“Being entirely honest with oneself is a good exercise,” Sigmund Freud once said. Psychoanalysis, the field that he founded, is taking the opposite approach.
The American Psychoanalytic Association (APsA) is consumed with the idea that the profession suffers from “systemic racism,” requiring a revolution in training and practice. Unlike honesty, which heals the mind, this falsehood will destroy psychoanalysis from within and profoundly harm patients’ mental health.
Like so many institutions, APsA embraced this racialist view in 2020 amid protests and riots after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. That year, the organization created the “Holmes Commission” to “investigat[e] systemic racism and its underlying determinants embedded within APsA” and “offer remedies for all aspects of identified racism.” The commission’s findings were obviously predetermined, yet its final report took nearly three years to compile. Released in June, the 421-page document declared that the commission had shifted its focus from finding racism within the professional association to remaking psychoanalysis entirely.
The report centers on an “evaluative study” that gauged people’s perceptions of systemic racism. Its authors clearly state that they did not conduct “a research study to prove or disprove systemic racism.” Instead, they invited 7,400 psychoanalyst educators, candidates, and people who may be “psychodynamically-oriented but had not entered a psychoanalytic training program”—i.e., non-psychoanalysts—to complete a survey. Only 2,259 invitees participated, and only 126 were interviewed. A scientific endeavor this was not, suffering from selection bias and other serious methodological issues. But methodological rigor evidently was less important than racially restructuring psychoanalysis.
According to the report, psychoanalysis is rife with bigotry, affecting everything from who pursues a career in the field to training curricula to “the experience of race on the couch.” Tellingly, the authors concede that they don’t have enough data to assess racism in the practice of psychoanalysis, yet they still feel confident in addressing the topic because of “personal experiences of commission members.”
The only thing more sweeping than the committee’s perception of racism in psychoanalysis are its recommendations. The committee wants every institution associated with psychoanalysis—including 34 regional training centers and 38 affiliate societies—to enact many questionable changes, including hiring a “DEI ombudsman,” who will doubtless find racism everywhere he or she looks. The report also calls on psychoanalytical organizations to focus on “monitoring resistance to change” given ongoing “institutional racism.” Naturally, such opposition may “be in disguised form,” such as “anxieties about ‘upholding standards’”—the correct reaction to the commission’s call for, among other things, “removing barriers to training.”
The committee’s most concerning recommendations involve psychoanalytical training and practice. The report accuses professionals of failing to “acknowledge the pernicious reality of pervasive racism” when working with patients and hopes that the next generation of psychoanalysts will be better prepared to “apply an analytic lens to the matters of race, racism, and white supremacy.” Such language reflects the broader push within the mental-health field to apply a “critical social justice” framework to therapy, which considers racism omnipresent and deems race a central and decisive part of patients’ experiences.
This outlook represents a radical change for psychoanalysis. As a practicing psychoanalyst, when I see a black man experiencing psychological distress, the “racial analytic lens” would encourage me not to focus mainly on his unconscious issues related to upbringing and family but instead to dwell on his internalized “oppression.” On the flipside, if I see a white woman dealing with depression in the wake of divorce, the racial lens would prompt me to draw out how her “white supremacy” contributed to her marriage’s collapse. And if any patient denies his or her status as a victim or perpetrator of white supremacy, the lens suggests that such denial proves the charge—a classic “Kafka trap.” Far from healing mental illness, this logical fallacy can send people deeper into a mental spiral.
Such racial fixation contributes to the unmaking of psychoanalysis. The point of our craft is to help people delve deep into the true and specific cause of their problems, not tell them that they’re victims or evildoers whose problems are unsolvable. We’re supposed to empower people with a truer sense of who they are, not immobilize them by shoving them into a predetermined spot in a power structure. That approach cultivates helplessness, anger, and obsession—not empathy, understanding, and resolution. Mental problems worsen when the unconscious goes unconfronted.
Can psychoanalysis save itself from this collapse? The upcoming election of APsA’s next president later this month suggests that the answer is a resounding no. All three contenders have endorsed the Holmes Commission’s final report in their official candidate statements, though some may be more aggressive in pushing its recommendations than others. They will surely give new meaning to another of Freud’s famous statements: “The intention that man should be happy is not in the plan of Creation.”