Kitsch is the denial of shit. — Milan Kundera
There has always been a socially mediated effort to pigeonhole most forms of critical thinking, analysis, and dialectical assessment as a manifestation of negativity, bitterness, and animosity. Even more disconcerting and trendy is the knee-jerk admonishment of constructive criticism as symptomatic of being a “hater” (this odious neologism must swiftly be placed in the same coffin with subprime mortgages and asbestos). However, unless one wants to be known as the proverbial gadfly while spending their weekends alone, congenial accommodation inevitably becomes the kissing cousin of complicity with manufactured mirth. While it’s true that “being in a good mood” can have many positive health benefits, being levelheaded does not mean you are dyspeptic by default. Furthermore, the best way to maintain an auspicious mood is through developing a realistic outlook that will reduce the likelihood of unexpected emotional devastation. Needless to say, I’m not interested in being an apologist, pimp, or court advocate for online trolls who know nothing about being constructive or appropriately critical. Thoughtful commentary and rational discussion are the panaceas for vituperation.
As the political theorist Hannah Arendt reminds us, sometimes the worst dictatorships are benign. Implied conformity with an uncritically optimistic status quo is maintained by the momentum of tradition and reinforced by a silent contract of consensus (i.e., your bad energy is the reason for your shortcomings). For the sake of efficiency and interpersonal effectiveness, the desire to tow the line can be enticing and oftentimes necessary. But as anyone who has lived long enough knows, reality is not always cooperative with forced euphoria, and one cannot pretend to depoliticize what has already been politically deployed. In addition, not admitting disparities in circumstance is naive at best and pathologically dismissive when taken to its unsympathetic conclusion.
The author Barbara Ehrenreich intrepidly examines our cultural obsession with unmitigated cheeriness in her tour de force entitled Bright-Sided: How The Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. Unapologetic in humor and substance, Ehrenreich systematically unpacks the layers of denial that underpin the mechanics of quixotic felicity and proposes a more realistic and refreshingly reliable approach for psychologically navigating the vagaries of existence. Ehrenreich reminds us, before her intellectual skirmish commences, that there’s nothing wrong with measured anticipation and maintaining a pleasant demeanor. However, consistently lying to ourselves about the nature of reality is generally not a sustainable tactic for enduring long-term adversity. While the potential benefits of Positive Psychology are obvious and should require little more than common sense, the tendency to self-righteously blame others for tribulation due to their lack of “positive vibes” is devastatingly unfortunate—especially if what’s being considered “negative” is simply inquiry and informed contemplation. Recurring life problems require hard-won coping skills, and adapting to misfortune demands rational acceptance before strategies for restoration can be constructed. It’s worth emphasizing that unsentimental realism is necessary for the development of resilience, and being observationally astute or honest is not an endorsement of nihilism. After all, it should not be controversial that natural disasters, unfathomable accidents, and unforeseen circumstances are best understood by impartial investigation rather than employing privileged renunciation, suspiciously cheerful assurance, or denial.
Hope doesn’t have to be the most hopeless thing of all, but hope without sensibility is senseless. More importantly, specious optimism is infinitely less practical than evidence-based confidence, and typecasting those who are willing to confront false promises is demonstrably less than positive.
Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. — Philip K. Dick
Walter Kempler, not to be confused with the California serial killer Edmund Kemper, is a noted psychiatrist who expanded on the ideas of Fritz Perls and Gestalt therapy. Although Kempler is a contemporary and former cohort of Perls, Kempler parted ways with his holistic sidekick regarding the therapist’s role in the process of experiential therapy. Kempler argues that the therapist should be an active participant during the therapeutic process while taking advantage of confrontation during sessions. Kempler’s psychoanalytic approach is to focus on the immediate feelings of the client by challenging them to reveal emotional content underlying verbal and non-verbal language (as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein noted, one of the remaining tasks of philosophy is the analysis of language).
Resistance to experience is one of the primary factors examined in Kempler’s design for experiential and existential psychotherapy. In other words, the client must not discount the “now” and action is emphasized as a methodology for eliciting transformation. Kempler believes that perceptual modification is produced by the active momentum of experiencing events while discouraging the avoidance of therapeutically productive disputation. Simply put, confrontation often leads to adaptive reconciliation. Kempler’s philosophy and orientation are derived from the theoretical position that people gain clarity by seeing things in meaningful “wholes” (Gestalten), rather than focusing on the particularization of specific events.¹ Likewise, understanding the principle of psychophysical isomorphism (the correlations between experience and cerebral activity) provides leverage for maintaining psychodynamic continuity and a resilient sense of identity when future events go awry.
Being emotionally centered to offset the vicissitudes of life demands authenticity of form, but our unwillingness to confront the world as it really is often keeps us mired in the minutiae. In Kempler’s world, consistency and congruency are de rigueur.
1. Becvar, D., & Becvar, R. (2006). Family Therapy. New York: Pearson publishing/Allyn & Bacon.
The end may justify the means, as long as there is something that justifies the end. — Leon Trotsky
In the United States, with its Procrustean treatment of the impecunious by factions of an increasingly inaccessible plutocracy, economic inequality and wage stagnation continue to plague society as unreasonable compromise has steadily morphed into embittered desperation. Social mobility appears to be an antiquated term of a bygone era, and the desire for survival is swiftly replacing concepts like employee satisfaction and work/life balance. In addition, possibilities for self-actualization through fulfilling occupational pursuits are confronted by the realities of relentless exploitation and commodification in an increasingly dehumanized workforce. However, for those who are far below the baseline, mentally ill, or chronically unemployed, the prognosis is even worse.
The psychologist Abraham Maslow is best known for introducing the hierarchy of human needs scale (represented as a pyramid). The scale logically illustrates that well-being must be established by addressing fundamental physiological needs before optimum flourishing at higher levels can be achieved. Incidentally, Maslow didn’t recommend a hierarchy-based oligarchy to accomplish what should be obvious prerequisites for augmenting individual and social prosperity.
In the former DSM-IV-TR (APA manual for clinical diagnosis), psychosocial stressors (e.g., occupational, economic, legal, housing, and interpersonal) were classified in a category known descriptively as Axis IV. The updated DSM-5 simply refers to such situational quagmires as “significant psychosocial and contextual features.” As a therapist who has worked with a significant community mental health population, I’ve noticed the overwhelming extent to which psychosocial predicaments either create a mental health crisis or exacerbate existing mental health problems. In fact, I would submit that a majority of diagnostic assessments in community mental health environments unnecessarily pathologize long-term dispossession. It’s not that these clients don’t need therapy for mental health issues, it’s just that more substantial needs (i.e., food, shelter, transportation, and employment) are understandably predominant. Even an accessible therapeutic modality like Motivational Interviewing can appear abstractly inscrutable when working with a client who is homeless and hasn’t eaten in three days. Psychotherapy might be viewed as a non-essential luxury for those who encounter extreme adversity. A baseline of stability must precede therapeutic processing ability, and access to resources is critically necessary—even though it’s not sufficient—when confronting mental health concerns. Nevertheless, there are clients who do require immediate symptom reduction and behavior management before pursuing the path of resource acquisition—especially if mental health problems are determined to be the initial cause of destitution. Overall, restoration through a synchronicity of therapeutic support and resource allocation will be possible only if public sector efficiency and sustainable mental healthcare become a national priority. Regarding the current state of social services, both employees and clients are being asked to do more with less.
Learned helplessness naturally follows from years of enduring social and economic inequality, and systems of injustice teach us to be complicit with economies of scarcity through internalizing imbalances of power. Platitudes of self-efficacy, such as “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” only make sense if you have access to boots. Despite stereotypes aimed at the impoverished, most people desire a sense of meaning, value, connectivity, and purpose in their daily lives.
When pyramid schemes hijack a society’s pyramid of needs, we abjectly witness how most pyramids are built on the backs of slaves.