Philip Cushman’s prophetic words


One of my all-time favorite books is Philip Cushman’s Constructing the Self, Constructing America: A Cultural History of Psychotherapy. In this 1995 book he details the social constructed nature of psychotherapy. My Social & Cultural Foundations class is reading a summation of this book published in article form and so I picked the book back up and read through some of my more favorite parts.Here’s some of my choice quotes from the beginning:

“When social artifacts or institutions are taken for granted it usually means that they have developed functions in the society that are so integral to the culture that they are indispensable, unacknowledged, and finally invisible.” (p. 1)

“It [psychotherapy] is thought of as a scientific practice, yet it is anything but standardized or empirical, and it has not yet developed a disciplinewide consensus about how to think about patients or what to do with them. It is thought of as a medical practice, yet it has an enormous social and political impact.” (p. 2)

“…in order to understand American psychotherapy, we must study the world into which it was born and in which it currently resides.” (p. 4)

“Origin myths describe the origins of the discipline in such a way as to demonstrate the discipline’s utility for those in positions of power. This means that mainstream historians will shy away from portraying psychology as critical of the status quo and will avoid including within their work a critical exploration of the sociopolitical frame of reference in which the discipline is embedded.” (p. 5)

“…I will argue that the current configuration of the self is the empty self. The empty self is a way of being human; it is characterized by a pervasive sense of personal emptiness and is committed to the values of self-liberation through consumption. The empty self is the perfect complement to an economy that must stave off economic stagnation by arranging for the continual purchase and consumption of surplus goods. Psychotherapy is the profession responsible for treating the unfortunate personal effects of the empty self without disrupting the economic arrangements of consumerism. Psychotherapy is permeated by the philosophy of self-contained individualism, exists within the framework of consumerism, speaks the language of self-liberation, and thereby unknowingly reproduces some of the ills it is responsible for healing.” P. 6

Now, soon after 2000, Cushman wrote about the transition from the empty self to the “multiple self.” By this he was not talking about MPD or DID. He felt that the younger generation was no longer looking to find their true self in therapy but to maintain a fragmented self in a chaotic world. In this sense, “who am I at church, work, school, friends, dating, etc. and how can I keep all my pieces from crashing down altogether.”

But, it is interesting to read his view of psychotherapy as supporting the consumeristic economy (even encouraging it). I wonder how our current economic woes will impact the world of therapy….

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Filed under counseling, Cultural Anthropology, Psychology

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