. Americans are not happy. The Culture of Pretend is simply that, pretense and fluff. Life for most people is not good or easy. And if one’s life circumstances happen to be better than others’, those circumstances ultimately exact a horrific cost to the non-human and indigenous worlds that Empire has exploited to supply us with our comfort. And the truth is, even with our “comfort,” we are not happy or fulfilled, only comfortable.
Freud, bless his limited, cigar-smoking, neurotic, Austrian self, had some wise ideas. One of his wise ideas was this:
“Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.”
That has always rung true for me. So how, in fact, are Americans doing with those cornerstones of our humanness?
On the work front things are not so good.
“According to a recent survey, job dissatisfaction is widespread among workers of all ages across all income brackets. The study found that only half of all the workers are satisfied with their jobs. Worker satisfaction has declined across all income brackets over the last nine years (click here for more on this study). Surveys over the past 40 years have shown that 40% to 50% of workers would change their line of work, if they could.” www.careerkey.org
The survey was reported in 2007. So that study addresses only the part of the population that currently has a job. Our collective pain in the arena of work has increased hugely with skyrocketing unemployment since the economic meltdown of 2008.
And despite what the Culture of Pretend would have us believe, Americans are not doing so hot at love either:
“The divorce rate in the United States is the highest in the world. Fifty percent of marriages end in divorce. Sixty-seven percent of all second marriages end in divorce.” www.mediate.com
While almost a half of marriages in Australia end in divorce, the half that don’t are apparently not much happier according to a recent study.
The British firm Seddons surveyed 2000 married couples and found that the majority are dissatisfied and only stay together for pragmatic reasons. The survey found that:
· 59% of the married women would leave if they could find financial security elsewhere.
· 51% of the men thought their marriages were ‘loveless’.
· Over 50% of the couples had thought seriously about divorce
· 10% wished they had married someone else.
· 37% said they stayed together for the sake of the children.
· 30% stayed because they could not deal with the ‘massive upheaval’ of separation.
· 35% thought their marriage was about to ‘turn stale’.
It seems likely that with divorce rates similar to Australia, the survey statistics would be mirrored in Britain, the US and other Western countries. www.ultimate-self.com
I am not surprised by these studies. I have had my share of sorrow around relationships over the years and I count myself extremely fortunate that I found work that I’ve loved and could pursue in balance with the rest of my life for much of my adult life. Most people hold little hope to have work that they both love and that pays the bills, and would consider themselves extremely lucky if they did.
Where is My Tribe?
As a people, Americans who feel, feel deep dissatisfaction. But we are not bound together, in ways earlier tribal peoples were, such that we can help one another address that dissatisfaction. We are isolated and trapped in the Culture of Pretend. We don’t talk about these things openly and so we can’t solve them collectively. Most people feel unhappy in one or more areas of their life, in work, in love, or in both. But because we live in The Culture of Pretend we fear we are the only ones suffering. It’s become a deadly spiral:
The more isolated and ashamed I feel, the less likely I am to talk about it. The less I talk about it the less likely I am to know that I’m not alone, that I can reach out for acceptance and support. The less acceptance and support I get, the more helpless and ashamed I feel. The more I feel ashamed, the more I hide. The more I hide, the more everyone else hides. The more we all hide, the more helpless and ashamed we all feel.
Members of the Culture of Pretend run a never-ending race between shame and isolation. We hide most of our difficulties from most of the people in our lives. The hiding arises from, and reinforces, shame. Both the hiding and the shame become intractable parts of a self-reinforcing loop. And we all lose in this race, even those of us who do not currently suffer acutely. Because we’re all missing out on having our tribe, our clan, our village. We collectively miss out on the richness of loving community: giving and receiving the very love, support, honesty, and understanding that would help ourselves and our neighbors.
Enter “learned helplessness.”
Learned helplessness describes the condition of a human being or an animal that has learned to behave helplessly in the face of pain even when the opportunity is present to alleviate the pain by changing the unpleasant or harmful circumstances.
“Learned helplessness theory is the view that clinical depression and related mental illnesses result from a perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation (Seligman, 1975)”. ~Wikipedia
The “learned helplessness” studies which began in the late 1960’s went loosely like this: a dog is placed in a closed cage. The cage is shocked a number of times. At first, of course, the dog tries to escape from the cage, fighting and howling. But after a period of unpredictable, inescapable shocks the dog gives up and becomes passive in response. We can surmise that the passivity arises from an inner blunting of the pain, a shut-down of the normal feeling stimulus-response pattern. The dog becomes psychically, perhaps physically, numb in an effort to cope with the inescapable pain of the shocks. Then the door to the cage is opened. The dog is shocked again, repeatedly. However, because of “learned helplessness,” even though there is now an escape, even though the dog could freely leave the cage, she does not. She has “learned” that nothing she does will change the situation. She has learned that the best way to cope is to blunt the feeling of the shock, go passive, and so suffer less. Thus the opened door, the way out, becomes irrelevant in the face of “learned helplessness.”
Learned helplessness is directly tied to our beliefs regarding the source of our difficulty. We remain caught in learned helplessness when we attribute the problem either to
1) what we believe to be our own irresolvable inadequacies, or to
2) what we believe to be outside forces beyond our ability to change.
It is those beliefs that give rise to resignation, numbness, and passivity. If, instead, we were to attribute the problem to either inner or outer conditions over which we can have an influence, then we can to resist the urge to become numb and instead look for ways work to change our situation.
The persistent messages of The Culture of Pretend, spoken or otherwise, reinforce our tendencies to stay numb and passive. Most often family, friends, neighbors and the media reinforce the idea that our unhappiness is due to our own inadequacies or to forces beyond our ability to influence. So we get caught in the pattern of learned helplessness. By not talking openly about our unhappiness and dissatisfaction, by hiding those from others in our day-to-day lives, we all stay locked in a cage of shame where we continue to suffer and remain isolated.
We’ve lost our village, our tribe, our sense of belonging. Everyone is pretending, whistling past the graveyard, hoping no one will notice, trying to look good while actually feeling far from happy and fulfilled, and instead often distracted, numb, chronically busy, but rarely at peace.
I have never met one person who had a truly happy childhood. But even if one did have a truly happy childhood and also a rather good education with kind, decent mentors, only people who are in denial can be without sadness and horror as we stare down the exploitation and devastation of the non-human world, the wholesale theft of the native landbases and abuse of workers from third world countries, and the destruction of countless first nation cultures. And since we don’t talk about the larger, global pain any more intimately than we do about individual pain, everyone is impoverished.
The choices seem to be, like the dog in the cage, to smash one’s self against the wire bars of Empire or to give up in numbed exhaustion and retreat into passivity. But there are other choices.
Those choices will require that we tell the truth. And to do that will require us to take some risks.
The way out, of course, is to notice that the door is open.
The way out of our loneliness and isolation is first to look at the situation as it actually is. When we study quality-of-life and mental health statistics we realize that we are not alone, that virtually everyone is suffering, at least to some degree. With that understanding we can begin to risk talking about what our actual experience and look for others who want to escape that cage of shame as well. As we risk talking and listening to others we will create greater degrees of connection and community. We will discover how much of our depression or anxiety or general malaise is actually rooted in isolation arising from toxic shame and hiding. In turn as we investigate further, and as we hear one another’s stories, we will discover that the root causes of unhappiness reside not in our personal inadequacies but in larger systemic forces.
Those forces have been at work for a long time. Empire has been about the task of destroying family and village systems, breaking down our sense of belonging and relatedness, removing opportunities for meaningful work and deep connection to a close-knit community or tribe for centuries, perhaps millennia. And that situation is escalating, especially in the US. It stands to reason that the rise of child neglect and abuse has coincided with the breakdown of vibrant, close-knit, healthy, family and village support structures. Our pain from childhood is the direct result of those breakdowns.
As inadequate as individual psychotherapy is to address the erosion of family and community, the strategy of treating depression, anxiety and other symptoms of this sad culture with pharmaceuticals alone is even worse. While those conditions often accompany neuro-chemical imbalances, we don’t know that those imbalances are the cause of depression and anxiety. Just as likely chemical imbalances are the result of the toxic cocktail of life circumstances that individuals imbibe in this stressful culture: exposure to neuro-toxins, stressful work situations, difficult relationships, insecure economies, isolation, etc.
So which came first, the depression or the isolation?
Treatment of serotonin deficiency with a pharmaceutical alone carries the same serious collusion with the Culture of Pretend as individual psychotherapy. Pharmaceuticals do nothing to address the very real loneliness, isolation, and shame that come with living in a toxic culture that pushes overwork and mindless distraction in lieu of intimate family and village relationships, significant and fulfilling work, and creative individual expression.
People who lack loving support, who suffer from toxic shame and learned helplessness, flat out don’t have the inner resources to gain insight and to make a creative response to their situations. They end up, like the dog in the cage, needing to shut down their neurological systems, to “depress” their feelings and reactions. All too often pharmaceutical treatment alone simply take the edge off the discomfort of that numbed emptiness of not feeling. We can imagine that a medicated dog, head down, doing whatever is necessary to simply survive, will be even less likely to notice that there is a door and that the door is open. Likewise, a medicated worker, head down, continues to keep working, numbed and confused about what actually needs to be changed in her life if real and lasting recovery is to be found.
This situation is everywhere. And the truth is, all of us, even those of us fortunate enough not to be currently suffering with acute or chronic work or relationship problems, still suffer. We, too, are cut off emotionally from the richness of a loving, honest community, and from the fulfillment we would realize by feeling deeply connected and able to offer effective kindness, support, and shared insight to our friends and neighbors.
I have a vision that as the large structures of this culture break down we will be compelled to return to more intimate connection in our neighborhoods and communities. We would do well to prepare now by forming ever more honest, intimate connections with one another. It would do much to enhance our lives currently and it would provide a safety net to catch others as they fall. It is now inevitable that economic turmoil, social and political unrest related to Peak Oil, dislocation and food shortages related to climate destabilization, and the decay of unsustainable physical and social infrastructures will coalesce to stretch the high wire of this culture beyond the breaking point.
Let this be my challenge to others in the helping professions to step into re-visioning their work, to tell the truth of the toxicity of this culture, and to help now, on the ground, to create deeper, more profound, more healing community-based structures rather than colluding in the larger system that serves only to perpetuate individual shame and helplessness.
Sally Erickson is producer of the documentary What A Way To Go: Life at the End of Empire.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
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