Psychotherapy
and Political Change

I am an existentialist. I believe that existence precedes essence, and that we don’t have a unique predetermined way to be ourselves that is right, but that we create ourselves daily. We are our project; we are what is projected into the future.

However, there is a risk in that understanding that we have to consider. In the book ‘Psychopolitics’ by Byung-Chul Han explains how focusing on our free will and on the liberation from external coercions, we may be blind to a new form of coercion, one that is internal and pushes towards performance and optimization.


If we focus too much in our free will and the undetermined nature of our beings, we may believe that how close we are to the expected performance is only about us: our skills, our will, our effort. For the same reason, we are constantly sharing freely our achievements in social media, in a constant race to show our performance and the rewards it brings. At the same time we see and compare ourselves with the rest of humanity under the same ideal, impossible to achieve by its own definition, while inside ourselves an all seeing eye shakes its head and punishes us for being less than that epitome.

Han explains how a positive and empowering slogan such as “Yes We Can” for the same reason can be heard by us as “Yes We Should”. In his words, in the past we lived in a Disziplinargesellschaft (disciplinary society) where we had to be coerced to function according to the ideal of performance, where now we live in a Leistungsgesellschaft (achievement society, sometimes translated as meritocracy) in which we subject ourselves — freely — to the pressure of achieving.

In our neoliberal society, we make ourselves responsible for our performance and we feel shame if it doesn’t fulfill the expectations, without considering most of the time that our society itself is part of the equation. Thus we turn our aggression towards ourselves; in Freudian terms, a part of ourselves called the super-ego punishes us sadistically for not achieving the Ideal, an ideal first promoted by our parents and society, but introjected since an early age as our own.

I see this daily at my office. A patient arrives with all the good reasons to have a decrease in their performance — either work, sport or sex related — and they want it fixed. The reason can be a breakup, a death in the family, even a lack of meaning in their job. It can also be a long commute, wages that don’t allow them to feed themselves properly, noises at night that prevent sleep. Most of the time, they don’t care. They want to perform at the top of the game again.

The early part of a psychotherapeutic treatment can be just to make them realize there may be a good reason for the decreased performance, and maybe that we should focus there first instead of on a fast fix. My issues with psychiatry often involve that the patient goes there to get a quick solution, and they get one, but only related to their performance. The revolution within is then silenced, and the strive for the ideal of performance survives.

This by itself is a complicated issue, but it doesn’t stop there. We tend to evaluate others also for their performance, and assume that if it doesn’t meet the ideal standard it’s their fault, almost their moral fault. “Poor people are poor because they are lazy,” is a statement heard often, and measuring people by their chances to adjust to a monolithic standard are one of the issues disabled people have to face.

As Han says in his book, this self-aggression doesn’t turn the exploited into a revolutionary, but in a depressive, as I hinted before. We feel inadequate and attack ourselves and our kin, instead of thinking that perhaps what we should attack and change is the current Ideal that rules us.

This is why I am a Lacanian psychoanalyst, which holds the subversion of the subject to the systems of domination — internal and external — as one of its pillars. Psychology has to consider the political aspect of our lives if it wants to be true to the reality of our patients, and if it wants to help them to be free not only of their symptoms, but of their own self-flagellation and self-exploitation.

As clinical psychologists we should strive not only to make our patients better for society, but also to make society better for our patients.