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Dr Helen: Narcissism, Power, Fear of Death, and Liberalism

I often get books on psychology sent to me by publishers, and the other day I received Jeffrey Kottler’s On Being a Therapist. The book is now in its fourth edition, and this latest edition “puts the spotlight on the therapist’s role and responsibility to promote issues of diversity, social justice, human rights, and systemic changes within the community and the world at large.”

Whoa: I thought the therapist’s role was to increase the client’s well-being and treat mental illness.

It used to be that therapists just saw clients and sent them a bill. Now — perhaps because the “sending them a bill” part has gotten more difficult in these days of managed care and public skepticism about the profession — they are transforming themselves into superhuman beings who think they can save the entire world. Therapists may have been narcissistic before, but it takes a special kind of narcissism to see one’s own self as a world-saver.

The author seems like a well-intentioned fellow. He cries at the drop of a hat, whether when thinking about his patients or helping out a kid on the street. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose.

Kottler touches often on the narcissism of therapists in the book and has a section on the topic. He talks about his own struggle with self-worth and measures his own success by looking at all the good he has done, the people he has helped. He discusses how therapists often feel they are frauds. The author talks about his deep need to influence others, and he mentions a treatise on narcissism that describes it as such:

A lack of feeling, the need to project an image, the desire to help others in order to exercise power, and arrogance are all familiar symptoms.

He then states that he has long felt he holds super powers:

After all, it seems at times (to others, if not to myself) that I can read minds, predict the future, and hear, see, feel, and sense things beyond the powers of mere mortal beings.

In the author’s defense, he does struggle with this and acknowledge it can be a problem. I have talked to therapists who feel they are superhuman yet see it as an asset.

An arrogant psychology PhD student at an APA convention told me that all psychologists go into the field because they want to be omnipotent, himself included. Really? Because when I got my training in New York City, I was taught that therapists were to be humble and work hard to achieve self-knowledge so that they can help their clients make the right decisions for themselves, not for the therapist. The client is not an extension of the therapist, but rather an independent, autonomous person with his or her own thoughts, feelings, and life.

Those therapists who use clients as an extension of their own narcissistic needs are abusing their power, not helping people.

The focus on narcissism tells me a lot about my profession, and sometimes liberals in general. I sometimes wonder how much they want to do good in the world vs. how good they want to feel about themselves for feeling omnipotent and influencing (forcing) others to do as they wish. The author mentions that therapists do not want be forgotten and wish to feel immortal through helping their clients. In short, some are afraid of death.

For whatever reason, Jeffrey Kottler is not alone. I’ve noticed that psychology programs around the country have shifted from an emphasis on individual mental health to an emphasis on “promoting social justice.” In practice, this always means liberal politics.

And maybe there’s a connection there. Could it be that for liberals and certain therapists endowed with self-importance but without religion, influencing others is all they have? Forcing others to do as they wish fends off their fear of insignificance, which is why it is so urgent that others go along. It keeps their legacy alive. Notice how many times people bring up “Ted Kennedy’s legacy” of health care. Is this more about keeping Kennedy’s name immortal and his image alive than about real solutions to real-world problems?

Could it be that many liberals, like narcissistic therapists, are so insistent that others go along with them because they fear being obscure and crave feeling powerful more than they care about whether their solutions actually work?

I realize this is a theory, but it’s one I have pondered for quite some time.