Marrying Postmodernism with Cognitive Psychotherapy: A Response to Lyddon and Weill
McNamee, Sheila, Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy
Cognitive psychologists and psychotherapists are saddled with a difficult task as they confront the challenges of postmodernism. Lyddon and Weill are no exception- despite their admirable struggle with the challenges that confront them. In brief, the challenge is born out of the contradictory beliefs of cognitive psychology and postmodernism in general, and social construction in particular. Let us start with postmodernism.
Lyddon and Weill provide a nice overview of the distinction between postmodernism and modernism. They articulate how postmodernism describes knowledge, reality, and identity as social, discursive achievements. Such an understanding underscores their local, communal, and historical nature. What counts as knowledge is dependent upon whom one is talking with, what networks of relations are being represented, and what discursive traditions are at play.
To embrace postmodernism then requires a radically different stance than the one adopted within traditional cognitive psychotherapy. Cognitive psychotherapy, like most psychological theory, concerns itself with objective accounts of individuals. Neimeyer (1995) has attempted to merge cognitive psychotherapy (constructivism, in particular) within a postmodern sensibility. Lyddon and Weill are attempting to do the same.
I have two immediate responses to this endeavor. First, the challenge of revisioning cognitive psychotherapy within postmodernism is tremendously important if we are to move beyond individualism toward a communal understanding of social life. I applaud these efforts wholeheartedly because they venture into the territory of relational understanding. My own preference is not to demonetize individualist discourse but rather to question its limits. Rather than present this discourse as an immutable truth, I am more interested in presenting individualism (and its concurrent themes such as objectivity, universality, truth, and rationality) as a discursive option. Viewed in this way, we are no longer free to act within a modernist frame because "that is the way things are done." Rather, we are provoked to engage in self-reflexive inquiry about our ways of acting (which includes our ways of observing, evaluating, judging, diagnosing, intervening, and so forth).
Thus, my enthusiasm for Lyddon and Weill's project is great. However, my initial ardor wanes as I further attempt to match the postmodern sensibility to cognitive psychotherapy. How do we reconcile cognitive psychotherapy's definitional attention to cognitive processes while attempting to move out of the individual and into the discourse (McNamee, 1996), as postmodernist approaches articulate? Perhaps some of the problem lies in the varying interpretations and embodiments of postmodernism. Let me attempt to sketch here some of the inconsistencies from which the present coupling of postmodernism and cognitive psychotherapy might emerge.
There are many origins and histories to what we now call "postmodernism." I am less interested in providing a full understanding of this background and instead want to focus on illuminating how the general tenor of postmodernism has been embraced. If we use Lyddon and Weill's overview of postmodernism as our departure point, we can begin to understand the inconsistencies that on one hand might serve a generative function, while on the other hand can be quite misleading in terms of fully realizing (i.e., making real) the potentials of postmodern sensibilities.
SENSITIVITY TO MULTIPLICITY
Introduction of postmodern thought has provided a welcomed framework for expanding our theories of social life in ways that are sensitive to the shifting criteria and demands of various cultures, communities, and contexts. By centralizing discourse and its historical, cultural, and relational origins, social theory in general and psychology in particular has been able to offer ways of understanding everyday life as relational artifact. This shift has been significant. Rather than see individuals as the source of all good, bad, evil, truth, and so forth, we can now see good, bad, evil, and truth as relationally achieved constructions. The implications of this are great. Instead of having flawed individuals, we have situated, social practices. These practices, of course, are susceptible to scrutiny and negative evaluation just as they are susceptible to validation. Yet such judgments are always located within particular discursive communities. In other words, evaluations are never made from some objective, universally rational stance. To some, this move is heresy for the belief is that such thinking leads to amoral, irresponsible, rampant relativism. This is a naive understanding of postmodernism.
Unlike the position of its critics who would make such claims, proponents of postmodernist approaches to social life recognize that morals, ethics, rationality, truth, and justice (to name a few) are exceedingly important-and they are local, relational achievements of persons engaged in joint activities. The critique of rampant relativism is quickly negated by underscoring the social, relational aspects of postmodernism. Social construction serves as a paramount illustration of postmodernism. Here, as Lyddon and Weill describe, emphasis is placed on how people construct their worlds, their identities, their realities in what they do together.
Notice the emphasis on the word "do." Social constructionists, following Wittgenstein (1953), talk about actions as performances. We do things with our words and actions. To put it this way offers us an escape from the bounded, selfcontained individual, that Sampson (1988) and others critique-the self who is burdened with his or her own abilities or inabilities. Instead, to emphasize performance or what we do with words and actions focuses our attention on situated practices of persons in relation. This ultimately must be a relative activity. That is, judgments, evaluations, observations, and so forth are always made from some discursive nexus. To negatively evaluate some form of social practice is not to revert to universal, objective criteria for truth but rather is to call attention to the evaluator's relevant, local, and constructed community. The recognition of this relativity, this multiplicity of discourses, is a generative move for cognitive psychotherapy.
THE DIFFICULT MARRIAGE OF COGNITION WITH POSTMODERNISM
However, when the postmodern sensibility is turned toward cognitive psychotherapy the most immediate point of contestation is cognition itself. By definition, cognitive psychotherapy focuses on the internal, mental processes of individuals. In order to understand a person's actions or explain the social world, cognitivists believe it is necessary to understand how individuals make sense out of their worlds. While there are many brands of cognitive psychology, constructivism is one model that has received a good deal of attention in the field of psychotherapy. Thus, it might be useful to clarify how constructivism is not the same as social construction and thus show how it departs from the postmodern sensibility outlined above.
Constructivist accounts of human interchange grant significance to the social processes wherein we create our worlds. However, there is a residual individualism still firmly intact in constructivism. The joint activities in which persons engage are significant in so far as they provide the source of cognitive change and/or stability. In other words, individuals are viewed as having constructs, belief systems, values, and so forth. These internal, cognitive structures are altered and sedimented by virtue of what goes on in an individual's day-to-day social world.
In contrast, social construction abandons altogether the notion of an originary individual. Instead of posing individuals and their cognitive structures as the starting place for any understanding of human interchange, social construction suggests that we examine relatedness-that is, what people are doing together in the interactive moment-and understand any sense of individuality, internal constructs or beliefs as emerging from these forms of relatedness. This view is radically relational (Gergen, 1994). To this end, beliefs or cognitive structures are nothing more than conversational resources. They are the embodiment of our relational lives. This radical relationalism premises our notions of individual selves as constructions born of relational engagement.
So, where does this leave the current discussion of postmodernism and cognitive psychotherapy? Earlier I alluded to some generative outcomes of revisioning cognitive psychotherapy as a postmodern orientation. I think that Lyddon and Weill illustrate these generative dimensions quite well by illuminating how postmodernism might sensitize cognitive psychotherapists to issues of gender and multiculturalism. The postmodernist respect for multiple discursive communities, local realities, and historically and culturally situated forms of practice position therapists to explore the multiple coherences of persons in relation. As Lyddon and Weill say, rather than replace dysfunctional or problematic cognitive structures with the objectively correct ones, a cognitive psychotherapist with a postmodern sensibility will appreciate the client's ability to construct contextually sensitive cognitive structures. And yet the continual return to individuals' cognitive representations of these varying coherences prevents a happy marriage of cognitive psychotherapy and postmodernism.
Particularly within social constructionist interpretations of postmodernism explorations of mental process have no place. Yet without such explorations, is cognitive psychotherapy possible? What happens to cognitive psychotherapy if cognition, itself, is removed as a point of interest? What is lost and what is gained by looking into the practices of persons in relation to gain some understanding of how people are constrained and potentiated in daily life?
In fact, Lyddon and Weill (in this issue) describe the central issue for cognitive psychotherapists as one of pragmatic utility. This criterion echoes Wittgenstein's own concern: How do we go on together? The authors rightly call for a move within cognitive psychotherapy from assuming psychological problems are a function of inadequate beliefs and cognitions toward a more complex understanding of the social practices that give substance to these beliefs and cognitions. They embrace the relative nature of rationality, accuracy, and truth. However, they are still concerned, in the end, with adjusting beliefs and cognitions. There is no way, within a cognitive science, to completely abandon internal, cognitive processes. Social interchange is significant to the extent that it shapes these beliefs and cognitions.
A postmodernist, however, would be more critical of the need to essentialize and hold on to this linguistic construct called cognition. In particular, cognition would be seen as a linguistic move in a larger relational dance. It is not the case that cognition is something we must explore. Rather, cognition is a discursive option that might generate useful ways of "going on"-and then again, it might not in other relational circumstances. As we can see, this postmodern stance does not obliterate cognition as a conversational move nor does it construct cognition as an entity that must be explored. This position encourages us to ask if it is possible to explore the domains of personal distress by examining what people are doing in their relevant contexts? Couldn't we begin to offer new ways of constructing our daily lives by exploring the conversational arenas that grant significance to our ways of acting?
What possibilities for understanding, for generating new realities, are created when we replace the notion of individual belief systems with the idea of conversational traditions? This is not a simple game of semantics. As long as we hold tightly to our belief that what counts most are the beliefs inside one's head, we will be left with pathologizing, individualizing responses to change- at the global, cultural, social, and personal levels. We will continue to hold individuals responsible for "wrong-thinking" and consequently "wrong doing." Although, if we add the postmodern twist that Lyddon and Weill are suggesting, we will at least do so with a sensitive understanding of the social origins that grant our cognitive structures significance. This is a useful move but will not yield a significant embrace of postmodernism until cognition itself is called into question.
Gergen, K. J. (1994). Realities and relationships. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
McNamee, S. (1996). Out of the head and into the discourse: Therapeutic practice as relational engagement. Dialog og Refleksjon, Nr. 35, pp. 118 -130, Norway: University of Tromso.
Neimeyer, R. A. (1995). Constructivist psychotherapies: Features, foundations, and future directions. In R. A. Neimeyer & M. J. Mahoney (Eds.), Constructivism in psychotherapy, pp 11-38. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Sampson, E. E. (1988). The debate on individualism: Indigenous psychologies of the individual and their role in personal and societal functioning. American Psychologist, 43, 15-22.
Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical investigations. Trans. G. Anscombe. New York: Macmillan.
University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH
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Publication information: Article title: Marrying Postmodernism with Cognitive Psychotherapy: A Response to Lyddon and Weill. Contributors: McNamee, Sheila - Author. Journal title: Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy. Volume: 11. Issue: 2 Publication date: January 1, 1997. Page number: 99+. © Springer Publishing Company 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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