The Implications of Postmodernism for Psychotherapy

by Adam Blatner, M.D.

Published in Individual Psychology, 53(4), 476-482, Dec. 1997  (re-posted July 11, 2002)
Postmodernism is an intellectual trend in philosophy, the arts, and other fields which, like existentialism was in mid-century, responds to contemporary cultural developments. It notes that since the late 1960s the essential quality of life has changed significantly, the result of technologies which speed up and make more accessible communications, mobility, and intercultural mixing. There are both advantages and disadvantages of this creative advance, but the disadvantages can have a strong impact on the psychology of the individual (Anderson, 1990).  (For more about postmodernism, click this other paper.)

The common element in this effect is the decentering of the individual. For those who need to experience their ground of being as "out there," objectively "true," the postmodern condition challenges this experience. In the face of contemporary technologies, people are subjected to the viewpoints of many different cultures and subcultures, with the result that the sense of common consensus is lost (Lifton, 1993). (There is a positive response to this predicament, which will be described further on in this paper.)

Postmodernism is essentially an epistemological stance, a questioning of the objectivist view, offering instead a subjectivist and relativist perspective. Its roots lie in an observation over a hundred years ago by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche that all knowledge is perspective. In its extreme form, this philosophy denies the objective and subjects all truth to the filters of experience. Arguing that point is less important than noting that this constructivist view certainly is relevant for most categories of human experience, especially concerning psychological, psychosomatic, social, cultural, spiritual, and similar realms of activity.

In a way, constructivism as an aspect of postmodernist thought resonates well with one of the important influences in Adler's thinking--the philosophical ideas of Hans Vaihinger (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956). He recognized the importance of constructs in the mind, also perhaps termed schemas, fictions, or living "as if," and that these belief systems or illusions could become the ground of one's style of life. Postmodernism goes a little further, recognizing that whole cultures and historical eras also live according to assumptions which may not be able to be established as absolute.

The modern world was characterized by a certain smugness, complacency, a feeling that its rationalist approach to truth, in comparison with its premodern predecessors, was somehow final and established. The postmodern era, beginning in the late 1960s (with precursors, of course, in the years before), was characterized by a disillusion with the assumptions of the modern world. Science, almost idolized by moderns, was seen to be vulnerable to error, fraud, and especially the unexpected effects of ecological damage. Authority in all forms was shaken in the political storms of the world, especially related to the Vietnam War. Spiritual authority was questioned increasingly, not only in the previous modern, secular era, but then even more by the renewed alternative mysticism occasioned by the psychedelic revolution. And conventions in the arts, history, and other realms were also challenged.

A significant source of postmodernist thought has been the feminist critique of many aspects of culture, from language to modes of problem-solving. As the civil rights movement did for other minorities, so this critique has then been used by other groups to question widely-held assumptions about beauty, health, family structure, sexuality, "disability," and other issues.

Out of this, and at both the relatively abstract levels of academia and the practical levels of political action, such challenges of familiar assumptions and unspoken social arrangements have further deconstructed role definitions. Yet postmodernism as an intellectual movement has had an insignificant impact on the general public. It isn't adding to the experience of being decentered, but rather trying to rationally address that experience, imposed by an multi-dimensional acceleration of change and the proliferation of alternatives.

One approach is to exaggerate on an intellectual level the type of nihilistic attitude found in those rock concert performers who appeal to the adolescent mentality, emphasizing the negativity of the world while offering little in the way of constructive alternatives. Another approach is to embrace change as a co-creator, emphasizing this wider postmodernist viewpoint as an aid to courageously taking responsibility for helping to construct the kind of world that seems desirable. Some details of that program is what will be proposed below.

But first, let's acknowledge a serious loss: The illusion of truth as a practically attainable objective must be relinquished. This leaves people feeling very decentered. However, there is a re-centering viewpoint which embraces a broader perspective: Creativity itself can be a kind of core value.

There's an analogy here to an idea of Adler's: His proposal that "social interest" can operate as an organizing process in the mind and social group functions to supplant the more immature and individualist view that one must attain superiority in terms of being superior over others. This latter view, which is also the childish root of pathological narcissism, can be transcended. Self-esteem thus operates most wholesomely when experienced as being useful within the broader contexts of the group and the project of humanity as a whole.

Similarly, truth as an absolute, in any way attainable objectively, tends to lead to a clinging to sets of ideas in the face of changing circumstances. Creativity as a guiding principle, on the other hand, continuously calls upon the exercise of discrimination and a willingness to consider new information in the light of the present moment. This is by no means a shallow moral relativism, but rather a call to continue to exercise valuing from the most conscious and inclusive functions of mind and social interaction.

Nevertheless, this postmodernist view tends to be experienced by those who have given their allegiance to the "letter of the law" as a "slippery slope" into moral ambiguity. The remedy is to help the population as a whole learn to enjoy the exercise of individual and group creativity.

With this as an introduction, here are eight practical implications of postmodernist thought for psychotherapy.

1. Make creativity a core value

Instead of colluding with people in their search for self-justification or the illusion of "being right," help them by redirecting them toward the goal of creative effectiveness. Cultivate an appreciation for the spontaneous and the practical, for taking a "fresh look" at a problem from often radically new and different points of view.

Interestingly, this approach has been part of many aspects of recent trends in family therapy (Doherty, 1991). Narrative, constructivist, and similar approaches aim at helping people to "reframe" their experience in a new way (Watzlawick, 1984). Such approaches have been influenced by a diverse population, from the work of the psychiatrist-hypnotist Dr. Milton Erickson to the psychodramatic approaches of J.L. Moreno.

2. Help clients construct a "personal mythology"

Help them build a story of their own lives, with elements of an adventure and a heroic journey (Feinstein & Krippner, 1988). People may reframe their lives as a process of overcoming certain handicaps--which may involve their family or subculture of origin as well as their own bodily or mental capacities. Not only are they challenged to compensate for weaknesses, but also they are invited to integrate in new creative syntheses that unique set of interests, temperament, preferences in imagery, music, food, weather, and so on; and variables in their personal background which may give clues to future vocational and avocational choices, social affiliations, and ideologies.

Even on the philosophical and spiritual levels, in light of the multicultural "menu" of options made available in the intellectual literature of the last half century, people can participate in developing their own varieties of what might be considered in the most general sense a personal religious journey. This also implies and integrates ecological, political, and personal life style issues. Building communities with similar ideals then becomes the next extension of a psychology, spirituality, and practicality with an orientation toward social interest.

3. Help clients develop a transpersonal perspective as grounding

Here Adler, Jung and Rank could be synthesized. Social interest, while an excellent goal, nevertheless lacks a certain resonance with a fundamental psychosocial dynamic: People do have some degree of intuition regarding their connectedness with the greater wholeness of things. And this intuition, when pursued, offers profound aesthetic and cognitive experiences, a catharsis of meaning. The late humanistic psychiatrist Viktor Frankl made the search for meaning an integral part of an effective psychotherapy, and other existential psychotherapists have had a similar insight into its value.

As an extension of building a personal mythology, then, help your clients read, think, discuss with friends, and gradually begin to find transpersonal mythic images which seem true for them. (This is not paradoxical. Choosing an image or idea that feels true at one point in life isn't the same as fixating on that idea as if it were out-there "true" for all people and all periods in history.)(Griffin, 1988).

4. Help people entertain a pluralistic view of their own minds and souls

Let the metaphor of many subselves be gently used--not to counter the potential for continually working toward unifying and coordinating those many roles, but rather to also allow their celebration to have their own (at times quite different) styles of expression (Frick, 1993). Thus people can consciously permit themselves to play parenting roles at one time and childlike roles at others, serious and silly, giving and receiving, active and passive, and so forth. The pursuit of a single way of being in the world leads to rigid personality styles and inevitable maladaptations to many situations.

In addition, there are many practical operations that can be performed in regard to the mind using this pluralistic model. For example, inner conflicts can be resolved through negotiation rather than simply imposing the will of one part onto another. (In such cases, the suppressed part tends to find a more indirect, disguised, devious, and/or frankly pathological mode of expression!)

One of the circumstances of the postmodern condition is that people are subject to a myriad of influences and suggestions as to desirable ways to be or have more, to do better, and other appeals to the striving for superiority. This leads to a dynamic of "overchoice" and what Gergen (1991) called "the saturated self." The media appeal to a host of desires and so evoke part-selves which hunger for satisfaction. Owning these as part-selves rather than the full self allows them to be dealt with by using either sublimation or the wisdom disciplines of dis-attachment (which is part of what the Buddhist and Yoga ideologies have to offer Western cultures).  (Also, see my paper on "self-ing" on this website.)

5. Help people to develop a greater multicultural awareness

This refers not only to a heightened awareness of the norms and experiences of peoples from other countries, but also for people of another gender, sexual orientation, ability level, age, subcultural background, etc. Instead of clinging to those ideals fostered by "modern" culture which validate one's own status and styles of being, a postmodern view helps to recognize that other worldviews might have some important advantages that are relevant to the emerging world situation.

6. Offer an eclectic approach to treatment--different strokes for different folks

Some patients with the same "diagnosis" nevertheless have different sets of strengths, interests, and weaknesses, and these subtypes often account for the prognosis far more than the diagnosis itself. If you can't manage to deliver a full spectrum of treatment modalities (and few of us can), then be like the physician who has a variety of referral agents, physical therapists, nutritionists, and other specialists who can offer other methods of treatment. But the ideal physician takes responsibility for coordinating the overall treatment. We need to do likewise in psychotherapy.

Some clients could benefit from a course of "body therapy," for example, using methods of massage or Bioenergetic Analysis. Other clients might get more out of some psychodrama or cognitive therapy. The idea that a therapist should be able to satisfy the wide range of patient needs and abilities through using one modality of therapy is dubious and needs to be challenged.

7. Help patients develop the skill of metacognition, thinking about thinking

This is also an important aspect of psychological mindedness. Not that all patients must develop this skill-- often treatment can proceed without it and nevertheless attain good results. Nor should we try to keep patients in therapy for this-- we need to allow our clients to learn some skills, attain a few insights, or achieve some alleviation of symptoms, and then to go out and live and learn. More often than not brief therapy is the most appropriate approach. Still, we can plant the seeds and encourage our clients to read, discuss with friends, and begin to practice the skills of self-reflection.

This goal in some ways is even more appropriate for our educational system. I envision the learning of certain skills of self-awareness, interpersonal problem-solving and communications as core subjects in the curriculum of the Twenty-First Century.

8. Promote skill-building as a key theme in psychotherapy

Do this not only for the skills just described but also for the skill of mental flexibility. Since postmodernist thought focuses on the relevance of different points of view, the skill of changing viewpoints is an especially valuable one to cultivate in today's changing world.

The best method I know of for developing this type of mental flexibility is a kind of role playing in which the clients, students, or group members are helped to shift roles at intervals. They are invited to consider the situation and viewpoints of their "opponents," "outside observers," or people with different assumptions. They're helped to examine also the different viewpoints within themselves, and to bring out more and more feelings, attitudes, and implicit beliefs-- all of which may then be questioned and re-evaluated.

I think that sufficiently frequent experiences with this kind of sociodramatic role playing leads to a new type of cognition, a step beyond Piaget's "formal operational thought." One begins to habitually shift viewpoints, commenting on one frame of reference and using these shifts to enrich the whole process of learning and taking increasing responsibility. I suspect that this mode of thinking is the needed next step in the evolution of consciousness, because it balances humility with vitality and fosters a more active capacity to work in groups towards a common goal.

In summary, then, I have submitted for your consideration eight implications of post-modernism for psychotherapy:

  • make creativity a core value
  • construction of a "personal mythology"
  • transpersonal perspective as grounding
  • a pluralistic model of psyche
  • multicultural awareness
  • eclecticism in treatment
  • metacognition--thinking about thinking
  • skill-building for mental flexibility
  • I don't consider this list exhaustive, but rather hope that it stimulates thinking about what we need to do to help people adapt to the accelerating changes in culture in our world.


    Anderson, W. T. (1990). Reality isn't what it used to be. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

    Ansbacher, H. L., & Ansbacher, R. R. (Eds.) (1956). The individual psychology of Alfred Adler. New York: Basic Books.

    Doherty, W. J. (1991). Family therapy goes postmodern: Deconstructing clinical objectivity. Family Therapy Networker, 15(5), 37-42.

    Feinstein, D., & Krippner, S. (1988). Personal mythology: The psychology of your evolving self. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher.

    Frick, W. B. (1993). Subpersonalities: Who conducts the orchestra? Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 33(2), 122-128.

    Gergen, K. J. (1991). The saturated self: Dilemmas of identity in contemporary life. New York: BasicBooks.

    Griffin, D. R. (Ed.) (1988). Spirituality and society: Postmodern visions. Albany: State University of New York Press.

    Lifton, R. J. (1993). The protean self: Human resilience in an age of fragmentation. New York: Basic Books.

    Watzlawick, P. (Ed.). (1984). The invented reality: How do we know what we believe we know; contributions to constructivism. New York: W.W. Norton.

    For responses, email me.

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