Joel Kovel published a book called Radical Spirit which is a collection of essays about the tension he felt in being both a psychoanalyst and a Marxist. Loosely put, he says that the job of the psychoanalyst is to help the individual to change in such a way that they can function better and be happier in their world. The job of the Marxist, on the other hand, is to attempt to change the world to better meet the needs of the individual. In the chapters I’ve read, he represents the two roles as being absolutely in opposition to each other – and both absolutely his own.

Of course, as a Marxist, he’s going to incline toward a dialectic, anyway. Still. I found the book in a used book store maybe 10 or 12 years ago and picked it up half at random – but only half. I wasn’t a therapist yet (still am not yet), I wasn’t planning on ever being a psychoanalyst, and I’ve never been a Marxist. I still sometimes feel like it’s the world I should be helping to change, or my society. For all that I did a lot of political theory when I was an undergraduate, my politics are fairly immature and nebulous, but I’m enough of a liberal to believe that one of the primary functions of government is to protect the under-represented from the privileged who would otherwise have the power to run rampant over them, and enough of a radical (still, though I was more of one when I was just out of college – it’s easier to be a radical in your twenties, I think) to believe that liberalism isn’t enough.

So Kovel’s book is enough to catch me up short at times, wondering it I’m overlooking ways in which my chosen profession enables an unjust society in remaining unjust by helping individuals adapt to an environment that doesn’t deserve their adaptation.

Too abstract? Let’s say I have a female client who is seeing me for moderate depression. She’s a successful professional in a field in which there aren’t many women, the mother of two children she makes sure she has time with, married to a man who is also a successful professional in a different field. She initially says she has a great life, she can’t understand why she’s so unhappy. After we talk for a while, it becomes clear that she’s under a lot of stress at work, with the pressure to excel, and at home, where she does the majority of the parenting and takes care of the house. She feels isolated at work, which is a competitive environment, and feels like she can’t ‘show weakness’ because it will be attributed to her being a woman. She feels isolated at home because she really doesn’t have the time or energy to make a lot of social connections, so her only real adult companionship is with her husband, whose time is limited.

She mentions the possibility of medication, because these days, that’s inevitable. Maybe she sees a psychiatric specialist who prescribes one at least until she’s feeling more stable, or maybe she doesn’t. Regardless, she has good benefits and her insurance will cover several sessions of counseling, and after we’ve gotten a rapport going, we start talking about things she can do in her life to reduce stress, increase support, and improve her overall sense of well-being and her mood. We talk about relaxation exercises, and I teach her some simple ones, and also suggest she consider something like Tai Chi or yoga. We develop plans for her to get some help with the housework, and to make contact with one or two old friends with whom she has fallen out of touch. She starts making progress, and is feeling a lot better by the time the 12 or 14 sessions her insurance covers are over. We conclude our weekly sessions, agreeing that she will check in periodically, and definitely let me know if she starts feeling more depressed again. She thanks me, and there is much more life in her expression than there was a few months before.

She has done great work in therapy, I have helped. This was a success. Not an epic success that will get made into a blockbuster film starring Angelina Jolie, but a real life, basic, fundamental success of psychotherapy. She is happier and more effective in her life as a result of the work we did together. Everybody wins.

And now let’s look at what just happened from a different angle. A woman came to see me, unhappy and worn down by the impact of living in a misogynistic society day in, day out, at work and at home. Her ‘successful’ career was a daily gauntlet of feeling pressured and tested by colleagues and supervisors ready to interpret any sign of emotion from her as negative and a sign of inability to do the job, because it was a competitive field but especially because she was a woman. Like many women, having a family meant working two full-time jobs for her, because her husband, as busy as she was, did not then make or find the time to also be a primary caregiver for their children, or to do an equal share in dealing with the house. By encouraging her to increase her own resilience to stress, I reduce any incentive she or anyone connected to her might have to change the environment she was functioning in. The one environmental change we made reinforced normative classist expectations in our society: because she is a ‘professional’, she doesn’t have the time or energy to take care of her own living space. Her husband is in exactly the same boat, except that he doesn’t even feel he should do so. So in order to reduce my client’s stress and give her some more time for herself, I encouraged her to hire someone else – someone not a ‘successful professional’ who does not have more money than time, and who is almost certainly also a woman functioning in a sexist culture – to do the work that she (my client) doesn’t want to do, in maintaining her own home.

Given which, I am forced to ask, what the hell kind of radical am I?

And yet, I can’t see it as wrong to help teach people more coping mechanisms and give them the sensation of being supported and heard, and be present for them as we figure out collaboratively how to understand and address the things that are creating unmanageable stress and unhappiness in their lives.

My primary goal isn’t to do this kind of counseling – I hope to focus on work with children with much more acute mental health problems, and work with their families – but I believe that this kind of counseling is useful and important. The question is, how can we help the individual grow and develop without undermining a critical awareness of the society? I don’t think it’s insoluble, and I’m very definitely not the first person thinking this way. There are whole schools of psychotherapeutic thought which incorporate feminist/political/systemic perspectives into the work of individual counseling. I need to learn more about them. With any given client, everything changes, but overall, I think it’s possible to help the individual find ways of becoming more resilient, more effective, and more satisfied with how they function in their lives, and also more aware of the social influences which may be demanding that resilience of them.

It’s just something I like to be reminded to think about periodically. I don’t want to get too comfortable.


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