Posts Tagged ‘Psychology’

Consider the following incident: in December 2005, a healthy, happy, normal 34-year-old woman (Rebekah Lawrence)¬†attends a self-help course (Turning Point) run¬†by a Cremorne-based company (People Knowhow). Four days later, after undergoing an extreme change in behaviour, Rebekah falls to her death, naked, from an inner-city office building. The Turning Point¬†course¬†is referred to, both worryingly and ambiguously, as being “high intensity”, and¬†speaking on its¬†behalf, the founder of People Knowhow, Richard Arthur,¬†claims that the course is not suitable for “highly vulnerable people”.¬†

Is it just me, or does this statement sends shivers down the spine?

A quick Google reveals several interesting things about Turning Point, not least that it “offers you the opportunity to come home to yourself”, a proposition which¬†is¬†sufficiently cult-spooky to set off warning bells. It is also worth noting that Richard Arthur¬†is not a trained psychologist. He is, in point of fact,¬†a computer scientist. Huh?

Clicking through to the People Knowhow site, things soon become even stranger. There is a course called Mastery and Service, linked to the founding principles of Turning Point, which is¬†intended to help participants¬†“grow in consciousness”. For those over 50, there is the Way of the Elder, which features a grainy sunset graphic and a promise to “guide you through a series of reflective exercises towards reconnection with your life’s story.” Of greatest interest, however, is the link to the webpage for the Australian College of Contemporary Somatic Psychotherapy, which, in keeping with the non-psychology background of Mr Arthur, states cheerfuly that anyone wishing to teach their courses need not be deterred by¬†a “lack of teriary training”. Rather, their training programme “welcomes applications from people who feel attuned to this way of understanding human experience and growth”.

Type “somatic psychotherapy” into Google, and you’ll find that the first webpage to come up is – surprise, surprise – that of the Australian College. Wikipedia has an entry on somatic psychology¬†and another on body psychotherapy, but not a specific entry for somatic psychotherapy; a website called¬†Goodtherapy, however, defines it as the brainchild of Wilhelm Reich, a German psychologist who believed, among other things, in a cosmic, primordial energy called orgone and who was known to try and increase the ‘orgiastic potency’ of patients by treating them in their underwear. Leaving aside the question¬†of Reich’s more extreme theories and practices, there is a more pertinent question to answer, viz: how do members of¬†the College – and, by extension, People Knowhow – use somatic psychtherapy?

The definition given on their page is lengthy and obtuse, hinting vaguely at deeper methodologies without actually explaining them; you can read the whole thing here. Among other things, the College¬†mentions the idea of “toxic cultural practices” being passed on¬†through contemporary psychology and¬†the importance of people’s¬†“sensing/feeling patterns” being developed “throughout the life cycle”.¬†The introduction concludes on a rather¬†ominous note, with the acknowledgement that¬†“all psychotherapy theories (including somatic based theories) invoke particular ethical practices, either explicitly or implicitly, and we need to ask ourselves, as Foucault suggests, whose interests are best served by these practices; who gains power.” (My emphasis.)

What, pray tell, are “particular ethical practices” in the context? Perhaps they have something to with the fact that, like Richard Arthur, the Director of the Australian College of Contemporary Somatic Psychotherapy, one Jeff Barlow, has no formal training in psychology, either. Reading between the lines, one might conclude that the College’s view of the “toxic culture” inherent in non-holistic psychology has lead most of its members to eschew it entirely, although given the number of somatic psychologists who don’t appear to have studied it at all, one wonders where and how they have developed this perspective. Curiouser and curiouser.

It is not difficult to concede the existence of a genuine link between our physical and mental health, but by all accounts,¬†the teachings¬†of People Knowhow and their affiliates seems to resemble cultish mysticism more than genuine science.¬†Combine the cryptic poetry and riddle-style aphorisms espoused by Richard Arthur,¬†his lack of¬†any relevant formal training and the fact that People Knowhow conducts corporate workshops, and you have a recipe for hokum, pseudo-science and¬†general malaise. Perhaps I’ve been forced to attend too many day-long management courses, but I am deeply cynical of any¬†form of emotional work-based consultancy, particularly in forms which claim to incorporate genuine elements of psychology – or, for that matter, any other discipline in which the facilitator lacks training. I once, for instance,¬†had to listen to a grown woman tell me that the concept of human synergistics was¬†pioneered by Aristotle. So when someone like Richard Arthur suggests, against all logic, that “the amount a person suffers in their life is related to how much they are resisting”, my bullshit detector goes into overdrive. When, on the same page, Mr Arthur references Turning Point and says that the course teaches “a cluster of techniques for permanently raising your stress threshold” so that “when the world doesn’t cooperate with you, your distress will be less extreme”, I wonder how many of those “techniques” were taught to Rebekah Lawrence.

How much longer can this culture of faux-uplifting, change-your-life consultancy by uninformed, pseudo-intellecual, would-be dilettantes continue? When will we wake up to ourselves? The real toxic culture is being peddled by modern witchdoctors, not trained psychologists.

1. My being hungry is directly proportional to how bored I am. Thus, the greater the ennui, the greater the likelihood of my eating an entire jar of cocktail olives at the kitchen bench.

2. I find my fingernails genuinely fascinating. It’s not just that I flick them for lack of anything else to do; I actually enjoy paying close scrutiny to their ruined contours. I have no idea why this is.

3. The way I roll my shoulders so that people can hear the crunching sound is psychologically identical to how I used to flip my double-jointed thumb and chase the others girls with it. Conclusion: part of me is now, and will be forever, five years old.

4. I have a secret desire to be 10 centimeters tall, so that I can ride people’s pets, climb into drawers, live in a dollhouse and wander randomly¬†on¬†strange desks.

5. I am neither religious nor a believer in magic. However, sometimes I still have to remind myself that science works, no matter how crazy particle analysis sounds. 

6. From time to time, I contemplate seeing a psychologist just for the thrill of being told I’m well-adjusted. Strangely, were I given the opposite verdict, I’d find it just a bit thrilling.

7. As a kid, I copied certain behaviours from watching animals: scraping my foot like a horse when waiting impatiently, tilting my head to scratch my neck like a seal, stretching like a cat.¬†I don’t think I’ve¬†learned any new tricks as an adult, but I’ve never stopped doing the old ones.

8. During highschool, I divided up my personality traits into three categories,  anthropomorphised each one, and gave them names. I still often think of myself in these terms.

9. Keeping a record of the books I’ve read makes me want to read more books, just for the sake of listing them.

10.¬†Given the above,¬†it seems increasingly unlikely that I’d come off as anything even vaguely resembling¬†well-adjusted to a psychologst.

In her book A History of the Wife, Marilyn Yalom examines the history of marriage and its cultural evolution. “How,” she asks, “did the notion of romantic love, a novelty in the Middle Ages, become a prerequisite for marriage today?” Not having read the whole book, I’m not in a position to comment on¬†its conclusions, but when I¬†saw this article on corporate dating services, her query was the first thing that sprang to mind.

No matter your point of view, modern marriage is in a state of flux. Is it broadening to include homosexual couples? Might polygamy, as was recently asked, evetually become legal? Should our definition of the term remain purely religious? Is marriage on the out, as indicated by rising divorce rates and the attraction of remaning in a de facto relationship? Or is the union overdue for a revival? These are all relevant questions, but even accounting for wide gulfs of disagreement, most people would still acknowledge that marriage, more than anything else, should be about love. Socially, we disdain the notion of marrying for convenience, to the point where that phrase – a marriage of convenience – now carries negative connotations.

So how, then, does the Simply Drinks Exclusive Dating Agency fit with our perceptions?

In keeping with current social norms, the¬†accepted¬†schedule¬†is to fall in love first¬†and¬†maybe get married later. But we baulk at the reverse: the idea of getting married for whatever reason, and¬†only then falling¬†in love. For reasons that might trouble us to articulate, it smacks of wrongheadedness. Why would we want to risk unhappiness? Isn’t it, well,¬†cold¬†to get married without any thought beyond pragmatism? And this, here, is the nub of it: pragmatism. For thousands of years, marriage was, for various socio-cultural,¬†moral and religious reasons, a largely pragmatic institution. It was the done thing; and, more, a thing to be done by a certain age, or before any illegitimate children¬†could enter the picture. It was how families¬†made alliances, gained lands, played politics, ended feuds, claimed kingdoms and produced heirs, because these were the lynchpins on which society was founded. Love was all very well, as the troubadors sang, but in popular mythology and literature, it was¬†frequently tragic.

Nowadays, our belief is that, what with women in the workforce, single¬†and unwed parenthood being destigmatised and no societal pressure to get married at all, any idea of pragmatism in wedlock should be outdated. All you need is love, as the singer sang. But despite our deepest hopes, this isn’t the case. As a species, we aren’t that great at distinguishing love from lust, and psychologically, we seem troubled by the idea that fiery passion is, as a matter of course, transmuted over time. We want to believe that¬†love will be enough, that any deliberate thought¬†of pragmatism need not sully our hands: that we need no stronger foundation for wedded bliss than what we feel in the moment. Love conquers all, as the poet wrote.

But there have always been multiple considerations. What makes Simply Drinks different from other dating services is the level of screening that takes place: the idea that someone, somewhere is carefully vetting potential applicants in accordance with a list of desired attributes Рnot love, not lust, but basic physical acceptability, financial status, and a certain level of intellectual interest. And from a distance, the process resembles nothing so much as the marriage brokering of past centuries: entering into a relationship, not because of how you feel together, but because of what, potentially, that union brings. The fact that the service is tailored to the rich and, dare we assume, powerful only helps the comparison, as it was noble families who traditionally kept a closer eye on what (or who) a marriage would bring the clan.

Recently, Sam de Brito blogged about a phenomenon which is, in various permutations,¬†becoming more and more common: perfect man syndrome, or the¬†idea that today’s singles seem to be getting pickier about the qualities they look for in a potential mate. Previously, I’ve been content to shrug the issue off, but in light of Simply Drinks, I’m wondering¬†if¬†such high standards actually¬†reflect¬†a desire, however unconscious,¬†to make pragmatic –¬†and not purely romantic –¬†matches.

If this is the case, then it’s easy to see where things fall down: society tells us that we must marry, first and foremost, for love, thus throwing a not-inconsiderable barrier in the path of would-be marital pragmatists. Just as older cautionary tales involve disobedience and recklessly marrying for love, their modern equivalents¬†warn of the other extreme:¬†marrying lovelessly, and the dangers thereof. To be trapped in a loveless marriage is¬†one of our great social fears, and while I’m enough a child of my time to share the sentiment, it’s worth noting that on one level, the very phraseology suggests that the whole of marriage should concern love,¬†and¬†that if¬†it dies, then only a shell remains.

Which brings us, in a very roundabout way, to Jane Austen.¬†Beyond the fact of¬†narrative quality,¬†Pride and Prejudice¬†is romantically timeless for one simple reason: by the end of the story, Elizabeth and Jane have married, not just for love, but with undeniable pragmatism. In Mansfield Park, Fanny is confronted with the prospect of opting, as her mother did, to marry poor for love, and the picure painted is a stark one: yes, there was love, but when it comes to feeding, clothing and caring for multiple children in Cheapside, money has something to recommend itself. The balance of each story, one feels, is a struggle to be both loving and pragmatic: fortunate for Austen’s heroines, in that they inevitably find what they’re looking for, but the dichotomy is real.

At the end of¬†nine paragraphs, it feels like base commonsense to say that the best marriages should be founded on equal parts love and pragmatism. Day to day, there will always be practical considerations, and as most people have an idea of what they want¬†from life, it makes sense to find someone who’s heading in the same direction. Personalities are all-important: just as some will inevitably find happiness in marrying purely for love, others are better off taking the path of Jeff Bridges in The Mirror Has Two Faces (only without Barbra Streisand). But unless we stop and look at the history of marriage in all our talk of renovating it,¬†we’re in danger of moving from one extreme concept to another: privileging love above what it brings to the relationship, confusing balance with¬†lovelessness and compromise with failure. Me, I’m happily married to a loving husband, but when we chose to tie the knot, it wasn’t just for love. We each have goals the other can help fulfill, and, more importantly, wants to help fulfill: we have plans beyond being in love. And if that degree of pragmatism makes me wrong, then baby – I don’t wanna be right.