Thinking is difficult, that’s why most people judge
I came across the above quote by Jung in a psychotherapy forum I am a member of and I can hardly think of what could better encapsulate the core of how I see therapy work, but also some of the themes that came up for me this week. The problem with judging others is that we are not always aware when we are doing it, so that it is easy to deny we are feeling judgmental at all. The other problem is that we all need our judgment in order to navigate life and make choices. There is a fundamental difference though between judgment that’s based on thinking and judgment that’s based on prejudice. And this is precisely where, in my view, the power of psychotherapy to help and heal lies, when it works. It can help people think more clearly about their conflicts. Yet, this is an enormously difficult task for a therapist, and one that I am sure that all therapists, including myself, have failed to achieve with some of their patients.
So, how do we know when we are thinking clearly rather than being guided by our prejudices or repetitive patterns of destructive or self-destructive behaviour? Many of my patients bring to me how when they talk to friends about their dilemmas, there are certain friends, especially those they feel more familiar with such as friends from childhood etc., who will be quick to tell them what to do or what they are doing wrong or, even worse, judge them for their choices. There is a range here between some friends’ benign concern and recognition that someone they care about may be in trouble to more malignant judgment that may also put the friendship at risk. Just to give a more concrete example, a dilemma I often come across may be around a struggling relationship. Should one stay or leave? Of course, there are common red flags in relationships that have become dysfunctional and a good friend, like a therapist, may be able to recognise them and to point them out. Yet, how can we possibly know what’s good for someone else and what they ought to do? I would not like to advocate complete relativism here, as of course, there are certain red flags such as evidence of abuse or violence in a relationship which would legitimise a friend’s sense of alarm, but I do know that telling somebody what to do never quite works, because it never quite helps them think why they are not doing what they think they ought to be doing.
Going back to psychotherapy, especially psychoanalysis, it has always been regarded with suspicion by the wider public. At best, as an unnecessary self-centred indulgence and at worst, as a dangerous cult. Could psychotherapy be a cult? There is a Greek proverb that perhaps applies here, ‘there is no smoke without a fire (lurking somewhere)’, which means that a rumour always has a little grain of truth. So, in the case of psychotherapy, it is based on a set of theories, which inevitably make certain assumptions about psychic development and emotional health and which have the potential to enhance understanding or, when applied unthoughtfully, to create further prejudice and pathologise behaviour which is seen as outside the norm. In that sense, the wider public’s fear that therapy is like a cult, and therefore can mess with somebody’s mind has some basis in reality. If a therapist, for example, uses psychoanalytic theory to confirm their pre-existing prejudices rather than listen to their patients carefully, and assist them to think about their predicament, they do run the risk of damaging somebody and ‘messing with their mind’.
Take the example of the person who has a dilemma about whether they should stay in a relationship or leave. They report to the therapist that their partner makes macho jokes, does not listen to them or express empathy. The therapist knows that the patient also had a domineering father who was intimidating and authoritarian. Is the patient projecting on their partner their terrible relationship with their father, recreating yet another impasse in their life or are they trying to work something through? Only careful listening and an in depth understanding of the patient’s lived experience can begin to throw light on this question. So, what’s at stake here is how we can use our discerning judgment in order not to judge somebody for the choices they make, but to think whether they are really choosing what they do and why or they are in fact acting against their best interests.
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