Hello again, Student J here. This is the second segment of my Anti-Therapy series. In my previous article, which appeared in Therapy Matters (J, 2020), I shared some background on myself and my experience dealing with the “woke” phenomenon in my counseling education program and my concerns regarding such. In this piece I am going to make the argument that Critical Theories are deleterious to individual mental health and wellbeing. I am by no means an expert but it is my hope that, whether my readers are laypersons or professionals, the perspective I offer will prove useful.
Critical Social Justice Theory (CSJT) is not conducive to sound mental health or individual functioning. In fact, CSJT is itself a form of cognitive distortion that promotes individual dysfunction and psychopathology. CSJT presents a set of non-falsifiable hypotheses as reified assertions that distort reality, promote group identification over individualism, and foster resentment, paranoia, and grievance. Furthermore, CSJT perspectives rob individuals of their autonomy, dignity, and ability to adapt to the hardships inevitability faced in life.
In order to understand just how CJST does damage we first need to understand the concept of “locus of control”, which is a component of resilience. “Locus of control” (LOC) refers to an individual’s explanation for their experiences of success or failure. Simply put, it’s where “cause” is attributed—either externally (other people, environmental factors) or internally (personal choice and responsibility). Locus of control is not an absolute dichotomy or binary as is commonly misunderstand. It exists as a continuum—not everyone has a completely external or completely internal LOC. Instead, people tend to err on one side or the other.
To give an example of external and internal LOC in action, let’s consider two undergraduate students. Student A, who has external LOC, receives a bad grade on a test. They respond by making excuses and blaming outside factors; their boss gave them too many hours at work, the instructor is bad at their job, or they were not given enough time to prepare. Student B, with an internal LOC, accepts personal responsibility, acknowledges that they did not prepare themselves adequately for the exam or manage their available time appropriately, and aims to rectify their mistakes and do better next time. It’s not difficult to see which perspective would be more useful for a student trying to apply for a graduate or post-graduate program.
There is an ongoing etiological debate regarding the proper level of analysis between personal agency and biological or sociocultural influences, and while that particular debate is beyond the scope of this essay, the perspectives offered are not without merit and the potential for useful synthesis. Research has shown that there is a correlation between poverty and mental health, life outcomes, and a host of other problems such as participation in violent crime, single-parent families, substance abuse, and teen pregnancy. Sociocultural factors cannot be entirely ignored, but the explanatory power offered by this view is not complete. A strong argument can be made for another variable which explains differences in life outcomes despite the same rough sociocultural environment: individual variation among a variety of traits, including LOC.
Research has indicated that an individual’s LOC (conceptualized here, roughly, as “personal agency and responsibility” vs “sociocultural or biological influences”) has important implications for mental health and overall wellbeing. For example, a meta analysis conducted by Cheng et al (2013) surveyed 40 years of research literature and found that an external LOC was more tightly associated with symptoms of anxiety and depression than an internal LOC, and that this effect was strongest in individualist cultures such as North America and Europe.
An internal LOC also influences life outcomes beyond mental health states: individuals with internal LOC, in addition to experiencing less stress, anxiety, and depression, also earn higher marks in school, have greater life satisfaction, and display resilience in the face of adversity (Manichander 2014). The connection is easy enough to see; if a person believes they have a high degree of control over their own life and has a strong sense of self-efficacy they will be more highly motivated to work hard, learn from their mistakes, and more effectively adapt to an ever-changing environment full of challenges and pitfalls. They will also have less depressive symptoms and anxiety interfering with their functioning.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s research was done on two subtypes of external LOC, defensive and congruent. Defensive externality is marked by “low expectations of success in achieving valued goals” and the adoption of “external beliefs as a defense against feelings of personal failure” (Molinari & Khanna, 1981). Congruent externals, by contrast, are best described by “learned helplessness”— they lack self-efficacy and do not believe that their actions can ultimately effect outcomes.
Molinari & Khanna (1981) found that congruent externality was strongly associated with depression, and both forms correlated with anxiety, with defensive externality bearing the stronger association. Internality was inversely correlated with both depression and anxiety. The takeaway from their study is that defensive externality involves a constructed belief system as a coping mechanism. This was a correlational study, and so it is not clear if the belief systems leads to the anxiety, or if the belief system is a coping mechanism for the anxiety. However, a strong argument can be made that negative externality certainly does not assuage anxiety nor help individuals to remedy the cause.
The good (and bad) news is that LOC is not exactly a temperament or personality trait, both of which are resistant to change. LOC is better understood as a cognitive schema, a belief structure, or a perspective. It can be changed. And often this is what counselors are seeking to do—by promoting autonomy, agency, and self-efficacy in a client, clinicians are shifting the client towards greater internality. This is an implicit goal; it would be surprising if many counseling professionals were able to articulate it as such.
In the past few decades counseling has begun to move towards a more “social constructionist” and “social justice” oriented approach, drawing heavily from various Critical Theories and postmodernism. These approaches—especially feminist theory— often deny the existence of pathology or dysfunction, and posit that the locus of distress has its origins in society and the harmful “discourses” surrounding such things as gender norms, “heteronormativity”, and “patriarchy”. Is this an appropriate view? To an extent: psychology and counseling, as early as Alfred Adler’s work in the early 20th century, has acknowledged the role of sociocultural factors on individual psychology and development. Different theories of counseling place varying amounts of emphasis on the sociocultural environment vs individual characteristics. The role of the counselor, however, has always been in supporting and promoting individual functioning and development. The reason for this is simple: counselors work primarily with individuals, and since it is technically impossible and also not helpful to the client for the counselor to “fix the world”, counselors instead work to promote client self-understanding, resilience, and self-efficacy. Again: counselors promote an internal LOC.
Consider now a social constructionist, “Critical” perspective. In this framework people are the product of their sociocultural environment. There is no innate human nature (the question of whence emerges “society” and “culture” is never answered), and everything from a person’s sex, gender, personality and preferences are “socially constructed”. There is no personal agency. There is no self-efficacy. You are who you are because of the various messages of society, which you have internalized (again, the psychological mechanisms mediating this “internalization” are never explained).
Critical Theories posit that people are members of socially constructed groups, assert (by strong implication) that membership in these groups is superordinate to individual identity, and that these groups are best viewed from the hermeneutics of power. Individuals become “bodies”, and these bodies are dissected and portioned out via “intersectionality” (Crenshaw, 1991) to various identity groups which confer either “privilege” or “marginalization”. The compounding effects of these “intersections” are used to explain disparate outcomes between groups, and since adherents “identity with” their groups, disparate outcomes are interpreted and felt in a very personal way, otherwise known as the “lived experience”.
While not without its own kernels of truth, CSJT takes an inch, and stretches it to a mile. Adopting this perspective wholesale is incompatible with a healthy internal LOC, and therefore, incompatible with sound mental health and resilience. A completely social constructionist perspective is just as damaging as biological essentialism. Both perspectives rob free will, dignity, and autonomy.
At first glance the worldview offered by CJST seems bleak. It’s based on cynicism, lacks charity, and denies the power and dignity of the individual. It’s a distorted view of reality based on catastrophizing which is easy enough for most reasonable people to see. Why then does it seem that so many people are adopting this belief system? One way of conceptualizing the situation is that CSJT operates as a psychic mousetrap, presenting an appealing explanation for the unfairness of the world as a lure, and then slamming shut on the minds of those who take the bait.
For people who are not faring as well in life as they think they should or would like to, and who happen to be the member of a “marginalized group” (it should be noted that, thanks to intersectional theory, most people have at least one marginalized identity), CSJT offers an appealing and defensively externalizing explanation: it’s not your fault. It’s the system. It’s “white supremacy”. It’s “the patriarchy”. That is why you are not successful and accomplishing your goals. The system is rigged against you. It’s not because of your bipolar disorder—it’s because it is socially constructed as a “disorder” in the first place and devalued and marginalized. It’s not because you are lazy, undisciplined, and always show up late—it’s because society is marked by the hegemony of “whiteness” that privileges hard work, discipline, and punctuality.
This system of reasoning can also have harmful implications for physical health, as in the case of “fat studies” wherein the decades of empirically validated evidence for the damaging effects of being overweight are dismissed as “socially constructed anti-fat bias”, the product of “fatphobia” and “white patriarchal standards of beauty”. The assertion is then made that there is no correlational or causal relationship between health and bodyweight.
What recourse does triggering the mousetrap leave an individual? If the causes of their distress are external factors then it logically follows that the solution is to change those external factors. And thus the activist, or “Social Justice Warrior” is born, seeking to redress their problems—not by working on themselves and growing as individuals, or by formulating strategies to improve their own lives—but by pressuring others to change themselves, or to change the system. In this way the activists enter into anti-therapeutic relationships with each other.
By adopting a CSJT perspective, the adherent of this belief system adopts defensive externality, a belief system which blames external other factors including the disembodied forces of privilege, ableism, heteronormativity, and so on and so forth, that work through all people via an invisible power grid. This belief system is morally bankrupt and saps the individual of autonomy, individual identity, self-efficacy and resilience, predisposing them to depression and debilitating anxiety. Is it any wonder there are so many “SJW Freakout” videos on Youtube, or that the activist adherents of Theory spend an inordinate amount of times attempting to shame, ridicule, and control others?
But changing others will ultimately prove futile; there is no shortage of problems for life to throw our way. It is much more feasible to become the sort of person who can deal with life’s problems; to develop an appropriate LOC, resilience, self-efficacy, and equanimity. Social activism—that is, Critical social activism—robs the activists and those they seek to help of the opportunity for personal growth and development. It is, ultimately, infantalizing and promotes dependency.
Paradoxically, many counselors and counselor education programs are adopting a CSJT perspective and incorporating these views into practice and course curricula. Counselors in training are being taught that CSJT is sacrosanct, and Critical views are being presented as fact. Counseling and counseling theories are being increasingly analyzed through a Critical lens. Most of the professionals involved in this shift are probably well-meaning people who want to do good work in the world and promote client welfare and are not well-versed in CSJT or the underlying philosophies, as well as lacking an understanding of the mental health implications of CSJT. It is to them that this essay will make the following appeal:
It is the contention of this essay that this CSJT is damaging to the mental health of its adherents and the argument was presented that it does so by undermining their agency through an externalizing of LOC. Adopting a “Critical” counseling framework affirms a belief system that is both damaging to the individual and contrary to positive growth.
This is wholly unethical on the part of counselors and undermines the therapeutic relationship as well as the profession of counseling itself. Students and counseling educators should exert pressure to have Theoretical perspectives bounded and framed as just one of many possible “social justice” perspectives, and criticism should be leveled at the ex ante declaring of “social justice” as the Fifth Force in counseling. Furthermore, counseling students and educators should adopt a skeptical view of any perspective that is not individualistic and humanistic, as well as caution regarding the idea that “social justice activism” is an appropriate scope of practice for mental health professionals.
American Counseling Association. (2014). ACA Code of Ethics. Retrieved from https://www.counseling.org/resources/aca-code-of-ethics.pdf
Crenshaw, K.W. (1991). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review
Cheng, C., Cheung, S. F., Chio, J. H.-m., & Chan, M.-P. S. (2013). Cultural meaning of perceived control: A meta-analysis of locus of control and psychological symptoms across 18 cultural regions. Psychological Bulletin
Forester-Miller, H., & Davis, T. E. (2016). Practitioner’s guide to ethical decision making (Rev. ed.). Retrieved from http://www.counseling.org/docs/default-source/ethics/practioner’s-guide-toethical-decision-making.pdf
Herlihy, B., & Corey, G. (2015). ACA ethical standards casebook (7th ed.). American Counseling Association.
J, S., CTA. (2020). The Anti-Therapy: Part 1. My Experience as a Counselor in Training. Critical Social Justice website. Retrieved from https://criticaltherapyantidote.org/2020/11/19/the-anti-therapy-part-1-my-experience-as-a-counselor-in-training/
Manichancer, T. (2014). Locus of Control and Performance: Widening Applicabilities. Paripex-Indian Journal of Research
Molinari, V., & Khanna, P. (1981). Locus of Control and Its Relationship to Anxiety and Depression. Journal of Personality Assessment
Author: ‘Student J’