Andrew Samuels considers how therapy can transform politics

A New Therapy for Politics?


Andrew’s new book, A New Therapy for Politics?, will be published by Karnac this year. Here he trails some of the ideas that are developed in the book.

Politics in many Western countries has broken down. The early stages of the general election campaign reinforce this perception. Nobody would deny that we urgently need new ideas and approaches that go beyond the traditional ways we think about political activity. In response to the situation, a world-wide move to revitalise politics has emerged. Political theorists, ecologists, economists, sociologists and Russell Brand have all had their say. Perhaps it is now time to consider how psychotherapy might make its contribution to the transformation of politics for which so many people yearn. Some will find this notion provocative or even outrageous – until they recall where our politicians’ conventional thinking has led us.

Psychotherapy is not only a means of easing or understanding personal distress. For there are links between the internal life and political and social issues which, if explored, add to our understanding of and capacity to move freely in both of these realms. As citizens, we need to balance the  politics of the internal world of emotional, personal and family experiences with the psychology of pressing outer world matters such as leadership, environmentalism and nationalism. Psychotherapy can also help to remodel politics by generating a sense of meaning, not only in private but also in public life.

slinkachu_glory_1_1_1000But before this balance can be achieved, we need to revise our present notions of citizenship, to recognise that today’s citizen requires a conscious familiarity with both the internal and external dimensions of experience. Let’s begin by considering the idea that there is a ‘politician’ within everyone. The inner politician struggles to develop a degree of political self-awareness that allows the individual to move from personal matters to a sense of social responsibility, developing the capacity to engage as freely and effectively in politics as the system permits. This political self-awareness means understanding how our political attitudes and commitments have been affected psychologically by family, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality and socio-economic status – and, conversely, how our personalities have been irradiated by the political times in which we live.

Just as an exercise, I invite readers to think of their first ‘political memory’, meaning the first time in their lives they can recall becoming aware of power issues in society, the existence of a famous politician,  a world event, or simply of living in one country as opposed to another and so forth.  Isn’t our ability to retrieve and evaluate our political memories handicapped by the lack of an appropriate language for it? Historically, citizenship has always expressed itself in changing linguistic forms and today’s citizens might begin to speak a new hybrid language of psychotherapy and politics – though not the kind the media uses, which mostly just involves pseudo-psychological analyses of the ‘character’ of our leaders.

I have seen something like this hybrid language emerge in my clinical work. One of my clients, an Italian banker of thirty five, had a dream in which there was a powerful image of a beautiful mountain lake with deep, clear, crystalline water. The client’s first association was that the lake was a symbol of his soul, or at least his potential to develop a deep, clear, soulful attitude to life. His next – and unexpected – association was to the pollution on the Adriatic coast of Italy which had clogged up the coastal waters with algae and weeds. He began to explore the connections between ‘soul’ and ‘pollution’. Can one’s soul remain pure whilst there is pollution in one’s home waters? How could the lake, mysterious and isolated, relate to the mass tourism economy being damaged by algae on the Adriatic?


soul pollution

He began to wonder: Who owns this lake? Who should control access to such a scarce resource? Who is responsible for protecting the lake’s beauty from pollution? From psychological issues, such as how his problems interfered with  – polluted – his development, he moved to political issues such as environmental despoliation and the degradations – as well as the opportunities – presented by mass tourism.  And then he moved back again from the political level to the internal one, and then again to politics. (It does not have to be one or the other.) The dream played a part in the client’s life choice to give up banking and return to Italy to get involved in Green politics.

Yet many people who engage in exploration of their internal life turn away from politics as ‘dirty’, just as many activists pour scorn on psychotherapy as ineffective, excessively introspective, self-indulgent, normative and only for the well-heeled. Each group feels it will lose its self-respect by adopting the concerns and practices of the other. It is time to challenge this wasteful inner/outer split so that we can tap into and synthesise the creative energies of both groups.  For example, at a ‘political clinic’ in New York shortly after the Los Angeles riots of 1992, I asked the participants (who came from diverse political backgrounds, not all of them therapists) to recall and record their emotional, fantasy and even physical responses to the riots – just as therapists try to observe and understand  such responses in themselves to what their clients tell them. In other words, I invited the citizens in the workshop to think of themselves as ‘therapists of the world’. Doing this in a contained setting has a liberating effect. People said that they had often reacted in a bodily or other highly subjective way to political events. They remembered experiencing strange pains in specific parts of their bodies, suffering from general symptoms such as nausea or giddiness, finding  themselves mysteriously falling asleep, or noticing odd images arising within them. But they feared that these distressing responses to political issues would not be taken seriously in everyday political discourse which tends not to regard such phenomena as significant.

You would expect therapists to have a view on social issues that involve personal  and family relationships. But there are also some hard areas of policy that can be looked into from a psychotherapy perspective. Many people believe in sustainable economic development, but the consensus is that it cannot happen without great numbers of people giving up many features of their comfortable lives. To achieve this, it is rightly said, requires a huge value shift. What would drive such a value shift, and set limits on it, if not human psychology and ‘human nature’?

Therapists can contribute a view of human nature that speaks with authority about benevolence, altruism and the desire to become more connected to others, but without denying the shadow of selfishness, greed and competitiveness. Alongside examples of economic benevolence (such as willingness to pay higher taxes for approved causes), there is also a good deal of economic sadism in people. At workshops on the ‘economic psyche’, I prompt participants to fantasise about winning the lottery. Many people who would not consider themselves materialistic and are committed to social justice come up with images that are quite shocking to them – images of cruelty and exploitation. For example, one philosophy professor fantasised about fencing off the ski slopes at Gstaad for his own personal use. This didn’t seem so awful until he suddenly blurted out with immense force that he would hire the SAS to kill anyone who came within a mile. Then he collapsed in tears, appalled at what he had just said.

Change, Please

Change, Please

Time and again in the workshops I conduct, it becomes clear that merely living in a badly organised and unjust economic system affects people’s mental health and sense of well-being, even if their own material situation is not too bad. There is what you could call an ‘economic guilt field’ in operation. If so, then this is an insight that could be borne in mind by economic policy makers addressing questions of inequality.

Psychotherapy’s potential contribution to transforming politics stems from a number of specific ideas as well as its overall world-view. The idea of ‘good-enoughness’, for example, could be a significant addition to the political lexicon. A good-enough parent gradually manages the inevitable and increasing failure to meet an infant’s expectations of perfect parental provision. Hence the infant neither idealises the parent, passively expecting everything to be done by magic, nor denigrates the parent, feeling abandoned and unloved and, unable to trust others, forced to become too independent too soon. Removed from the family context, the idea of good-enoughness could be applied to leadership, thereby avoiding the pitfalls of idealising or denigrating a leader –  dictatorship or ruthless tabloid sniffing out of feet of clay respectively.



Good-enough leadership and the management of failure are closely linked. This has led me to propose (semi-seriously) setting up  a National Failure Enquiry that would continually monitor why political initiatives have not worked out as planned. The NFE could be one of a number of new institutions utilising psychotherapy thinking in society. Its function would be to try to understand as fully as possible what has happened, to come to terms with the failure in question and learn lessons for the future, rather than apportion blame. This imaginative approach to failure will mean that citizens lose the ‘out’ of blaming leaders or the system, but create for themselves a greater opportunity to mould the world in which they live.

Of course, there are huge failings in the psychotherapy world as well, and psychotherapists interested in politics must also expend some energy challenging the old-fashioned and self-interested way their profession is organised. They need to make it easier for people without much money to obtain therapy in all parts of the country, and to dispute some of the extremely conservative and moralistic positions many therapists adopt. In addition, they must do their best to avoid the maddening rectitude of the therapist. Rather than adopting postures of Olympian detachment, they must face the fact that they are ‘in’ the political world, just as they are ‘in’ the clinical relationship with their clients. Hence, for psychotherapists and politicians alike, Samuel Beckett’s words have special relevance: ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’

Andrew Samuels was Chair of the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy and co-founder of both Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Responsibility and the Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy. He works internationally as a political consultant in addition to private practice. He is Professor of Analytical Psychology at the University of Essex. His many books have been translated into 19 languages. 


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4 thoughts on “Andrew Samuels considers how therapy can transform politics

  1. Pingback: Nick Duffell puts the Establishment on the Couch |

  2. Pingback: Andrew Samuels considers how therapy can transform politics | achakra

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