EmptySelf -Cushmans | Psychotherapy | Psychology & Cognitive Science

Why the Self Is Empty

Toward a Historically Situated Psychology
Philip Cushman

California School of Professional Psychology, Berkeley~Alameda

ABSTRACT: This article presents a contextualized treatment of the current configuration of self, some of the pathologies that plague it, and the technologies that attempt to heal it. Of particular interest is the historical shift from the Victorian, sexually restricted self to the post-World War H empty self. The empty self is soothed and made cohesive by becoming "filled up" with food, consumer products, and celebrities. Its historical antecedents, economic constituents, and political consequences are the focus of this article. The two professions most responsible for healing the empty self, advertising and psychotheral~, find themselves in a bind: They must treat a psychological symptom without being able to address its historical causes. Both circumvent the bind by employing the lifestyle solution, a strategy that attempts to heal by covertly filling the empty self with the accoutrements, values, and mannerisms of idealized figures. This strategy solves an old problem but creates new ones, including an opportunity for abuse by exploitive therapists, cult leaders, and politicians. Psychology's role in constructing the empty self, and thus reproducing the current hierarchy of power and privilege, is examined.
From its beginnings, modern psychology has had difficulty developing a historically situated perspective on its discourse and practices. Nowhere is this ahistorical tendency more obvious than in the debate on individualism. Many researchers have treated self-contained individualism as an unquestioned value and the current concept of self-the bounded, masterful self--as an unchangeable, transhistorical entity. In opposition to a decontextualized approach, I will argue that cultural conceptualizations and configurations of self are formed by the economies and polities of their respective eras. By studying the self in this way, psychologists will be better able to understand the current era and psychology's place within that era. I have drawn from the insights of hermeneuticists such as Faulconer and Williams (1985), Gadamer (1979), Heidegger (1962/1977), Morawski (1984), Rabinow and Sullivan (1987), Stigliano (1989), and the authors in the book edited by Messer, Sass, and Woolfolk (1988) in order to develop an approach characterized by historical and ontological concerns. The argument is at times speculative and nonempirical. It depends in part on a survey of the opinions of other social scientists and on the arguments of historians whose qualitative data is far too detailed to May 1990
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reproduce in an article of this size. I realize that this approach will be considered imprecise by some psychologists, but after much debate, I have decided that it is, with all its flaws, the best approach for such an elusive subject. Even with these limits, I think the study of the self across time and cultures is an essential topic for psychology. If psychologists do not recognize the ethnocentric nature of psycholngy's discourse about the current Westeva self, we commit several errors. In particular, we participate in a culturally disrespectful and damaging psychological imperialism abroad and at the same time perpetuate the discourse of self-contained individualism and its attendant miseries at home. By the selfI mean the concept of the individual as articulated by the indigenous psychology of a particular cultural group, the shared understandings within a culture of"what it is to be human" (Heelas & Lock, 1981, p. 3). The self embodies what the culture believes is humankind's place in the cosmos: its limits, talents, expectations, and prohibitions. In this sense the self is an aspect of what Heidegger (1962/1977) called the horizon of shared understandings or "the clearing" carved out by the particular practices of a particular culture. There is no universal, transhistorical self, only local selves; no universal theory about the self, only local theories. Studying the self of a particular era in this way allows us to operationalize a basic tenet of ontological hermeneutics: The process of studying humans is not the same as "reading" persons as "texts" (Gergen, 1988), but more like standing behind them and reading over their shoulder the cultural text from which they themselves are reading (Sass, 1988a, p. 250). In an earlier article (Cushman, 1987), I suggested that all elements of the clearing, ineluding psychological theories about the self, are cultural artifacts and can be examined as elements of the cultural text. That is what I am attempting to do when I describe the current configuration of self: Read over our shoulders. The self is a difficult concept on which to get a perspective, precisely because it is such a central aspect of the horizon. As Sass (1988a) explained, "The horizon's concealment is intimately or intrinsically connected with the condition of being visible . . . . its presence is almost too obvious, too self-evident" (p. 242). It is therefore difficult for us to imagine the self as other than the way it is in our era or to consider it a legitimate subject for study. But as difficult as it is, the study of the self is also a crucial ele599

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TerenceO'Hare. and made cohesive by momentarily filling them up. and secularism have shaped the modern era. Descartes's objective empiricism (Taylor. the empty self. Rieff. I believe that the construction of the post-World War II middle-class American self is a good illustration of how the economy and the power structure impact on personality. the ideologies. experiences. This response has been implicitly prescribed by a post-World War II economy that is dependent on the continual consumption of nonessenMay 1990 • American Psychologist . and businesses of modern psychology have historical antecedents. This article supports Foucault's and Sampson's line of political reasoning and follows it into the realm of the economy. It is a self that seeks the experience of being continually filled up by consuming goods. masterful self was constructed after the collapse of feudalism. 1986) are prominent illustrations of the political utility of the social sciences. romantic partners. LindaRiebel. and in the current era. The post-World War II self thus yearns to acquire and consume as an unconscious way of compensating for what has been lost: It is empty. 600 corresponding kinds of psychopathology. secret. 1988). from a rural to an urban setting. such as Foucault (1980) and Levin (1987b) also have argued that each era produces a particular configuration of self and I would like to thank Edward Sampson. subjects. (1973. One can see evidence of the empty self in current psychological discourse about narcissism and borderline states. Zaretsky. 1988) have tried to reorient psychology's perspective. calories. Giorgi (1970). Jane Burka. 1976). 1987a. 1966. the Panopticon (Foucault. and the activities responsible for healing it. They do not float suspended in time and space: They have a context. it has become apparent to cultural historians such as Susman (1973) and Lears (1983) that Americans have slowly changed from a Victorian people who had a deeply felt need to save money and restrict their sexual and aggressive impulses. It experiences these social absences and their consequences "interiorly" as a lack of personal conviction and worth. the discourse that justifies it. Jules Burstein. economic constituents. and a wish to manipulate the external world for its own personal ends. political polling strategies (Ginsberg. The Emergence of the Empty Self Many authors have described how the bounded. from an agricultural to an industrial means of production. These vast changes were coincident with and some say responsible for the dual triumph of the concept of Montaigne's subjective individual and the method necessary to study it. undifferentiated emotional hunger. and empathic therapists in an attempt to combat the growing alienation and fragmentation of its era. 1983. My understanding of their historical interpretations is that an increasingly bounded. the popular culture's emphasis on consuming. and shared meaning. It is empty in part because of the loss of family.Oakland. 1986a. 1979). political advertising strategies that emphasize soothing and charisma instead of critical thought..CA 94618. 1986b). there are indications that the present configuration of the bounded. 1985). Culminating with the Victorian era. unraveling one helps reveal them all. an internal locus of control. and of psychology in particular. During the beginnings of the modern era in the 16th century. organized. It emerged at the same time that the modern state was faced with the necessity of developing justifications and techniques for controlling a modern populace. it has become increasingly clear that many researchers have made the fundamental mistake of decontextualizing the subject. Harr6 (1984. potentially dangerous self was used by the state to justify its role as official controller of selves. 5480 CollegeAve. the consequences that flow from it. constructed the current configuration of the bounded self. Bentham's innovative prison. and from a communal to an individual subject. Correspondenceconcerningthisarticleshouldbe addressedto Philip Cushman. throughout the ongoing debate on the meaning and value of individualism. Americans in the post-World War II era seem to have become a people who have a deeply felt need to spend money and indulge their impulses. but by creating and manipulating their wish to be soothed. By studying the configuration of the current self. This is a self that has specific psychological boundaries. Donald ~ . These things come in packages. as in Victorian times. community. Since the end of World War II the configuration of an empty self has emerged in the middle classes. By this I mean that our terrain has shaped a self that experiences a significant absence of community. Unfortunately. urbanization. Others. They have influenced the predominant psychological philosophy of our time. we will come to have an enlarged perspective on the forces that shape it. and tradition (Levin.Stanley Messerand fiveanonymousreviewersfortheirhelpin shapingthisarticle.KarenCushman. instinct-driven. In the early modern period. advertising and psychotherapy. and it embodies the absences as a chronic. 1981. Over the course of the 20th century. politicians. self-contained individualism. masterful self is the empty self. Thus. the illnesses that plague it. the Western world began to shift from a religious to a scientific frame of reference. have often worked to the advantage of the state by helping to construct selves that are the subjects of control and to develop techniques that are the means of control. and political consequences. and Sampson (1977. Gergen. The products of the social sciences.ment in interpreting an era. Sampson's work in particular has emphasized the political antecedents and consequences of the current self. masterful self has slowly and unevenly emerged in Western history. the concept of the deep. Broad historical forces such as industrialization. The thesis of this article is that the current self is constructed as empty. and a nationwide difficulty in maintaining personal relationships. tradition. I believe that in the post-World War II era in the United States. and developed the professions that I believe are most responsible for rifling and healing the empty self. and as a result the state controls its population not by restricting the impulses of its citizens.

Trigg. 1988. 1988) believe this individual depth was first expressed by Augustine's mistrust of self. wealth. 1962/1977).500 years. Finally. bounded. helping them to focus their attention on or ignore certain aspects of their environment. Humans are incomplete and therefore unable to function adequately unless embedded in a specific cultural matrix. masterful. To get the sense of this contrast. Some scholars (e. For May 1990 ° American Psychologist More specifically. 1971) into the hypertrophied. 1963). Psychotherapy is one of the professions responsible for healing the post-World War II self. 1987) and a gnawing sense of emptiness in the self (Kohut.tial and quickly obsolete items and experiences (Zinn. individual self and the modem state's need to control it through study and calculated manipulation (Foucault. accomplished by studying the decontextualized individual. pp. Zaretsky. Levin. Greenblatt. the quintessential 1920s "flapper. 1982). bounded. Hutton. Taylor. the French knight in the twelfth century epic The Song of Roland. as an artifact. roughly paralleling the development of industrialization and the rise of the modern state. For instance. and instructing and forbidding them to think and act in certain ways (Heiddeger. Meyer. and the socioeconomic class in which it exists. The self of the early Middle Ages was an immortal soul enclosed in the shell of a mortal body. 1979. political forces. The self has undergone extreme. 1987. Culture "completes" humans by explaining and interpreting the world. The individual. and as such they shape and mold the community's generalized reality orientation in subtle and unseen ways. 1986. how they see others. confused. the Western self took a major complicating turn during the ascendancy of the Victorian bourgeoisie with the overt articulation of its "hidden" sexual and aggressive content (Lowe. 1985). Lowe (1982) has shown how the particular qualities of bourgeois perception objectified and quantified everything. often discontinuous change because it is part of the larger sociohistorical fabric of its time. 1987. it infuses individuals. and "deeper" (Logan. We would do well to remember Foucault's (1970. masterful nature (Sampson. 1976). the communal. The social sciences thus developed at the same time as the emergence of the isolated. middle-class self has emerged in Western society during the last 200 years. They are cultural artifacts. "inner" self of Augustine's Confessions (397/1986). erratic. communally isolated self is a modem phenomenon (Rieff. has different configurations and different functions depending on the culture. pure human nature that is transhistorical and transcultural. The material objects we create. the historical era. and the Romantics (Baumeister. the bounded. Dreyfus & Rubin. The Self Is a Social Construct This article is based on the type of social constructionist argument recently developed by Geertz (1973). fundamental. Consequently. these artifacts are not only the expression of an era.. and cultural forms has somehow accomplished this through the dual creation of easy credit (Malabre. 1977). maintaining. 1980. and the eventual hegemony of. psychology's discourse and practices perpetuate the causes of the very problems it is trying to treat. Morawski (1988). The patient is diagnosed as empty and fragmented. American society requires individuals who experience a strong "need" for consumer products and in fact demand them (Henry. confused. and replicating it. It was later influenced by Europe's incremental steps toward capitalism and then developed by the Renaissance. many psychotherapy theories attempt to treat the modem self by reinforcing the very qualities of self that have initially caused the problem: its autonomous. Trilling. Humans do not have a basic. and how they make choices in the everyday world. through the activity ofhelping. Taylor (1988) described how the subject-object and mind-body splits led to an increasing interest in. 1966. the unfolding of a secret genetic code. fundamentally shaping and forming them and how they conceive of themselves and the world. usually without addressing the sociohistorical predicament that caused the emptiness and fragmentation (Bordo. Culture is not indigenous clothing that covers the universal human. increasingly nihilistic self of the 1920s.000 years in Western society the self has become increasingly more individualistic. and the actions we take are the consequences or "products" of the social construction of each particular era.g. example. The self must function within a particular cultural pattern: matching. or the peeling of layers of enlightenment." During the last 2. the Enlightenment. and influence within their respective societies. and Sampson ( 1983. imagine a conversation between Roland. 1988) warning that the changes undergone by the Western self are not developmental changes brought on by an inner logic. 1987. more subjective. Unfortunately. how they engage in structures of mutual obligation. Thus. nonsexually conflicted self of Aeschylus' Oresteia (458BC/ 1953) looks vastly different from the tortured. Harr~ (1986a). 1987c). It looked vastly different from the cynical. 1985). The belief in objective empiricism was based in part on the Enlightenment's search for the universal laws of a "pure" human nature. 89-119). outward looking. the ideas we hold. and Zelda Fitzgerald. 1986. 1972). Morris. 1973. In order for the economy to thrive. Such an economy requires individuals who have an uninterrupted flow of money and a continual motivation to spend it. Gergen (1985). The bourgeois self of the Victorian era in Europe reflected the impact of the Enlightenment and the in601 . The complex interrelatedness of social change. the Western self has gone through many permutations over the course of the last 2. However. The Sexually Conflicted Victorian Self The Many Shapes of the Western S e l f The self. They are also the immediate "stuff" of daily life. 1988). individual self. they inevitably reinforce and reproduce the constellations of power. the empirical social sciences.

Glazer. . Susman ( 1973." Marchand (1985) explained. was prescriptively linked to the outbreak of hysteria. p. the quest for developing a secular personality came to take precedence over building religious character. describing and further constructing the modern self. pp. and personnel work. sexually conflicted. Asch (1983) and Scheibe (1988) have intimated that this alliance has led to laboratory psychology's quick rise to power in American academia. and achieve monetary success and peace of mind. which Lears thought was another manifestation of "the therapeutic. . the unknown was understood to be unequivocally interior (see also Brandell. 1983. advice manuals of the time taught that personality was synonymous with becoming liked by others. and psychological satisfaction . What Leafs (1983) referred to as the therapeutic ethos came into being in order to alleviate derealization and reintegrate seWnood in the upper classes (pp. Early psychoanalysis reflected these trends. as the modern age dawned and developed. 1987). Schiebinger (1987). Riesman. As big business became increasingly interested in using psychology to boost profits. impressing others and gaining their approval became an important aim in life. become popular. 1988) and potentially dangerous. 1985) have also suggested that the particular Victorian construction of gender and identity. 1938) on worker productivity led the way for an alliance that has not always been as scientifically objective as historians depicted. linear self that viewed the world as objectifiable and quantitative. 19). .. divided. the ads sought to allay the customer's personal fears and feelings of inadequacy. Many other writers (e. Advertising began developing a highly effective strategy: By identifying the product with an "imaginary state of being" (Lears. most notably hysteria and neurasthenia. new subfields of academic psychology emerged. such as Drinka (1984) and Van den Berg (1961). The self was conceived of as capable of personal change.g. dean. p. 1961) postulated a self with an interiorized unconscious that contained primitive drives--sex and aggression--that had to be restricted in order for normative bourgeois society to function. self-reliant rugged individualist who began to give way to the outer-directed. have suggested that as a consequence of the attempts to control "dangerous" impulses. psychological discourse and practice in relation to the middle-class self have changed from a focus on the Victorian. ads became progressively less informative and more evocative. rational. 4-58. 300-312. For instance. and Welter (1966) have shown that in the late 18th and 19th centuries in general and the Victorian era in particular.. far outstripping the value of doing the morally correct act. May 1990 • American Psychologist . the tactics. 19). and influence consumers. Freud (1953. As Brammel and Friend (1981) and Gillespie (1988) have suggested. and work to become increasingly compartmentalized and alienating. Bernheimer & Kahane. who attempted to cure these new diseases by using the ideology that Meyer (1980) called positive thinking. 1973. . such as the preacher-therapist. social correctness. The advertising industry. populations to become urbanized. socially sldlled salespersontype of individual. Applied psychology was used in advertising. 11-17). 271-285 ) has demonstrated how. balms for the discontents of modernity" (pp. 36-50). . marketing. Researchers such as Flexner (1959). 1986. In the 1920s and 1930s." attempted to cure by implying that products would magically "transform" the customer's life. Smith-Rosenberg (1981). Slowly. which was dictated by one's character. The "unknown" was once thought to reside in the external world. 441). restrictive powers (see also Sass. The seeds of this change slowly began developing in the United States in the early decades of the 20th century. p. The percentage of Americans living in urban settings had grown from 3. especially in America. vigorous models (Lears. "By the 1920s. Taylor. 347. 360). popularized forms of psychology and religion began to offer advice on how to impress others. about taste. products. and Denny (1953) and Fromm (1955) have also described the innerdirected. pp. subjective. Lowe (1982) convincingly argued that the Victorian bourgeois self was a secular. New business roles developed. 1979. the self became the container for that which could be hidden from others and from oneself (Baumeister. new mental problems developed in the middle and upper classes. By the triumph of the Victorian bourgeoisie. associating 602 the product with happy. Susman (1973) and Lears (1983) also argued that in the United States the strain of acting in a proper bourgeois manner took a toll on spontaneity and expressiveness. Some authors. pp. Unlike character.dustrial and French revolutions. In order to do that.4% in 1790 to 33% in 1900 (Blum et al. The Early 20th Century American Self During the last 90 years. Advertising men had now become broader social therapists who off e r e d . which is centered on personal moral integrity. . the famous Hawthorne experiments (Mayo. gender roles in the middle and upper classes took on a polarized and restrictive cast unique to that time regarding both social privilege and economic function. . The economy's need for an industrial labor force caused traditional rural communRies to be uprooted. sexually restricted self to the post-World War II empty and fragraented self. Foucault (1979) argued that the modern state exploited this conception of the self in order to justify its new. maximize worker productivity. After the turn of the century. 1933. "advertisers had come to recognize a public demand for broad g u i d a n c e . and successes of therapeutic businesses such as the advertising and self-improvement industries changed from a proaccupation with restriction to an inclination for indulgence. 1981. Whitehead. psychology began to forge an alliance with business management that appeared to aid psychology's emergence as an independent social science discipline. 1983. especially the conflict between the growing ethic of modernity and the restrictiveness of women's roles. Trilling (197 l) described this as the concern for sincerity preoccupation.

1973. Coincident with the decline of the large. and Taylor (1988) have observed that Americans in the post603 . but a celebrity (Susman. 21). Authors such as Blum et al. p. and mobility over stability. 1989. America's consumer-based economy (and its charismatically oriented political process) would be inconceivable. & Tipton. Then. Eventually it found a way into postwar prosperity through the creation and use of universal. 71). foresaking even the shrinking nuclear family. international peacetime economy. In 1940 the urban population comprised 77% of the whole. The car transformed urban living. households with only one person rose from 3. 1983). A new era with a new self was beginning to emerge. producing a new kind of star. 1960). selling ability over integrity. Countless ads. 282-284). Zaretsky. 1985). not a hero. p. 1978) have described a world in which flash .7% in 1790 to 9. The percentage of after-tax income that Americans have saved has decreased from a high of 25. and TV situation comedies portrayed a nation of postwar families that needed new homes. its distinctive character became fully formed in the decades following the war (Goldman. 1987. Advertisements portrayed a nation of new families that needed modern. For this self there are supposed to be no limits to achievement and enjoyment. There began to emerge in the national consciousness a sense of the power and affluence that the United States would generate in the unknown postwar future (Goldman. 1960. Middle-class Caucasians born in the baby boom era directly following World War II were told that they were the privileged generation of the most privileged and powerful country in the world (Marin. In the post-War era writers such as Fromm (1955) and Lasch (1984. extended family unit. New discourses and practices such as the advertising industry and the field of psychology were modified in order to respond to and further develop the new configuration of self (Ewen. Madsen. More and more the focus has come to rest on the individual (Bellah. particularly February 27. and January 6. the Los Angeles Times. 1973. 1988. 1968). 1949). easy credit (see Friedman. A new era was about to dawn. For the United States. Susman (1973).1% in 1950 (Kobrin. 1987. In contrast. Although the roots of this new world reach back into the earlier decades of the 20th century.5% in 1944 to less than 2% by 1986 (Malabre. Because the homes and products were so expensive. This was not an easy task. The Post'WorM War H Era and Its Economy In the decades immediately following World War II. 1979). 1987). Indeed. Swidler. World War II effectively ended the Depression and provided an inescapable sense of realness. Leafs (1983). 441. business credit. e. to 15% in 1979. international war machine into a viable. Lasch (1978).4% in 1900. to 20. the volume of consumer installment loans rose from 5% of personal income in 1949. 1973). (1973) have described an America that became highly urbanized and industrialized. The percentage of American households of seven or more persons declined from 35. New appliances appeared on the market and transformed household chores. which the therapeutic ethos had tried to cure. Credit made the new economy go: personal credit. The concrete economic problems of unemployment and hunger took precedence over the cynical and reckless selfabsorption of the 1920s.for self-actualization and "growth" (Liflon. one of the tasks of the 1950s was to convert its powerful.. pp. Rieff (1966). the United States developed an economy that depended on the continual production and consumption of nonessential and quickly obsolete products.5% in 1973. 1949. radio shows. 1960). Fox & Lears. by 1970 it comprised 95% (Blum et al. and postwar industrialization brought with it new business capacities and new technologies. to a record 20% by 1987 (Malabre. Authors such as Gendlin (1987). to 5. 1985. and experiences (Lowe. 1987b. Liflon (1968). Personal fulfillment is seen to reside within the purview of the individual. large suburban housing developments began transforming the countryside. the fortunes of war began to change as the managers of big business and government learned how to develop and focus America's industrial power for the war effort. Zinn. which began and increased in the first three decades of the century. appeared to have slowed somewhat during the economic depression of the 1930s and World War II. young middle-class families could not save enough cash to purchase them. People are living ever more secluded and secular lives. 4. electronic "conveniences" in order to stay scientific and modern (see the popular comic strip Gasoline Alley in 1949 for a good example of these themes. For a moment the ennui of the upper classes. But credit for what? The increasingly powerful print and electronic media unleashed a flood of opinions about how post-World War II families should spend their money. Sullivan. Thus. 1976). the individual self came to be seen as the ultimate locus of salvation: the evolving. on a never-ending search . the Japanese rate is currently at 30% of after-tax income.g. 1988). Households with two persons rose from 7. receded. Without this particular self. The Post-Worm War I I Era and the Empty Self I believe that after the war the configuration of the empty self coalesced and finally became predominant as a consequence oftbe loss of community and in order to match the needs of the new economy. During that same span of time. Levin. 1949.8% in 1950.is valued over substance. Malabre. celebrities..3% in 1950--and to 18. and at times the country floundered in recessions (Goldman. 1977.The trend toward the waning of Victorian values. pp. opportunism over loyalty. who is supposed to be self-sufficient and selfMay 1990 • American Psychologist satisfied (Sampson. 27). The movie and music businesses became dominant.8% in 1790 to 28. 1978. and government credit. constantly: changing self.808). Practitioners in both fields are placed in the position of being responsible for curing the empty self without being allowed to address the historical causes of the emptiness through structural societal changes. credit became indispensable. At the same time.9% in 1790. pp. also January 2. Slowly.

and self-sufficient (Fromm. 1977. 1981). But for object relations theorists what fills the emptiness of the self is not the selfobject experience but rather a whole cast of psychological introjects: representations of others (their thoughts. 1987). 1975. creating various dramas. charismatic political leaders (Kohut. the electronic entertainment industry. a sense of meaninglessness and absence feeds these businesses.World War II era came to need self-improvement in a form and to a degree unknown before. and needs of one's self at various stages of development (Ogden. It may also take the form of an absence of personal meaning. 1980). 1976. Credit is only necessary when the individual's wish to buy outstrips his or her capital. and needs) and representations of the thoughts. In a crucial aspect of psychological development in Kohut's self psychology. 1978). and fulfillment became the single most valued aspect of life (Baumeister. an experience in which an individual is said to be entered by the soul or spirit of another "entity. such as low self-esteem (the absence of a sense of personal worth). self-loving. Later in the treatment. worldwide credit. preventive medical care. feelings. 1986). as has Kohut. Why is it that we currently need this particular kind of parenting. Masterson." usually thought to be a god. The technological advances in these fields have been astronomical. 1985). Individuals do not wish to buy if they do not perceive a need for a product. unethical psychotherapists (West & Singer. the bounded. Lears." or the power and personality of a leader or guru (Cushman. For instance. as has their increasing power to influence and control the mainstream of American life (Lasch. 1986). values confusion (the absence of a sense of personal convictions). 1956. the process Kohut (1977) called transmuting internalizations is said to fill the emptiness by building the self of the patient. Sampson. 1986). many psychologists argue that one must have a nurturing early environment that provides a great deal of May 1990 • American Psychologist ." The wish to be spiritually filled up and guided can make the individual vulnerable to the deceptive practices of restrictive religious cults (Cushman. one that has previously been rare or perhaps nonexistent in Western history (Kessen. 1983). The Western world and America in particular constructed a new type of bounded self that was the perfect complement to the postwar economy built on a system of universal. What is important to note for the purposes of this article is that for object relations theorists the interior of the self is also an emptiness. The representations interact with one another and with the external world. 1984) developed an entire theory of psychotherapy based on the empty. The cosmetics industry. 1984). fragmented self. And yet in order to develop this type of self. The self of our time is expected to function in a highly autonomous. which sometimes takes the form of a wish to be filled up by the spirit of God. But how does this new self-improvement industry work? What makes this network possible? Why do Americans "need" these items and experiences now when they never did before? Again. He used the term selfobject to describe the undifferentiated nature of the parent-child relationship. In general.. several industries grew up to minister to this newly created need. individuated self. Kohut's work implies that our era needs this kind of therapy because children do not get enough empathic attention in the postwar world. narcissistic and borderline personality disorders) are one of the more popular diagnoses of our time. I am speculating that it is the formation of the empty self that has made this situation possible. a product of a central cultural paradox (Sampson. and the self-improvement industry (containing mainstream psychology. To accomplish this it is thought that the individual must develop an ability to be selfsoothing. the parent is psychologically "taken in" by the child and used to develop a self. who then speaks "important truths. pop psychology.e. 1985). drug abuse (the compulsion to fill the emptiness with chemically induced emotional experiences). Strozier. His theory was an attempt to explain how the self is developed in the individual and how to treat it in order to alleviate or lessen the effects of emptiness and fragmentation. The construction of the empty self is. to create a different context in which the growing self in the adult patient has a more nurturing environment. the diet business. or to embody the emptiness by refusing food). by religious "truth. or even highly authoritarian and controlling romantic partners (Boulette & Anderson. 1978. in fact. isolated way. masterful. Psychoanalytic Theory and the Empty Self The empty self has become such a prevalent aspect of our culture that much contemporary psychotherapeutic theory is devoted to its treatment. object relations theory posits the prominent self of our era. functioning as a selfobject. perhaps significantly more empathy and accurate reflecting is needed from parents because more traditional sources of guidance have been lost. feelings. It is a space partially filled by the stable self-representation (the "true self") and by external "part-objects" brought into the empty self through the psychological mechanism of introjection. Levin (1987c) and Lasch (1978) among others have suggested that disorders 604 of the self(i. Kohut's method of treatment in particular can be interpreted as an attempt to undo the historical circumstances of our current isolation. and pop religion) all came into prominence. eating disorders (the compulsion to fill the emptiness with food. In analysis it is the therapist. This can manifest as a hunger for spiritual guidance. who initially fills the emptiness. 1979. one of the most au courant of New Age therapies is channeling. But with an empty self people always need. 815)? In this less communal and certain world. and chronic consumerism (the compulsion to fill the emptiness with consumer items and the experience of "receiving" something from the world). enjoyment. Heinz Kohut (1971. Inner emptiness may be expressed in many ways. As the individual's growth. The other major psychodynamic theory that has recently come to prominence is object relations theory (Kernberg. p.

advertising must offer an illusory cure. Winnitort. Stem. Who is to provide this environment? If adults are self-serving. increasing the dichotomy between their outward presentation of self and their internal sense of self. Kohut has seemed particularly vulnerable to charges that his belief in the natural. Furthermore. I do not want to leave the impression that self psychology is somehow immune from the critique developed in this article. the buyable fantasy" (p. Thus. 1981. thus. unfolding program of each unique self valorizes the individual's inner world at the expense of the external. This can be accomplished by purchasing and "ingesting" the product. 1981. 85). A good case could be made that many current advertisements (e. . ceremonial objects. I believe ads substitute the concept of life-style: the experiences and material possessions that are identified with the celebrity or model. In this way life-style is used as a pseudoculture--a pseudoculture that promises an instant. It is a kind of mimicry of traditional culture for a society that has lost its own. I use Kohut's theory to interpret the current era because. Sass. a poor substitute for the tools traditional cultures use for curing the sick. Ewen (1989) has referred to this as "the consumable life. like any popular psychological theory. 1981. which will magically transfer the life-style of the model to the consumer. a generation of offspring who have been narcissistically wounded. the array of stories. Writers such as Lears (1983) and Modleski (1986) have argued that ads sell by convincing the public that a certain product is indispensable to their well-being or by implicitly addressing or exacerbating a personal fear in the customer that could be reassured or soothed by purchasing the product. or life insurance) are less a type of benign guidance and more a kind of coercive attack. in part. By surrounding themselves with the accoutrements of the model. 1985). 1988b). Marchand (1985) demonstrated how advertising acMay 1990 • American Psychologist cepted a therapeutic role by stepping into "a vacuum of advice . one possible result of this historical situation could be a group of parents inadequate to such a demanding role and. hair color. Geertz (1973) has described these tools as the web of meaning. Because advertising cannot cure by invoking a workable web of meaning. . Ads seem to criticize and condemn the average consumer while glorifying the model. More specifically. alienation and the loss of community)." Advertising and the Life-Style Solution In the second half of the century the empty self has made it much easier for advertising to exert influence and control. Although some of these observations are informed by Kohut's theory. hidden "true self" (Masterson. a "transformation. problem-free life--the "life" of the model who is featured in the ad. individuals in the postwar era are thus particularly vulnerable to influence from cultural forms such as advertising that emanate authority and certainty. 589). empathic parenting is difficult to accomplish because many of the requisite traits have been constructed out of the self. of course. Examples are numerous: the yuppie Lowenbrau models who lift their bottles and say "Here's to good friends". the working-class Old Milwaukee drinkers who maintain "It doesn't get any better than this". 1984. 1985. it must turn to the refuge of what I will refer to as the lifestyle solution. Advertising certainly does not address itself to the political causes of the customer's problems (e. Hence one sees the bumper sticker "Visualize World Peace. p. therefore. heavily bounded individuals.g. The customer's problems will simply disappear when the magical transfer takes place. created by new social and technological complexities" (p. an absence of communal forms and beliefs.empathy. xxi). The criticisms that follow. illusory cure. why would they choose to undergo the self-sacrifice and suffering necessary to be nurturing parents? Even with the best of intentions.g. Sass (1988b) has explained how Kohut's thought is part of the Counter-Enlightenment and Romantic traditions of the expressivist form of modem humanism (p. . The social thus loses its impact as a material force. and mirroring (Homer. Unable to effect lasting change by developing political solutions to the problems of modem life." This hope of substituting one identity. The danger. songs. Miller. The awareness that they are falling short of society's central expectation is a further wound to the self-esteem of young adults. highly ambitious. According to Miller (1981).. attention. this situation creates a significant gap between society's expectations of high self-sufficiency and the lessened ability of narcissistically wounded individuals to achieve it. Because emptiness is." or the ad that asks "What 605 . one life. 1987). customers seek to "become" the model.. according to Sass (1988b. 579). Masterson. This dichotomy exacerbates a characteristic symptom of narcissism. rituals. This branch of humanist thought has perpetuated what Taylor (1988) called a radical reflexivity. especially the notion that psychological discourse not only describes but also actively prescribes the empty self. by ingesting the proper liquid while wearing the proper clothing. for another is used as the sales strategy for many products today. even the current dichotomy between expectation and experience appears to be used in service of constructing the empty self. and potions that heal by teaching and readjusting the society's cultural frame of reference. regarding body odor. extolling a standard of beauty and mastery impossible to achieve. beliefs. costumes.. The paraphernalia of a commercial model are. the upper-class version that portrays a yachting/equestrian "Cadillac style. and social problems lose their relation to political action. is that such an extreme preoccupation with the inner self causes the social world to be devalued or ignored except to the degree that it mirrors and thus becomes appropriated by the self. a sense of personal fraudulence described as a "false self" that masks the frightened. One prominent type of ad offers the fantasy that the consumer's life can be transformed into a glorious. material world. it is an artifact that both illuminates and distorts the social world it purports to describe (Cushman. all the while exhibiting the proper shape. 1965). apply to Kohut as well as other contemporary theorists (Ehrlich.

transformed self. sometimes desperately. 1984. In 1966 Rieff suggested that historically there are commitment therapies that cure by returning individuals to their community's sacred forms.kind of a man reads Playboy?". is caught in a historical bind from which it cannot escape. and by allowing the patient to "'take in" the therapist's ideas. and personal values. Individuals in the postmodern era. intellectual analysis of individuals May 1990 ° American Psychologist . also share some of these tenets. a new life. Camel's man-beast who is a "smooth character. and Susman (1973) have demonstrated that the same historical context that gave rise to the advertising industry in the United States has also shaped the field of psychology. the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-Revised [DSM-III-R]. Rieff. These customers buy life-style in a vain attempt to transform their lives because their lives are unsatisfying and (without massive societal change) ultimately unfixable. psychotherapy uses it in order to initiate patients into alternative cultural practices. and personal style.e. advertising can only offer the illusory exchange of one life for another. consumers are thus covertly promised a magically different. guiding. Psychotherapy practices have subtly attuned to the empty self of our era by unconsciously allowing or encouraging patients to incorporate the personal characteristics of the therapist. 106-110.. I believe a strong case can be made that psychotherapy practices necessarily deviate from that theoretical stance (Dreyfus & Wakefield. Currently. it must "take in" and merge with a selfobject celebrity. 1981). But without the option of providing a viable solution through the vehicle of structural change.. Other psychotherapeutic modalities. Wilson (1983). There is little to guide them. Psychological ideology ignores it.. and the overriding importance of tracing the "genetic'" (i. to buy. The late 20th century has thus become an advertising executive's dream come true: Life-style has become a product that sells itself. This is a powerful illusion. But the argument presented earlier has shown that psychology is also a product of the larger historical context that causes these illnesses. even those far removed from psychoanalytic theory such as Primal Therapy. Let me suggest that. Kohutian social critics would argue that the life-styles portrayed in advertising have become largerthan-life. psychotherapy appears to be less a "scientific" cure and more a covert vehicle for cultural guidance and transmission. respect. baby". Singer. acquisitive. It must consume in order to be soothed and integrated. And what fuels the illusion. For those despairing and hopeless about their real lives. catalogued by the current psychiatric nosology (i. as it did at the turn of the century. 1966). glamorous selfobjects. cigarette ads that feature the Marlboro Man. Transactional Analysis. By using a mode of analysis similar to that which was applied to advertising. behavioral style. Current psychoanalytic practice maintains this tradition through ideas such as the abstinence principle. 1987). I believe the feld's current solution to this bind is a creative adaptation of the same life-style solution advertising uses. the concept of the economy of the libido. the wish to consume and take in a new identity.e. American Psychiatric Association. This is why the life-style solution has become such an efficient form of advertising. desperately. but that functions such as modeling. and Bioenergetics. and thereby somewhat passively hoping for a cure. consciously enacted activities of much current psychotherapy. and of course toothpaste and deodorant ads that transform models with instant sex appeal and popularity.e. scientistic uncovering and "working through" of genetic roots and traumatic causation within the self-contained individual. pp. Psychology is the social science most responsible for treating these illnesses. practice deviates from normative discourse by allowing the therapist to function as a model for the patient. and yet that cause is the exact subject psychology is not allowed to address. values. pp. 1977. or it will be in danger of fragmenting into feelings of worthlessness and confusion. By using the right toothpaste or identifying with the most reassuring or powerful politician. 274. is the desperation to fill up the empty self. particularly in political campaigns. Advertising uses the life-style solution in order to sell products. rationalistic biological model (Taylor. 1988) and the bounded. are struggling to find sense and meaning in a confusing world. Some theories do explicitly refer to this as the patients modeling themselves after. 251-261. Because psychotherapy grew out of the late 19thcentury scientific tradition. Psychology 606 cannot fully alleviate the symptoms unless it can treat the cause (i. But an alternative interpretation of what happens behind the behavioral surface is that not only does the uncovering or understanding of trauma and distortion occur. and analytic therapies that cure by a detached. its ideology is built on the foundation of a mechanistic. and they stumble and feel despair. an ideology. and the individual has become a consumer who seeks. or a drug. p. what impels the individual into this illusion. by providing corrective emotional experiences of care. original internal) causes of a symptom. the self-object split. or introjecting the therapist. The objective uncovering of genetic causation and the goal of individuation are still the t~asic. ineluding his or her mannerisms. masterful Victorian self (Dreyfus & Wakefield. without a cohesive community. and understanding. Psychotherapy and the Life-Style Solution Researchers such as Lears (1983)." or the Virginia Slims's model who has "come a long way. Failure is manifested in the particular mental problems of modern life. temporarily merging with. Psychology. without the therapist being aware of it. therefore. a bind similar to that in which advertising is caught. the political and historical constellations that shape the era). the self is not only suffering from feeling unreal. 1988. can he very compelling. Although much psychotherapy discourse advocates the objective. It is also aggressively. 1988. and relatedness also occur and are indeed primary factors in the healing aspects of the modem therapeutic hour. and job descriptions exclude it. Kohut.

1987. I think that this is done by employing the life-style solution. Their wish to be guided and taken care of is one that can easily be exploited. Sass (1988a). So the fit is a good one. in the hands of poorly trained or power hungry therapists. and ultimately used during transference analysis in service of the healing process. Under the best of circumstances in the therapy setting these urges can be discussed. most psychotherapy discourse uses the dominant ideology of its era (the value of individualism and the transhistorical nature of the bounded. Second. and ultimately counterproductive for our society as a whole (it reproduces the present power hierarchy and economic structure that have caused our present suffering). But. Patients with disorders of the self are empty and hungry for idealizing and merging and thus are in a highly suggestible and vulnerable state. and psychological insight). In fact. Consequently. Because that avenue is closed for normative psychology. Most psychotherapies claim they are healing by applying a detached. Kohut. and honesty). It is a particular combination of analytic and commitment therapy to which I am referring as the life-style solution. scientistic analysis that has little to do with the transmission of cultural guidance. when their own needs for understanding and appreciation are so great that they try to elicit them from their patients. there are some serious. However. psychology undermines its helpful practices when it wraps itself in the ideology of the status quo. and political abuse within the therapeutic setting and ultimately in society as a whole. 1977). health psychology emphasizes proper exercise and nutrition. As discussed earlier. alternative cultural values (respect for an individual's feelings and for the importance of understanding. institutional forms of cultural transmission that have been lost or devalued. and finally internalize the qualities they most need. problems inherent in this situation. when and with what level of emotion a Rogerian therapist ventures a reflective formulation or a psychoanalyst delivers a carefully thought-out interpretation). psychotherapy actually functions as a substitute for more explicit. psychologically avoidant. In the post-World War II era. Abuse in Psychotherapy However. Kohut (1977). by outwardly adhering to the practices of an objective technology and the ideology of self-contained individualism and the bounded self. and empathy therefore helps patients imitate. and Miller (198.. but it undermines the most therapeutic aspects of its practice because it does not acknowledge that they exist. the difference between discourse and practice in the life-style solution is dangerous to the patient because it increases the possibility of psychological. therapy is helpful when it deviates from the dominant discourse of the past and adheres to the life-style solution--not because of the normative. The modeling of respect. by unconsciously offeting the personal values and behavior of the therapist as a model to be imitated by and incorporated into the empty self of the patient. the most effective healing response would be to address those absences through structural societal change by reshaping political relationships and cultural forms and reestablishing the importance of their transmission. and many cognitive and family therapists make straightforward behavioral assignments). Although therapy succeeds because it compensates for cultural absences in our society. these urges can be encouraged. If this analysis is correct. Homer (1984). assertiveness. and alternative social practices (listening to others. compensating for cultural deficiencies through teaching and modeling). 1976). sexual. Not only is this actually less than honest. practice. the potential for the misuse and abuse of the selfobject-patient merger is high. and the power they give the therapist can be misused. The life-style solution carries out a small but nevertheless subversive activity (i. fully individuated self) even though the patient's suffering is caused in large May ' 1990 • American Psychologist part by that particular formulation and by the political and economic arrangements that construct it. understood. These impulses are regressive and destructive of critical thought. harmful (it inflicts on patients the discourse by which they have previously been harmed). it usually does not admit to doing so. if this is accurate..who are bereft of a viable communal tradition. and Taylor (1988) have argued that it perpetuates the social problems that caused the patient's wounds in the first place. unempathie.g. psychologists can only provide guidance and caring within the therapist-patient dyad. perhaps dangerous. Sampson (1988). then this narcissistic wish greatly enhances the teaching-incorporating aspects characteristic of the life-style solution. 607 .. Sometimes the emphasis is covert (e. The central point of my argument is that in a world sorely lacking in community and tradition. I believe that during the last 25 years the two therapeutic strategies somehow have been combined. scientistic psychotherapy discourse but in spite of it. to take them into the empty self. writers such as Prilleltensky (1989).1) to be caused by an interpersonal environment that is disrespectful. Kohut has written extensively that disorders of the self produce a powerful wish to psychologically merge with admired figures. or when they themselves have been so wounded that they want to dominate and abuse their patients (Kohut. The wish to overidealize and psychologically merge with an admired figure or the experience of grandiosity and the pull to exhibit before and please the admired figure are exceedingly powerful psychological motives (Bollas. and punitive. masterful. psychological courage. empathy. Disorders of the self are thought by theorists such as Atwood and Stolorow (1984). however.g.e. This is particularly true when therapists have not been trained to recognize and understand narcissistic transference reactions. the most important function of current psychotherapy is that it offers an alternative attitude toward life (one of confidence and hope). This paradoxical situation undermines the helpful work of the therapy because it is unempathic (the therapist is choosing adherence to an ideology over the needs of the patient). Sometimes this emphasis on guiding and modeling is overt (e.

and the encouragement of overidealization and compliance by misusing the transference (Cushman. These techniques can be used to create or exacerbate a patient's narcissistic crisis in order to use it in service of dominance and exploitation. a shift from a sexually restricted to an empty self. In this way well-conducted psychodynamic therapies do in part guard against exploitive forms of the lifestyle solution. remain too often hidden. thus making them less dangerous and more easily guarded against. they usually devalue their communal ties and believe themselves to be "emancipated" from their earlier lives and former beliefs. There are certain aspects of theory and practice that increase the likelihood of an abusive dynamic: extreme forms of the decontextualization of the individual (Sampson. and all three profit from it. 1986. This reproduces the isolation and moral confusion that are among the greatest problems of our time. the advertising industry. Temerlin & Temerlin. and the self-improvement industries (including psychotherapy). to interpret the collective mentality of our era. the devaluation of and disrespect for the patient (Kohut. The occurrence of emotional and financial exploitation and psychiatric damage within religious cults (Clark. Fortunately. 1983). I am arguing that it exists and that it exists precisely because. somehow. masterful self of the 20th century. Patients who experience an exploitive life-style therapy or cult training feel as though they have been "transformed. a belief in a universally "true" theory and a "perfect" technology (Riebel. We are a nation whose ethical idealism has often informed its actions. 1983. especially the opportunity for exploiting the patient. embedded within the larger communal matrix and their own personal history. the problems inherent in it. and Sass (1988a) have made promising steps in that direction. 1983. I am not arguing that an ethical use of the life-style solution is wrong." Rather than seeing themselves as historical beings. it provides some aid and comfort to a beleaguered people in one of the few ways the present power structure tolerates. At the same time there has been a shift from a savings to a debtor economy. The dual shift has not been a coincidence. In fact. Therapists who are hungry for adulation and power can easily create overidealization and submission (whether it be psychological. Forer. The emphasis placed on: drawing out and analyzing the transference in psychoanalysis and psychodynamic psychotherapy can be interpreted as a way of addressing some of the hidden aspects of the life-style solution. 1989. Conclusion We are witnessing an important shift in the content of the bounded. Hochman. 1984). by ignoring the bind and outwardly accepting society's expectations and psychology's normative discourse. 1984. Holroyd. Let us hope. We could also say that about our nation as a whole. and more recently Chessick (1986). Heidegger's concept of the clearing offers intriguing possibilities. the vast majority of therapists do not misuse the therapeutic setting in this way. The patient's secret wishes for the therapist as parent. and thus unaddressed. The point is that because the life-style solution is a covert and culturally syntonic solution. 1979) and mass marathon psychology trainings (Cushman. exploitive forms of the life-style solution that promise personal transformation should be recognized for what they are: iatrogenic illnesses. 1977) could be explained through this dynamic. but rather through the construction of the empty self and the manipulation of its needs to consume and ingest. and guided. sexual. 1983. or mentor can be analyzed and deconstructed in order to more easily uncover idealizing 608 tendencies and the wish to be taken care of. 1984. 1981). The dynamic of our society revolves around a fundamental paradox. Holroyd & Brodsky. 1984). romantic partner. loved. It is a consequence of how the modern nation state must currently regulate its economy and control its populace: not through direct physical coercion. Where does this leave us? The task of this article was not to devise the "correct" therapeutic technology but to do what Furumoto (1988) has suggested. or political) within the therapeutic setting. Perhaps other studies will be able to devise more historically situated and explicit therapeutic solutions to the problems of our time. Thus. and yet we are a nation that struggles with conflicting and mutually exclusive ideals. These ills must then. restrictive groups and exploitive therapists soothe the problems they have created or exacerbated. as Sampson (1988) has. Ofshe & Singer. the life-style solution cooperates in further constructing the empty self. 1979). fundamentally. which ultimately exacerbates the current broken historical moment and reproduces the current political and economic arrangements of power and privilege. Singer. However. that in the years ahead we can construct a society that is less in need of May 1990 • American Psychologist . we cannot completely guard against its misuse. unacknowledged. Now a new paradox has arisen: One of the wealthiest nation on earth is also one of the emptiest. Haaken & Adams.When these conditions are present. be treated. Wile. From slavery to manifest destiny to Vietnam to the struggle over reproductive rights. 1986. I believe the lifestyle solution becomes a tool of abuse. All three perpetuate the ideology of the empty self. Dreyfus and Wakefield (1988). Boss (1963/1982). self-sealing doctrine. Lerman. One of the disquieting results of this constructionist perspective is the realization that our current era has constructed a self that is. we are often a nation at odds with itself. 1982) could be similarly understood. a disappointment to itself (Sampson. The occurrence of sexual exploitation of the patient within the therapy setting (Bouhoutsos. Three beneficiaries of this narcissistic dynamic are the modem state. the lifestyle solution does not solve the larger historical bind in which psychology is caught. even in its more helpful forms. But any amount of abuse is too much abuse. given our historical moment. Because we cannot straightforwardly talk about the life-style solution. & Greenberg. Cushman. By substituting an artificially loving community and an authoritarian.

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