Watching Freedom Wane

Pasadena, California
Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Dear Readers,

Last weekend’s election in Turkey struck another blow to the ever-threatened freedom of people around the world. Erdogan successfully albeit unfairly won a “mandate” to dismantle the country’s parliament, rendering him a dictator. Our own president, Trump, called him after the election to congratulate him.

Meanwhile, since a recent coup attempt, Erdogan has arrested literally thousands of political activists, judges, lawyers, and journalists, eliminating fair judicial processes and restricting access to the truth. Many Turkish political prisoners are being tortured or killed; many others face imminent arrest. Some 50,000 people have lost their jobs. Erdogan closed all media outlets not directly supporting him, leaving him in complete control of information delivered to the Turkish people.

The sad news follows other, innumerable signs of freedom-in-decline.

During March 2014, Russia’s dictator, Putin, invaded and occupied another, sovereign nation, Crimea. North Korea, with its 33-year-old grandson-of-the-patriarch in full temper-tantrum mode, continues to enhance its nuclear capabilities, threatening Asia and the US.

Most dramatically, Syrian leader Assad continues to kill rebellious (as well as innocent) citizens of his own country. The Syrian civil was has raged for seven years now. It has displaced more than half the entire country’s population. It has killed nearly half-a-million people.

As I have noted in past posts, depth psychotherapists are intimately involved in struggles for freedom. Thomas Szasz wrote that psychological symptoms always include constraints on freedom. People with severe depression typically lack motivation; those with social phobias feel inhibited from establishing friendships; persons with psychotic conditions, like schizophrenia, often struggle with even the basics of making life work.

While other modalities may also assist persons with these conditions, depth psychotherapy helps by enhancing their freedom, and in several distinct ways:

It uncovers unconscious deficits, allowing patients to identify and address them. It reveals unresolved trauma, providing an interpersonal field in which they can be attended to and worked through. It also brings unconscious conflicts into the light of day, allowing for discussion and resolution.

Overall, depth psychotherapy works by elucidating subjectivity. It works by bringing unconscious, denied, or even simply ignored or disavowed features of experience into conscious awareness. It builds personal agency which, in turn, directly enhances freedom. It works through discussion and dialogue. 

But we psychodynamic psychotherapists work in the quiet privacy of our consulting rooms.

We meet but one person at at time.

I imagine many of my colleagues share the same feelings of frustration and powerlessness while watching these scary world events unfold. We helplessly witness news reports validating how many persons around the world have become oppressed by those in power.

While we wield significant interpersonal tools to help free individual persons, we lack the power to these global concerns.

Or do we?

What can we do for the world at large?

Many things, I believe, but I list the ones most relevant to psychoanalytic work. We have a unique vantage point directly related to our privileging of autonomy and empowerment.

We discuss discoveries about self-deception, self-destruction, neglect of others, and similar unconscious themes. These abilities to discuss can be writ large. They can transition from discussion to action.

While it remains ill-advised to direct patients one way or another, psychoanalytic work need not be entirely passive. We can, for example, subtly encourage patients and colleagues (such as my Coptic Christian friend, Maggie, terrified about events in Egypt) to apply their psychotherapy-related skills more broadly.

They can write letters to governmental representatives, attend town hall meetings, or compose editorials or letters-to-the-editors of newspapers. They can use their improved capacities for dialogue to discuss their concerns with friends, family, and others, spreading the news of freedom waning.

Those with financial resources can make donations to causes ranging from refugee support to journalistic freedom. Those socially skilled can apply their talents to organize groups working to enhance political freedom. Those with leadership skills could run for public office, creating a ripple effect in which their freedom-enhancing ideas affect many others.

Many methods exist for converting powerless into power, for changing impotence into potency. Although practicing a quiet, reflective profession, psychoanalytic psychotherapists need not, in fact, it should not preach passivity.

It may well be more important than ever to convert personal power into political power. Primo Levi, a survivor of Auschwitz, was asked why the Jews failed to take more action as Germany descended into fascism in the 1930s.

He replied:

“How do you know you shouldn’t be taking action now?”

We need to take action NOW to prevent more members of our global human family from losing arguably the most precious of all human rights — personal freedom.






Levy, P. (1989). The drowned and the saved. New York: Vintage.

Szasz, T. (1988). The ethics of psychoanalysis. Syracuse: University of Syracuse Press.




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