by Jason Saffer, M.A., Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
We are beginning to witness a mounting backlash against the recovery movement in general and recovery-oriented psychotherapy in particular. In response to a heightened awareness that absent, shaming, neglectful, abusive, or overcontrolling parents have created a nation of dysfunctional people with suffering self-esteem, detractors are having a field day.
The publication and promotion of Wendy Kaminer’s book, I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional: The Recovery Movement and Other Self-Help Fashions, is perhaps the most visible manifestation of this backlash. Her work in particular, highlighted and excerpted in the San Francisco Examiner’s Sunday Image magazine cover story (June 28, 1992), “Hooked on Recovery: The Tyranny of the Self-Help Movement”, draws on long-standing, patriarchal methods of social control: sarcasm, cynicism, shame, misinterpretation, blame. “Basically, reveling in how Mommy ignored you in order to discover self-esteem makes little sense for most people, says Wendy Kaminer, a lawyer and Radcliffe College social critic (as reported in the Press Democrat newspaper). Her book “mounts a scathing critique of the recovery movement’s extension of victim status far beyond its original cohort of substance abusers,” says Mark Muro in his newspaper piece in the Press Democrat. Says Kaminer in Image: Exaggerating every foible, bad habit and complaint, taking our behavior out of our control and defining us as adult children…encourages invalidism. Calling the recovery process self-help doesn’t change the way it tends to disempower people.”
In rising to the challenge of confronting the recovery movement — a growing social movement that threatens the stability of the established social order due to the personal transformation of large numbers of people — the media leads the charge, launching a barrage of cover stories attacking what Newsweek (February 17, 1992) labeled a “feel-good movement” and what Time (February 3, 1992) blamed for everything from the fraying of our social fabric to Japan’s increasing economic dominance. Harper’s (October 1991) writer David Rieff complains that so many people are joining the recovery movement that they are destabilizing “establishment” values, replacing them with a “politics of victimhood,” (as reported in Common Boundary, May/June 1992). Rieff describes the growing recovery movement as an “outbreak of self-pity among the affluent classes,” and cites this as evidence that recovering people are childish, out of touch with adult reality, and unable to accept the misery of life. Rieff’s prescription? “What this nation needs is a little stoicism” he says (as reported in the Press Democrat, May 18, 1992). “Look, life is hard; you do not escape its rigors; much of it involves struggle, and pain, and ‘abuse,’ and I say thank goodness for that. For most of us, except those who’ve been literally brutalized, shutting up and overcoming adversity provides the ultimate dignity and surest route to sanity,” Rieff maintains.
The kickback against recovery and recovery-oriented therapies also includes prominent names in the therapy world. Jungian analyst James Hillman adds his point of view that psychotherapy as a whole is actually causing our social breakdown, not healing it, due to his view that therapy emphasizes turning people inward, away from the world and its problems. In his new book, (We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World’s Getting Worse, as reported in New Age Journal, May/June 1992), Hillman questions one cherished therapeutic notion after another: Is childhood trauma really the primary source of our pain as adults? Could our fascination with healing our wounded inner child be robbing us of our vitality and power? Is the idea of personal growth an unhealthy fantasy?
In a similar vein, Washington D.C. professor of psychiatry Steve Wolin argued in a plenary address at the 1991 American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy conference in Dallas (as reported in Family Therapy Networker, May/June 1992) that survivors of all kinds of abuse are better served by therapists who emphasize the strengths that they have acquired as a result of adversity. Wolin says, “In the damage model, children are passive and without choices to help themselves. As a result, their inevitable fate is to be wounded and to grow up as damaged adults.” He proposes a view of survivors as people who have been hurt and bear scars, but who also have been “challenged by the family’s troubles to experiment and to respond actively and creatively.” Wolin also states that “Powerlessness is not what someone who’s grown up in a troubled family needs to hear about. He needs to hear about resilience and pride, and taking responsibility for one’s life despite it all.” (as reported in the Press Democrat, May 18, 1992). Strategic family therapist Cloé Madanes echoes Wolin’s critique of the adult child movement, especially the pitfalls of support groups. “A group of incest survivors won’t talk about how good they are at ballet, or writing poetry — they will talk only about the abuse and become fixated on it, says Madanes (as reported in Family Therapy Networker, May/June 1992).
Perhaps above all else, says Mark Muro (writing in the Press Democrat), these and other critics “worry that the vogue of ‘recovery’ assumes ‘sickness,’ and so glorifies frailty of mind rather than resilience. The critics “contend that talking about what your parents did to you has become a disease as much as the pain itself. Whatever happened, they ask, to good old stoicism, and the self-respect won by emphasizing one’s plucky independence, not one’s dependence and illness?”
In writing this article, I want to share my very specific bias: I love the contribution that the recovery movement and recovery-oriented therapy is making to people, myself included. As a therapist and person in recovery, I am grateful for the opportunity I’ve had during the last 20 years to grow and become more “myself” due to the increasingly widespread availability of recovery groups, therapies, and publications. I have been deeply affected by the work of John Bradshaw in particular. In fact, I have had the good fortune to work with him personally at the workshops he conducts in the San Francisco area, providing my own support as a therapist to people who are participants in these weekend and one-day workshops. And, I have seen the effects on my clients who have had the good fortune to participate in his inpatient treatment program in the Los Angeles area. The transformation that occurs for people who are encouraged and taught how to get in touch with their “inner child” is profound. I very clearly believe that John Bradshaw and other well-known recovery authors, are “teachers for our times,” able to synthesize and articulate for a great many of us how we came to be the way we are, how psychological factors helped shape our lives, and how we can develop hopeful and helpful ways to recover more of our true and authentic selves — not with the idea of becoming reclusive and egocentric spoiled kids, but with the aim of becoming the loving, purposeful, and creative human beings we are meant to be.
As I have been witnessing the mounting backlash to what I have seen as a very positive and growthful healing movement, I have asked myself what is prompting this massive kickback to the recovery movement? What forces are at work that we should be aware of, so we can successfully understand and integrate this phenomenon, and learn from it? A very helpful perspective has been provided by Charles Simpkinson, writing in Common Boundary (May/June 1992) in his article “The Media as Shaming Parent.” He suggests that part of the reason why the media reflects a hostile and shaming stance towards recovery is a lack of education: “Just as previous generations of parents did not understand the toxic effects of smoking or the importance of nutrition and physical fitness, so too, in more recent years, many have not understood that children have emotional needs in addition to their physical needs for food and shelter. They have not realized the damage caused by high doses of shame and criticism aimed at disciplining children and preventing them from getting ‘swelled heads.’ They did not understand that children (and everyone else, for that matter) need considerable amounts of empathy and validation of their selves, as well as hugs and other forms of love and affection, in order to be emotionally healthy.” Simpkinson accurately points out that children who are deprived of such emotional/psychological nourishment are likely to compensate by being more self-centered than children who are nourished. As many in recovery know, when we are denied this necessary emotional nourishment from our adult caregivers, we turn to various forms of addiction, compulsive, or other negative behaviors in order to compensate for an oppressive sense of worthlessness.
Simpkinson also accurately observes that what started out as a relatively quiet and anonymous effort in small recovery groups or within the privacy of therapy offices has, in the last decade, reached a critical mass and has mushroomed into a full-scale social movement, drawing increasing publicity and attention. He points out that the backlash targets both the purpose and method of recovery. Acknowledging recovery’s purpose involves also acknowledging our need for psychological nourishment — “a step that seems to many people who never got such nourishment themselves self-indulgent and threatening to the status quo.” And recognizing that the method of recovery involves getting in touch with one’s emotional pain is also very frightening and threatening to people who have built up a defensive structure designed to minimize and deny such pain. Up until recently, we have had widespread prohibitions in our culture against getting in touch with these levels of emotional pain (held in place by guilt, shame, loyalty to one’s parents, etc.) and our culture has instead promoted keeping such pain and rage locked inside. As Simpkinson puts it, “Anyone who encourages us to dig around in such a potentially explosive area is bound to arouse anxiety, if not outright hostility.”
A similar orientation from a therapeutic perspective is useful as well: As most therapists are aware, when someone or something upsets the equilibrium of one’s individual or family homeostasis or balance, the system attempts to regain the original homeostasis. Put another way, when the individual ego is threatened by new growth, by a change in the usual way of coping with and managing life, the ego, the “adapted self” we all learned to develop in order to survive, will respond in ways designed to bring things back to “normal,” even though “normal” may be quite negative. Many of us have had the experience in therapy of having a client make a remarkable breakthrough and then have a “kickback” reaction shortly after in an attempt to moderate the breakthrough. This is a natural and to-be-expected occurrence in therapy and recovery.
In the same way, our collective ego, the organizing force of society, reacts similarly to perceived threats to its usual and familiar way of perception and operation. Our collective ego will utilize whatever defenses are at its command, including ridicule and shame, in order to prevent the occurrence and spread of what is perceived to be frightening and threatening. That’s the ego’s job, both on an individual and collective level — to create strategies to insure our survival as children and as a collective society, and to defend against anything that might threaten those strategies.
It’s my sense that the growing opposition to the recovery movement, as well as to the articulate and forceful presentation of its ideas and methods presented by John Bradshaw and others, is rooted in our collective ego’s fright at seeing its established social order threatened. As described above, examples of such opposition are becoming more prevalent and are getting more press and exposure.
I believe it’s important that we pay special attention to our reactions to the content of this backlash, because the voice of the threatened collective ego will echo a voice within us, that same voice that, out of fear, shames and ridicules us for our participation in recovery and growth. It can be helpful to remind ourselves of why we are doing this work: The purpose of identifying and establishing a relationship with one’s wounded inner child, the part of each of us that suffered neglect, abuse, and/or enmeshment, is not so that we can regress and sit around, as many critics suggest, holding onto teddy bears and giving up any adult responsibilities. The purpose of doing inner child work, the purpose of bringing up old emotional pain and to allow oneself to acknowledge and feel it, is to complete the process of the development of a full and healthy ego. John Bradshaw, in responding to David Rieff’s piece in Harper’s, explains that recovery is a process that, in part, involves “original pain work” — a way of finding out what happened to us as children. “This may involve anger at our parents, which must be worked through, but the ultimate goal is understanding, forgiveness, and reconciliation, and not exoneration from the consequences of our acts or the bashing of our parents.” Bradshaw points out that Rieff and the media in general focus only on this phase of recovery work and this leads to the erroneous conclusion that people in recovery wish to exonerate themselves at the expense of their parents. But Bradshaw points out that original pain work is only one phase of growth: Other equally important phases involve behavior change (ie: stopping the compulsive behavior), uncovery work (embracing childhood memories, getting reconnected with the emotions and expressing them in a safe place), cognitive work (choosing values, setting boundaries, etc.), and, finally, spiritual work through meditation and service (learning to value one’s own inner life and tapping into the still quiet place inside).
These phases of recovery work result in more of a completion of the process of the development of a full and healthy ego. The development of a full and healthy ego is a crucial part of living healthfully in the world and is a necessary aspect of one’s spiritual life: As John Bradshaw writes in Homecoming: “Your ego must be integrated and functional if you are to survive and cope with the exigencies of everyday temporal life. A strong integrated ego gives you a sense of confidence and control. Reclaiming and championing your wounded inner child allows you to heal and integrate your ego. Once integrated, your ego then becomes the source of strength that allows you to explore your wonder child: your essential self. Paradoxical as it may seem, your ego needs to be strong enough to let go of its limited defensiveness and control (italics mine). You need a strong ego to transcend ego…The relationship between your wonder child (soul) and your wounded child (ego) must be healed before you can connect with your essential self. Once you’ve done your ego work (your original pain work or legitimate suffering), you’re ready for full self-actualization.” (page 257).
This is a major method of recovery work, in my view: to work through the pain of the past — by feeling it and letting it be there — so that, in time, a more healthy person can emerge. For me, the goal of recovery work is to free ourselves from the hurt feelings and limitations that seem to have been imposed on us and that we might be imposing on others. The goal of recovery work is to free up the energy locked in those hurt feelings and conflicts so that we can understand life more fully and thus live more lovingly. The work involved in going through this process is often, if not always, hard, painful, and often debilitating. It is necessary work.
The healing comes through the feeling — there isn’t a shortcut. When we feel and learn to accept all the parts of ourselves, especially those parts of us that we have split off and cut off, Nature itself creates the healing integration. We know that Nature is doing its work by the results we experience: a stronger sense of our selfhood, an increased desire and capacity to live according to self-initiated values, an expanded ability to love and to serve — not with the hope or expectation of reward but because such an urge arises spontaneously. Rest assured: as we continue on this path, these attributes emerge naturally.
As the recovery movement develops and matures, as increasing numbers of people world-wide tap into the ways of healing and growth provided to us through recovery groups and recovery-oriented therapy, we must expect to encounter the spasms and reflexes of the powerful system of denial constructed by us, on an individual as well as a societal level. As with all aspects of ourselves that we might find distasteful or repugnant, it serves us to face this force with love and compassion — setting the boundaries that are necessary, but being mindful of not falling into using the same tools used to trap us in the past: shame, blame, and condemnation.