Psychoanalytic thinking has always been at odds with societal norms. In this guest article, Lorrie Goldin, LCSW, critiques our culture's predilection for positive thinking and explores the question of what it means to offer depth therapy against such a backdrop. 

False Positive 

A nasty virus flattened me recently. Awash with green tea and self-pity, I curled up with Barbara Ehrenreich's latest book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America. As a psychodynamic therapist who often feels alienated from the prevailing smiley-face craze, I was glad to find someone who shares my alarm about our current cultural obsession with positivism. Bright-Sided offers a tonic for these hollow, manic times. 

Ehrenreich was inspired to write Bright-Sided after her experience with breast cancer. Barraged with pink ribbons, support groups that banished terminal patients, and advice to adjust her attitude when she expressed anger or fear, Ehrenreich came across the insidious pathology of positive thinking: 

[What cancer] gave me, if you want to call this a gift, was a very personal, agonizing encounter with an ideological force in American culture ... one that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame only ourselves for our fate. (Ehrenreich, 2009, p. 44)

The virulent aspects of positive thinking have metastasized far beyond the cancer wards in American society. Ehrenreich notes their destructive influence in the workplace, religion, psychology, mass culture, foreign policy, and the current economic and housing calamities. A terrible insecurity underlies the ascendancy of the false positive. Today's climate of fear and uncertainty induces a collective reaction formation. 

What does it mean to be a depth psychotherapist against this backdrop of positive thinking run amok? It often feels like open season on the type of treatment we have been trained to provide. The emphasis on medication, managed care, and evidence-based practice makes it easy to doubt oneself. Therapists and clients alike feel pressured to show quick results and are readily demoralized if they don't. Sometimes I feel ashamed of seeing clients for years, worried that I'm dragging them down in analytic quicksand. My misgivings are amplified when suspicions abound of therapists fostering dependency, self-indulgence, and victimization to feel needed or to sustain a cash cow. Read on ... 

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