Shaming Methods in Popular Psychology

by David Bedrick J.D., Dipl. PW

David Bedrick, J.D., Dipl. PW, is a speaker, counselor, attorney, and teacher.  He is the author of the acclaimed Talking Back to Dr. Phil: Alternatives to Mainstream Psychology and the forthcoming title Revisioning Activism: Bringing Depth, Dialogue, and Diversity to Individual and Social Change (Belly Song Press, 2017). The following article is posted with permission from David Bedrick, J.D., Dipl. PW.  The original can be found here.  

The role of a therapist is to elicit a response from their client that indicates greater self-knowledge and freedom to live authentically, which, in turn, will enable the actuality of healing. With the need for psychology, as a means to make sense of the modern world, at an all time high in the Western Hemisphere, it is imperative that therapists, no matter which school of thought they originate from, be a positive conduit for an individuals’ personal change.

The process of psychology by which true and deep healing can occur, in the lives of many, hinges on a profound connection between the client and that which they wish to change. This sought after change is directed, and enabled by a therapists’ communication style. It is, therefore, imperative to understand that employing a communication style that mirrors society, in order to appear relevant and understood, may not be a therapeutic response to a client’s needs. For example, Dr. Phil has a method of psychology that he readily disseminates in an immediate fashion on his show, that I believe is not in keeping with the intricacies of the healing process as a whole.

By making an authoritative and somewhat condescending remark like, “What are you thinking?” in the context of another’s attempt at healing, he automatically takes a negative parental role, one that often creates shame.

Using shame as a tactic for healing might be considered a dramatic tool in the healing process because it is a recognizable trait (to most), that potentially has the power to motivate, or, to be used as a catalyst in the healing process. However, at what cost to the client’s psyche is this use of shame in the process of rightful and positive change?

To be able to lead a client into the throws of healing is to take an inquiring and learning mind in the treatment process. To stress to a patient “What are you thinking?” means to make them believe that they are in need of correction, that they are ill equipped to understand their own process of healing, they are inferior, incomplete.

This method of psychology may seem instrumental and important on the air, as television audiences are in need of being entertained, and the process of actual healing may be lost in the need to please viewers, but, true and lasting change must happen outside the need to ridicule, or insult the person in need of healing.

This concept might seem over simplistic, however, shows like Dr. Phil’s are enormously popular, and govern (to some degree) how the public believes psychology is administered, so, for this reason, it is important to counteract Dr. Phil’s methods, by highlighting the weaknesses in his ‘popular’ psychology skills. Further, most people have internalized this same paradigm, learned either at the hands of parents or educational systems, that their suffering is a result of their deficiencies, lack, or brokenness.

The art of deep listening is an important key in psychology. This form of action can be used by anyone: therapists and others alike. This process merely asks an individual to really listen to their client, with an open heart, without judgment, without ‘trying to fix the person who is speaking,’ without formulating what your response will be, or, how you will treat this client in the future.

It further requires that we listen to what is said; what is available to the conscious mind of the client, as well as to what is unsaid, expressed in body language, dreams, relationship difficulties, habits, disturbing feelings, and more. By merely listening with your whole being, in this manner, a great deal of healing can occur as the client feels heard, validated, safe and known in ways that they didn’t even know heretofore. All that is necessary to engage in this method of healing is the willingness to move away from shaming techniques that cause an ongoing flux in the client/therapist dynamic and the willingness to learn one or two techniques to access less conscious information.

Using Shame to Address Smoking
Let’s take the above concept and apply it to an actual situation. If a person requires professional help to stop smoking it is important to understand why they smoke, their relationship to smoking, as each smoker will differ in their reasons for taking up the habit. Using shame to identify the cause of why they smoke will not be of use here. I could say, “Don’t you read the warnings on the pack? Don’t you know they are bad for you?” Or, common Dr. Phil phrases, like “What are you thinking?” or “How’s that working for you?” This method of communication causes shame to take hold. Not only is it an obvious observation (that oversimplifies and compromises the intelligence of the client), but, it insinuates that if they are willing to hurt their health, there must be no deeper reason for sustaining their habit. This is just not true.

Each smoker is acutely aware that the habit is not good for their health, and if shame is used as a catalyst to move away from the need to smoke, a negative result will occur. The client is already feeling bad about allowing this habit to form, or they wouldn’t be seeking help to eradicate it, now, if they continue to be shamed, they will most likely feel even more resistant to changing their habit. This shaming attitude will only keep the client from the freedom of thought needed to deeply inquire into their desire to smoke and keep them from the integration necessary to release themselves from the habit.

Using Shame to Address Anger
The process of psychology is to uncover what is hidden from the client
, utilizing deep listening techniques, so, they are free to make choices as prompted by their deeper understanding of their personal and authentic needs and desires. Objectively anyone will tell you that anger as a form of communication is unpleasant, detrimental even. I am not claiming that anger is good for your health, but, when activated, I believe uncovering and understanding how, and why it occurs, then working through said anger can have a both profound and healing effect on an individual.

Using shame in relation to one’s need to express anger can be an insidious undertaking.

Dr. Phil might suggest eastern modes of ‘dealing’ with anger: meditation and breathing techniques. These approaches to healing anger are not incorrect, but, they are incomplete. Psychology is about exploration, so, in that vein, I say let’s explore anger, get behind it, examine it, allow it to manifest to its fullest capacity. That way we embrace anger, accept it, then we are not afraid of it, and more, importantly, our actions are not ruled by its force, because we were able to uncover, then demystify its origins by allowing it to manifest freely in a safe environment. When that happens, clients invariably find that hidden inside their anger is often needed energy, power or insight bout the ways they are being poorly treated inside of themselves or in the world around them. If people do not gain these insights, the anger is likely to reoccur- the healing intervention will not sustain.

I discuss Dr. Phil here, not to critique the man, but because he is a straw man for the application of shame as a common response to the question of healing, leaving people with nothing more than a superficial version of what the healing process actually entails.

Systematic healing derives from helping people learn about their deeper needs, impulses, and natures, not from negative shaming tactics, a version of psychology Dr. Phil has chosen to embrace.

Lastly, in the spirit of inclusion and fairness, let me acknowledge the contribution Dr. Phil makes to the understanding of psychology as well as to me, for if his paradigm did not exist, I would not be able to counter it, and, therefore, the world would not experience the diversity of opinions and thoughts to assimilate and choose from.

To learn more about David Bedrick’s alternatives to shame in psychology and his critique of Dr. Phil, see his book Talking Back to Dr. Phil: Alternatives to Mainstream Psychology.