_*_Radical Psychology_*_

Fall 2001, Vol. 2, Issue 2.

Turning Psychology’s Up Side Down:

Toward an Available Psycholiteracy

Craig Chalquist, M.S.

What would mental health look like from the place of a tenant farmer on a hacienda, or personal maturity from someone who lives in the town dump, or motivation from a woman who sells goods in the market?

– Ignacio Martín-Baró

When I ask my psychotherapy colleagues why they confine their work to the clinic and the consulting room, they often reply that they are changing the world one client at a time. Hm!

I used to accept that as axiomatic. In some cases, it’s still true, as I know from being on both sides of the big chair. That person whose private struggles we witness is one more wholeness-striving personality set loose in a crazy world…and a potential pivot as well, an inspiration by which others--loved ones, coworkers, friends, colleagues--shift toward a state of higher mental health and inner aliveness.

For some of us, though, remaining office-bound can also be a handy--and, frankly, grandiose--excuse for withdrawing our energies from a world filled with confusion and injustice. Hiding behind voicemail, attending expensive seminars, making the client come to us, refusing to engage anywhere but in session: as we fail to address the woes in the streets, what’s justified as confidential or as adherence to good boundaries (and certainly is in some cases) looks more and more in its postures of distancing and withdrawal like a rather schizoid need for control, the control required by professionals too timid to get dirty out of doors.

As a result, we generally see—with an occasional, though notable, gratis exception—only those sufferers who can afford our services. The unemployed, parolees, battered women, the homeless: at best they get whatever regimented aid is grudgingly offered by the counties they report to, or maybe a social worker who links them up to local resources but may or may not address the psychodynamics of why their client won’t make use of them. And if they are lucky, they will run into an idealistic therapist willing to work with them despite little or no support (and very often, open hostility) from a social system more focused on consumption and production and “re-education” and “reform” than on listening to what the beneficiaries of these programs say they need.

I was about a year into facilitating therapy groups for court-referred men and women when I finally realized that the psychological establishment was in no danger of ever addressing my clients’ urgent need for some kind of basic, relevant psychological education. After all, we put a lot of emphasis in the US on verbal literacy, and now on math literacy even though computers crunch numbers more efficiently than the brain ever will—but why not much more emphasis on psychological literacy of the kind that offers basics on managing feelings, dealing with anger, defending oneself emotionally, finding suitable relationship partners--and beyond that, on critical thinking, political awareness, psychological symbolism, and creative troublemaking? (And: what would happen to our current institutions if marginalized populations became psychologically aware and vocal? Like every other living system, they’d have to adapt to this new grassroots pressure or perish. History: one long tale of institution after institution either adjusting to new and compelling public demands or failing to and going under.)

Deciding that many of my “clients” needed that more than therapy, I designed a curriculum and began using bits and pieces of it in groups whose participants, regardless of education level, immediately soaked up the basics and bare bones: not of personality theory or founding fathers so much as family dynamics and anger-management, clear communication and key concepts like projection/introjection and selfobject needs (Kohut, 1976). This multidisciplinary approach also went beyond the psychological basics to include a mini-course in mythic thinking and active imagination and the symbolic fleshing out of social conditions and daily events.

To illustrate how one can use a participatory (in the Freire (1970) sense) psychoeducational approach in lieu of--but not as an alternative to!--traditional psychotherapy, the following section will describe two meetings I led for participants on welfare, groups in which I put to use learnings hammered out over six years of group work. These “PHAROS Psycholiteracy Project” meetings were conducted as part of my doctoral fieldwork in the offices of a nonprofit agency in San Diego that offers the poor free legal advice and information about their welfare rights.

First Meeting

...We are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.

– Marcus Aurelius

As an initial step, I called several local psychologists to ask if they’d do quick pro bono assessments so my participants could get child care credit. Only two returned my calls, and one of them worked for the local APA, who had “never heard of starting such a program, and I’m not sure we can be of any help with it.”

Seven people were informed that a doctoral student with therapy experience was interested in offering free psychological information to people just like them. To do that, however, he needed to get a sense of their needs and expectations.

Session One:

All seven showed up for our first evening together: four Hispanic women, two African-Americans (a man and a woman), and one Caucasian woman. Ages varied from early 20s to mid-40s. All were on welfare, and two had some post-high school education. We sat in a semicircle in a sweltering office while the fans worked overtime. Pizza and soft drinks were served. As we ate, I introduced myself as a counselor interested in bringing the best of what I'd learned in session, in group, and in class to people who couldn't afford either school or counseling. I gave examples of how my groups had worked with certain conflicts: grappling with powerful emotions; assertiveness challenges; relationship troubles; distinguishing thoughts from feelings and both from actions....

What I needed, I explained, was a group of people willing to bring me up to date on some of the challenges of being poor. We would then make those challenges into lessons, try them out in group, and find out which lessons and exercises worked and which should be dropped. "In this way we'll be helping each other--and you'll be helping others who deal every day with similar difficulties.

"But all this will be clearer later. For now, how about introductions? If you don't mind, please say your name, your involvement with this advocacy agency, and your hopes and concerns about this meeting." (I'd written these suggestions on the whiteboard.)

That took about forty-five minutes, and there was good participation all around. Nobody seemed either overtly suspicious or just going through the motions.

"So here's what we've got. We've got seven people with different strengths and pieces of wisdom and experience: you. We've got me and my psychological toolbox. Given all that, I'm thinking we might try out something like this: I'm noticing that some common struggles seem to be coming up for most of you, like depression, family frustrations, and a habit of being tough on yourselves when you're already feeling overwhelmed." Nods. "How about if you pick one of these and we'll discuss it a bit so you can see how I work? Or suggest another topic? This will not be counseling, but it may be educational. We'll see."

Someone suggested the topic of being hard on oneself; more heads nodded. So to work we went, with me sitting with them while collecting examples of this challenge, then eventually standing to draw pictures or outline points on the whiteboard.

We began with them providing examples of "how does it look and feel when you're hard on yourself?" We did advantages and price tags. Then I taught them about the "internal saboteur" (Fairbairn,1994), gave a basic explanation of the introjection of expectations and criticisms, and pointed out that one could have four relations to the IS: possession (where its discouragements become one's own, with subsequent self-defeating impulsivity); domination (trying to drown it out); intimidation (being afraid of it); and conversation (getting to know it, then learning to challenge it).

"Does anyone have a recent example of having friends, family, coworkers, etc. echo the saboteur's discouragements?"

One woman provided one, crying for a bit while she described how overwhelmed and ganged up on she felt. The group gave her a space of empathic silence. The woman next to her handed her a kleenex. (All had previously agreed that what happened in the room stayed in the room.)

"I'd like to mention what seems to be a psychological law: that when we don't deal with the 'inner' saboteur, 'outer' people show up whose criticisms sort of give it back to us. And in your case, you all have an entire country looking down on you for being poor.” (Everybody nodded, some vigorously.) “Feels miserable....until we comprehend."

We then generated various ways to manage the saboteur, with nearly all the ideas coming from the group. "If you can do these," I finished, "then over time, the saboteur will soften, soften, soften....into a friend. Try it out." I thanked and praised them for working so hard for our two hours together.

Second Meeting

Your silence will not protect you. – Audrey Lorde

Five attended, all women: one African American, one Caucasian, and three Hispanic. As before, we sat in a circle.

One participant, who was pregnant, complained that her new case worker had noticed her age (mid-20s) and said something discouraging about “you girls just don’t get it.” The worker was promptly told that all three children had the same father and that he was dead. The group spent some time in commiseration and in trading stories about being stereotyped by “the system.”

I posed a question: why does the wealthiest nation in the world need poor people around?

This thought hadn’t occurred to most of the group, but one participant said: to scare everyone else into working. Eyes opened wide.

“’Look what might happen to you if you don’t man those offices and tractors.’ That what you mean?” She nodded. To their wonder, they then came up with several built-in setups for failure, from cutting money to the newly employed to electronic “cash” whose shifting amounts made for frequent audits and arguments.

A participant asked whether case workers and politicians were deliberately trying to keep them down.

“Not consciously,” I replied, “for the most part. It’s more that they’re just doing their unreflective jobs in a social system whose runaway economy requires constant working and constant spending. When the dollar rules, then people go under the wheels. --Of course, many Americans also have powerful biases against the poor, no? If you could be on TV for a moment, what would you tell the viewers about the experience of poverty (from an idea suggested by M. Watkins, 2001, personal communication)?”

1.That we are not lazy, and that being poor is no party, sitting at home watching TV all day. We are all survivors.

2.That wondering how to get by on too little money makes you feel crazy all the time, especially when you have kids to worry about.

3.That when we are ignored or given bad service or a hard time, we know what that’s about, especially those of us who aren’t white.

4.That “obsession with money” is your deal much more than ours. (They knew about projection.)

5.That most of us are women, many victims of domestic violence.

6.That we’re tired of being silent.

This felt like a good opportunity to light a fire. So I told them the thoughts of a psychologist colleague who worked in an affluent community; upon learning of my project he assured me that the poor cared only about short-range objectives and immediate concerns, not about growing or learning. “What about it? Food, money, shelter—is that the reach of your interests?”

They were outraged. One said such ignorance hurt her heart. Another asked how a psychologist could fail to know that everything, even cats and dogs, had an urge to grow, to become a bit better today than yesterday. And how could children bear to live with parents who thought only about how hard life was?

No poor person known to the group could survive one day without the hope that the future could somehow be brighter than a bit more to eat or a nicer place to sleep.

The ignorant people who saw the poor this way from the safety of their BMWs: they were the true poor of the land, not the broke who maintained some kind of faith even in the streets.

“Very good. You say you’re tired of being silent. To wrap this up, what if we look together at what silences you, then at how raising your voice might help you feel less victimized?”

Gandhi often said that to control people, one must humiliate them. Being kept ignorant of legal rights, sent to the back of the line as punishment for assertiveness, given endless and confusing forms to fill out, treated like one more boring case or number, overhearing one’s situation murmured about in some back office: these were a few of the many methods of humiliation identified by the group in its effort to comprehend the disinclination to speak up for oneself.

They then asked: what do we do? “Practically speaking, I don’t have answers that must ultimately come from you and be different for each of you. Where one person does well to be sly and sneak around the corners, another’s style is a more in-your-face variety. But what I can do is help you understand what you’re up against psychologically—you’ve done a bit of that tonight—and then listen to you tell your stories. In your story is your soul, you see, and in the telling is your voice, the voice that you’ve been taught is not worth hearing.”

When I wrote up these meetings for my fieldwork, I considered it from the depth-psychological perspective I study in school, a perspective informed by the language of symbol and story and metaphor, which means:

When I reflect on mythic parallels to what the poor, so rich in experience, bring those of us who listen to their tales, I think about the highway cleverness of Hermes, stealer of herds and maker of lyres; about the disguised gods unrecognized by Baucis and Philemon, who hosted them even so; about noble Chiron, the deformed healer who died for Prometheus. In a shabbily dressed father I see a glimpse of the immortal Lu Tung Pin, kicked down the stairs for trying to sell his oil. A frustrated woman surrounded by a cloud of children brings to mind Rhea, mother of future revolutionaries. I consider the metaphors in hunger, homelessness, and despair; and poverty suddenly seems an Underworld spread out over the pavement, as the Kingdom of God was said to be spread out over the earth.

But what strikes me every time I sit down with these groups is the image of the bruised and sickened soul of the world looking out at me through their eyes. Our hatred of the anima mundi and our hatred of the poor and of everyone else we alienate is, at some level, one, we uprooted Western capitalists who cast the full weight of our alienation—from ourselves, from our world, from the gods—onto those whom we would push to the very edges of our well-watered territories.

The poor bring us back what we enshadow, the underside of our greed, glut, and haste. Their chief metaphor in a culture of outrageous spending is scarcity, usually in the form of hunger. The slowed-down routines imposed by their material poverty-- the endless paperwork, long wait for employment, the unrelieved hours with crying children, the hours and hours on a bus every day --reflect the frenetic denial of our psychological poverty. The woman frozen into welfare: starkly individualized figure and type of our orphaned roots in the divine, outcast flesh a Field of Blood sold out for a handful of silver, sans kiss.

Bringing Out the Living

In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us. But if you ride these monsters deeper down, if you drop with them farther over the world's rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate, the ocean or matrix or ether which buoys the rest, which gives goodness its power for good, and evil its power for evil, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here.

– Annie Dillard

Nine years ago, I was doing a couples session of pre-marital counseling when the wife-to-be made a ribald joke about something, I no longer remember what. When I blushed, both laughed, and she said that my reaction surprised her. “How can you make peace with your spontaneity,” I replied, “unless you see me do it too?”

That quick reply was sewn out of whole cloth, but they accepted it. I didn’t. Aside from the certainty that I had invented it to cover myself, I kept thinking: what are we, as therapists, showing our clients by staying cool behind an emotionally aloof exterior? Perhaps the same as what we demonstrate with our supposedly good boundaries: that the important action belongs inside-- inside the office, inside the psyche, behind closed doors and closed faces and professionalized facades--rather than outside in the hurly-burly of the world around us.

Although advancements in theory and technique will never replace the old-fashioned alchemy of in-session work, code our genes, map our minds, twitch our eyes, or teleconference as we will, neither can psychotherapy successfully infringe on education or activism when it sells itself as a substitute--e.g., inviting clients to “work through” their outrage at social injustice, “deal with” the stress and self-betrayal of a soulless occupation, or relearn the language of feelings in session, as though these couldn’t happen anywhere else (or cheaper). Psychotherapy confined to the consulting room will always hold a place of unarguable value, but some learnings simply unfold best in groups, in living rooms, on horseback, or in the hills, particularly when the learners don’t have two nickels to rub together. “Meet them where they are” is a therapeutic morsel that could stand a leavening of literality.

Of course, depending on which population you choose to encounter, attempting this quickly confronts the therapist-educator with dreadful examples of irredeemable anguish and tragedy often beyond that of clients functional enough to sit across from us week after week. Abandon all notion that you can save everyone (or anyone), ye who exit here. Sitting with a mother of six just denied welfare money because her learning disability hinders her from filling out the state paperwork, or with a hospitalized teen whose father just shot him, paralyzing him for life, confronts the professional with the issue of how much real help can be given or accepted, whether in or out of session.

Stay with this question, however, challenge the rather “up” ideal of counseling as a highly paid facilitating of functionality, and you might find yourself settling “down” into the position of paramedic Frank Pierce in the film Bringing Out the Dead (Reidy and Steel, 1999), who, driving through New York City at night while thinking about the patients who keep dying on him, realizes with a strange sense of joy that: "After a while, I grew to understand that my role was less about saving lives than about bearing witness."

Every seasoned psychotherapist has tasted this insight at least once. The difference? Pierce proclaims it, not in the office or the clinic, where feedback is offered by an expert, but right out in the chaos of the streets that Adler sanctified so long ago by dying in them.

In the case of psycholiteracy, bearing witness might look and sound less like encouraging adaptation to organized economic oppression than like taking the risk of temporarily standing in for the voice —in Carol Gilligan’s sense of that word (Gilligan, 1993)--that our clients have lost along the way. To our knack for regurgitating and giving back in edible form those previously intolerable emotional states our clients project into us we might add the craft of giving some of it to the community too, adding personal to introjected outrage, helplessness, and sorrow as we awaken our surround through the countertransference it prompts to what tends to remain in silence and shadow.

Make this part of your curriculum and you might also witness the unlocking of a fierce and fecund idealism in people no longer content with going unheard.

Author Note

Correspondence concerning this article may be sent to Craig Chalquist, <chalquist@tearsofllorona.com>
Homepage: Psychology Steps Outside: http://www.tearsofllorona.com


Fairbairn, R. (1994) Psychoanalytic studies of the person. London: Routledge.

Freire, P. (1970). The pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: The Continuum Publishing Company.

Gilligan, C. (1993). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Cambridge: Harvard University

Kohut, H. (1976). The restoration of the self. Boston: International Universities Press.

Reidy, J. & Steel, E. (Producers), & Scorsese, M. (Director) (1999). Bringing out the dead [Film]. Hollywood: Paramount

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