On The Inherent Incompatibility Between Woke and Psychoanalytic Values
Despite promoting legitimate social justice values, the Woke movement fundamentally contradicts core concepts of clinical psychoanalysis. Some of these weekly missives have triggered angry reactions, and I compose this one feeling like I’m shaking a flask of nitroglycerin. Nonetheless, the issue begs for discussion. In the way of a preview, the various forms of psychoanalysis seek to enhance the individuality of patients. As Lacan (Ruti, 2012) notes, depth psychotherapy seeks to replace the ego (meaning who you think you are) with the subject (referring to your authentic self). Achieving such subjectification (Fink, 2014) requires maintaining as much value-neutrality as possible—an approach contradicting any Woke agenda.
The Woke movement overtly promotes a specific program, and in many ways, an important one. In the ensuing paragraphs, I delve into the history of the Woke movement, introduce readers to how psychoanalytic psychotherapy works, and conclude by elaborating upon why these two institutions stand in diametrical opposition to one another.
Woke emerged in conjunction with the introduction of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). The phrase, stay woke, was used by AAVE proponents as long ago as the 1930s. It referred to having an awareness of the social and political issues affecting African Americans. Beginning in the 2010s, the Woke movement expanded. It promoted individuals’ enhanced awareness of racial prejudice and discrimination. The phrase ultimately evolved to encompass broader social inequities, becoming a shorthand way of referring to concepts like identity politics, social justice, institutional racism, and white privilege. Mainly associated with the millennial generation, the term spread internationally. In 2017, the word, woke, was added to the Oxford English Dictionary.
Who could argue with the ideals promoted by the Woke movement? Most educated persons support broad social justice issues, want to reduce sexism and racism, and understand the problematic historical dominance of the Caucasian population. However, and just recently, various training programs in psychotherapy began encouraging administrators to include Woke agendas in their curricula. These range from psychiatric residencies to clinical psychology graduate programs. Inclusion in these educational programs’ curricula, if balanced, is not a problem. When it comes to how psychotherapists actually behave in their consulting rooms, however, a fundamental clash of beliefs results.
Sally Satel (2017), a psychiatrist who worries the Woke movement conflicts with medicine, writes from a politically conservative perspective. She is a visiting professor at Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. Also, Satel is affiliated with the right-wing American Enterprise Institute. Her political leanings contradict those of most practicing psychologists and psychiatrists. Nonetheless, she boldly addresses the contradictions just noted. In her book, P.C., M.D., Satel writes:
The Graduate Counseling Program at the University of Vermont, for example, intends to ‘structurally align’ itself with the Black Lives Matter movement and begin ‘the work of undoing systemic white supremacy.’ After George Floyd’s death, the Johns Hopkins University Counseling Center advised would-be students to ‘consider us one of many resources in the difficult but necessary work of engaging with internalized bias, recognizing privilege, and aligning values of anti-racism and allyship with embodied and sustained practice.
When did psychotherapists take social or political stands with their patients? The very idea contradicts the concept of psychotherapists’ nonjudgmental presence (Karbelnig, 2022). Yes, student-patients might talk to university counselors about their racist beliefs, or about their being the victim of same. However, their counselors or psychotherapists should be anything but purveyors of deliberate social influence. Satel adds:
The stakes for patients are high. When therapists use patients as receptacles for their worldview, patients are not led to introspection, nor are they emboldened to experiment with new attitudes, perspectives, and actions. Patients labeled by their therapists as oppressors can feel alienated and confused; those branded as oppressed learn to see themselves as feeble victims. It is difficult to imagine how a healthy therapeutic alliance between counselor and patient—a core bond nurtured through a clinician’s posture of caring neutrality and compassionate detachment—could thrive under these conditions.
In last week’s edition of this newsletter, I introduced some of the key concepts of psychodynamic psychotherapy. The ideas reveal that, no matter how helpful for social harmony, Woke themes are antithetical to psychoanalysis. Why? Because the fundamental work of depth psychotherapy is to allow people to be whoever they are. Their values and belief systems often come under scrutiny, but at patients’ initiation, not psychotherapists’. Depth psychotherapists have no business introducing their own personal values, not to mention institutional ones, into their work with patients.
As I have noted in prior issues, all of us human beings are influenced by unconscious themes (which I prefer to view as internal dramas). They prevent us from fully becoming who we are, from enjoying deep, inter-subjective intimacy, or from working or playing in ways that are maximally satisfying. To use Lacan’s concept, the dramas serve the falsely accommodating ego. They beg for replacing with dramas more reflective of the true, authentic self, the subject.
These ego-based internal dramas restrict personal freedom, particularly when promoting inauthenticity, harsh self-criticism, or compulsively repeated, destructive patterns. Actually, sexism, racism, and similar attitudes are also freedom-constricting. They prevent persons from fully embracing the individualities of those around them.
The process of helping patients uncover and alter these internal dramas constitutes an intensely humanistic, freedom-enhancing endeavor. In fact, the entire psychoanalytic movement rekindles Romanticism—the revolutionary reaction to the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution, to scientism, and to other reductionist forces shaping humanity then and now. Romantics reject the devaluation of all things that cannot be measured, weighed, or quantified. They rebel against objectification. They privilege the subjective.
A rather perfect irony, but the Woke movement itself, despite its many positives, risks objectification. Some of its more radical proponents would adopt critical, negative, and judgmental attitudes towards me and other Caucasian men—nothing less than a form of racism itself. How am I known as a human person, a unique subject, an individual, if assumptions are made about me and my values without knowing me? Perhaps an actual clinical example will demonstrate to those devoted to the Woke movement to understand the problem with it—at least as it relates to psychotherapy.
For several years now, I’ve worked with a raging sexist and racist male patient. I have described my work with him, in earlier newsletters, mostly because he provokes such strong negative countertransference. These take form as feelings of outrage, even anger. It is often difficult to contain my negative feelings towards him.
My job with him is to understand him, and to help him understand himself. Let’s call him John. I am ethically precluded from imposing my own, or any other social or cultural ethic, upon him. (Of course, no one can keep their values entirely out of consulting rooms, but I and my colleagues try our best). As it turns out, John was reared in an almost entirely white environment. He just turned 50, and yet he remains closely tied to his mother. His one marriage ended after a few short years. He has no children. It seems that the link with his mother interfered with his capacity to bond with his wife and with others.
Having inherited a large sum of money, John, who did work for some years as a real estate broker, is now unemployed and chronically depressed. He has a few friendships, but he is not really emotionally intimate with anyone. He often feels lonely. He drinks to excess. We have come to understand, together, that John suffers from what may be best described as a type of psychological immaturity. Although chronologically middle-aged, he thinks and acts more like a 15-year-old.
Most importantly, John experiences intense shame about his own developmental delay. It seems—and we actively discuss this theme—John copes with his intense self-hatred through projection. He projects the hatred into women, and into people of color. He is gaining an ever-increasing understanding of how the projection prevents him from managing the demons-within-him. By deriding these external persons, he avoids confronting and altering his own extraordinary self-hatred. These insights, and the resultant facing into himself rather than externalizing his internal conflicts, are increasing his sense of empathy for others. His racism and sexism are slowly decreasing in intensity. He is becoming aware, increasingly, of these projection processes and how they result in him objectifying others.
Notice how a failure to meet John where he lives, emotionally, would collapse. If I confronted him, in those first few sessions, with his white privilege, with the awfulness of his objectifying others, with his sexism and racism, he would have walked, perhaps even run, away. Most likely, his capacity to engage in psychotherapy with any other practitioner would end.
The individual psychoanalytic work with John does little, if anything, to counter the immense and powerful social forces of concern to the Woke movement. These themes, like institutional racism, sexism, and income inequality, require ongoing attention. Political movements, like Woke and others, will hopefully move these towards greater social equality for all. Meanwhile, why disturb a profession, which, albeit only working with one individual at a time, equally addresses these themes? Psychoanalytic psychotherapy helps individuals develop greater sensitivities to themselves and others.
In the final analysis, then, the maintenance of some variation of Freud’s (1938, 1993), original idea of neutrality and abstinence in practicing psychotherapy trumps any ideology. It matters naught whether psychotherapists endorse capitalism over communism, Catholicism over Judaism, or monogamy over polygamy. They are required to be present to whoever their patient might be, and they must strive to keep their own personal values to themselves. Helping potential psychotherapists understand troubling social issues like sexism, racism, the injustices of human trafficking, and so on ad infinitum, is a good thing. It is imperative, however, and as Satel validates, to keep personal or broader social values out of psychotherapists’ consulting rooms.
Fink, B. (2014). Against understanding: Cases and Commentary in a Lacanian key. (Vol. 2). New York, NY: Routledge.
Freud, S. (1993). An Outline of Psycho-Analysis. The Standard Edition of the CompletePsychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XXIII (1937-1939): Moses and Monotheism, An Outline of Psycho-Analysis and Other Works, 139-208. (Original work published in 1938).
Karbelnig, A.M. (2022). Chasing infinity: Why clinical psychoanalysis’ future lies in pluralism. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 103(1):5-25.
Ruti, R. (2012) The Singularity of Being: Lacan and the Immortal Within. New York: Fordham University Press.
Satel, S. (2017). P.C., M.D. New York: Basic Books.
By Dr. Alan Karbelnig, a training and supervising psychoanalyst in Pasadena, California. He is board certified in forensic psychology with doctorates in Counseling Psychology from the University of Southern California (USC) and in Psychoanalysis from the New Center for Psychoanalysis (NCP). He founded Rose City Center (RCC)—a not-for-profit psychoanalytic clinic serving economically disadvantaged individuals throughout California. Dr. Karbelnig writes extensively and also lectures locally, nationally and internationally.