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Power and Addiction: The Shadow Land of Psychotherapy

by Sarah Krzeczunowicz (Kay)


There are several strands that have prompted me to write this article. The 
first strand is the fact that I am back in college as a master’s student while 
continuing to work part-time as a psychotherapist and supervisor. My return 
to university came out of a desire for a change and a need to gain new
 perspectives. This return to academic life has allowed me time to stand back
 and reflect on my work as a psychotherapist and to consider where the 
profession is going.

The second strand that drove me to my computer was the jolt I experienced
 when I attended a workshop in Milltown in September 2002. The workshop
 was organised by the Rutland Centre, and the guest speaker was Ann Wilson 
Shaef, author of When Society Becomes an Addict and many other books on 
addiction and spirituality. Wilson Shaef started her workshop by introducing
 herself as a ‘recovering psychotherapist’, a description that had some particular resonance for me.

Addictive Processes

Briefly, Wilson Shaef’s contention is that Western society, including 
Ireland, is itself an addicted society and that we all play a part in this
 addictive process. This addiction is to the illusion of power, control and
 perfection as an escape from the painful journey of self-awareness and,
 ultimately, as an escape from an intimate relationship with oneself and with 
others. She pointed out the difference between the more obvious ingested,
 or substance addictions such as alcohol, nicotine, food, etc., and the more
 subtle yet more insidious process addictions such as work, sex, money,
 religion, shopping, gambling and relationships. Wilson Shaef personally 
believes in a twelve-step programme as a way to recovery, substituting the
 word sobriety, which is relevant to addictions of substance, with the word
 spirituality which is more appropriate to the addictions of process.

Addictions in Psychotherapy

Anne Wilson Shaef had a special warning for psychotherapists, having been 
one herself for many years. She suggested that the addictions in 
psychotherapy were to power and control and to the desire to save and
 rescue. These addictions lead the creation of hierarchies, to arrogance,
 and to feelings of superiority and self-righteousness. Clearly, the potential 
in psychotherapy to abuse power is particularly dangerous, considering the privacy, confidentiality and vulnerability of the work. In the light of these considerations, Wilson Shaef no longer works one-to-one but only in 
groups. She feels that therapists need to work in a more transparent and 
open environment, to engage in a participatory role with clients, and to be
 less of an observer and interpreter.

Wilson Shaef asked the psychotherapists present if they had on-going 
support groups in which to process their own addictions. There was a silent
 shaking of heads in response to this question and much discussion of this 
point during the coffee break. She concluded her workshop by challenging 
us to wake up to our own addictions and our addictive society. She 
suggested we consider a number of questions in relation to these matters:
 How addictive is this society apart from the more obvious and now much 
talked about addiction to alcohol? To what extent do addictive processes
 permeate our culture? How many of our leaders are driven by their 
unacknowledged process addictions and how might this affect their
 decision-making? To what extent are our mainstream structures and 
professional bodies controlled by addictive processes?

The Dominant Culture

By applying for statutory registration, the profession of psychotherapy is 
seeking to become part of the dominant culture. In order to become
 mainstream and acceptable as a profession in a Western consumer 
patriarchal society, we are going to have to compromise and comply with 
the existing structural systems. This has particular relevance when we have 
to consider our position vis-a-vis statutory registration. It raises the question
 of how we ought to position ourselves as a profession in a culture which at
 present is driven by greed, has little or no respect for the environment, and 
which puts profit before people.

We are faced with a paradoxical position which raises moral and ethical
 issues. On the one hand, as part of the mainstream and dominant culture we
 have an opportunity to effect changes. On the other hand, we will have to 
comply with the inequalities that are endemic in this society, inequalities 
such as a two-tier health system, for instance. While we gain something, we
 may also lose something. Can we hold the paradox?

The Deconstruction of the Patriarchal Paradigm

Our society at present is going through a massive deconstruction and
 fragmentation. This is both exciting and frightening and certainly
 challenging. We are witnessing the cracks and crumbling of patriarchal 
structures which have dominated Western cultures for nearly two thousand 
years. Patriarchy has forged our institutions, our governments, our market
place, our family life and most of all our thinking. Left-brained, linear,
 dualistic thinking is still valued in our education system over right-brained 
imagining, although this is slowly changing. The patriarchal paradigm is a 
hierarchical model based on power and control, which encourages
 competition and rewards a limited notion of success. This inevitably pits
 people against each other in striving for power and recognition and creates 
a climate of oppression for anyone who does not comply with the norms and
 rules of the system. Those at the top are in constant fear of being ousted.
 Those in the middle envy those at the top and strive to get there. They are 
also contemptuous of those below as this makes them feel superior. Those 
at the bottom feel powerless and angry. They are marginalised in their sense
 of hopelessness and frequently attack each other, since they have no access
 to any other power.

Internalised Oppression – The Consequence of Patriarchy¹

This oppression becomes internalised over time. The effects of this 
oppression include feelings of low self-esteem, shame, low expectations, an 
acceptance of stereotypes, and either an overly compliant or overly 
rebellious attitude towards authority. Internalised oppression leads to 
feelings of mistrust and begrudgery, to feelings of exclusion and isolation, 
and to a tolerance of destructive relationships, and a lack of initiative. 
People no longer trust their own intelligence. Most significantly, 
internalised oppression fosters feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness
 leading to short-term gratification and addictions. All the symptoms named
 above are manifest in this society, in our professional bodies, and present
 themselves both in ourselves and in our clients.

The most recently exposed example of an addiction to power, hedged
 around with all the trappings of denial, avoidance, arrogance and self-
righteousness, is the clerical hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. But 
the church is not alone in holding on to hierarchical structures and operating
 out of a power paradigm. Most businesses and professional bodies still
 operate in this authoritarian way as it is the only paradigm our society 
knows and understands. Professional bodies in our society for the most part
 are hierarchically structured. Our internalised stereotyping also causes us to 
expect governing bodies to lead, to take control and to over-function, while
 those who are not part of management or governing structure often under-
function and as a consequence, feel powerless, marginalised and aggrieved.

What about the psychotherapy profession?

Management structures within the psychotherapy profession are no
 different from other professional bodies. Because of the nature of the work
 that we do, we need to be especially aware of the effects of the power
 paradigm. As a relatively new profession, I would hope we are not yet so
 deeply entrenched in a hierarchical system that we could not consider other
 ways of re-structuring our professional organisations. In our present 
circumstances we are in a state of tension, in a state of conflicting feelings. 
On the one hand we have a sense of confidence at having necessary
 structures in place and operating as a professional body. On the other hand
 we are still on the margins. We are not yet recognised as a mainstream 
profession. You will hear the word “counsellor” and “psychologist” used by 
the media frequently, but very rarely is the word “therapist” or
”psychotherapist” used. We are still viewed by many with suspicion. We are 
viewed as alternative, as unscientific, and possibly even as dangerous. These
 are all familiar patriarchal responses to anything new which challenges the 
established system. Psychotherapists are out there on the margins with the 
feminists (emotional, hysterical and militant!) and with those who espouse 
spirituality (wacky, new age and ungrounded). As a consequence we also 
carry the internalised feelings of isolation, exclusion, and a sense of not 
being able to change things. Most of all the effort to stay on the path uses
 up much of our creative energy.

Where else might this internalised oppression operate?

Most of our clinical psychology derives from a patriarchal background 
(Freud, Jung, Adler, Kohut, Lacan, Bowlby) and this continues to be 
transmitted to students of psychotherapy. The same goes for developmental 
psychology (structuralist and functionalist theories) where the models of 
life cycle and experience are, for the most part, developed by Western
 educated, middle class white males. Even the female theorists build on the
 existing models of, say, Piaget, Erikson, Kohlberg etc². People who do not
 fit into life cycle norms are still classified and labeled according to 
psychiatric or medical models. While I am not saying that all of this is
 without value, I am suggesting that there is so much more, so much that is

The Lost Narratives

Where, for instance, are the developmental theories that underpin the
 experiences of women? And I do not mean just middle class women. Where
is the narrative for single mothers, for poor women, for gay women? Where 
are the voices of gay men, of children, of immigrants? Where are the voices 
of those with no formal education, the voices of the homeless, of people in 
archaic mental institutions? Where are the voices of the children of
 prisoners of refugees, of people institutionalised by the State? All these are 
the untold stories of those on the margins of the dominant culture. These are
 People who have a story but who have never voiced it and may even have a
 difficulty in articulating that story.

Power and Control: The Shadow

Jung said the shadow side of love was not hate but power. The abuse of
 power has been called the shadow side of psychotherapy. When power is in 
operation you will experience control and not love. Psychotherapy is open
 to the abuse of power and control just like any other profession operating in 
a patriarchal system. We must be careful not to delude ourselves into 
thinking we might be any different or better than other institutions.

I have often received the comment – “You have a lot of power in your job -
 particularly in a one-to-one situation”. How do I trust that power, monitor
 that power? I believe that when we work in isolation the more difficult it is
 to remain grounded around power. Isolation encourages fear and secrecy. 
We all need the supports and challenges of a non-punitive environment to
 explore our issues around power, vulnerability and powerlessness. If we are 
to be caring and compassionate to others, we need to start with ourselves.

Can we be caring and compassionate to ourselves in a hierarchical system? 
Can we be caring and compassionate to our clients if we operate from a
 power paradigm? I would suggest that we can only be compassionate and 
caring if we operate out of a paradigm that puts compassion at its centre. If we operate from a worn out hierarchical system of power then the cycle of 
control and resentment will be repeated and all our creative energy will go 
into maintaining the system instead of moving out and reaching other


Psychotherapy started in the margins of society. There is a value in being on 
the edge. At the same time becoming part of the mainstream means having
 some power and affecting changes. We need to hold both these truths as we
 think about what statutory registration might mean for the future of our

Sarah Krzeczunowicz (Kay) is a Gestalt therapist and is currently 
completing her MA in Pastoral Leadership.


Guggenbuhl C. (1971) Adolf Power in the Helping Professions. USA: Spring Publications.

Ruth. S. ( 1998) ‘Psychology of Liberation & The Peace Process’. Annual Conference of PSI. 
in ‘Psychology of Oppression: A Review of Literature‘. (Working: An Interdisciplinary Journal 
(NCIR), Vol. I, Nov. 1, Autumn 1990).

Sugarman, L. (2001) Life-Span Development: Frameworks, Accounts and Strategies. UK-
Psychology Press Ltd.

Wilson Shaef, A. (1987) When Society Becomes an Addict. San Franciseo: Harper & Row.

¹ Ruth, S. (1998) ‘Psychology of Liberation & The Peace Process’, Annual Conference 
of PSI. in ‘Psychology of Oppression: A Review of Literature‘. (Working: An
 Interdisciplinary Journal (NCIR), Vol. I, Nov. I, Autumn 1990).

² Exceptions include Melanie Klein, Karen Horney, Carol Gilligan and Gail Sheehy.

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