Thursday 30 October 2014

Psychology has become a substitute religion, with psychologists as a new priethood

Full transcript, in the original English, of my interview with psychologist Peter Damgaard Hansen. News story, in Portuguese, here.

Transcrição integral, no inglês original, da minha entrevista com o psicólogo Peter Damgaard Hansen. A reportagem resultante pode ser lida aqui.

So what brings you to Portugal?
I have been invited to come here by the Catholic Association of Psychologists to do some lecturing on my work with marital counselling and also to do a seminar with professionals, with whom I would like to go into a little bit more detail, showing how I work with couples, and what my understanding and philosophy is about marital issues.

Your speciality is family counselling, correct? What sort of situations do you usually deal with?
It’s mostly marital difficulties. Family issues are very critical in our times and very important to the world and to the culture. We always say that the family is the core unit of society, and the core of family is the relationship between husband and wife. To help them function at an optimum level together with the least amount of conflict and most flow of love is really the agenda that I see as very important to work for.

Many people find it difficult to deal with couples who are going through marital problems. We want to help, but often don’t know what to do, and suggesting professional help can be complicated. What is the best approach?
Typically the issue is that people feel embarrassed about not being able to make their relationship work and many have the idea that this is something we should be able to deal with on our own. In the sense that if only you find the right person to marry you won't have these big problems, so something must be wrong with us since we can't make it work, or maybe we picked the wrong one, and people have a hard time admitting that. 

So I think one of the first things I try to make clear, both in my talks and working with people, is that we should not feel bad about having marital issues. It really is difficult to make a marital relationship work. And that is because we are not perfect beings. We are all quite imperfect, and we live in a very burdened world, with wounded baggage and then try to make love flow without any problems, it’s basically impossible. 

So the first step is to admit that married life is very difficult. And once we can accept that and relax without feeling guilty about our own shortcomings, or angry with the other one for his or her mistakes, we have already taken great steps. Because behind marital issues I always find the idea that this should be better, it should work, we should love each other, that's the whole plan of marriage, and as good Christians and Catholics we have been told all the time that we should love our neighbour and our spouse, and I say that is the idea, but it is really very difficult. We can certainly find a lot of theological reasons for that, also psychological reasons, why it is so hard to love, because we basically need a lot of love.

I like to make a provocative point that we actually enter into relationships primarily to be loved, than to give love. Most people don't really think about it, but when you go deeper into this issue it actually becomes clear, we are looking for somebody to love us, and that feels like a natural thing, we want to find the perfect one, so that we can be loved, and then of course I will love the other also, but he or she should begin. And the other will have the same approach to me.

So in a marriage we have two people coming together who are both looking to be loved and who are not capable, to the same extent, of providing ideal love. We are created with a need for perfect unconditional love, I think it is stamped on our hearts by our creator, but our capacity to provide that unconditional love has some difficulties in the current state of mankind, following the fall, if you look at it theologically, but you don't even have to include that perspective, just psychological introspection will reveal that I know I should be loving, I know I should be forgiving of everything in my spouse and partner, but I just can't always do it. The selfishness and egoistic impulses are very strong. 

So I do refer to the egoism as a big obstacle to the flow of love, but not in a judgmental way. I don't see egoism as something which is bad, bad, bad. I see it as a flaw in our human nature, currently, which we have to admit and get going with and start working on, instead of feeling bad about our selfishness and pretending that it isn't there. 

How about outsiders who want to help, what is the way to act?
The way is to help people feel ok about having difficulties, to make that not a big disaster in itself, but to say things like, it is very difficult to make relationships work, we all have issues making it work. When people are in a crisis it is suddenly visible, and that is the embarrassing thing, but many couples come to me and think that they are the only ones that have these troubles, because everybody else looks like they have their acts together, and are smiling to each other, in church at least, but I know these other couples too, so I know that everybody has to struggle with it. So a good way to help is to be open about own issues too, own difficulties.

Should they insist on the couple finding professional help?
Yes, I think one should encourage that, and also make statements like, "This is something you cannot solve on your own". You are stuck with emotionally heavy issues that you ignite each other on them, you get into going in circles, often people have these discussions that go on and on indefinitely, they find themselves going in circles, and it is very important to get across to people that they cannot solve this on their own. Just like with other health issues, you need experts’ advice and so a third party that can step into this tense place with them, who they both can trust, is a huge step towards reconciliation.

To many Christian couples that third party might automatically be a priest. Are priests prepared to deal with these issues?
For many of the issues they have resources to draw from. I think it depends on the severity of the issues, and I know many couples who have found help by talking to a priest, just a third party listening, but some marital troubles are so deep rooted, because we get into family of origin issues, like traumatic events from childhood, which are played out in the marriage. The wounded baggage is conflicting with the wounded baggage of the other person, and then we get into some very deep rooted issues which I don't think many priests are prepared for, many counsellors for that matter, either, unless you have been trained and studied that particular dimension.

Is there such a thing as a marriage which is beyond salvation?
I don't think so. Many couples who think they are beyond the point of no return I am pretty sure they could get the help they need if they are willing to work for it, that is of course the condition. And that is where professional help is needed, and also to show them why love isn't active right now. Often there is a lot of anger, we hear statements like "I simply don't have those feelings for that person anymore", so its over, we might as well split and I'll go and find somebody else.

And I say, "well, if you don't have those feelings, then what is the big rush in getting out of it? What feelings to you have instead?"

And we always find tremendous anger. Behind a divorce and splitting up there is always anger. If we can release that through therapeutic intervention we have a totally different setup and sometimes the person can be freed. It is like taking the glasses of anger off, and you can see the world with different eyes. And behind the anger there is deep, deep sorrow, a deep longing to be loved. 

As I said before, we have a bigger need for love than our spouse can provide, but that doesn't mean that the marriage is hopeless, we can learn to embrace each other for not being perfect, that is another way of showing love. 

Before we used to complain about such high divorce rates. Currently the main problem seems to be that people simply don’t see the point of getting married in the first place. Marriage is clearly going through a crisis… what is the origin?
I think it spirals into that now. Many of the young generation who grew up seeing their parents get divorced, or all their friends get divorced, or everybody getting divorced, they naturally feel apprehensive about making a commitment if it is going to end with that anyway, so I think there is a great fear of commitment and of being disappointed, so I think it is important very early, when they are dating and have their first conflicts, to show them that they can be resolved, that there is hope for making a commitment, if you find a partner who is willing to work on their own issues.

There is a deep biblical saying, "Don't try to remove a splinter in your brother's eye if you have a log in your own". That is a formula for a happy marriage in a nutshell. 

And you could say my whole counselling is about rewriting that in psychotherapeutic terms, and explaining it from many different angles, we have to become aware that the marriage we get depends a lot on what we put into it or don't put into it. So a marriage is not a fixed thing which can't be changed, it is a dynamic thing that will change if I change. If I do something I will affect the other, if I don't, that will affect the other one too. We are all co-creators of the marriage.

If we believe that it is all about finding the right one, then it is like a lottery, you don't know if you will get one who you will love in a month or so, or next year, or if the other will love you. If people have that attitude they don't dare to take the risk, or make a commitment.

I also think the dimension of faith is important because we are beyond our own human capacity in controlling how a relationship is going to develop, so we have to trust that there is expertise to get from professionals in this level, and graces in the sacraments, from above, to work together to establishing good marriages. 

If that is God's plan for mankind He will keep his part of the deal if we keep ours. So I can put it this way. Before marriage it is about trying to pick the right one, after marriage we don't think about that anymore, it becomes about becoming the right one.

What is integrative counselling?
Since I started as a counsellor I very quickly realized that counselling alone, psychology alone, cannot solve psychological problems in a satisfactory way. And that was because I began to discover that the roots of psychological problems are spiritual, they go beyond the realm of psychology. But psychology could help us realise that psychology alone could not solve psychological problems [laughs], and that is what psychology did for me.

Then I began my own journey, I went more and more in a spiritual direction, then I actually discovered the richness of the Christian faith and eventually ended up in the catholic church, which I think presents the Christian faith in its most elaborate and most articulate and most profound way, which lends itself to be used in counselling, because it gives us a concept and an understanding of human suffering. And what I found in all my clients is that no matter what they come with, what their problem is, what diagnosis you can apply to them, is that they are hurting. 

They are in tremendous pain, and they feel alone with this pain, its not the pain as such which is the issue, it is the experience of being alone with it. So whenever somebody can enter into their suffering universe then they can convey the fact that they are not alone with this, there is a transformation going on, from insanity to normal human suffering. 

And that is where the Christian faith, which I see a need of integrating into our understanding of Human suffering, offers a solution: That God in the passion of Christ offers to be close to the suffering soul. 

Now you can still work with this even if the client you are working with has no faith whatsoever, at all, because as a counsellor you are supposed to step into these dimensions of suffering, you have to have a frame of reference for yourself, or you will quickly do something therapeutic that will distract it, or suggest medication to take the suffering away.

I don't see Human suffering as illness. What we see in many people, which is treated as illness, I see it as a suffering they are hiding behind some symptoms. Because they can't handle the pain. So you can develop some OCD, or depression, anxiety disorder, you name it, if you are in a state of suffering which is too much for the soul to handle on its own, which makes sense, people are not really sick, they are suffering a pain which is too much of a burden. But if you can step into it and show that you can understand what they are going through, they suddenly come out of this transe and say yes, I can see that, I am maybe not sick in that sense, but I burdened so much, I can't function and dignity is restored from a person who would otherwise be committed to the ward.

You were not raised a Catholic, but have since become one. Could you tell us briefly about that journey?
It began when I was 16 years old, when everybody begins to know what they want to be, and have dreams of being pilots or engineers, or whatever. Do you know what I wanted to be? Happy.

That was really what meant something to me. I wanted to be happy. Not that I was terribly unhappy, but I wasn't super happy, I knew that there was more to life than I was feeling there. I began my search. My parents were fundamentalist Christians, they said I should just believe in Jesus, and I'd be happy. But I needed something for my intellect too.

So I turned away from that and went on to do my own search and I thought that if I had enough wisdom of the human person I would be happy, so I decided to study psychology. It took me seven years, the time to get my diploma, to realise that I wasn't happy at all, I was actually more confused than when I had started, so I decided to go into personal counselling therapy and I started to explore all kinds of alternative therapies, new religious movements and whatever promised happiness. You name it, I tried it. But every time I discovered, if I got deep enough, it didn't deliver what it was promising.

At one point I thought I had found it, but then realised that no, that didn't work, O began to wonder if it was me that something was wrong with, and again I started thinking maybe my dad was right. Maybe there was something about this Christian approach to life. Maybe you just can't, by your own methods, through meditation, this and that, climb the ladder to happiness which I was trying to do. Maybe it depended on grace.

I liked that idea because that meant that then it wasn't me who wasn't good enough to figure out how to engineer happiness. So I began to look into it and went back to the Christian roots. Then on that journey I came across the blessed mother Mary, who intervened in my life in a very special way, through some of the apparitions in Medjugorje, that really spoke to me, and I thought wow, if this really is true, then I can't ignore this. Because I had always felt a little bad about leaving the Christian religion, I thought, what if they are right?

But I needed tangible proof that God was alive and active in the world today. And that was given to me in a very tangible way. So I surrendered to her and started listening to her, I started praying the rosary, my wife was on the same track as me, and that became an opening. We wanted to go back to the Christian church, but it had to be somewhere where there was room for our love for the Blessed Mother. 

We tried everything but the Catholic Church, because I was raised very anti-Catholic. But nowhere was she welcome. So we thought we'd try, and we were welcomed and felt immediately at home. Then when I started looking into Catholic Theology I saw the richness of wisdom there was there that spoke and explained so much to me about many of the things I had seen already at counselling.

So when I proclaim what I believe and people counter that I only think that because of my faith, I say no, I became a Catholic because it confirmed what I already had seen in my work. So I am very happy with it and it makes sense to me, I can explain and give reasons for why I have the faith I have. It satisfies my intellect and my heart, and so I'm sold.

With the decrease of Catholic priests and the rise of psychologists and psychiatrists, has psychology become a "new religion"?
I definitely think there is that trend. That psychology has taken on the character of being a substitute religion, with psychologists as a new priesthood. They certainly have some wisdom about how to live daily life, and the problems you have there, so there is something to offer, that is kind of seductive in its promise that if you get enough therapy, and so on, you may find ultimate happiness. But that has not shown up though, even though the discipline of psychology has grown tremendously through lots of research, reports and studies, depression and mental illness are growing like crazy! So something is missing, which is the spiritual dimension, I think.

The true resource of healing is found in the Church, in Jesus Christ. However, to convey that to people, the Church may not always have known how to get that point across. Because the modern mind is so psychologized, that it thinks in terms of psychological concepts. So that is where I see that psychology and the faith can team up as a joint venture, where we see psychology not as a substitute religion, but in service to the Holy Spirit, which will help open the person's mind and the blockages in the person's mind to believe simplistic solutions. The spiritual solution of admitting that you need to be loved and that love is available, is so simple that it is hard for the modern complicated mind to understand that. So we have to deprogramme the mind to open up so that you can get in touch with your heart and the longings of the heart, which is a longing for love.
The psychologist class is rarely seen as welcoming to practising Christians. Is this your experience?
We have a small group of Christian psychologists in Denmark, who are on the same track and we of course stick together, but the others I have not had any problems with. There are some with some tendency to faith who come and ask me for supervision, but the more critical ones don't say anything, not yet at least.

People listen, they like the way I talk about it because I am not preaching. I like that I can explain with rational arguments why it makes sense to have faith. I see the Christian faith as a theory about what it means to be a human person, and every good scientist has a right to have a theory about the thing he is working with, and every scientist will believe his theory is the truth until proved otherwise. I think my theory on Christian Faith is being affirmed again and again, so I will stick to it until you show me something better.

As a Catholic and as somebody so connected to the issues of family, you must have followed the synod very closely… your thoughts?
I am not really up to date on that. I think it was good that the teachings of the Church were affirmed, which was a disappointment to many people, I think.

Homosexuality became the focal point of the synod discussions. Do you do any work with homosexuals?
I have worked with some. Especially of course homosexuals who would like to get back to a heterosexual lifestyle, they would come to me. The others I have not seen, really. I have been open to invite them in and I think I would approach them by asking them what it is they are looking for. In any relationship we will find the pain of wanting to be loved by the other person, and not being able to love much again, so by going into that without really addressing the sexual issue could sometimes clarify things and get into some areas that you wouldn't get into. So I wouldn't discuss their sexuality with them, I would meet them on the emotional level of their relationship. I wouldn't be able to endorse the sexuality either, that's not my domain. But they are hurting and I think they are hurting partly because they can't find the peace they are looking forin the way they go about it.

You mentioned reparative therapy can work with homosexuals?
I definitely believe that, yes. 

We know this is a very touchy subject, it has even been banned in some places. Would you say that all cases of homosexuality can be reversed?
I would not be able to say if there are exceptions, but I definitely tend to believe that it is deeply emotional blockages, I think there is a great fear of intimacy, which we also find in heterosexual couples. 

Even people who are not homosexual have difficulties with being sexually united to the other gender. Many marriages have problems in the sexual area, so sexual issues in general have to do with fear of intimacy. And if you think about intimacy between a make and a female, it is a tremendous challenge. Not only is it another person you have to be close to, but it is also a totally different universe. So if you are scared of that intimacy, that explosive intimacy that sexuality could represent, you might feel more comfortable trying to have something sexual going with somebody of your own gender, because it is not so strange and foreign. These are the ideas I am reflecting on to understand the fear of intimacy. It is a very big issue.

How should a family react if their son or daughter announces that they are homosexual?
I have seen those families, definitely, and I think they should be very careful about reacting with anger, and being judgemental, which is often the case, because it is shocking. Behind the anger we always find deep, deep sorrow, and woundedness. 

So I do encourage people to be honest about their pain and that they do not endorse it from that point of view, but that they can't control their child. They can try to advise, but not control or threaten. So I think it is one of the biggest challenges for many families, to convey the pain it causes, without it being judgemental and a criticism. 

It is very difficult. I think it would take family therapy in many cases to get to that point. Because the anger response will just push the child further and further away. Often there could be a lack of feeling loved by the parents at a deeper, intimate level. 

Here in the South of Europe we hear constantly about how advanced Northern Europe is. You are from Denmark, is it as wonderful as we are told?
We are supposed to be the happiest people in the world. Many studies have shown that. I think there is some confusion about the word happy. I don't think danes would call themselves happy.

We are pretty satisfied with public services, we are very spoilt in all kinds of ways. I think we are pretty satisfied in that level, but we still have one of the highest suicide rates, and take a lot of anti-depressants, so I think there is something which suggests we are not that happy when it comes to the joyful, in terms, of being joyful and appreciative, with goals for real happiness.

Do you see this as related to the secularization of the societies?

The government takes over and takes care of the people and their suffering, their illnesses, their welfare, so there isn’t really a need for God on that level, and so people drift away.

What they lack in the whole process is appreciation, gratitude, which has gone out, so with that secularization comes a lot of depression. The realization that "now we have welfare, we are pretty well off in many ways in the material sense, and we are still not as happy as we thought we would be, so people demand more and more benefits, and speak more in terms of their rights, instead of being appreciative of what they have.

But appreciation is a spiritual value, so when the spiritual goes out, appreciation seems to also yield for demanding, and demanding attitudes are related to anger. I find that in a lot of depression too, supressed anger.

Curiously, Denmark has the highest rate of young men going to fight in Syria of any other European country, and there is a discussion going on at the moment about how to integrate the ones who return. What is your view on this?
I think the reason it happens is because they miss something to fight for. When you get everything given, that you haven't had to fight for it, to work hard for it. You can go on unemployment for nothing in Denmark, and get social services to take care of your living expenses without having to do anything. Then you have nothing to fight for, and that makes life pretty dull and passionless, with a growing anger. So the desire to fight for something, with a rising anger inside, would be something that could explain why some people have this growing attraction to going out and kill somebody. I would think that is very possible.

Some could be past the point of no return, I am afraid. There is a lot of talking about it now, how to welcome them back home, and there are experts working on it. I think it is very important. Some would be perhaps reachable.

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