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Storms Threatening American Psychoanalysis

Before sharing the gory details, a few words to update you on what psychoanalysis means in the 21st century. It’s not lying on a couch with a white man in a suit behind you, smoking a cigar while furiously taking notes. It doesn’t require four sessions per week. My friend and psychoanalyst Nina Savelle-Rocklin says,

Most people see psychoanalysis like it’s a Model T Ford; they don’t understand that it’s been upgraded to a Tesla.

She’s absolutely correct.

Contemporary psychoanalysts do not require couches, cigars, confessionals, or crying spells. They are tasked with accessing the unconscious mind. They practice in more similar than dissimilar ways, inviting patients to carefully and deeply reflect on their lives. They create connections between childhood environments, current relational patterns; and they explore how these templates map onto the psychoanalytic relationship itself.

What I term the “standard method” (Karbelnig, 2022) essentially codifies what Wallerstein (2005) calls clinical psychoanalysts’ “common ground” (p. 626). Its inclusive approach invites Freudians, Jungians, Kleinians, the French school, object relations theorists, and any practitioner using a psychoanalytic perspective to share in a common understanding of their work. In brief, psychoanalysts provide sets of “transformational encounters” (Karbelnig, 2018, p. 444) which influence patients’ unconscious minds, affecting their behaviors, cognitions, and emotions.

Psychoanalytic patients, whether addressing life concerns, suffering from diagnosable mental disorders, or seeking greater self-understanding, want something to change in their lives. Psychoanalysts frame their professional relationships, bring their emotional presence to their patients, and engage them in conscious and unconscious dialogues. They bring disavowed or dissociated parts of mind into the light of day. This is the essence of the modern psychoanalytic approach, and it differs significantly from other psychotherapies, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which focuses on symptom reduction. Those approaches fail to resolve the unconscious, dysfunctional patterns which create the symptoms.

OK, background established, let’s descend, after taking a deep breath, into the bowels of the recent and disruptive woke gossip:

The American Psychoanalytic Association (APsaA) and the Psychoanalytic Division of the American Psychological Association (APA) have been embroiled in a controversy surrounding a psychoanalytically-oriented clinical psychologist named Lara Sheehi. Dr. Sheehi is an Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychology at George Washington University’s (GWU) Professional Psychology program. Her work focuses on de-colonial struggles as well as power, race, class, and gender constructs and dynamics within psychoanalysis.

According to complaints filed with GWU and the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, Sheehi allegedly invited one anti-semitic speaker to a “brown bag luncheon.” The incident aggravated Jewish students who had already initiated complaints against her. One reported feeling “unsafe in a program that would invite a speaker who endorsed violence against Israeli civilians and who, therefore, may celebrate the murder of her Israeli relatives.” Sheehi responded to the students’ complaints by calling them “damaging Islamophobic anti-Palestinian’ comments.”

The GWU investigation exonerated her, noting their investigation found “no evidence that the discourse crossed the line.” The Department of Education complaint, and related investigation, remains active. Dr. Sheehi has since deleted her Twitter account, but one of her tweets, posted in August 2020, reads:

FUCK YOU AND FUCK YOUR “AID.” Destroy Zionism and commit to land back. Then, we’ll take you seriously you fucking genocidal fucks.

Whether or not Sheehi invited anti-semitic lecturers, and whether or not her students felt offended, tweets such as the above reveal frankly unprofessional behaviors. Sheehi, an Arab woman, is certainly entitled to her political viewpoints. The tweet displays a zealotry which only inflames. It accelerates the political polarities already plaguing societies around the world. It certainly does nothing to resolve conflicts like the Palestinian-Israeli problem.

Meanwhile, the Chair of the APsaA’s Program Committee (PC), Donald Moss, invited Dr. Sheehi to present at their June meeting. However, Moss failed to advise the APsaA’s Executive Committee (EC) of the invitation. When they learned of it, they disinvited her (because of the anti-semitic tweets and the pending investigations). The co-presidents of the APsaA, Drs. Solkowitz and Prezant, simply conveyed the EC’s decision to Dr. Sheehi. She was apparently enraged by the decision. Dr. Moss, apparently reacting to the EC’s decision to disinvite Dr. Sheehi, decided to cancel the June meeting. His cancelling of the programs robbed members of the possibility of getting continuing education (CE) credits.

Sheehi subsequently threatened the APsaA with a lawsuit. Instead, she allegedly called the EC racists and resigned in protest. (She has since also resigned from her status as president of Division 39 of the APA). A thunderous storm has since embroiled both psychoanalytic membership organizations. APsaA and Division 39 members resigned in droves. Many members shouted out support for Sheehi; others decried her alleged racism. Because of the GWU scandal, the professional listservs of the APsaA and the APA went insane.

Since that time, Sheehi initiated an aggressive media campaign to exonerate her name and to radically reshape the narrative. She feels targeted as an Arab woman which, unfortunately, plays right into the above-noted polarity problem. She suggested, and herein lies the perils of identity politics, that you cannot criticize Caucasians’ ideas without being considered racist.

Jon Mills, a Canadian philosopher, psychoanalyst, and personal friend, joined in the fray. He just published an article in the online magazine, Fathom in which he writes:

Sheehi denies being antisemitic despite wanting to ‘Destroy Zionism’ and the Jewish state, as her infamous tweets glorify. Given the unconscious cannot help but speak the truth, in a video interview on Arab Talk, Sheehi insists on the ‘categorical rejection of myself being characterized as antisemitic and also the unwielding [sic] and sort of unbelievable burden particularly on Arabs and people [who] talk about Palestine to prove they are antisemitic as a precursor to anything we do.” As a good ol’ fashioned Freudian slip, she of course meant to say ‘are not antisemitic,’ but she shows her true colors all the same. The purportedly only ‘good Jews’ are those who support the Boycott (BDS) of Israel.

Building up to my main point, these kinds of angry dialogues doom any potential for resolution. Worse, they distract from the more serious problems plaguing international psychoanalysis. It is another example of the kind of splitting (Klein, 1946) characteristic of our contemporary political discourse.

In an opinion piece titled: I’m a University Lecturer and Wokeism is Stifling Free Debate in my Classroom, published in the Sydney Morning Herald in March 2023, university lecturer Yannick Thoraval writes:

Humanities subjects necessarily intersect with sensitive topics, such as race, gender, sexuality, religion and politics. In the classes I teach, these topics are part of the subject matter. The challenge is how to navigate this terrain with acknowledgment of both our students’ emotional needs and the intellectual demands of university-level study. […[ perceived wokeism in a classroom can dissuade teachers and students from exploring difficult and sensitive topics for fear of personal or professional reprisal. The casualisation of teachers may compound this risk, where renewal of short-term contracts may be subject to the results of a teacher’s student satisfaction survey. Who dares rock the boat?

The irony is that woke ideology, which is about inclusion, risks becoming a means of exclusion through self-censorship. I’ve had students tell me privately they want to write about topics such as racism or gender or disability, but don’t because they worry the issues are too volatile; they don’t want to upset anyone, least of all their classmates.

Thoraval succinctly captures the risks of woke-ism gone too far, and now it’s contaminated psychoanalysis. The Sheehi controversy requires resolution, for sure, but meanwhile the aggressive diatribes from both sides of the dispute distract from more important concerns.

You get the point, and the controversy swirls around like feces draining into the toilet bowl. The President and President-Elect of the APsaA, Drs. Kerry Sulkowicz and Daniel Prezant, also chairs of the Executive Committee (EC), decided to clean their organizational house. Next, these APsaA leaders disbanded the Program Committee (PC), which decides who presents at various APsaA conferences.

If the Sheehi situation insufficiently identifies how these controversies disrupt, consider this additional irony. The PC’s Chair Donald Moss, described above, had earlier created an earlier controversy by publishing a paper suggesting that Caucasian babies are born racist.

The abstract to Moss’ paper titled, On Having Whiteness, reads:

Whiteness is a condition one first acquires and then one has—a malignant, parasitic-like condition to which “white” people have a particular susceptibility. The condition is foundational, generating characteristic ways of being in one’s body, in one’s mind, and in one’s world. Parasitic Whiteness renders its hosts’ appetites voracious, insatiable, and perverse. These deformed appetites particularly target nonwhite peoples. Once established, these appetites are nearly impossible to eliminate… psychoanalytic interventions can reasonably aim only to reshape Whiteness’s infiltrated appetites—to reduce their intensity, redistribute their aims, and occasionally turn those aims toward the work of reparation.

Moss’ outrageous racist piece, displaying an anti-Caucasian bias and an ignorance of the racism inherent in identifying “Whiteness” as an innate disease, was published without peer review. The editor of the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association (JAPA), Mitchell Wilson, published it in one of the 2021 issues. It would absolutely not have survived a critical review by his peers.

Major point:

These intense woke arguments only contaminate the public’s already negative opinion of psychoanalysis. Well before identity politics poisoned the psychoanalytic project, psychoanalytic scholarship showed an embarrassing preoccupation with its own internal debates. Rangell (1974) believes psychoanalysis mirrors “the history of the 20th century: expansion, diffuse application, use and misuse, explosion, disaster.” Friedman (2006) complains of a “century of yapping dogfights” (p. 689). Stepansky (2009) coins the word “fractionation” (p. xvii) and, along with Aron and Starr (2013), worry that psychoanalysis’ lack of coherence threatens its survival. These disputes, not to mention the field’s failure to establish a coherent definition for itself (Karbelnig, 2022), drain psychoanalysts’ energies.

Identity politics serve an important role in highlighting the struggles of mistreated, marginalized, and unfairly discriminated-against groups. However, the excessive emphasis on it overshadows a crucial counter-balance of commonalities. Psychoanalysis has failed to promote itself. It lacks a coherent definition that members of the public can understand—despite helping innumerable patients, training myriad professionals, and significantly impacting western culture. It is an astonishing deficiency, one worthy of much more emphasis than gathering into agitated groups pointing persecutory fingers at one another.

In a recent article in Education Next, Ira Stoll’s interview of Henry Kissinger reveals how much the revered statesman also feels concern about identity politics. Kissinger proclaims:

A minimum condition for great achievement for a society is to believe in its purposes and in its historical record. And if the educational system of a country becomes increasingly focused on the shortcomings of its history and less on the purposes of the society, then its capacity to act internationally will be diverted into its internal struggles.

Kissinger fears such “internal struggles” could cause both “the international system and the country’s security” to “become impaired in a new way.”

The woke movement blown up, the rise of identity politics, threatens the world order, Kissinger believes. The way it disrupts psychoanalysis merely mimics the same pattern. People need to come together, to extol their commonalities—like desires for freedom, for financial security, for human rights—rather than split into warring groups. The need applies to global citizens and psychoanalysts alike.

Although others, like myself, propose over-arching definitions for clinical psychoanalysis, some consider it unattainable. For example, Rachel Blass (2010) an Israeli psychoanalyst, believes finding a definition impossible, even “politically incorrect” (p.81). She writes, “there cannot exist any simple and agreed upon method for determining what is essential to a phenomenon such as psychoanalysis” (p. 97). On the contrary, viewing practitioners as framing, bringing their emotional presence, and engaging with patients’ unconscious minds provides a coherent explanation for clinical psychoanalysis. It invites commonality that responds to Blass’ concerns. The overarching definition I propose is anything but authoritative, conformist, or exclusionary (Karbelnig, 2022).

Not exactly relevant to Kissinger’s concerns about national security, we psychoanalysts should be focusing on organizing our own profession, agreeing upon a coherent definition, and helping the public understand it. These painful and arguably ridiculous disputes, the cries of injustice, the resignations, the rippling controversies attract eyeballs, for sure, but they ultimately distract from the more urgent need to focus on more important matters: celebrating our commonalities as psychoanalysts, and explaining to the public the unique transformational power of psychoanalytic processes.


Aron, L. & Starr, K. (2013). A psychotherapy for the people: Toward a progressive psychoanalysis. New York, NY: Routledge.

Karbelnig, A. M. (2018). A perilous high wire act: framing psychoanalytic relationships with severely traumatized patients. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 87:3, 443-478.

Karbelnig, A. M. (2022). Chasing infinity: Why clinical psychoanalysis’ future lies in pluralism. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 103(1):5-25.

Klein, M. (1946). Notes on some schizoid mechanisms. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 27:99-110.

Mills, J. (2023). Burning Down the House – The Crisis in American Psychoanalysis: How Wokeism and Identity Politics are Destroying the Profession and Marginalizing Jews. Fathom, May 2023.

Moss, D. (2021). On Having Whiteness. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 69(2), 355–371.

Rangell, R. (1974). A psychoanalytic perspective leading currently to the syndrome of the compromise of integrity. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 55:3-12.

Stepansky, P.E. (2009). Psychoanalysis at the margins. New York, NY: Other Press.

Wallerstein, R.S. (2005). Will psychoanalytic pluralism be an enduring state of our discipline? International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 86(3):623-626.

NB: Republished with permission from Alan Karbelnig’s substack, Journeys into the Unconscious Mind

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.

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