Psychology/Psychiatry

The Language of Interminable Introspection

R.D. Rosen singles out the weirdest of the new humanistic therapies. Offering instant happiness, they perpetuate a jargon that short-circuits understanding and intimacy.

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Psychobabble, by R.D. Rosen, New York: Atheneum Publishers. 1977. 233 pp. $8.95.

"I'm really into my anger right now," she says.
"That's okay," he replies. "That's your space. Go with the anger."
"Yeah, but I feel a lot of hostility toward you and I feel that I want to get that out."
"That's cool. That's the space you're in. I can understand where you're coming from. I've been there."
"Still, you've really been on my case and I have all this anger that I want to share with you."
"Like I said, that's cool. I want to tell you that I acknowledge your anger that I acknowledge you."
"Good, I get that it's okay to be angry with you."

If you had in impulse to scream the last time you overheard—or maybe participated in—a conversation like this one, you may appreciate Psychobabble. Rosen's book is a descriptive and critical analysis of contemporary popular psychology, born out of a concern for "a ripening public credulity regarding psychological and spiritual pursuits" in America in the '70s.

"Psychobabble" is Rosen's term for the platitudinous language currently passing for "meaningful dialogue" among the newly psychologized. According to him, the language arising out of the human-potential movement is "an idiom that reduces psychological insight to a collection of standardized observations." Purporting to simplify the obfuscating clinical terms of Freudianism, purporting to give us a language to express our feelings, purporting to teach us how to really communicate, in fact the new "humanistic" therapies have given us a new jargon of terms without precise meanings, "a set of repetitive verbal formalities that kills off the very spontaneity, candor, and understanding it pretends to promote." "True psychobabble," he says of the conversation quoted above, "has all the intimacy of two PDP-8 computer terminals conversing in an Artificial Intelligence lab."

THE NEW THERAPIES

Rosen's term does for language in the '70s what Stuart Chase's gobbledygook (bureaucratic and professional jargon) and George Orwell's newspeak (the language of political euphemism) did earlier in the century. Like his fellow critics of such popular language, Rosen regards its emergence as symptomatic of a serious social problem. For Rosen, psychobabble is not only a kind of language but a "cultural climate" and "way of thinking" in a society where individuals are rushing headlong into spurious psychological pursuits, hoping to find happiness in "interminable introspection."

They are guided by a proliferation of self-help psychological advice books and a multitude of new therapies burgeoning out of humanistic psychology. Rosen's book analyzes a sample of these: the books, games, and greeting cards of the man he calls "the entrepreneur of sensitivity," David Viscott; Werner Erhard's est; Harvey Jackins's Re-evaluation Counseling; attempts at therapy via computers; Leonard Orr's Theta rebirthing; and Arthur Janov's Primal Therapy.

As a sample of contemporary therapies in the human-potential movement, this is a pretty sorry lot. Certainly some among them have grown extremely popular and do represent trends that have captured the public imagination. But if Rosen's book has a major flaw—and it does—it is his attempt to argue against the assumptions and goals of the human-potential movement in general on the basis of his chosen samples—among the least-respectable and the easiest to discount. Gestalt, Rogerian, and other developed humanistic theories and therapies appear only in brief (often sarcastic) asides, yet Rosen obviously wants us to regard "the psychobabbling mentality" as pervasive among humanistic psychologists.

What happens in this book, then, is that Rosen's perfectly good term for empty language comes to refer also to particular psychological assumptions and practices he does not like. (His persuasiveness is undercut also by his journalistic reportage; he appears to have had minimal personal experience with any of the therapies he discusses.)

HEALTHY SKEPTICISM

Rosen's specific objections to psychobabble therapies are nonetheless important and often justified. First, they offer the quick cure: the often extravagant claims of the people selling them foster "a belief in the immediate availability of well-being," when in fact psychological betterment is a long, difficult, ongoing process.

Second, they grossly oversimplify the complexities of human psychology, the sources of psychological conflicts, and the steps required to resolve them. Many of the therapies are reductionist, assuming a single origin for psychological problems and claiming that a single, simple change—learning to express emotions, or changing a few ideas, or catharting a traumatic event—will solve them all. Rosen argues, reasonably, that psychological problems have many sources and become integrated into the personality, and that growing beyond them requires a complex integration of new feeling, new understanding, and new behavior.

Third, these therapies promote the idea that "total cure" is possible, that their realizable goal is a constant sense of well-being. Rosen regards this as fatuous nonsense; though he acknowledges that many find their lives improved by therapy, he argues that internal and social limitations make total well-being impossible and that real psychological health is "the capacity to confront, explore, and transmute the sometimes irreducible contradictions of living." The enormous claims of the promoters of some therapies—that they will cure all mental illness, produce a race of neurosis-free human beings, insure wealth, health, and longer lifespans, even create "permanent and uninterrupted" bliss—should be regarded with plenty of healthy skepticism.

But it is characteristic of personal-growth therapies, Rosen says, to promote complacency. He quotes one est graduate as saying that in three months she had become "totally satisfied with her life." In the pursuit of total comfort, psychobabble therapies discourage curiosity, ambivalence, risk taking, and therefore, paradoxically, continued growth.

THE TRUE EVILS

Rosen is particularly concerned with the social complacency that the interest in personal growth can generate. Much of his critique is neo-Marxist, and he regards the psychological interest of the '70s as a sign of social decline from the political activism of the '60s. He agrees with a psychoanalyst who avers that "ultimately, all these different therapies will look the same and everyone will say 'Fuck it' and then get back to the basics, like how to feed the world."

Rosen's leftist prejudices show in his distaste for the fact that most devotees of psychological movements are American, WASP, and unpleasantly middle-class, "children of the dream who, having passed through their phase of political activism, of maximum material comfort, had run smack into some private emptiness." It is certainly true that only those who have reached a comfortable standard of living can afford to engage in further self-development and that humanistic psychology fosters the valuation of personal growth over social preoccupations—but some readers will not take it for granted that these are evils. (Nor will they, as Rosen does, take the profitability of some of these therapies as prima facie evidence of their founders' bad intentions.)

A more legitimate criticism is that these therapies tend to be anti-intellectual in their effort to be pro-emotion. The prescription "not to intellectualize" or "not to be on a head trip" but "just to feel," "just to experience," can lead to the indulgence of feeling without conceptual insight—not, according to Rosen, therapeutic—and to promote the suspension of skepticism and of judgment.

This anti-intellectual bias has serious consequences: the authoritarianism in some therapies, where followers and clients are "emotionally tyrannized" by the leader or therapist who demands they suspend judgment as part of therapy—and the undermining of the importance of making distinctions of value, judgments of quality. Intellectual sloppiness manifests itself in the fact that none of his therapies has coherent theory behind them, and it becomes dangerous when undereducated, untrained people are employed as therapists.

There is no question that many of the notions Rosen points out are false and that a lot of nonsense, some of it harmful, is being sold today in the name of psychology. But there is no reason to believe that the contradictions and banalities spouted by the therapists and clients of Rosen's sample therapies are the best language and thought humanistic psychology has to offer. The important thesis that our psychological language is inhibiting our understanding never gets developed, because Rosen does not choose to come to terms with the ideas of any serious thinker in humanistic psychology.

Rosen claims that his purpose is to argue for a better psychological language, "a language that has better access to the paradoxes of emotional life and therefore a language that is more revealing, more powerful, more therapeutic." (He warns us in advance that he has no proposal, though near the book's end he does pass along a few suggestions.) Though his book is more a document than a thorough analysis of the new psychology, it gives anyone involved in psychology today much to think about.

Rosen writes competently, straightforwardly, sometimes wittily, of the nonsense we speak. I will not be able to utter my own psychobabble so freely in the future, and I have a few friends I want to share the book with, so when I get into talking about it they'll know where I'm coming from.

Ms. Adrian has a Ph.D. in English and American literature and has studied and written in the field of psychology. She recently turned from teaching to free-lance writing.

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