Critique of a Book Used by Many Psychologists and Psychiatrists to Oppress Patients, Part One


This is the first of a five-part series of posts that criticize a book that serves to oppress individuals, whether they have mental health problems or not.

As I indicated in another post (A Worker’s Resistance to the Capitalist Government or State and Its Representatives, Part Nine), I engaged in a partial critique of the book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David Burns, M.D. (1999). This book is used by many psychologists and psychiatrists as a basis for the psychological technique called “mindfulness”–and with reason since Dr. Burns defines human problems independently of social context–quite convenient for the class of employers since the economic, social and political oppressive and exploitative contexts are thereby ignored–or rather suppressed.

The reason why I read the book was that I was required to see a psychologist as a condition of receiving disability benefits from the Manitoba Teachers Society (see A Worker’s Resistance to the Capitalist Government or State and Its Representatives, Part Ten). Mr. Alan Slusky, a psychologist in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, recommended the book and, in fact, it was supposed to be part of my “therapy”–bibliotherapy. According to Wikipedia:

Bibliotherapy is a creative arts therapies modality that involves storytelling or the reading of specific texts with the purpose of healing. It uses an individual’s relationship to the content of books and poetry and other written words as therapy. Bibliotherapy is often combined with writing therapy.

I refer occasionally to John Dewey’s philosophy of science, which I will look at to some extent in the fourth post but especially in the last post of this series. I also refer occasionally to my dissertation. My doctoral dissertation compared the philosophies of human nature of John Dewey (an :American philosopher of education and author of, among other books, Human Nature and Social Conduct: An Introduction to Social Psychology, Democracy and Education and Logic: The Theory of Inquiry) and Paulo Freire (a Brazilian philosopher of education and author, among other books, of Pedagogy of the Oppressed).

Critique of the Contents of the Book

Let us now turn to the contents of the book and some of my criticisms.  I do not present my criticism in the order in which I wrote it since the initial points are fairly abstract (I leave those for the fourth and fifth posts in this series). My critical comments are usually either in square brackets or separate points  as a continuation of my comments: 

    1. “Depression is one of the worst forms of suffering because of the immense feelings of shame, worthlessness, hopelessness and demoralization. Depression can seem worse than terminal cancer, because most cancer patients feel loved and they have hope and self-esteem. Many depressed patients have told me, in fact, that they yearned for death and that they prayed every night that they would get cancer, so they could die in dignity without having to commit suicide.”

    2. P. 9: “In fact, depression is so widespread it is considered the common cold of psychiatric disturbances.” [Would that not be evidence of a social problem for a scientist? Would not even the lay person who is curious wonder why it is so common?]

    3. Page 10: Note: “The idea that thinking patterns can profoundly influence your moods has been described by a number of philosophers [why did he not name a few?] in the past 2500 years. More recently, the cognitive view of emotional disturbances has been explored in the writings of many psychiatrists and psychologists including Alfred Adler, Albert Ellis, Karen Horney, and Arnold Lazarus, to name just a few. A history of this movement has been described in Ellis, A., Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy.”

    4. Page 11: “2. Understanding: A clear understanding of why you get moody and what you can do to change your moods. You will learn what causes your powerful feelings; how to distinguish “normal” from “abnormal” emotions; and how to diagnose and assess the severity of your upsets.”

    5. Page 11: Self-control: You will learn how to apply safe and effective coping strategies that will make you feel better whenever you are upset. … As you apply it, your moods can come under greater voluntary control.

    6. Page 12: “The first principle of cognitive therapy is that all your moods are created by your “cognitions,” or thoughts. … You feel the way you do because of the thoughts that you are thinking in this moment. [One of the categories that he uses is “overgeneralization.” Here is a good example of overgeneralization. What is a thought? What is a feeling? What is the relationship between the two? Do feelings cause thoughts? What is the specific causal mechanism that leads from thoughts to feelings? What narrative structure, in conjunction with the descriptive structure? Furthermore, the “self” of human beings is constituted by a set of ways of acting, which are linked to how others act. Money. A set of habits is generally unconscious until a problem arises.] [Which came first? Thoughts or feelings in the process of evolution?]

    7. You create those feelings [feelings are products of the self—the environment plays no part for Burns. The subject of the action of creating feelings is “you”—apparently, you do not consist of feelings—they arise out of thin air. You are feelingless, and the feelings then are magically produced by something completely different from the feelings—thoughts.” Does Burns explain anywhere how people create feelings? Unlikely. This is mysticism, not science, or rather it is mysticism parading as science. How do thoughts “create” feelings? What is the difference between thoughts and feelings?] by the dialogue you are having with this book. [Presentation of the individual self as purely internal. There is no relation to an environment. Feelings are purely internal as are thoughts. But if both are purely internal, are they not the same in some way? This is idealist—and subjective idealism at that—by reducing the individual to purely internal processes. Anti-evolutionary.] [Burns is inferior to anything that Dewey has to offer. Burns assumes the “you” without inquiring into what he means by the “you” Does he mean the person or the body? The formation of the human person? If the “you” is itself a social process that has its focal point in an individual who becomes conscious of processes between the environment and the living being, then this “you” is itself a product and a cause. This one-sided reduction of the “you” to pure thought cannot begin to grasp the complexity of the nature of human beings. Burns does not even reflect on the use of his terms—a lack of critical thinking.]

    8. If “you” are a product of a social process, what then is the relation between the “individual” and the “social”? Burns does not even try to determine the relation since he reduces human nature to the isolated individual who is already formed—and assumes that this isolated individual is the point of departure.

    9. He assumes, in effect, that the human individual is a formed individual, and simply ignores the environmental conditions that contribute to the construction of the “you.”

    10. From Burns’ point of view, prehistoric people merely had to change their way of thinking and they would be like us.

    11. Is not the “you”—and thoughts and feelings—linked to the kind of society in which we live? Would Burns have the you that he does without the Gutenberg press?

    12. Your emotional reaction is generated not by the sentences you are reading but by the way you are thinking. Your thought actually creates the emotion. [creates? How? There is an organic aspect to all reactions, and that organic aspect, when grounded in the cns (central nervous system), can be called feeling. Feeling becomes emotion (something with an object attached to it. Feeling has organic roots and is quite independent of “thought.” Let us see whether this “scientist” explains how thought “creates ”emotion.”]Thought does not create emotion; it is a necessary condition for emotion to arise, but then so too is the environment. This person is an idealist and so too is his theory—despite the “scientific research” he claims. As for science, if thoughts “cause” feelings—in a real scientific sense and not in his pseudo-scientific conception of science, then he should be able to link up the “cause” with the “effect” in one narrative structure such that the beginning and the end form a history. See my dissertation.]

    13. The second principle is that when you are feeling depressed, your thoughts are dominated by a pervasive negativity.” Really? Such a generalization independent of context? His principle must be a physical principle since only physic-chemical principles are universal. Even if it were true—and? The implication is that “negativity” is an unreasonable or unjustifiable response to conditions. Such an assumption is unjustifiable. See the article on justifiable depression.] Social science that pretends to be universal is ideological—except for a few generalities that cannot grasp any definite, concrete relation (cannot exist independently of determinate, concrete relations).

    14. p. 13: “This feeling is absolutely illogical, but it seems so real that you have convinced yourself that your inadequacy will go on forever.” [Does this person live on this planet? There are many individuals who live in hopeless situations. How many children die each year throughout the world from malnutrition and starvation? Should their parents not be depressed? Has he ever experienced depression? This “scientist” becomes ever more pompous and lacks any depth of understanding of what people in this world experience.] [In any case, his statement that it is “absolutely illogical” is itself illogical. No rational scientist would make such a categorical statement independently of circumstances. [Watched a movie recently called “Guilty,” in French. The man was accused falsely of sexual abuse; he was imprisoned; his children were taken away from him (his children were his life); his wife eventually was let go, but she began seeing another man. His mother died while he was in prison. He stayed in prison for almost two years. Despite the recantation of the woman who accused him of sexual abuse, the judges condemned him to 18 months of probation. He tried to kill himself several times. Was it his negative thoughts that led to his depressed feelings? Was it the total situation? “Negative thoughts” may be a contributing determinant of depression, but to reduce depression to just this aspect is a fallacy—a fallacy of reducing a total process and situation to one event within the process or one aspect of it.]

    15. P.13: “The third principle is of substantial philosophical and therapeutic importance. Our research has documented that the negative thoughts which cause your emotional turmoil nearly always contain gross distortion. [Why the emphasis on “always.” Obviously because negative feelings have no real basis—always. But what happens if they do have a basis in reality, but that Burns and company have neglected to determine this in a scientific manner? Do they consider the context in which people live? That is to say, the environment? Or do they act like pre-evolutionary scientists and pretend that human beings are isolated monads, cut off from their environment?] [Who determines what constitutes gross distortions? Burns has such a grip on reality that he does not live in a distorted world? If capitalist society is by its very nature a distorted world, then what are the implications, psychologically?] Although these thoughts appear valid, you will learn that they are irrational or just plain wrong and that twisted thinking is a major cause of your suffering.” [If so many people have twisted thoughts—at the beginning, Burns claims that depression is like the common cold for psychiatrists since it is so prevalent a problem for them, then is not the educational system a possible cause for such twisted thinking? Is not education supposed to teach people how to think? See John Dewey, How We Think: A Restatement of the Relation of Reflective Thinking to the Education Process—the need for reflective thinking (not rationalism as usually defined as pure reason independently of context. Would it not be rational for a person who finds that depression is common to inquire into the conditions of its emergence? But Burns has the magic answer in his cap—negative thoughts. Why so many people have negative thoughts never enters his “scientific” mind, which seems to involve a curious lack of desire to inquire into anything that may contradict his theory. If schools contribute to the lack of a capacity to think, then individual solutions of “changing” thoughts will not do. Burns will have none of that, of course.] [It can be concluded that Burns’ theory ‘nearly always contain[s] great distortions.]

    16. : “Some of the major symptoms include… the conviction that external forces are controlling your mind or body….” [There are—necessarily—in a society characterized by commodity production—a lack of control over forces that determine our body and mind.]

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