TALKING BACK TO DR. PHIL: An interview with author David BedrickMainstream or pop psychology focuses on societal norms, and labels anyone differing from the norm as sick, attempting to change that person’s behaviour so they fit in with the majority of society, an approach that David Beldrick, a practitioner of process-oriented psychology, critically responds to in his book Talking Back to Dr. Phil. A common remedy for this so-called sickness is to prescribe one antidepressant after another.

With mainstream psychology, most problems are attributed to low self-esteem or boredom. Treatment is moulded to get rid of those two mental states with hopes that the patient will then approach the norm in behaviour. However, Bedrick says that 70 percent of people addicted to drugs or alcohol relapse after undergoing treatment, and only 5 to 10 percent of those on typical diets keep the weight off.

Mainstream psychology does not appear  to be working so well.

Bedrick proposes an alternative love-based psychology, which is a brand of depth psychology that explores underlying, unconscious motives or beliefs as reasons for deviant behaviour, instead of attributing this kind of behaviour to the easy diagnoses of low self-esteem or boredom issues. Love-based psychology is not as focused on norms as mainstream psychology; it embraces differences, even problematic ones, seeing them as helpful for growth and improvement in a person’s life. It’s not focused on labelling an individual “sick” but views that individual within their larger social and historical context. Anyone who has significant interaction with that individual is considered a patient as well.

In today’s fast-paced society, we tend to look for the quickest solutions to problems, and mainstream psychology follows that trend. Some might be impatient with love-based psychology because it’s more time-consuming to dig deep into an individual’s underlying issues than to say “you have low self-esteem,” and prescribe a pill, though it seems love-based psychology has more potential than mainstream psychology for its long-term positive effects. Though deep digging it may solve the cyclical problem of individuals not truly healing through mainstream treatment and having to keep returning for more.

I had the chance to speak with Bedrick who studied organizational psychology up to graduate level, and also has a law degree and a diploma from the Process Work Institute (an educational institution that teaches and does research in the area of process-oriented psychology [POP]). It was Arnold Mindell, a leader in the field of POP, who gave Bedrick the idea to write a book in response to Dr. Phil. At the time Bedrick was working on a book about shame and its roots in mainstream psychology. During his breaks he had the television set tuned to the Dr. Phil show and would talk back to the set while watching, saying things like “I can’t believe you said this.”

Mindell suggested he temporarily abandon the book on shame and write a response to Dr. Phil instead. Coincidentally, Bedrick’s abandoning his book on shame and going with his natural mental flow, which seemed to be drawing him towards criticism of Dr. Phil’s ideas, is an example of him following one of the principles of love-based psychology: we should behave as nature does, and go with the natural flow of our thoughts and feelings, instead of trying to change ourselves to fit within societal norms.

The book puts forth the idea that the natural world is different everywhere so humans should be their unique, differing selves as well. Spiritually, Bedrick said he identifies mainly with Taoism, an Eastern philosophy that focuses on the awareness of one’s inner self and connection with the natural world through meditation, and endorses non-judgmental attitudes.

It’s easy to see how greater awareness and connection along with non-judgmental attitudes align with the ideas of love-based psychology. In Taoism there’s the belief that life flows like a river. That flowing river also has a place within love-based psychology, since Bedrick believes that interrupting an individual’s natural flow breaks down mental health. He believes being “in the Tao” (having energy and not being frustrated) is being mentally well. This wellness can be either calm or passionate, as long as the individual is following their inner mental and emotional flow. This idea contrasts with mainstream psychology, which seems to support the idea that any inner turmoil is negative, making perpetual calmness the ideal state.

I asked Bedrick what he would say if he ever got the chance to speak with Dr. Phil. Without a hint of sarcasm, he responded “thank you” for inspiring him to write his book. But he would also tell Dr. Phil that he’s teaching people there’s something wrong with them when they have difficult experiences. He sees Dr. Phil as a representation or figurehead of the mainstream psychology everyone in society practices to some extent. He sees this as not psychology at all, but the practice of making moral judgments about others, reflecting on oneself in a shallow manner, and attempting to remove disturbances within the self and others without investigating the reasons.

We briefly discussed the possibility of having an ideological debate with Dr. Phil. He seemed to think it may be a good idea, but thought there would be some awkwardness between them due to Dr. Phil’s higher rank. Though by debating, Bedrick might be able to raise his rank by logically refuting Dr. Phil’s ideas.

Bedrick discusses rank is his book. He writes that often people of a low rank in a particular group fight among themselves, or with those of an even lower rank, displacing a real conflict between low-ranked and high-ranked members of a group. Society often ignores the role that the high-ranked individual plays in the conflict. For example, children react to parental criticism by lashing out at each other instead of openly challenging the parent. Sometimes, the parent’s role in the children’s poor behaviour isn’t even noticed.

When asked if he thought hierarchy is ever beneficial in society, Bedrick told me of a time when he worked in a women’s shelter that was ran non-hierarchically. He found that when a decision needed to be made, all employees were reluctant to take leadership. He believes that sometimes a leader should be chosen, but the balance of power should be able to fluidly shift from person to person when necessary.

Lower-ranked people can stand up to higher-ranked people rather than fighting among themselves or with their inferiors, Bedrick says, making reference to a study by doctor and process-oriented psychologist Pierre Morin, which claimed that lower-ranked people often have more physical ailments than higher-ranked people. Bedrick asked me how I felt when I was of low rank in a certain situation (I thought of a low-paying, low-status job I once had), and I said “tired.” He asked me to imagine that tiredness, and describe how it felt. I responded, “It’s as if I’m made of lead or metal and can barely move.” He told me to imagine I was completely made of one of those substances, and asked how that would make me feel. I answered, “Tough, like nothing can affect me.” I realized then that he was demonstrating how lower-ranked people could feel empowered, which may give them the confidence they need to stand up to those of higher rank when in conflict with them.

Love-based psychology somewhat rejects rules and norms while the legal system focuses on enforcing them. This disconnect made it  seem incongruous that a proponent of love-based psychology would have practiced law. The legal system is present to prevent societal conflict and avoid unrest, while love-based psychology supports the idea that conflict is necessary for growth. Bedrick said practicing law was difficult for him, as it was hard to be in his natural flow, though there were two ways law was compatible with the principles of love-based psychology. First, he was sometimes representing children in custody disputes by examining their thoughts and feelings, independent of the legal dispute between the parents. Second, he believes that the legal system sometimes assists with “flow polarization.” Flow polarization is when a situation flows into two contrasting positions, so the flow is disrupted. Just as a psychologist steps in to assist an individual getting back into their flow, the legal system steps in to find a solution to polarization, so the situation flows in one steady direction again.

Since Bedrick supports the natural flow of life he makes negative references to the prescription of antidepressants (in order to cause people to behave according to social norms more easily), though he does believe that using them can be justified at times. He explained to me that there are two types of depression; one a state of lethargy during which someone lacks energy, and the other a somewhat angry state in which a person wants to take up arms against everything in their life.

When dealing with the first type, the person must access the underlying thoughts that may be causing depression. If antidepressants are prescribed, this halts the ascent into the low state, and the individual may never find out the true cause of their problems and may not be able to solve them. This idea was demonstrated in the low-rank experiment he performed on me. If I had told a mainstream psychologist like Dr. Phil that I was tired while working a low-paying job, they likely would not have attributed my fatigue to my low rank or gone through a similar exercise. They would not have taught me how to mentally empower myself as Bedrick’s exercise did, but instead would probably have prescribed antidepressants.

Talking Back to Dr. Phil - book cover

With the second type of depression, Bedrick explained that antidepressants could be beneficial as the angry, combative individual is on a path of upward movement or flow, and the effects of the antidepressants are compatible with that movement. He believes each individual should be examined within their life’s context in order to determine whether prescribing antidepressants would improve their quality of life.

Are Dr. Phil’s ideas doomed once people read Bedrick’s book? Mainstream psychology is easy to understand—if you don’t act like everyone else, there’s something wrong with you and you need to be fixed—so it may never fall completely out of style. The principles of love-based psychology are much more complex and the practice follows flexible guidelines as opposed to rigid norms. There may not be any entertainment value found in love-based psychology; it’s not easy to openly laugh at and judge the patients for their problems as the audience does when watching Dr. Phil’s show. However, people who are serious about the practice of psychology and are passionate supporters of improving mental health in society will find a large amount of good in love-based psychology that they can put to practice.