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News & Views - Jun, 2000 Issue #70

Rebuilding Our Families
By Mary Pipher, NY:Ballantine Books:1996
Reviewed by Lon Woodbury 

Author Mary Pipher is a psychologist with a private practice in Lincoln, Nebraska. She is best known for her best-selling book REVIVING OPHELIA, which addresses the increasing number of obstacles facing adolescent girls as they try to grow up as healthy people in our culture. 

In THE SHELTER OF EACH OTHER, rebuilding our families, author Pipher takes a hard look at how important families are for our well being, and the increasing difficulties they are facing. Starting with the idea that families are vital for the emotional health of all of us, especially children, she describes how families currently exist in a hostile environment. She states: “Our culture is at war with families” then reviews several of the many institutions she sees creating this hostility. She concludes that the media is trying to sell good things, rather than a good life: capitalism is too consumption oriented, the electronic culture creates virtual lives, not real lives, parents feel under fire trying to satisfy increasing demands on them while having fewer resources and less support, and in her view, the therapeutic community has been especially hard on families. 

Being a therapist herself, the observations and concerns she has for her own profession carry a lot of weight, and give good reason for parents to think clearly before giving total trust to another human simply because he/she is a therapist. She observes that like most professions, there are good, bad, and average therapists. While believing in the ability of good therapists to heal and be a positive influence, she feels there are too many of those who do more harm than good; something we independent educational consultants are only too aware of from our personal professional experience. In the list she compiled of “Ten Mistakes That Therapists Make.” Her intent is not to make an indictment of the profession, but rather, to alert people that some therapists will bring a personal philosophy to counseling sessions that in effect are hostile to families. 

She describes Ten Mistakes That Therapists Make: 
1. It has suggested the family is the cause of all problems. 
2. Therapy has been hard on women. 
3. Therapy has pathologized ordinary human experience and taught that suffering needs to be analyzed. 
4. We have focused on weakness rather than resilience. 
5. Some of our treatments have created new problems. 
6. We have encouraged narcissism and checked basic morality at the doors of our offices. 
7. We have focused on individual salvation rather than collective well-being. 
8. We have confused ethical and mental health issues, empathy and accountability. 
9. Some therapists abuse their power. 
10.We’ve suggested that therapy is more important than real life. 

She then describes: 
Goals good therapists are trying to achieve: 
1. We need to protect [families]. 
2. We need to connect families to others. 
3. We need to be purveyors of hope. 
4. We also need to be purveyors of respect. 
5. We can clarify thinking. 
6. We can help families develop a strategy to make good decisions. 7. We can teach empathy. 
8. We can promote authenticity and creativity. 
9. We can fight secrets, promote openness and encourage facing pain directly. 
10.We can help families diffuse anxiety and cope with stress. 11.We can help families to control consumption, violence and addictions. 
12.We can help family members find the balance between individuation and connection. 
13.We can promote moderation and balance. 14.We can foster humor. 
15.We can help people build good character. 

The difference between these two lists is the difference between whether a therapist’s personal philosophy emphasizes the negative or the positive in people and their family units. It is the difference in whether one sees bad or good in human nature. Every person, being human, is going to contain both positive and negative traits; that is simply part of being human. A therapist’s effectiveness depends on which philosophy is embraced. 

In my fourteen years working both with parents of at-risk teens and those teens themselves, I’ve found some therapists helpful and constructive, while others have laid seeds of destruction I have to take great pains to remove before the parents can again become effective parents. It is my observation that those therapists who are most helpful and constructive in their observations and actions tend to have a philosophy that is best described by the second list, sensing the basic good in most people. Those who have undermined parents’ confidence and promote laws that are hostile to families, tend to have a philosophy best described by the first list, fearing the negative potential in people. 

I think Mary Pipher has written an outstanding book describing the problems families are facing in our contemporary culture. I highly recommend it both to anyone trying to understand and help families and to those struggling with behavioral/emotional problems within families. One of the best parts, relevant to all readers, is her description of how some therapists, by having a negative view of human nature, have contributed to the problems the institution of family is having, while other therapists, having a positive view of human potential, have a great capacity for healing. 

Copyright © 2000, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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