Bad Metaphors In Psychotherapy

Several pseudo-sciences, especially economics and popular psychology, borrow the mechanical and thermodynamic concept of “equilibrium”, assuming with no further ado that this must always be a Good Thing. Now, unlike the Terran atmosphere, the Martian atmosphere is in chemical equilibrium with the surface. The result is that the planet possesses no motor for life. Equilibrium means stasis.

There is a theory that we are genetically programmed to tend towards a certain level of happiness, which in the long run remains constant. If we are naturally sanguine and we suffer some horrible disaster, in six months we will be back to our previous happiness level, while if we are naturally melancholic and something wonderful happens, in six months we will have reverted to our previous depression. Some researchers consider that total happiness is a combination of three things: this “set-point”, plus voluntary behaviour, plus external circumstances; although externalities have been quantified at a mere 18%.

If this is true, there are some interesting and potentially revolutionary corollaries: first, for example that there is very little point to the “pursuit of happiness” in the sense of particular goods, situations or circumstances. Many people have always known that “If only I could have X, then I would be happy” is a grotesque illusion, but it is nice to have some scientific corroboration. Second, since the “voluntary behaviour” in question does not in fact include talking, all the psychotherapists should be made to get proper jobs. Third, since the main reason for human misery in the rich countries is the feeling that you ought to be happier than you are – a feeling created by advertisers and profited from by peddlers of garbage – “set-point theory” offers a release from the burden of wondering what is wrong with you. Just accept that you’re an Eeyore and those you have been envying are Tiggers, and get on with things.

The second point deserves some more attention. Few ideas came to dominate the twentieth century as thoroughly as the notion that everything gets better when we “talk it out”. Without it, several things would be impossible: the vast numbers of psychotherapists and crisis psychologists; touchy-feely talk-shows; and the view of men as inferior to women because they talk less about feelings. And yet such scientific evidence as exists suggests that, beyond a certain point, talking about things is downright bad for you. It used to be said that fifty per cent of patients undergoing classical Freudian psychoanalysis got better; while sixty per cent of those who did not undergo it got better. Recent work on disaster victims suggests that those who never had long-term counselling are healthier than those who did.

One of the reasons for this may be that in order to get people into therapy and keep them there to generate an income for him, the therapist needs to tell them that they have suffered a horrendous experience that – unless treated by guess-who – will dominate and ruin their entire life. Might this be a self-fulfilling prophecy; might it be that their entire life gets ruined only if they are led to believe that it must necessarily be, only if their emotions are reconstructed for them around this expectation?

Several generations have now grown up with a theory of the emotions that is simply wrong. And such theories affect how people experience, handle, talk about and act upon their emotions. The mistaken theory rests upon a bad metaphor, namely a hydraulic one: that emotions are like water or steam in a system of pipes, exerting pressure and threatening, if not judiciously released, explosively to burst those pipes. It follows that all emotions must be immediately ‘let out’, lest they increase in force and make you go beserk. Another metaphor might be that emotions are like pus in a wound, which must be constantly drained. But it is by no means certain that, for example, aggression is something that builds up all by itself like a head of steam or – yet another metaphor, like an electrical charge – until released in an act of violence or sublimated in displacement activities. Aggression can equally well be treated as a response to a stimulus. If the stimulus is permanent or a major childhood trauma, it may come to much the same thing, and the anger will indeed be constant; in other cases the aggression was clearly not there at all until the person was unjustly provoked.

In other contexts, untouched by these metaphors, we know perfectly well that repetition reinforces; this is the basis of all learning and all training, as well as of self-hypnotism and brainwashing. The hydraulic metaphor, however, serves to override what our parents tried to tell us about the hazards of “dwelling” on negative things. And this hazard seems to be confirmed by recent brain science. Emotions are not “let out” by being expressed, however much their recipient may perceive this to be so; an emotion is a configuration of electrical activity and neurochemistry in the brain, and each new expression of the emotion only serves to strengthen the pattern. In truth, there is nothing to be “let out”, for nothing leaves the body except words; all that happens is that the brain is given extra training in feeling that very emotion. When people achieve satisfaction from yelling at someone who has annoyed them, it is not because they had a noxious substance inside them which is now outside them and harmless; it is because they have improved their sense of self-worth by standing up for themselves. Failure to stand up for oneself can indeed lead to a corrosive self-contempt that in turn can became a generalised rage; but this is by no means the same thing as spontaneously generating emotional steam that needs to be released through a valve or whistle.

If we are talking not about aggression but depressive feelings, then the wrong choice of metaphor can have even more unfortunate results. Many people, for example, say that they must “work through” painful emotions, and describe them in terms of a tunnel from which they will eventually emerge. But this is a topological metaphor. Suppose that immersion in morbid emotionality is not a tunnel at all, but a well; if you enter a tunnel you can keep walking until you see the light at the other end, and then you come out; but should you fall down a well, there is no light at the other end and you jolly well stay down there. The only thing to do with a well is not to fall into it in the first place. Or perhaps you can climb the walls, but this is not the same enterprise as “working through” the emotions, it is rather a matter of leaving them beneath you.

It would follow from this that at any rate some forms of psychotherapy are immensely counter-productive, other than financially to the therapist, because the patient is being encouraged to focus on his problems. It may become a version of Zeno’s Paradox, whereby one cannot reach the destination until one has reached the half-way point, and you cannot reach the half-way point before you have reached the quarter-way mark, and so on ad infinitum. That is, the negative emotion is sliced and diced ever finer, with attention being devoted to ever-smaller subdivisions.

Metaphors express our thinking in striking language. And then they imprison it. The whole century was, therefore, on the wrong track; in reality, repression is good for you. But this cannot be recognised. Too much has been invested in the contrary proposition; too many people are making a decent living out of peddling a cure that makes the disease worse. The rent-seekers then interpret the symptoms of the “cure” as proof that more cure is necessary. Even the patients have no incentive to break off the long con, because that would be admitting that they have wasted their time and money, and no one wants to see themselves as suckers.

Posted on December 31, 2009 at 12:11 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: MONKEY BUSINESS, Therapists And Other Health Hazards

Leave a Reply