Feel Better

We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy – and the World’s Getting Worse. Is One True Friendship the “Answer”?

One of my favorite books of all time is this quirky little hybrid piece of creative nonfiction called We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy – and the World’s Getting Worse by James Hillman and Michael Ventura.

Hillman is an analytical psychologist, a  Jungian, and Ventura, apart from being one of Hillman’s One True Friends is also a novelist, screenwriter, film director, essayist, and cultural critic.

I love this book because it airs a number of issues that it has with the practice of modern psychotherapy that I share, even though I often feel that these points are often considered somewhat heretical when expressed to other therapists. So I don’t.

Hillman and Ventura’s first “beef” with psychotherapy is that personal psychotherapy has nothing to say to the climate crisis, and the way we treat and eat non-human animals so as to satisfy both nutritional as well as self-comforting needs. Of course, books don’t change social trends, and in the 30 years since the writing of Hillman and Ventura’s book, it turns out we’ve been digging ourselves into an even deeper ecological hole than was already clearly occurring back then. I think this notion is core to my misanthropy for want of a better word. I like individual people, but as a species, we suck, and I don’t feel in any way that psychotherapy has the means to make us suck less.

Here’s a quote from Hillman on this theme: “The vogue today, in psychotherapy, is the ‘inner child.’ That’s the therapy thing—you go back to your childhood. But if you’re looking backward, you’re not looking around. This trip backward constellates what Jung called the ‘child archetype.’ Now, the child archetype is by nature apolitical and disempowered—it has no connection with the political world. And so the adult says, ‘Well, what can I do about the world? This thing’s bigger than me.’ That’s the child archetype talking. ‘All I can do is go into myself, work on my growth, my development, find good parenting, support groups.’ This is a disaster for our political world, for our democracy. Democracy depends on intensely active citizens, not children. By emphasizing the child archetype, by making our therapeutic hours rituals of evoking childhood and reconstructing childhood, we’re blocking ourselves from political life. Twenty or thirty years of therapy have removed the most sensitive and the most intelligent, and some of the most affluent people in our society into child cult worship. It’s going on insidiously, all through therapy, all through the country. So of course our politics are in disarray and nobody’s voting—we’re disempowering ourselves through therapy.”

Breathe in, breathe out.

Beef Two: The Illusion of Personal Growth in Therapy. The idea presented here is that while therapy focuses on personal growth and understanding one’s feelings, it doesn’t necessarily translate into actionable change, either in our relationships or the world. People who have been in therapy for years are not necessarily able to be more present and loving to others from what I can tell, and have usually not become more ethical creatures in terms of how they live their lives or the ways in which they engage with capitalist practices.

Here’s some back and forth between Hillman and Ventura in the first part of the book which is presented as a back-and-forth dialogue.

HILLMAN: But the very word grow is a word appropriate to children. After a certain age, you do not grow. You don’t grow teeth, you don’t grow muscles. If you start growing after that age, it’s cancer.
VENTURA: Aw, Jim, can’t I grow inside all my life?
HILLMAN: Grow what? Corn? Tomatoes? New archetypes? What am I growing, what do you grow? The standard therapeutic answer is: you’re growing yourself.
VENTURA: But the philosopher Kierkegaard would come back and say, “The deeper natures don’t change, they become more and more themselves.”
HILLMAN: Jung says individuation is becoming more and more oneself.
VENTURA: And becoming more and more oneself involves a lot of unpleasantness. As Jung also says, the most terrifying thing is to know yourself.
HILLMAN: And becoming more and more oneself—the actual experience of it is a shrinking, in that very often it’s a dehydration, a loss of inflations, a loss of illusions.
VENTURA: That doesn’t sound like a good time. Why would anybody want to do it?
HILLMAN: Because shedding is a beautiful thing. It’s of course not what consumerism tells you, but shedding feels good. It’s a lightening up.
VENTURA: Shedding what?
HILLMAN: Shedding pseudoskins, crusted stuff that you’ve accumulated. Shedding dead wood. That’s one of the big sheddings. Things that don’t work anymore, things that don’t keep you—keep you alive. Sets of ideas that you’ve had too long. People that you don’t really like to be with, habits of thought, habits of sexuality. That’s a very big one, ’cause if you keep on making love at forty the way you did at eighteen you’re missing something, and if you make love at sixty the way you did at forty you’re missing something. All that changes. The imagination changes. Or put it another way: Growth is always loss.
Anytime you’re gonna grow, you’re gonna lose something. You’re losing what you’re hanging onto to keep safe. You’re losing habits that you’re comfortable with, you’re losing familiarity. That’s a big one, when you begin to move into the unfamiliar.
You know, in the organic world when anything begins to grow it’s moving constantly into unfamiliar movements and unfamiliar things. Watch birds grow—they fall down, they can’t quite do it. Their growing is all awkwardness. Watch a fourteen-year-old kid tripping over his own feet.
VENTURA: The fantasy of growth that you find in therapy, and also in New Age thought, doesn’t include this awkwardness, which can be terrible and can go on for years. And when we look at people going through that, we usually don’t say they’re growing, we usually consider them out of it. And during such a time one certainly doesn’t feel more powerful in the world.
HILLMAN: The fantasy of growth is a romantic, harmonious fantasy of an ever-expanding, ever-developing, ever-creating, ever-larger person—and ever integrating, getting it all together.
VENTURA: And if you don’t fulfill that fantasy you see yourself as failing.
HILLMAN: Absolutely.
VENTURA: So this idea of growth can put you into a constant state of failure!
HILLMAN: “I ought to be over that by now, I’m not together, I can’t get it together, and if I were really growing I would have grown out of my mess long ago.”
VENTURA: It sets you up to fail. That’s really cute.
HILLMAN: It’s an idealization that sets you up to fail.
VENTURA: Because you’re constantly comparing yourself to the fantasy of where you should be on some ideal growth scale.
HILLMAN: It sets up something worse. It sets up not just failure but anomaly: “I’m peculiar.” And it does this by showing no respect for sameness, for consistency, in a person. Sameness is a very important part of life—to be consistently the same in certain areas that don’t change, don’t grow. You’ve been in therapy six years and you go back home on Thanksgiving and you open the front door and you see your family and you are right back where you were. You feel the same as you always did! Or you’ve been divorced for years, haven’t seen the wife though there’s been some communication on the phone, but you walk into the same room and within four minutes there’s a flare-up, the same flare-up that was there long ago. Some things stay the same. They’re like rocks. There’s rocks in the psyche. There are crystals, there’s iron ore, there’s a metallic level where some things don’t change.

Which brings us to Hillman and Ventura’s third critique of therapy: its failure to address consistency and sameness. If we engage in a form of religion, which therapy has essentially become, that emphasizes constant change and growth but overlooks the importance of consistency and sameness in our lives—what we might call our personality style, character, or temperament—then we inevitably conflict with those aspects of ourselves that are consistent and unchanging, rather than recognizing and valuing them.

Psychotherapy, as Hillman and Ventura would likely agree, has morphed into a new religion. This elevates therapists to the roles of modern-day gurus, priests, imams, and rabbis—a notion supported by a quick glance at the non-fiction bestseller list. While no one advertises on their Hinge dating profiles that they read “spiritual” books or novels, broadly speaking, if I had a penny for everyone who praises Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score as their go-to guide for inner work, I might be able to retire comfortably, much like Bessel himself.

Unfortunately, unlike other religions, this inner-working psychotherapeutic one is entirely solipsistic and can only be funded at no small cost for the individuals concerned, especially if you are looking to have long-term support, which in the psychotherapy world is called “a therapeutic relationship”.

Of course, it’s not a relationship in the conventional sense. Rather, it’s one person paying another to provide what, in the realm of sex work, would be termed the “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” experience: care, unconditional love, acceptance, positivity, and support, albeit with extremely limited interaction—boundaries being the operative term—with the therapist, who serves as a priest-guru-love-object-“friend.” You get fifty minutes a week; that’s the deal. If you reach out to your therapist outside of these hours, you might, if you’re lucky, receive a formal and boundaried response, usually deferring deeper discussion to the next scheduled session.

For many, this system is highly effective. Much like those who pay for the emotional and physical labour of physical intimacy—offering nothing in return to the provider beyond a financial transaction—many are quite comfortable paying for the emotional labour of a therapist. The regimen typically involves a fifty-minute weekly session of psychotherapy, at rates ranging from 50 to 200 pounds. The emotional release, the catharsis, or if you will, the emotional “orgasm,” is achieved; all our psycho-spiritual boxes get ticked, and our “inner work” is ostensibly completed for the week—thumbs-up emoji.

Less expensive, communal alternatives still exist within religious and spiritual frameworks. In Christianity, this was traditionally termed Sanctification or Spiritual Formation, aimed at emulating Christ, growing in holiness, and living a life pleasing to God, however one interprets that concept. In Judaism, something similar, with reference to the 613 Mitzvot and living a righteous life according to the Torah.

Buddhists strive for the diminishment or extinction of the self via the Noble Eightfold Path. Jainists practice Anupreksha or contemplation on the Five Vows (Mahavratas), focusing on universal truths, non-violence, and spiritual purity. In Islam, it’s Tazkiyah or Tasfiyah (Purification), achieved by following the Five Pillars of Islam, with an emphasis on soul purification, closeness to Allah, and living according to Quranic teachings.

But what if neither traditional religious practices nor conventional therapy appeal to you? Perhaps my idea of One True Friend Therapy is worth exploring, provided both parties meet the criteria for such a form of interaction (see below).

One True Friend Therapy 

Talk is cheap and language is slippery so I have chosen some very simple words to express what I’m trying to do here. And so as to make these words as clear as we possibly can, let’s follow each of them down to their most basic roots, which is to say their Proto-Indo-European (PIE) roots. Proto-Indo-European was a language spoken by our human animal ancestors who lived in the Eurasian Steppe during the Neolithic period, approximately 4,500 to 6,500 years ago. Here is how they would have understood One True Friend.

ONE: from the PIE root *oi-no- “one, unique”. Which is to say: one specific human consciousness in dialogue with another human consciousness. Linguistically and thus also imaginatively or semantically this root is also to be found in the following cognates: alone, lonely, non-, none, null, atone, once, unanimous, unilateral, universal, unison, university, and unicorn.

TRUE: from the PIE root *deru- or *dreu meaning “firm, solid, steadfast,” with a specialized sense of “wood,” “tree” and other derivatives referring to objects made from wood. True, faithful, steadfast, trustworthy, and honest as a tree we might say, or the wooden chairs, table bookshelves still made from that strong and true tree. Other words sharing the same root: Druid, during, duration, dour, duress, endure, shelter, betrothed, trough, truth, and trust.

FRIEND: from Proto-Indo-European root *pri- meaning “to love,” also: “free, not in bondage, acting of one’s own will”. Related words include: afraid, affray, free, freedom, Friday.

THERAPY: this is the youngest word on the list. Therapy doesn’t even surface in English until the early 1900s, with its roots only going back to modern Latin and the Greek (therapeia) indicating “a curing, healing, service done for the sick,” but also with the more literal meaning of “attend,” “do service,” or “take care of.”

Probably the most reliable way to set up a One True Friend practice is not to do it with another flaky and unreliable human being. So here are a couple of ideas on how to make the practice work for the Self working with itself.

But if you were to do it with another flaky human being, in order for this practice (a kind of therapeutic/creative/psycho-spiritual communication without monetary payments on either side) to become a going concernt, we might want to consider some of the following criteria:

1. Intellectual and Emotional Resonance: Both parties should share a certain level of intellectual and emotional compatibility. This doesn’t mean they have to agree on everything, but rather that they can engage in a Socratic dialogue, where ideas can be dissected, examined, and either assimilated or discarded without causing emotional rupture. At its most basic level, both parties need to feel a strong liking for each other,  something like “philia” or platonic love based on mutual respect and shared values.

2. Reciprocal Vulnerability: Both individuals must be willing to be emotionally open, sharing not just intellectual ideas but also personal experiences, fears, and aspirations, a relationship, where the fullness of each individual is acknowledged.

3. Commitment to the Process: Both individuals must be committed to the ongoing nature of the dialogue. This is not a one-off meeting but a continual process, much like the hermeneutic circle, where understanding is deepened through revisiting and reinterpreting previous discussions.

4. Time and Space: Both parties must be willing to invest the time and create a space conducive to deep dialogue. Whether this is a physical space or a virtual one, it should be free from distractions and interruptions, allowing for full immersion in the conversation.

5. Mutual Curiosity: Both individuals should be genuinely interested in the other’s thoughts, feelings, and perspectives. This is not a space for dogma but for inquiry, reminiscent of the Platonic dialectic where truth is approached but never fully grasped.

These five aspects aim to create a fertile ground for the idea of “One True Friend Therapy,” a space where intellectual, emotional, and spiritual growth can occur in a relational context. If you’re up for doing this in some way with me, give me a shout, and let’s talk more!